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I ain’t scared of no ghost

An exhaustive historical list of the best fright movies

September 29, 2009
By Tony Rutherford
On Halloween night in 1938, radio (then the equivalent of television) listeners heard some dance music, and then, “We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin…”

For the next 40 minutes using a faux newscast format, Grover’s Mill, New Jersey became the site of a massive invasion by tripod-like Martians who incinerated a crowd with heat-rays.

Amidst reporting of destroyed power stations, uprooted bridges and cylinders of Martians landing countrywide, a reporter in New York City stated, “five great machines wading across the Hudson River, poison smoke drifting over the city, people running and diving into the East River like rats, others falling like flies.”

Call it a “prank” or a creative drama taken seriously, the “War of the Worlds” radio production likely outranks the impact of any flick with a horror or all Hallows Eve theme.

Reports of the number of people who “panicked” vary, creating many urban legends such as farmer’s mistaking a water tower for a Martian, men heading to guard their moonshine stills and a Catholic family racing 50 miles to see a priest for the last rites. And, in Concrete, Wash., electrical power failed in the town of 1,000 during the 1938 broadcast.

At the conclusion, Orson Wells stressed the dramatic nature of the productions, “War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night … so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears … [remember] That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian … it’s Halloween.”

The production spawned a 1975 movie, “The Night That Panicked America,” and a 1957 Studio One dramatization narrated by Edward R. Murrow titled, “The Night America Trembled.” Since then, TV carefully aired disclaimers for “Special Bulletin” (1983), “Without Warning” (1994) and “Y2K” (1999).

Despite that lengthy introduction, the article concerns Halloween movies. Whether release for trick or treat or at some other time of year, their object in exchange for your movie bucks is to have you shivering in the cinema rocking chair clutching the shoulder of your date. The faux-newscast and/or documentary represents but one style of horror presentation. However, the 21st Century, with the popularity of 24/7 cable news and “reality television,” has seen the predominance of such horror thrillers as:

• Cloverfield (2008) — Shot from a one camera perspective, a small group document attempts to escape a monster attack on the Big Apple.

• Quarantine (2008) — A TV reporter “shadowing” the L.A. Fire Department is among those sealed by the CDC in an apartment complex where humans turn into blood drinking killers due to a virus.

• Blair Witch Project (1999) — A group of student filmmakers go off into the woods, camera in hand, seeking to document a local legend (described as hairy, half-human, half-beast) in which many children have vanished since the ‘40s. A year later, the unedited film cans are discovered. (Personally, despite the shaky cameras, seclusion and amplified sounds, I didn’t jump out of my seat.)

Designed to invoke our worst fears, horror films went with Halloween (the generic) like ice cream and cake or turkey and dumplings. Any frightening flick that cultivated alarm, panic, nightmares, taboo conduct and death fit the mold. Like other film classifications (i.e. genres), there is debate concerning overlapping elements, such as fantasy, science-fiction, supernatural, and assortments of harrowing human bad guys lumped thrillers involving revolting killers and psychotic entities.

Actually, Universal Pictures in the ‘30s and ‘40s shot “pure” horror based on mad scientists, creatures, undead aristocrats and man-made monsters. You know them as “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931), “The Mummy” (1931), “Dracula”  (1931),  “The Invisible Man” and “Frankenstein” (1931). All proved successful and that meant the production of sequels, only with “son of,” “revenge of,” “ghost of” or “bride of” designations rather than a Roman numeral.

By the late ‘40s and ‘50s, the melodramas were ripe for camp, spoof and comedy in the form of “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948) and “I Was a Teen-age Werewolf” (1957). Ironically, the pattern of mocking scary predecessors has followed recent vintage too, as screamers turned into “Scary Movie” (and sequels).

Whether ghostly possessions or demented maniacs, the landscape opened wide and swallowed buckets of blood when in the ‘60s film censorship was replaced by the rating system which essentially provided a mandate as to what films were or were not suitable for what age groups. Suddenly, the camera did NOT have to cut away at the last minute to avoid gruesome gore. During an experimental period of no ratings, these ‘60s masterpieces still bring on the chills and another drink of beer without graphic pictorial explicitness:

• Psycho (1960) — This black and white Alfred Hitchcock film created three cinematic icons — the name Bates Motel, which symbolizes any rural, slightly rundown place to lay one’s head; Norman Bates, a mild mannered serial killer; and the shower. At the time, censorship prevented nudity or blood, so the Master of Suspense shrouded Janet Leigh behind a nearly see-through curtain and slipped in her draining life’s blood due to it not being red. Considered one of Hitch’s best, you’ll want to keep a close eye on anyone with a Mother fixation.

• Night of the Living Dead (1968) — Made with cameras borrowed from a Pittsburgh TV station, George Romero’s flesh eating zombie corpses initiated the platform for what would become slasher/splatter/torture mainstays. Shot like a doc, this intensely claustrophobic line in the sand pitted a few unbitten survivors against hordes of zombies that could absorb more bullets than the Man of Steel. (How do you kill a zombie? Answer: Rent the flick.) 

But, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978) staked out a particularly scary Oct. 31 foundation that would contain endless Roman numeral sequels and killings in which the camera stays on the victim. The low-budget thriller opened the door to multiple graveyards of body counts and increasingly graphic details of murders.

Still, horrors most gruesome must be separated by their atmosphere, premise, cleverness, creativity and whether you nearly soil your undergarments from the on-screen imagery.

SLASHER/SPLASHERS:

• Halloween (1978) — Director John Carpenter invented the so-called “slasher” film as a masked man (Michael Myers) stalks teens in Hadenfield. Jamie Lee Curtis would become a ‘scream queen’ from her appearances in the series. Although it set the stage for slashing, the production exemplified suspense. No blood and gore, but even a creaking door had audiences screaming. The tense twinkling music made viewers fearful and terrified without showing any explicitness. Carpenter mastered the art of foreshadowing and shooting with one jumpy camera from a victim or villain’s perspective so, though, R-rated, it utilizes anxieties, empty rooms, dark streets, credibility challenges, along with discrete cutaway shots of Myers’ knife. (See Roman Numerals)

• Sorority Row (2009)/Jennifer’s Body (2009) — Refreshingly, the pendulum swings backwards in these releases that opt away from sadistic gross out torture trends. Both film’s re-mix elements of prior slasher productions with greater imagination, more character insights, and plots that contain more than simply slash, bleed, die, next victim.

ROMAN NUMERALS

All the popular cultural villains had an initiation and we all know that the first film is generally much better than any of the sequels, so any of these will do: “Nightmare on Elm Street” (1987), first Freddie Kruger; “Friday the 13th” (1980), first Jason; “Halloween” (1978), first Michael Myers; “Child’s Play” (1988), first Chucky (voice by Brad Dourif from Huntington); “Saw” (2004), Jigsaw gives birth to sadistic torture horror games; “Scream” (1996), introduction of Sidney Prescott, a woman stalked by a serial killer.

RUN,  HIDE, SHIVVER & SHAKE, BUT NO SEQUEL

• Carrie (1978) — Sissy Spacek plays a shy, quiet, ridiculed teen under the watchful stare of her gospel fanatical mother (Piper Laurie). A reprehensible prank unleashes Carrie’s telekinetic powers upon all the school bullies. Look for: John Travolta, Nancy Allen and William Katt.

• Poltergeist (1982) — Tobe (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) Hooper directed this creepy PG flick of a little girl besieged by a house full of poltergeist that wants to take her to their world.

• The Fog (1980) — John Carpenter unleashes a glowing fog enveloping a coastal town that serves as the shroud for a troupe of undead pirates sending residents off the plank. Jamie Lee Curtis featured.

• The Mist (2007) — Try “The Fog” in a supermarket. When the mist comes in, no one can leave. But, staying inside won’t be safe either, so it’s a who will survive countdown. You will want to put an ax through the mouth of a religious freak (Marcia Hardin) and cheer a nerdy clerk (Toby Jones). Yes, this was made from a Stephen King story. Nice monsters for the mulch.

DON’T LOOK INTO THESE OTHER WORLDLY

• Exorcist (1973) — Linda Blair starred as a teen with a problem inside her. After a seizure, she starts exhibiting unusual powers, including the ability to levitate herself. All other diagnosis exhausted, her parents summon a priest to vanquish the demon trapped inside her. Don’t miss: Her 360 degree head turns and the green stuff spewing.

• Phantasm (1979) — You won’t know what’s real and what’s imaginary. But it’s set in a graveyard and inside a mortuary run by Tall Man. Grave robbers, of course; alternate universe, check; odd ice-cream truck, yes; dead come back to life, naturally; otherwise there are no rules except run from any tall dude who raises his eye brows and growls. Synthesizer music throughout creates mystifying ambiance.

• Susipria (1977) —A German dance company run by a witch. Starring Jessica Harper, the flick emphasizes music, colors and sounds for scaring devices. Characters question the supernatural, science and their own faith. Watch for dance students frightened by heckling and strange visions.

• Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)— Deviants from the planet transsexual have a Halloween party and newly engaged dork dressing conservatives Brad and Janet knock on the castle door. A musical where you sing, dance and mimic the on-screen characters; ultimate Halloween costume opportunity, where gals delight in laughing at their boyfriend wearing high heels during the “Time Warp.” Campy, stupid, insulting, hedonistic, and parodies horror films and morality lessons.

• Arachnophobia (1990) — Giant spiders come to the United States in a coffin and start breeding. I have to admit that I have a web phobia, so I took a girl to tell me when to open my eyes. Instead, I had to hold her and check under the chair. She wore sandals and she kept sitting on her feet fearing something with eight legs would crawl over her toes. I itched so much afterwards that a friend told me to spray imaginary Benadryl where I scratched.

FUNNY

• An American Werewolf in London (1981) — John (“Animal House”) Landis mixes the best offbeat comedy with gory special effects to deliver a classic hybrid that has laughs and frights. Catch the early werewolf morphing effects; laugh at a decomposing zombie (Griffin Dunne). Visiting London? Don’t take any dark sort cuts after gluttony and too much to drink from the pub.

• Ghostbusters (1984) — “Saturday Night Live” vets Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd play high tech parapsychologists earning their keep amongst New York City’s haunted structures. Great song, “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts,” which chants about neutralizing apparitions, but the busters have a break in time and space unleashing more supernatural creatures. Watch for: Marshmallows.

Contact Tony at trutherford@graffitiwv.com
 
 

 

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