Old School Scares Still Cause Shivers

It’s October and we all know what that means: colorful trees, football in full swing, and a candy corn supply that never seems to run out. Oh, yeah, and scary movies! This is that time of the year when it is not just socially acceptable to scream in a darkened movie theatre or living room, it’s expected.
To say that we, as movie watchers, like to be scared is an understatement. The reality, though, is that we like to be scared… when we know there is an entire dimension between us and the monster, murderer, ghost, or ghoul. While what scares us individually is different, the majority of us would put death or incapacitation or, worst of all, public speaking on the list and spend our days seeking a way to relieve ourselves of these fears, which brings us back to the movie house.
As viewers, watching others in situations that we can use to mirror our fears (if public speaking is tantamount to being chased by a chainsaw-wielding freak, of course), we are waiting for that point in the flick where the presumed victim overcomes the menace. We live through the character as we watch all those who give us the advice to view our audience in their underwear or pretend they aren’t there to die in a gruesome way, left to marinate in a pool of their own… well, you get the idea. In short, we watch with a “better them than me” mentality allowing the relief to wash over us as we leave the theatre.
A look at the marquee shows that this year’s offerings (remakes, early Oscar contenders, some action fare, and, scattered amongst these categories, some scares) look suspiciously like last year’s, not to mention the year before that and the year before that and so on–creaks and squeaks, shadowy figures, the supernatural, and, oh yes, buckets and buckets of blood (Carrie, I’m looking at you). Let’s be honest, though, do we really need a river of plasma to get us there? Are we incapable of a good blood-free release? I, like Hitchcock who understood the power of the unknown or unseen to scare the bejeezus out of us, think we can and I have come to offer some chilly flicks from our cinematic past that deliver the eerie without the bloodletting. Enjoy!
Nosferatu (1922)
The original vampire flick, it’s as creepy today as when it was in theatres ninety years ago. An argument could be made that this is, as Hitchcock would later claim regarding his film The Birds (1963), is a romantic tale that happens to be interrupted by the evil that is Count Orlok, but one thing is clear: This film offers more questions than answers as it sets conventions that will guide the cinematic folklore from which all future vampire films will spring.
Atmospheric, to say the least, F. W. Murnau (The Last LaughSunrise) and his cinematographers create a harsh contrast that only heightens the spookiness as shadows come alive puncturing the light. For a horror film it is incredibly bright, with tinting throughout, making the moment the Count Orlok (Max Schreck in the role for which he would be best remembered) leans in for his final feast all the more cringe-worthy.
By today’s standards, Nosferatu is fairly tame, but when looked at as the first step on the road of rich neckbiting film history (the incredibly grating and shallow Twilight Saga excepted, of course), it well deserves its place at the head of the canon.
Freaks (1932)
Hollywood was still a couple of years away from the Hayes Code becoming a reality and, if Tod Browning had waited a few years to make this film, it is safe to say that it would not have been as effective. There were certainly actors who could have played these characters  but Browning understood the necessity of using actual carnival performers to illustrate just how different we, as humans, are. By doing this he also illustrated just how close any of “you” are to becoming “one of us.” As provocative and effective today as it was in its initial release which, according to the documentary “American Grindhouse,” is the original exploitation flick.
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Where Browning leaves off Eric Kenton, with an adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, picks up. Where Freaksshines a light on nature, Moreau plays God in an attempt to change the course of the world with experiments that meld human and animal. In the end he is only successful in showing that human nature, and a human’s desire not to be oppressed, will suppress any of the simplistic lessons he teaches his creations:
“What is the law?”
“No spill blood!”
Eventually, blood is spilt (though unseen) freeing the captives to an uncertain future.
Charles Laughton is brilliant as the not-so-good doctor with Bela Lugosi (fresh off his turn as the bar-setting count in the previous year’sDracula) barely recognizable as the Sayer of the Law. The ultra-exotic Kathleen Burke kicked off her short career by winning a contest to play the Panther Woman by being chosen from thousands of contestants.
All houses have secrets. When Roderick Fitzgerald and his sister, Pamela, fall in love with and buy the Windward House far beneath market value, they ask no questions setting in motion a series of events requiring them to learn the secrets of this particular house. Art and a sinister past collide in a film that is well ahead of its time and features excellent performances by Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, and Alan Napier, who, two decades later, would become a household face when he played Alfred in Batman television series.
Of special note are Charles Lang’s (Some Like it HotPeter Ibbetson) stunning, Oscar-nominated cinematography and the prolific Farciot Edouart’s and Gordon Jennings’s visual effects.
The Haunting (1963)
Robert Wise, who sandwiched this and a comedy (Two for the Seesaw) between the musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music, continued to diversify his résumé as he pulls out all the stops in this adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House. It doesn’t take long for those in attendance to realize that this is no ordinary house and, in its initial release, was considered the scariest film ever made. It holds up amazingly well putting to shame the nearly unwatchable 1999 remake.
These are a few of the myriad films that don’t rely on an ocean of blood to make you hide your eyes, so, hopefully, this will open the door to find more as the month winds up.
About Michael Flood
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