B Horror Habits Die Hard

Posted: 11/29/2011 in Fiction, Horror, Movies, Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

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!

  1. donnagalanti says:

    Great list! And I cant believe Max Von Sydow is still alive. Was just watching him in Robin Hood with Russell Crowe. OMG, he was old in The Excorcist 40 years ago!

    • blackalchemy says:

      You know, I would have pegged him as in his early 70’s in the Exorcist – there’s some Hollywood magic – he must have been in his (sheesh this makes me feel old) forties when the movie was made. He’s such a versatile actor! I need to watch Robin Hood, that sounds fun. He plays an oustanding Leland Gaunt in the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Needful Things, which is also an awesome flick! 🙂

  2. FYT says:

    HIgh Tension (2003), Them (2007), Lake Mungo (2008), and Deep Red (1975). Loved Vincent Price as Robert Morgan!

    • blackalchemy says:

      I’ll need to check out High Tension and Lake Mungo. Them is so tense in parts it could trigger an anxiety attack – it is grueling and dark, and of course, I love Dario Argento’s films – Deep Red is wonderful (I loved the camera angles and lurid colors), as well as Suspiria!

  3. Wren Andre says:

    This is a post dear to my black heart… there are too many to mention, but I am so excited to see you list Hell House! I am a huge Roddy McDowall fan, and have his life mask from Planet of the Apes and Fright Night. The hubby and I share this obsession, so people comment that the house is like a horror museum (we have several life masks – including the Tall Man -Angus Scrimm, with a signed photo card, framed mini poster, and yes – the sphere itself on a pedestal.) Yeah – we’re out of control. 😉

    • blackalchemy says:

      Coolest. Collection Ever! How neat to share the love of horror with your husband! It sounds like your house has the best horror decor imaginable. Reminiscent a bit of Forest Ackerman? You are braver than I am, I don’t know if I could walk past a life mask of the Tall Man day or night without the hair raising on the back of my neck. The sphere has GOT to be a great conversation piece. “Oooh, pretty, what does it do?” Well, it flys through the air, tracking intruders relentlessly, penetrates their skulls with a razor-sharp drill bit, and exsanguinates them so they can later be transformed into undead dwarfs.” “Can you get them at Crate and Barrel in fuschia?” Just kidding, great to see you drop by, and I am cheering for you on this last day of November for NaNoWriMo!

      • Wren Andre says:

        That’s hilarious! (Crate & Barrell) Actually, unless people know us really well, they just look concerned when they come over (lol). Could be the Pinhead and Freddy masks and gloves, plus the zombie posters, hard to say…
        Aaah…NaNo. I’ll have the update later on my blog, but it’s all good as it turns out. How about you?

      • blackalchemy says:

        You could do an awesome blog post just on some of the items in your collection! Seriously, the Tall Man, POinhead, Freddy – those guys are some of the scariest characters in horror cinema! I think I would be nervous watching horror movies with them looking on in the dark, but it must be wonderful for inspiration!

  4. Dave Farmer says:

    Gosh, I haven’t watched any of these that folks have mentioned! I feel like I’m missing out! For me one of the older scary movies I loved and hated to watch was Poltergeist, and especially the bit where the investigator guy pulls the skin off his face. Scared the pants off me when I was young.

    Recently I found Quarantine made me feel very itchy, and without giving anything away the last 15 minutes was very unsettling. It’s a similar feeling to watching the Descent, all that darkness with just a glimpse of a few seconds. That’s enough to make anyone squirm, the feeling of not being entirely sure what you just saw lurking in the dark. Another similar movie was The Ruins, it got some bad reviews but it thoroughly gripping.

    I saw Vanishing on 7th Street a few weeks ago. I love it because there wasn’t really an explanation as to why these things were happing. Sometimes the scariest plots are the ones where the bad guys don’t have a reason.

    • blackalchemy says:

      Hi, Dave! I think I just re-watch the old black and white horror movies out of nostalgia, and because they rely so heavily on suspense rather than special effects. Carnival of Sould will probably give you that itchy feeling! I loved Descent, I think it is one of the most tense and frightening movies I’ve ever seen. I used to do some caving, so I know that feeling of pressure and claustrophobia that is inherently ina cave without flesh-devouring mutants lurking about. I didn’t make the connection until you mentioned it, but the end of Quarantine is identical in how suffocating and scary it is. I haven’t see The Ruins, but I will definitely seek it out!

  5. Paul D. Dail says:

    Dammit, Hope! As if my movie list isn’t long enough already. 🙂

    Actually, I’ve seen a few of these already. And yeah, I watched Phantasm again recently. Still freaky. And Poltergeist 2 has been showing up on my recommended Netflix horror movies. Not as good as part 1, but still good.

    Did you watch Paranormal Activity 2? That one has also shown up recently and been tempting me.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • blackalchemy says:

      I would love to know what horror movies are on your Netflix queue – I suspect we have similar viewing interests! I am going to watch Paranormal Activity 2 this week. Netflix is begging me to (reviews seem mixed on this one but I loved the first). Instead I watched Phantasm and Poltergeist, and last night Let Me In and the Skeptic, both enjoyable and worth the time, I felt. If you ever get a chance to see Carnival of Souls, I think you would really like it. Several elements of it are reminiscent of The Imaginings (60% finished and LOVING it)… surreal, relentless. And I think the creepiest scenes were shot in Utah!

  6. Hell House is a total gem. My favorite horror film remains An American Werewolf in London, but the movie that frightened me the most was Outbreak. Carnival of Souls is like the best episode of the Twilight Zone you’ve ever seen, a really wonderful film.
    — Britta

    • blackalchemy says:

      An American Werewolf in London is a timeless, absolutely fantastic, horror movie! I really like how you described Carnival of Souls, it is very reminiscent of Twilight Zone and a true cult classic! I will make a point of seeking out Outbreak – it sounds like something I would love! 🙂

  7. alchemyofscrawl says:

    *sigh* right there with ya! Every Halloween I pull out all the old horror movies I can find. 🙂

    • blackalchemy says:

      I just love horror flickering in stark black and white, how the suspense is ratcheted up by the unseen, and how the imagination is allowed to run amuck with those old movies! Such treats – I’d rather watch the old ones with a great plot and suspense, than a more modern movie with great effects but no compelling story! 🙂

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