Friday, October 21, 2005

Camera Obscura - Name Your Favorite Horror Film

NOTE: The Editor graciously created the masthead for this post and for Halloween, and I cannot express enough gratitude for her time and her work. Hope you all enjoy it as much as I do. Now: you got some readin' to do!! UPDATE: Fear not if you missed the special Halloween Masthead -- it will return later this week!!

What terrifies you? Is it something flickering past your vision at about 24 frames-per-second? A tale of horror made into a movie? Then you are in the right place and you have a job here. Since the Halloween holiday is approaching, I want you to tell me the movie you rate as The Scariest.

I understand that in these times, horror may appear in the form of a liberal-media, or the skull-faced grin of Tom DeLay's booking photo, or what your children really think of you. However, this place is for movies and I dare you to think of it - what story, what movie has permanently inked itself into your brain.

I am a bona-fide, deep-dyed fan of horror movies. When I was a wee lad, perhaps 4 years old or so, a neighbor near our home kept a pet crow which was almost as tall as I was, jet black feathers and empty, shining black eyes, and clawed feet that seemed like the fingers of death. Said crow and said clawed feet often decided my wee 4-year-old head had something it wanted. It got so every time I went out to play, this violent, flapping shadow fell from the sky and began pecking and digging at my skull. Why? I really don't know. My mother tells me she "had a talk" with the neighbor about it, but my only memories are of the nightmare thing on my head and deafening flapping of its wings.

About two years later, I watched my first Hitchcock movie - yes, "The Birds". It was on television for the first time and I had no notion of how Hitchcock could make a movie crawl into your mind and your fears and scare the bejesus out of you. I remember watching that movie between the quivering wee fingers of my hand -- but once I started, I could not stop. Lucky I didn't soil my garments. But that heart-pounding fear I realized after a day or so was somehow "contained" by the movie frame. I could be there at the very edge of pure horror - but I was really safe. The 'bird apocalypse" was real in the movie - and nowhere else. But I had been transformed into a creature who loved scary movies.

I grew up near Nashville, where a scary movie show would play hosted by a fellow named "The Phantom of the Opry" called Sir Cecil Creape and Sir Cecil and I became pals of that horror movie experience. Many of the movies I could easily laugh away, but not all. One of my early favorites which just got to me was the black and white thriller "Fiend Without A Face," where aliens have some hapless humans trapped in a house and the aliens are invisible. Yet when they do finally appear, they are brains with twisted spinal cords attached that could leap huge distances and strangle you to death. They break through the boarded-up windows and go after said hapless humans. More than once, the Hero takes a small hand-axe to these puppies and black goo spurted out -- years later these images re-appeared in movies like the original "Night of the Living Dead" and even "Eraserhead."

Weaned on 50s horror and sci-fi, the 1960s my were macabre childhood - enriched by the classic Roger Corman stories of Edgar Allan Poe, by the Hammer studios brilliant casting of Peter Cushing and Christopher in almost every movie they made, then there were the Italians, Mario Bava and Dario Argento. And George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" introduced me to a whole new concept - the Dead rising in endless numbers to feed on the Living. Zombies. Ahhh, zombies. Romero brilliantly exploited the undercurrent of the world as it was - one culture or society rising up to consume and eliminate another society.

The 1970s were a heaven. No remake can ever have the insanely, heart-stopping, inescapable terror of his "Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Unlike the pitiful remake, director Tobe Hooper made the normal humans utterly unlikeable and the audience was manipulated into feeling kinship with Leatherface and his family. Family terror was all the rage in the 70s. This low-budget hit, and a few others, got their attention in Hollywood and "The Exorcist" had folks lined up for blocks and blocks around theatres (back before they were tucked snugly into shopping malls). And for the record, DO NOT watch the re-edited version issued a few years ago -- it is the original, tightly-edited movie that will scare you. The re-edits destroyed that one.

Romero today is still the best at the zombie game, and all his sequels, including this year's "Land of the Dead", are top-notch fear-fests. Through the 70s and 80s and even now, some of the best horror filmmakers remain - Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter.

In recent years, audiences have been jolted by all the horror sub-genres: vampires, werewolves, slashers, gore-fests, ghosts-who-don't-know-their-dead, more zombies (go Sam Raimi!!), and endless serial killer movies -- though they always seem lately to star Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd.

So the gauntlet of death is thrown, dear reader -- I want to know your favorites, no matter what year they are made -- but you must confess your fears and add them in the comments here. I'll tell you which ones got the most attention or which choices seemed most interesting.

Just one more thought for you to consider - TRUE or FALSE: the best horror movies are made when a Republican is president.


  1. I have to say the scariest movie I've seen to date is Ju-on, a Japanese ghost story remade my us yanks a while back and renamed The Grudge.
    I've not seen the American version, so I cannot attest to its creepiness, but the Japanese original still has me scared witless. Visions of the dead woman, crawling ever so slowly down the stairs toward the camera, invade my night-time imagination so vividly that I have to run across the hall when I get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
    Did I mention I'm a grown woman?
    Perhaps it's because I'm a product of my time, but movies like The Thing, Aliens, The Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre just don't scare me.

  2. I must admit, The Exorcist has always scared the bejesus out of me--probably because I was raised Catholic, and the notion of demon possestion somehow seems unflagingly possible. I think that's why John Carpenter's 1987 film, Prince of Darkness also sets me to having nightmares--it actually takes place in a Catholic church! I remember going on a date in high school to see The Evil Dead. The young man followed the movie by taking me out to the spot where they filmed. Needless to say, that was our first, last, and only date.

    And yes, Republicans were in office for every one of those films.

  3. GOLDEN APPLE -Excellent call, Golden Apple - the original Ju-On was much, much better than the remake and an excellent ghost story. Japan and Korea have been creating some first-rate horror films, including the original "Ringu", which also was better than the American version, "The Ring".

    I also recommend the harrowing and unforgetable "Audition," which seems so tame, but the last half-hour is gut-wrenching.

    Another recent winner is more a revenge flick than horror, but I also found it to be nail-biting fun, "Oldboy."
    THE EDITOR - Catholic school always sounded scary to me, and the book of "The Exorcist" scared me more than the movie did. And for now, it stands as the best of the Scare the Catholics movie. And for sheer "what the hell did than mean", the "Exorcist 2: The Heretic" is also a standout.

  4. The Amnityville horror did it for me - I read the book and could only read it during the day. then when I saw the movie it really freaked me out. I think another aspect about it for me , was there was a house across the street from my fathers house shaped just like that one.

  5. Scorpio Rising7:55 PM

    2 movies have left scars: the first was the original showers for YEARS!!!!!
    The next one was JAWS...this was a real bummer to one who loves the ocean, snorkling, etc....For the ocean adventures, I take my chances.

  6. That's true, Scorpio Rising, Jaws also made me afraid to go in the water. Considering I lived by the beach for years... well...

  7. OMG< yes, I totally forgot about JAWS, and I grew up on the lake and was learning to swim when that came out,, that scared me to death, even swimming in the lake!

  8. JULIE -- I actually waited in line for two friggin' hours to watch the original "Amityville" but for some reason the movie just didn't work for me. A friend then gave me the book to read, and it totally wigged me out! Loved the way though, the movie made that house look like a living thing.

    SCORPIO -- "Psycho" is a marvelous piece of craftmanship by Hitchcock -- I never tire of watching it, and Perkins performance is worthy of Legend status.
    As for "Jaws" I must have taken 2 or 3 dozen people to see that just to watch them literally jump out of their seats. And everyone all did it at the same moments, which says much about Spielberg's skill.

  9. Joe I recently saw Oldboy but I don't think I liked it as much as you did. For me, foreign films, especially horror, are often hit and miss. They make the covers look delectable, but then the movie ends up being sooooo slow, or ridiculously stupid.
    Oldboy was neither, but it just hit me funny.
    Another movie that creeps me out pretty good, although not traditional horror, is Donnie Darko. My husband wants to dress as Frank the Bunny for Halloween, but I told him I'd divorce him if he did.

  10. GOLDENAPPLE - "Donnie Darko" really surprised me, with its constant sense of some unknown dread and it's one of my favorites of the last few years. Great cast, great music, some satire and some mysterious sci-fi-ish details all work to make it really effective. And that's the scariest damn bunny i've ever seen!
    I'm looking forward to director Richard Kelly's next feature, also slightly sci-fi, called "Southland Tales".
    And again, for the record, the original "Donnie Darko" is the one to watch - the recut version tried to hard to "explain" everything and the movie, for me, does not need it.

  11. Turner Classic Movies is doing 39 Alfred Hitchcock films October 24-30. Even some early silent stuff, commercial free!
    "Footsteps in the FOG", TCM-Link

    The header rocks! Good work editor!

  12. Thanks for that link, there T-Jed!

    I love this time of year!

  13. jdcarpenter10:17 AM

    I fondly recall the old Universal monster movies with a particular nod to Karloff's Frankaenstein monster and Chaney's wolfman. Little creepy Eastern European women still make me want to run and melt down all of the silver I can find into bullets. Another favorite as a child was The Incredible Shrinking Man. It began my lifelong and paralyzing fear of arachnids. I have to defer to my namesake, however, and claim Halloween as my all time favorite. Carpenter established a bridge between the classic monster movie and the psychopathic serial killer. I still feel the hairs rise on my arms and neck whenever I hear that simple music begin to play, and it also gave us the true scream queen. I also have to admit that I love King's and Romero's Creepshow. I am also partial to Ju-on of the lter films. It was way better than the American remake.

  14. ScaryMonkey10:39 PM

    The most paralyzingly heart-choked moments watching movies as a kid came from two decidedly non-horror movies - the Flying Monkey scene from The Wizard of Oz, & the Banshee scene from Darby O'Gill & the Little People.
    As far as classic horror goes; two words - Hammer Films!

  15. Anonymous5:53 AM

    Hmm...sorry to jump in so late. I love a bunch of zombie films and love a bunch of romero, but those are SLOW zombies (you can just whack 'em). 28 Days Later, they run faster a fast runner. That's MUCH scarier. I'm with everyone on Jaws. I think allot of the fear depends on what age you were or are. When I was a kid, Halloween and Magic (the first 2 I saw in a theater). Mostly for me the things that could REALLY happen are the scariest and most fearfull. Please don't send me to Neverland and I don't make me be a fly on the wall of W's & Barbara's bedroom wall. ICK! Also jdcarpenter, I love The Incredible Shrinking Man. One last thought, though not very scary in the movies (so far), a VERY scary thought if done correctly would be invisability. Especially in this day and age. Think about that.