I’ve got a confession to make: I’m a professed horror junkie, an avid and enthusiastic writer of horror who is unable to write anything that doesn’t feature some denizen of the darkness hungering for human flesh, and yet after midnight when the lights are off and the house is dark, I watch documentaries. That’s because my imagination likes to run rampant when given just enough fodder. I watched Paranormal Activity on Halloween and I am still vaguely spooked by it. I hope that none of my cats get up in the night and stare at me for hours – oh wait, they do. And that incessant scratching sound at the door?
This week, however, I’ve been substituting some of my favorite B horror movies for the documentaries, and I’ve been having a blast. It’s been a little like hanging out with old friends. Although there are many more modern movies, I keep gravitating like a junkie back to my favorites from the 60′s through the 80′s. Some of these are pure cheese cinema, but there’s a lot that can be learned, even from the schlocky ones, about how to establish mood and ambience, how to create and maintain suspense, how to develop characters, and how to visualize and describe fast action. Even though it is predominantly a visual medium, movies help stimulate my thinking about how to tell better stories – or in other instances – what to avoid.
Some of my favorites, which have graced my computer screen over the last week as part of my B Horror Extravaganza, include:
Carnival of Souls (1962). This gem, in lurid black and white, was written and directed by Herk Harvey of Lawrence, Kansas. He spent his career making educational and industrial films, and Carnival of Souls was a significant divergence for him, but it is an exceptional movie. Although the pacing can be slow at times, the movie is moody, atmospheric, and disquieting. The sequences shot in the abandoned Saltair Pavillion are spooky, well-done, and surreal.
Burnt Offerings (1976). The first time I watched Burnt Offerings as a kid, I avoided the public swimming pool for most of the summer. This is an outstanding haunted house story, in which the house itself draws its vitality from the unsuspecting occupants. I’ve always loved the vampiric aspect of this story. The family station wagon, attire, and hair styles are a time capsule for any of us wishing to revisit the 70′s. Bette Davis does an outstanding job portraying Aunt Elizabeth, and the end, although anticipated, is surprisingly dark.
The Last Man on Earth (1964). This is the first horror movie that I remember absolutely terrifying me; I probably watched it first on our tiny black and white television on the Friday Night Frights when I was seven or eight years old, but it still creeps me out today. Vincent Price did an excellent job as Robert Morgan, and although I never could discern if he was battling vampires, zombies, or some plague-derived hybrid of the two, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is the almost stifling sense of isolation and monotony Morgan struggles with on a daily basis, fighting to keep the hordes at bay, to replenish supplies, and to conduct his reasearch. This movie is the most faithful adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, although the Omega Man with Charlton Heston and I Am Legend with Will Smith are enjoyable movies in their own right. The ending is dark and poignant. What I learned as a second grader after watching this movie: burn ‘em, or they’ll knock on your door as a vampire a few hours later. This might be why I write horror.
Race with the Devil (1975). As a kid, the first thing that struck me about this movie was how much I would love to have an RV and a dirt bike; the second thing that struck me was the importance of not inadvertently interrupting a Satanic sacrificial ritual in Texas. The third thing that struck me was to avoid swimming pools at RV parks where Satanists hang out. This is why I don’t swim, I think, between this and Burnt Offerings.
Hell House (1973). Oh, no, I was wrong, there is another reason why pools creep me out. The basement pool and sauna sequences in Hell House still remain some of the spookiest I’ve encountered in books or film. The movie, featuring Roddy McDowell, is engaging and suitably creepy, but the real treasure is the book the movie is based on, Richard Matheson’s Legend of Hell House. A skeptical physicist and a team of psychics are isolated in Emerich Belasco’s mansion – the Mount Everest of haunted houses - on a mission to establish the existence of “survival” after death. Rich with suspense, with some horrific moments, this is a romp of a ghost story.
The Exorcist (1973). Proving once again that inviting Captain Howdy over to play Ouija board with a pre-adolescent girl is not a stellar idea, the Exorcist offers a great storyline, quite a bit of pea-soup flavored heresy, and enough contortions to horrify a chiropractor. I would love to believe the story circulating in my family that a relative fainted while watching this movie at a theater in Times Square when it was originally released. Although the sequel, Exorcist II, is forgettable with a hokum bio-rhythm hypnosis machine and a meandering plot, all of William Petter Blatty’s books, including Legion, are excellent, creepy reads.
Phantasm (1979). Perhaps one of my favorites, Phantasm is genuinely imaginative and unnerving - there’s just something about the Tall Man that shrieks malevolence. Replete with cemeteries and mausoleums teeming with the shrunken, reanimated dead, and deadly silver orbs (never mind that the alien aspect is never really satisfactorily explained or resolved, just go with it), Phantasm is a relentless, clever, and effective horror movie.
Tonight I’ll be watching Poltergeist, and perhaps Paranormal Activity II – with the lights on.
What are some of your favorite scary movies, old or new? What films give you a genuine case of the shivers? I’d love to hear from you and add to this cabinet of horror!