Oh! Those Scary Movies!
It’s difficult to choose movies based on scare level. There are so many different ways to be scared and things to be scared by. Some people are scared of ghosts; others find vampires or zombies terrifying. There are people who are far more frightened by the living than the dead. I’m going to spend the next few weeks writing about the movies that scared me. I’m going to do it in some kind of order, beginning with the first movie I remember giving me nightmares even when I was awake.
Let me point out I was never frightened by “Frankenstein” or “The Wolfman”. Even as a child I felt incredibly sorry for these creatures. Neither asked for their plights and both attempted to resist the pull of evil that drew them to commit unsavory deeds. I have also omitted “Nosferatu” or “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi. Vampire movies have always terrified me. Perhaps it is the notion that these ominous creatures not only suck the life out of you, they also create you in their likeness. Of course it is also possible that I, being something of a prissy neat freak as a child, found the idea of sleeping in a coffin full of dirt quite distasteful.
There was a series called Million Dollar Movie that was on New York/New Jersey local television from 1955 until 1966. The movies came from a variety of genres but it was the horror and science fiction movies that attracted me. The selected movie would run for a week and would play twice a day so if I missed one showing I could always catch the next one. It was this venue that afforded me my first opportunity to watch films my parents might otherwise have forbidden me. Other than the first movie listed, none of these are science fiction. I have decided to reserve that for another blog since it is a remarkable category of its own.
- “The Thing From Another World” more commonly known as “The Thing” gave me my first real movie scare. This seemingly indestructible creature’s first kill is a dog. That, by itself, terrified me. I had a dog and she was the steady companion who made me feel safe and secure against the boogeyman. But this “thing” killed the dog thus leaving all the residents of the snowed in science station defenseless. Looking at it now I can barely see what I found so disturbing. Had I known that “The Thing” was portrayed by actor James Arness from the show “Gunsmoke” I would certainly have felt relieved. Even though the creature is destroyed at the end of the movie I always wondered, if there was one, couldn’t there be more? The movie has been remade but it has never given me that delightful feeling of dread the original caused.
- Along with “Million Dollar Movie” we had “The Early Show” and “The Late Show” and “The Late, Late Show”. Unlike my friends, I was permitted to stay up late on Friday and Saturday nights. “The Late Show” often ran scary movies. At a very young age I somehow became aware of Jack the Ripper. Perhaps my Irish born mother mentioned him. “The Lodger” was a 1944 film based on a book by Marie Belloc Lowndes. As “Mr. Slade”, the lodger/ripper, actor Laird Cregar was terrifying. A large man, he played the part so effectively I was sure he must have some dark link to the real ripper. Casting an enormous dark shadow he moved through the streets of Whitechapel silently, almost impossible for so large a figure. Although the lodger dies in the film I was well aware the real ripper had never been identified. Surely it was possible he had escaped London and now roamed the streets of New York looking for a little girl like me to begin his new chain of murders. I knew nothing of prostitutes, so it never occurred to me a child murderer and a killer of women of the night would hardly be the same man.
- Although I had begged and pleaded with my parents to allow me to see Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, they forbade it. I can’t begin to tell you how frantically my heart would beat as I passed the theater where it was playing. The huge sign outside proclaimed “No One Will Be Admitted After the First 15 Minutes”. Pleas not to reveal the horrors of the shower scene were posted as well. This only whetted my appetite. How I finally persuaded my father to take me to see it is still a mystery to me. With Norman Bates my relationship with serial killers was sealed. Even my young mind was able to grasp the similarities between Saucy Jack and Master Bates. (Yes I meant that.) Was it possible Norman was a descendant of the Ripper? At the climactic scene where Norman’s mother is exposed in all her bony glory and Norman/Mother claims she “wouldn’t hurt a fly” I was hooked.
- I’d been watching the television show “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” for years and my devotion to the great director surpassed even my huge fascination for Rod Serling and “The Twilight Zone”. Imagine my childish delight when “The Birds” was released. Not suffering the hype that “Psycho” had created my parents were not as serious about keeping me safe from Hitch’s newest offering. After all, what could be scary about a flock of birds. “The Birds” disturbed me much more than “Psycho” had. Rather like “The Thing” these voracious birds challenged the norm in ways that were inexplicable. Suddenly they turn on mankind and proceed to take the town of Bodega Bay out resident by resident, house by house. It was bad enough when poor old Lydia Brenner discovers her neighbor, eyes pecked out, sprawled dead on his bedroom floor. Speechless she runs from the house, bouncing off walls as she flees. I was so horrified by the sight of the eyeless corpse I stayed to watch the film one more time, forcing my best friend Mary to bear the terror with me. There is no resolution at the end of “The Birds”. Perhaps it was that lack of closure that made me lie awake at night and listen closely to hear if anything was chirping outside my window. Oddly it was from this movie that I developed my fondness for writer Daphne du Maurier. Thanks ever so much Hitch.
- There were so many great horror film actors in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s; Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and a few others. But it was lesser known actors like Richard Carlson who had several roles that left me creeped out. I stumbled upon this 1953 movie sometime in the early 60’s very late at night. I was no more than ten years old when “The Maze” came on. With a heavily gothic tone the film drew me in. Richard Carlson as Gerald MacTeam inherits his uncle’s castle in Scotland. Something is wrong in the castle. Greald has aged and his hair now has gray and his face is drawn. What was hidden in the upper floors of the castle? What happened in the maze of hedges in the middle of the night? It was many years before I saw this movie again, once again on late night television. I wonder why it never seemed to gain the popularity of other horror movies of the time. It scared me so much I still remember it in detail.
- Another late night movie that caught my attention and stuck in my mind was “The Brainiac”, a 1962 movie from Mexico. Struck not only by the story but the gory idea of the deaths I spent a few nights wondering about the method of murder. A Mexican Baron is executed for witchcraft by a group of Inquisitors. Hundreds of years later the Baron returns as a brain eating monster seeking revenge on his executioners. In recent years it was televised and I convinced my husband to watch it with me. He laughed through almost the entire movie. What can I say? It scared a pre-teen with a vivid imagination.
- I was around ten years old when “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” came to a local theater. As part of the promotion for the film actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford toured with the movie, giving away a Baby Jane doll to a lucky audience member. No, I didn’t win the damned doll. But I did get to see two real “movie stars”. I can’t say the movie was exceptionally scary; the word disturbing is more applicable. Scenes like Bette Davis (Jane) feeding Joan Crawford (crippled sister Blanche) the remains of her dead pet bird, Victor Buono as Edwin Flagg, a musician hired to help Jane reignite her career, and the scene of Blanche (Crawford) tied to her bed, starving away made a visual impression on my young mind. My husband and I have watched this film several times in recent years. It isn’t terrifying in the conventional sense. It is distressing. The climatic beach scene still leaves me speechless. Is Blanche dead? Whatever does happen to Baby Jane Hudson?
- By the 1960’s Bette Davis had been relegated to horror movie queen. In 1964 my mother took me to see “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte” which co-starred Olivia de Haviland, Joseph Cotton, and Victor Buono. Again this wasn’t as much a horror movie as it was a mystery thriller. It certainly had its horrific moments. Once again Ms Davis is more of a tragic figure that a scary one. Of course there were the requisite scenes of bloody body parts and hints at something dark and threatening happening. Past meets present in a somewhat bizarre tale. For a kid, it was darned creepy. But it isn’t the classic Baby Jane is.
- Another Joan Crawford movie that was scary is “Strait Jacket”. Written by Robert Bloch who gave us “Psycho”, in this 1964 flick he makes his killer a woman. I mean a real woman, not a guy dressed as his mother. Lucy Harbin (yes it does sound like Lizzie Borden) was institutionalized for twenty years for the axe murder of her husband and his mistress. The event was witnessed by their young child, Carol. When Lucy is released she goes to stay with her brother and the soon to be married daughter. Obviously Bloch is using the Lizzie Borden axe murders as well as his “Psycho” plot to create something almost new. Madness seemed to be a popular theme during the 50’s and 60’s. This is actually a pretty good mystery thriller even if the plot is somewhat thin. The tag-line is priceless: “HER HUSBAND…HER ROOM… ……AND ANOTHER WOMAN”
- Last but far from least is a gem called “Die, Die My Darling”. Starring the incredible Tallulah Bankhead, Stephanie Powers, and a very young and creepy Donald Sutherland, this is another crazy mother. This maniac mom has lost her son and gloms onto his fiancée after his death. A religious fanatic, Bankhead holds her “daughter-in-law” hostage when she learns Powers had no intention of marrying the late Stephen. Mom goes berserk and it’s downhill from there. Lesson? Sometimes it is better to keep the truth to yourself.
“The Tingler” (1959) “The Tingler is loose in the theater!” This is another film I saw on television. Perhaps it was more frightening IN the theater. It has its moments, and let’s face it, Vincent Price was a classic horror actor. His facial expressions alone could scare me. His eyes would widen, his mouth turn down at the corners, and I knew something really bad was about to happen.
“Children of the Damned” (1964) I wasn’t quite certain if this was a horror movie or a science fiction film. There are no apparent aliens or spacemen in the movie but there is certainly more than a hint that the evil children aren’t of this earth. The thing that attracted me most to this movie when I was a child was the use of an otherwise forbidden word in the title, damned!! My friends and I took to terrifying one another by opening our eyes very wide and staring at one another as though we could cause some catastrophe with our intense stares. We all survived. While we agreed it was creepy (after all we were children and our friends were children!) I don’t think any of us were truly terrified by the very blonde and very blue eyed damned children. Maybe we secretly wished we had that kind of control over the adults in our lives.
“Night of the Living Dead” (1968) Again I am not certain if this is a horror movie or a science fiction movie. It certainly is horrifying. There had been a few zombie movies during the 50’s and 60’s but none of them scared me. George Romero took the theme to new heights (or lows depending on your perspective) with this movie. To this day I can say the name “Barbara” in a creepy voice and almost everyone knows what I’m talking about. It helped somewhat that my best friend in those long ago days was named Barbara and I could effectively creep her out by extending my arms, walking stiff legged, and muttering her name in a mindless monotone. Ah, the good old days.