Scaring Up Some Memorable Chills and Thrills
As Halloween unfolds, the film genre I admit to staying far away from is upon us, as explicit slasher movies of the Chainsaw (or Saw), Elm St and Friday the 13th variety invade theaters and DVD players across the country (the films in the clever, tongue-in-cheek Scream franchise are the only recent thrillers I can stomach). However, in regards to classic cinema, I do like a good scare now and then (I prefer then over now, so it doesn’t happen too often), and I’ve had opportunities over the years to partake of some of the exceptional classics of the suspense genre. Though less graphic than today’s epics of gore, these films offer moments of sheer terror that can leave a viewer more breathless than a pack of Camels.
My introduction to truly chilling cinema, which still constitutes the most frightening evening of my life, occurred one dark and stormy night when my unsuspecting mother, who never allowed me to view R-rated films, took me to a double feature of Freaks and the Robert Wise directed The Haunting. Mom must have thought these pre-ratings code films were okay for a ten-year-old to watch. I found Tod Browning's legendary 1932 Freaks, featuring a cast of real-life circus performers as the title characters, both creepy and fascinating, and was unnerved by the prologue to 1963’s Haunting, wherein the dark history of a mansion is recounted. I might have been able to get through both of these features without quite reaching my wit’s end, but the theater’s programmer included a cartoon short to ensure the evening’s entertainment would scare any hell completely out of me. I spent the next six or seven minutes glued to my seat in fascinated terror as the theater rolled out the 1953 classic UPA cartoon short The Tell-Tale Heart, based on the famous Edgar Allan Poe story. Brilliantly narrated by James Mason, this cartoon uses gifted artist Paul Julian’s unusual, terror-inducing imagery to illustrate Poe’s ode to insanity. For the next three decades this short stayed with me, as visualizations of Julian’s designs, accompanied by Mason’s nervous, desperate vocal deliveries, lingered strongly in the memory, especially the murder sequence, wherein the victim jumps up in bed and cries “No!” just before he’s attacked. I finally was brave enough to watch the film again as an adult, and the terror was undiminished. The British censors gave this Oscar-nominated short an “X” rating, due to the subject matter being too intense for children, but American children, including me, were on their own. Beware, kids.
1945’s Dead of Night, the British-made horror anthology that’s still the best of its kind, also places near the top of my list of moviedom’s best thrillers. Five tales of the macabre (although one of these is distinctly lighter in tone) are built around a framework involving a haunted man (excellently played by Mervyn Johns) who pays a visit to a house inhabited with strangers he’s sure he’s seen before. Outside of the uneven comic episode directed by Charles Crichton, the movie offers many suspenseful moments, including the eerie opening “Room For One More” story involving a man who witnesses a mysterious incident while recuperating from a race car accident, which later pays a huge dividend. Two further episodes also provide their share of shivers. However, the “scare” factor reaches sky-high proportions in the final Alberto Cavalcanti-directed sequence featuring Michael Redgrave’s intense and terrifyingly believable portrayal of ventriloquist Maxwell Frere, an emotionally-distraught character convinced his dummy, Hugo, has a mind of his own and is going to leave him (the eerie dummy looks menacing enough to accomplish this and much, much more, such as overtaking his master’s soul). I got chills just writing that last line, as remembrances of this unnerving story came to vivid life. Scenes such as Frere’s final meeting with Hugo and, later, a rival ventriloquist are creepy enough that even a distressed Freddy Kruger would bite his nails/blades completely down to the nub upon watching Night’s most disquieting passage. Due to the truly disturbing Redgrave segment and an equally-unsettling climax wherein Johns’ loses his sanity, I’ve only managed to watch Night a couple times as, although I tell myself “it’s only a movie,” the thought of watching this again (especially alone), is outweighed by the risk of incurring a heart attack via a Night viewing.
And finally, 1967's Wait Until Dark, starring Oscar-nominated Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman battling for her life in cat-and-mouse fashion with the diabolical Alan Arkin, contains one of the greatest jump-out-of-your-seats-screaming moments ever (the undersea "decomposed head roll" in Jaws is the only scene I can think of that comes close). If you've seen the film you'll know what I'm talking about; if not, guarantee yourself one true shock some Halloween by catching it. The actors are good, the situations tense and realistically depicted, and that classic fright moment is unforgettable.