My Favorite Horror Films, or Why I Can’t Sleep at Night

MY FAVORITE HORROR FILMS
or, Why I Can’t Sleep at Night
                There is an interesting article in a recent Entertainment Weekly stating that January and February are now the prime time for horror movies to show in theaters.
                This is a complete reversal of the usual trope from decades before – horror movies belonged in October. January was the dumping grounds for trash on which the Oscar contenders and leftover holiday blockbusters sat.
                I suspect one or two horror movies made a splash in January and the trend caught on. October is now the dumping ground – a metaphoric breathing-in between summer and holiday blockbusters.
                I have been thinking about horror movies lately. I Tivoed a cheesy program called Monsters and Mysteries in America from the Destination America network. It is a step-child of the Discovery Channel family and airs mainly white-trashy reality shows. But amongst the Cracker TV fare are a few cheesy gems: UFOs over Earth, When Ghosts Attack and Alien Mysteries.
                Yes, these shows are mainly about rednecks discussing being anally probed by aliens after their sister/wives ran off with Bigfoot, but they also feature authors and … um … “scientists” taking this schlock seriously.
                I admit to being a sucker for anything about Bigfoot or aliens. I consume any book by Zechariah Sitchin or Erich von Daniken. I am a faithful viewer of Ancient Aliens on the “History” Channel.
                This episode of Monsters and Mysteries in Americafeatured Momo the Missouri Monster. I’ve heard of and read about Momo, so I wanted to watch the show. Momo was the first feature. The third (last) feature was about a bat-creature that terrorized a mining town in Iowa in the early 1900s. The middle feature was about the Shadow People in Maryville, Missouri.
                Here’s a good blog about the show: http://vulpesffb.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/momo-shadow-people-and-the-van-meter-monster/
                The Shadow People segment pushed all my buttons. Dark figures with glowing eyes standing next to your bed as you sleep; whispering …
                I was awake until two that morning afraid to open my eyes. I knew; I KNEW I would see one standing next to my bed. A “real” one? No, but my active imagination was going on all cylinders that night.
                I see figures standing in my room or next to my bed quite often. That’s been the case since I was a kid living with my parents. I frequently saw a lady in a red dress sitting in a chair across the room from my bed; I saw a winged creature hovering over my bed. The latter was my hat collection and other wall-hangings through my still-bleary-myopic eyes – my mind making sense of a blurred shape. The former … well, where did the lady in the red dress come from? A teenager with raging hormones imagining a woman in his room? Oh my goodness, someone call Dr. Freud…
                Just a few weeks ago I dreamt someone was grabbing me while I was in bed. I screamed so loud my wife was afraid I would scare our daughter in her bedroom. She slept through it. Once I dreamt I was lying in bed next to my wife as a vampire stood over me; keeping me hypnotically frozen. My wife said I was saying, very calmly, “Esther wake me up, Esther wake me up,” as I slept. When she nudged me I jumped up and out of the nightmare.
                It reminded me of a post-college nightmare when my roommate ran into my room after I screamed bloody murder when a vampire at the foot of my bed leapt at me. It was the ceiling fan.
                Before that, in college, I saw a man in a blue-and-red-striped shirt walking through my room. I called out the name of my roommate – “Scott, what are you doing?” – and the figure turned and walked toward me. By now my roommate (Scott) walked into my room. He heard me call his name and woke me up by asking me what I wanted. The figure disappeared as I gained consciousness.
                So the Shadow People were right up my fearful alley, if you know what I mean. Add to this my love of horror movies and stories and you can see why I was up most of the night. I could start quite a cause-and-effect argument here.
                My reading and viewing of all things horror have been curtailed by my marriage and my daughter. I don’t want either of them walking in during The Exorcist, for example.
                My wife is getting more accustomed to it: she’s become a fan of Sleepy Hollow … fairly light-weight in the horror department (although they’ve had some good shows) and just about at her tolerance-level.
                So I’ve missed out on a lot of horror-themed TV series and movies in the past decade.
                During my sleepless evening I compiled a list of my favorite horror movies. These aren’t the critically best (although some are) and not the most financially successful (although some are); these are mine. To repeat the phrase – the ones that press the right buttons; sometimes much to my regret.
                Except for the first on the list, these are on no particular order:
1.       The Haunting (1963). It’s a black-and-white movie with a plot that in these “modern” times is something out of Scooby-Doo (spending the night in a haunted house to see if it really IS haunted), but this fifty-one-year-old flick is the scariest thing I have ever seen. The scene in the girls’ bedroom where the ghost (or whatever it is) pounds on the walls, making pictures and plaster fly, and watching it head to the door that pulses and creaks … I get chills down my back just thinking about it.
2.       The Exorcist (1973). A very canny choice, I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a genuinely terrifying movie. The movie went straight for the throat (or vagina if we’re talking crucifix) – there was no doubt little Regan was possessed by the devil. If they remake it they should do more of the book – we were never sure if she was possessed or had a psychotic breakdown while the terror was merely a ruse by the housekeeper to cover up a murder.
3.       Prince of Darkness (1987). John Carpenter movies make up a quarter of this list. A priest finds a cylinder of swirling green liquid in the basement of an abandoned church. He brings in a team of scientists to examine the cylinder. The liquid is the anti-Christ’s ectoplasmic form. It squirts at the scientists one by one causing them to go insane in beautiful Lovecraftian fashion. It awoke in time to summon its father – the anti-god. A movie that includes scientific method, intergalactic elder things and Alice Cooper? How can it be bad?
4.       In the Mouth of Madness (1995). John Carpenter takes on an even more Lovecraftian-themed work. An insurance investigator looks into the disappearance of horror author Sutter Cane (a very thinly veiled Stephen King) and tracks him to a town that appears in one of the author’s horror books – a place that should not exist. Ends up the author was channeling real horrors from eldritch dimensions who are ready to take over the earth. Can Sam Neill (the investigator) stop the coming apocalypse? Are you kidding?
5.       Halloween (1978). Another John Carpenter movie. Another canny choice. But this is one of the scariest flicks ever made. Carpenter’s soundtrack alone brings chills – I usually cringe in horror when I hear cheap Casio music anyway, but this is genuinely scary music! And there’s not one startling moment in the movie – we see Michael approaching and stalking Lady Hadin-Guest (Jamie Lee Curtis) and we know where he is and what he will do at all times – it is all suspense in the best Hitchcockian style.
6.       Blair Witch Project (1999). Not the first movie of the “found footage” genre, but the one that put the genre on the map. A lot of people hate this movie, but I am a big fan. Creepy, scary and realistic. Movies like this HAVE to be realistic. The more founded it is in reality the scarier it is. I would put this movie above Cloverfield (2008) another found-footage movie only in a science-fiction vein based on a what-if-a giant-Godzilla-like-thing-REALLY-attacked-New-York story.  I think Blair Witch has aged well (as all of these movies have) and Cloverfield was creepy even on cable in between long commercial breaks and watched over three days (when the wife and daughter were elsewhere).
7.       Evil Dead (1981). Evil Dead II is one of my favorite movies, period. II combined spooky stuff with humor – humor and horror go VERY well together when done right – but the original was cheaper and scarier. This movie put Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell on the movie map and rightly so. Very Lovecraftian – it includes an appearance by the Necronomicon – and the fact that it was made on a small budget only adds to the realism. True story: I saw this in college with assorted roommates, friends and girlfriends. Being college cool cats, we had our TV set up through the stereophonic hi-fi. In one scene a rescued victim (who had been maniacally giggling throughout a scene) stopped giggling. The surviving cast look at her. She looks up and sings “We’re going to get you; we’re going to get you…” We screamed and shuddered. I had enough and jumped up to turn the TV off. Trouble was, it was on VHS. I turned off the picture, but the tape was still rolling and the speakers were still playing. “We’re going to get you; we’re going to get you…” If the neighbors weren’t in the house watching with us, they would have called the police.
8.       Night of the Living Dead (1968). Speaking of small budgets adding to the realism … Do you REALLY need me to describe this movie? And its impact on the genre? Really? Turn on the TV or scroll through your Facebook wall for about two minutes. Did you NOT see something about zombies? You’re lying …
9.       Pandorum (2009). I saw this movie on the SciFi Channel and loved it so much I bought the DVD. You‘ve might not have heard of it. I’ve discussed the synergy between science fiction and horror in prior blog (http://michaelgcurry.blogspot.com/2013/06/thesynergy-of-science-fiction-and.html) and this one, to me, hits all the right notes. Something that Event Horizonsomehow missed.  The premise was a great one and almost made it. A two-man (originally three-man) crew was revived from their deep-space hibernation to take their shift in a generational/colony ship. We learn that in the meantime earth had been destroyed and these colonists are all that is left of humanity. Trouble is, our crew is revived to find their ship lost and out of power. Making their way out of their assigned department, they discover the ship is overrun with flesh-eating superhuman humanoids. Where did they come from? Is there anyone else alive on the ship? Can they escape or at least get the ship up and running so they can defend themselves? It is a claustrophobic and intense thrill-ride. I think the secret of the Hunters is disappointing when finally revealed. But the final twist at the end more than made up for it. The ending and final solution took me completely by surprise. It was meant to be a trilogy but was unsuccessful at the box office – although it has gained quite a cult following. Myself included.
10.   Alien (1979). Speaking of science fiction and horror … I go into a lengthy discussion of how this movie works so well in my blog about Event Horizon (hyperlink is above). I won’t repeat it here.
11.   The Thing (1951 & 1982). Both the Howard Hawks and John Carpenter versions are included here. The original is more cerebral and the horror is left off-screen. Carpenter’s gore is front and center. Both are excellent in their own way and both are scary-scary. Arctic scientists find a spaceship with a frozen alien inside. The alien thaws out and chaos ensues. Great stuff!
                Honorable Mention: Silence of the Lambs (1991). This could be better described as a police thriller rather than horror, but there are parts that are intense as hell and it won an Oscar for chriss’ sake! The early scene where Clarisse is walking past the inmates (including one played by the actor who also played Chef Brockett on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) until we see Hannibal Lecter for the first time – standing quietly and politely in the center of his cell; watching, as if he knew she were coming. Anthony Hopkins deserved his Oscar. He stole every scene he was in and his character cast his shadow over every scene in which he was not.  The serial killer Buffalo Bill was creepy; Lecter was creepier – and all he did (until his gruesome escape scene) was talk quietly. And stare blankly. And smile sweetly. And suck air between his teeth. The sequels lessened his impact. Forget them.
                Se7en (1995) compares favorably to Silence … it ups the gruesomeness ante, making it more horror than police thriller. A great cast helps – Kevin Spacey hasn’t been this sinister since he played Sonny Steelgrave.
                Movies I have not seen, but probably would be on the list include The Ring (2002) and Paranormal Activity(2007). I’ve heard lots of good stuff about these two in particular. Someday when I have three hours of uninterrupted TV or online-video-streaming time I will give these a chance.
                I feel bad not listing 28 Days Later (2002) and the classic Phantasm (1979), but the former and its sequel I consider more action films (great as they are) dressed as horror and the latter just weird, weird fun! “BOY!!!!”
                Then there are the classics – not as heart-pounding as those on my list, but classics! Without these movies, most of which have aged quite well, I wouldn’t have a subject to discuss. I’m talking about the Universal Monster movies (I include The Black Cat (1934) and White Zombie (1932) here), the American/International Poe pictures (and their ilk) and of course movies from the Hammer Studio. God love you, Hammer Studio.
               
                These movies are not the horror vein, but are damn scary and want to mention them: Jaws (1975) makes the list of course – you KNOW the plot to Jaws, come on…
                Look for Dead Again (1991) a Hitchcockian thriller that will keep you guessing until the end. I went with my friend Jon (who accompanied me to Event Horizon – see the aforesaid blog about that film) and Peyton to see Dead Again. Here were three fairly seasoned horror/thriller movie goers. Yet one scene was so intense I turned my head and lifted my legs from the theater floor. Jon did a face-palm and said, “Oh God.” Peyton said, “Jeee-sus” and gripped the arms of his seat. The rest of the theater shouted or gasped. It wasn’t gory, but it was the most intense part of the movie – you’ll know it when you see it. That single scene put the movie on this list.
                Some television shows have given me “the creepies” – to quote the character I play in the Sparta Community Chorus’ latest production “Murder in the Magnolias”. Doctor Who’s “Blink” won a Hugo. They don’t give Hugo’s to television shows (do they?). Aliens shaped like angel statues can only move (and attack you) while you are not looking at them. If you turn your head, you’re dead. Blink. The statues come closer. Blink. Closer. Blink. Closer. Absolutely creepy.
                Night Gallery’s “The Cemetery” scared me as a youngster and thrills me to this day. A man murders another to inherit his mansion. On a wall in the mansion is a painting of the house complete with cemetery next door. The killer (Roddy McDowell) walks past the painting (on the staircase landing) – the grave of the man he killed is open. Later, a figure is sitting in the open grave. He walks past the painting later – the figure is climbing out of the grave. Then it is standing next to the grave. Then it walks to the house. It is on the steps. It is at the door. It is knocking on the door. There is a real knock at the door. Is it…? I don’t know if this is intentionally based on a short story by M.R. James – but he wrote a similar tale seventy years before.
                The X-Files’ “Beyond the Sea”. Scully’s father dies and (in an unrelated matter) a shyster-medium is caught. He claims to be able to channel her father. Is he for real? The scene where Scully’s father appears in her house, staring into space and moving his mouth is quite creepy. She gets a phone call that he had died. “But he’s right here sitting on my …” but he is gone. X-Files has a lot of creepy moments like that.
***
                Maybe I can finally get some sleep tonight. But with all these movies and TV shows running through my head … I can expect another night where I don’t want to open my eyes.
Copyright 2014 Michael G Curry
             


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