31 October 2015

A Monster Mash

by John M. Floyd

Just as I was about to sit down and type my column for this week, which would've dealt with a totally different subject (something dutiful, involving writing and mystery fiction), it occurred to me that the piece was scheduled to run on October 31. I slapped my forehead, ditched my notes, and changed course. No one can resist writing about scary things on Halloween.

And some of the scariest things I've seen in my life--my life has, I confess, been pretty uneventful in the excitement department--have happened in movies.

A quick note, here, about genre categories. Despite what we're told on imdb.com and Netflix, I'm not at all sure that films like MiseryCujoDuelJawsHannibal, etc., are horror movies. They might be frightening (Annie Wilkes and her sledgehammer gave me the hibbiejibbies for weeks afterward), but it might be more accurate to label those examples as suspense, or adventure. Horror films, to me, should have otherworldly elements, like Night of the Living DeadThe BirdsInvasion of the Body Snatchers, FrankensteinThe Dead Zone, Paranormal ActivityThe Thing, Nosferatu, The Mist, Trollhunter, The Shining, DraculaThe RingThe Sixth SenseA Nightmare on Elm Street, and so on and so on. And let's face it, some of the most terrifying stories are those about insane people, because they could actually happen: The Silence of the LambsThe Night of the HunterMagicAmerican PsychoThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc. Humans are sometimes the best (worst?) monsters.

Anyhow, without further ado, here are my top ten scary (not necessarily horror) movies, rated according to how high I jumped out of my recliner or my theater seat when I first saw them.

1. Psycho -- I believe the most frightening moment in movie history occurred when Norman Bates's mother swung around in that chair in the root cellar, 55 years ago. Bernard Herrmann's music helped.

2. The Exorcist -- The scariest scene in this one, for me, was when Father Merrin appeared at Regan's home in Georgetown, introduced himself to her mother and Father Karras, and then climbed the staircase to confront the devil. The whole time this was happening, if I remember correctly, we could hear the demon upstairs, roaring and lowing and calling the priest's name. Whoa, Nellie.

3. Halloween -- This movie probably isn't on anybody's "best" list, but it was seriously creepy, in part because of John Carpenter's outstanding soundtrack. It still gives me goosebumps when I hear it.

4. Alien -- I saw this in an Atlanta mall, on an IBM trip, and the guy who was with me almost passed out when Alien Junior popped out of John Hurt's tummy. The sequel, Aliens, was a better movie, but what made Alien so terrifying was the steady buildup of tension and dread, and the fact that the audience never even saw the creature until near the end of the story.

5. Wait Until Dark -- I saw W.U.D. in college, and I remember the entire theater screaming at one point, when Alan Arkin leaped out of the shadows to attack a blind Audrey Hepburn. In my writing courses I often refer to this movie as an example of the use of foreshadowing and suspense.

6. The Others -- Not many folks seem to know about The Others (not to be confused with The Other). I watched it via Netflix, with one of our sons, and it scared the hell out of both of us. It contains one particularly bloodchilling scene.

7. Poltergeist -- Another film that I saw on a work trip, this one to Dallas. This is Spielberg at his best, and it's hard to get better than that.

8. The Howling -- Unlike Poltergeist, this was not a great movie (few werewolf movies are), but it was truly scary. I was dumb enough to watch it at home alone on TV at about two a.m. on a summer night, which meant the back windows onto our patio were open and I could hear the night sounds outside. I didn't do that again.

9. Cat People -- The 1982 version of Cat People is a guilty pleasure, and I love it. If the opening credits don't give you the willies, you're braver than I am. Wonderful soundtrack, and the city of New Orleans (which can be spooky anyhow) has never been spookier.

10. The Omen -- I've never been fond of kids-in-peril stories, but here the kid's the villain. Sort of. The most disturbing scene in this film involves an actress named Holly Palance (Jack's daughter, if you're a movie buff).

That's the top of my creepy/crawly list. Any agreements? Disagreements? And more importantly, do you have any recommendations? I included only those movies I myself have seen; several that I've not yet watched but are on my soon-to-be-viewed list are The BabadookThe Cabin in the Woods, and 28 Days Later. Give me more.

I'll close with a goofy poem I wrote twenty years ago--it was published in a 1995 issue of Mystery Time magazine, and is titled "Stress Management":

I have a long history of reading a mystery
Each night before going to bed;
They're scary and tense, but I have enough sense
Not to let such things mess up my head.

At least I thought so, till one night a psycho
Leaped into my room, eyes ablaze;
It was just my dog Lad. but by then I had had
An accident in my PJ's.

Now should that deter a booklover? No sir!
I still read a lot, if the tone
Is funny and light, if it's not late at night,
And if I'm not home all alone.

The same holds true for movies.

Have a great Halloween.


  1. Wait Until Dark is great story telling and the Alien series is fun, but two others you mention brought back memories.

    I saw Night of the Living Dead at a midnight showing in a small Greenwich Village theatre. The smartass mockers grew silent after the first 20 minutes and the audience was subdued as we filed out afterwards. No big deal. I rode the Staten Island Ferry home, climbed into bed, shut out the light. One eye popped open. I got up and double-checked the door locks. Back into bed. One eye opened again. What was that noise? I slept (or not) like that for a week.

    Contrarily, when I saw the Exorcist and the audience was yelping and jumping around me, I noticed occasional frames of a skull inserted in closeups. I realized the filmmakers were using subliminal images to manipulate the audience. During the rest of the movie, I kept watching for subliminal imagery. Not scary at all! But of course it’s a matter of attitude.

  2. Leigh, I think one of the great things about the under-appreciated Wait Until Dark is that it's frightening even though there are no paranormal elements involved at all. It's just three evil men preying on a blind lady (one of the most sympathetic--if that's the right word--characters I've ever watched). And smart, too, as it turned out. It was interesting to me that almost everything takes place in her tiny apartment.

    I liked all three Alien movies, but I loved the second one. Not as scary as the first, but one of the best action films I've ever seen.

    Like you, I saw Night of the L.D. in a theatre, and the full effect didn't get to me till afterward. Unlike you, I was pretty scared throughout The Exorcist. Didn't know about the subliminal images. I did once (much later) walk past the house in Georgetown, though, where it was filmed. Loved that movie.

  3. I'm not a big fan of "horror" movies, in part because there are so many that are poorly done. That isn't to denigrate the good ones; simply an observation. But I agree with you that the cellar scene in Psycho is one of the truly scary scene. Not surprisingly a Hitchcock production. You probably have heard the story that Hitchcock had the dummy put in Janet Leigh's dressing room to get her reaction. A cruel thing to do, but it got the desired results. In any event, I was never as shocked as I was when I saw it. Great work!

    The only other time I was truly scared was when I was a kid of 10 or so. I saw a movie, I believe it was called"The 13th Guest". There was one scene where a shadowy figure was stalking through the house with a knife in his hand. A lone woman upstairs in her bedroom, cringing in horror as he got closer to her room. That is all I remember about the movie. I can't even remember whether she was murdered. But I didn't sleep that night.

  4. I didn’t find The Sixth Sense frightening, only clever, but most of the others, yes.

    I haven’t seen The Cat People or The Others, but have you seen The Human Centipede? I'm the horror fan in the family. My husband hasn’t forgiven me for insisting we see that one. It’s not a “boo!” type of movie but my favs are those that have an aftereffect like The Langoliers.

  5. Herschel, I had not heard the story about the dummy in J.L.'s dressing room, though I have heard that the blood running down the shower drain during the stabbing was really chocolate syrup (in a black-and-white movie, that worked, I guess). And yes, I got even more scared by any kind of creepiness when I was a kid. (I watched a LOT of movies--too many, probably--when I was a kid.)

    Anonymous, I think you'd like Cat People (but make sure it's the 1982 remake), and The Others as well. Don't watch that second one on a dark night. As for The Human Centipede, I'm embarrassed to say I haven't seen it, but I assure you I'll look it up, and will probably have it via Netflix in a few days. Regarding The Langoliers, I loved the buildup of tension in that movie (from a Stephen King novella, I think). I wish only that the Langoliers themselves, when finally revealed, hadn't been quite so cartoonish. But that was a darn good movie, and one I'd forgotten about. Thanks for the comment!

  6. To Anonymous: I forgot to respond to your observation about The Sixth Sense. That movie was certainly clever (way too clever for me to catch the twist, the first time around), but I did also find it scary, because of the kid who saw the dead people. I remember once when he was seeing an accident victim that his mother, sitting beside him in the car, couldn't see, and that was truly creepy, to me. It's strange how different things affect different viewers.

  7. I've seen and been scared by all the movies on your top ten list. I tried decide which one was the scariest and realized just one had scared me so much that I've never dared to watch it a second time. Poltergeist. So I guess that's the one that, for me, wins the title.

    Will I work up the nerve to watch it again? Not just now. Maybe next Halloween.

  8. Bonnie, Poltergeist was one of those rare horror movies that was really well done. Unfortunately, those usually spawn many sequels that are all terrible, and that was the case here. In my expert (?!?) opinion, you should watch this one again, around 3 a.m.

  9. What I really loved about wait Until Dark is that I always felt that the whole play (and the movie version afterward) it seemed to me was written as a setup to the scene you reference. Everything about the story was engineered to have us, the audience, in just the right frame of mind for the rug to then be pulled out from under us. And it seems to me that that is its basic similarity to The Sixth Sense. It, too, was one long and exquisite "framing of the pitch."

    I have this sort of pessimistic theory that all of the great gimmicks, the great twists, are a finite number that we are rapidly depleting. It's great to see those twists the first time -- when you really don't see them coming. But it's depressing to see them then used over and over by others who can't come up with an original twist on their own.

  10. Well said, Dale. Yes, that "moment" in Wait Until Dark was definitely there for shock effect. And once you've seen the result of the buildup (in any story), it's of course never the same afterward--but it's fun to watch and remember. I have, now and then, seen movies that are able to effectively use similar twists, but (as you said) that kind of audience manipulation is difficult, and doesn't often deliver.

    The price of two tickets to Wait Until Dark was considered a worthwhile investment, when I was in college, because its ending guaranteed that your date would scream and leap into your arms.

  11. I do not enjoy horror movies, although I can enjoy suspense. having said that I loved AlienS, Sixth Sense, Duel, , Silence of the Lambs (does that count?) and almost anything by Hitchcock.

    In college I remember standing at the back ofa hall in which students were watching The Lady Vanishes (early Hitchcock). There is a scene where the heroine is sneaking through a luggage car and something unexpected happens. I watched the whole hall full of college students leap half a foot in the air. That is when I realized there is something special about seeing this kind of flick in a crowd.

  12. Rob, darn right it counts. Hannibal Lecter scares the bejesus out of me, and (I think) out of most folks. I also agree with you on Duel, which is terrifying without being a horror movie at all.

    I also of course agree with you about Hitchcock and his version of suspense. When done well, that's the best kind of scary.

    I'm glad you brought up audience reactions--that adds a LOT to the experience. I can recall a few times (one was in Jaws, when Richard Drewfuss is diving and an old fisherman's severed head floats suddenly into view) when hundreds of people jumped and screamed at the same time. That's something that stays with you, and that you miss out on when watching movies at home.

  13. The TV movie Duel (first directing job for a guy named Spielberg) appeared when I was a freshman in college. I remember that because it was rerun over the summer. I invited a friend to watch it and he was quite blase, saying he had pretty much quit watching TV at college, ho-hum. But he agreed to watch it to humor me. An hour later he was literally standing on his chair screaming at the top of his lungs.

  14. Duel was a great movie. I heard someone say Spielberg intentionally kept us from seeing the truck driver at all (except I think his hand and arm were visible a time or two) because he wanted the audience to think of the truck itself as the villain.

  15. Then there are hair raising moments in some non-horror movies. In "Eddie and the Cruisers," we aren't sure for a while if Eddie is stalking her and he's dead. In "Back to the Future part III," the moment when we realize the tombstone may have Doc Brown's name on it, but Marty might be the one buried under it! Well, I saw the 1940's "Picture of Dorian Grey" the other night---brrrrrrr! Happy Halloween!

  16. Good point, Jeff. I guess anything that makes your hair stand on end ought to be good enough to watch on Halloween.

    Here are a few edge-of-the-seaters that haven't been mentioned: The Fly, Carrie, Candyman, The Descent, and The Blair Witch Project. Woooo-oooooo.

  17. Coming late to this party, but I still say one of the scariest movies of all time is "The Haunting" with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom. "Whose hand was I holding?" I rest my case.

  18. Eve, I forgot The Haunting--thanks for mentioning this one. I watched it again this past summer. If I recall, it was a pretty faithful adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

    Too many movies, too little time.


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