Classic Horror Flicks Offer Autumn Chills

ByCommentary by DAVID MORGAN

Oct. 24, 2005 — -- You want to be scared, don't you?

A little supernatural sustenance, a touch of haunting horror, a dose of deadly drama. What could be more fun on Halloween than some shivers up your timbers?

For the fright-deprived we offer a roster of some of cinema's finest horror tales. [Also see our slideshow, Halloween Horror Classics.] So turn out the lights, lock your doors, curl up under the covers, and fire up the remote. And remember: If it gets too terrifying, there's always the "stop" button. Go on. We dare you.

"Never take candy from strangers" – simple and well-meaning advice about placing too much trust in the unknown, advice that characters in horror films rarely take to heart until it's too late. Sometimes people deemed most trustworthy are actually the ones you have to watch out for, and therein lies a time-honored trait of horror films: the scariest characters are not the gooey, slime-infested creatures from other planets, but the nice guy next door who just happens to have bodies accumulating in his basement.

Robert Mitchum was a consummate player of characters who lived slightly off the edge, whether it was gumshoe detectives or laconic rebels. In "The Night of the Hunter," a Gothic tale directed by Charles Laughton, Mitchum plays a murderous preacher on the trail of two children he believes are harboring a bank robber's loot. A mischievous mixture of wide-eyed, childlike innocence and stark horror, the film is the most riveting portrayal of a psychopath ever.

Alfred Hitchcock claimed that his 1960 film "Psycho," shot on a minuscule budget and released with a sensational marketing campaign, was done as a joke, after the seemingly more ambitious "Vertigo" and "North by Northwest." But Hitchcock showed that high art could come from low material (a morbid tale of a serial killer inspired by Ed Gein), and many consider it his masterpiece. Audiences who followed the events at the Bates Motel doubtless developed a lingering fear of showers, or at least of quietly nervous young men who practice taxidermy.

Many filmmakers make the mistake of thinking horror can only be found among the horrible. Novelist Ira Levin made the inspired decision of setting "Rosemary's Baby," his tale of a woman impregnated by Satan, in a familiar, comfortable apartment building on Manhattan's Upper West Side, inhabited by friendly, doting seniors. After Roman Polanski's creepy film version, sweet little old ladies – led by Oscar winner Ruth Gordon – will never be viewed the same way.

Other notable examples of the beware-the-neighbor genre: "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" (definitely, definitely not for the squeamish); "The Wicker Man," in which a policeman investigating a girl's disappearance on a remote Scottish island finds more than he bargained for; and "The Silence of the Lambs," which gives cannibalistic psychiatrists a really bad name.

Haunted house stories are as old as … well, haunted houses. One of the best of the genre was the 1963 chiller "The Haunting," based on Shirley Jackson's classic novel "The Haunting of Hill House." Set in a New England mansion, its protagonists must survive unearthly cries and bumps in the night. Not as easy as that might appear.

Director Stanley Kubrick's trademark precision brought an unsettling edge to "The Shining," a tale of a marriage gone very bad set within the confines of a hotel shimmering with ghosts of sorrow and pain. The best adaptation of a Stephen King thriller to date, it stars Shelley Duvall as a wife and mother, emotionally abused and threatened, who is trapped when her husband, Jack Nicholson, becomes unhinged by his own personal demons.

King has had innumerable novels and short stories adapted to the screen, most notably "Carrie," "Salem's Lot" and the non-horror "Shawshank Redemption." He had publicly disowned Kubrick's version (which, for example, replaced the author's living topiary creatures with a hedge maze), and he even oversaw a television remake reputedly more faithful to its source. But our heart (and the lump in our throat) belongs to Kubrick's version, especially given the beauty of the camerawork – elevators disgorging gallons of blood never looked prettier.

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers," a classic tale of paranoia released in an era pummeled by McCarthyism and the Cold War, stars Kevin McCarthy as a doctor who slowly realizes that the residents of his small California town are being converted into emotionless, zombie-like drones who seek to absorb humans into their clan. Its downbeat attack on conformity made some people perhaps too uncomfortable; director Don Siegel was forced to shoot an uplifting ending, in which the government is alerted to the danger and sets out to contain it.

In Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake set in San Francisco, no such cavalry rides to the rescue. And in an amusing cameo, McCarthy himself appears – still being chased, still shouting out his rueful cry: You're next!

While George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" is held up at a paragon of low-budget horror filmmaking, its predecessor, "Carnival of Souls," is more unsettling and dreamlike. After a young woman's car crashes into a river, she emerges in a bizarre land of specters. Yes, you can probably guess where she is (can you say "Twilight Zone"?), but it's a haunting ride nonetheless.

For guilty pleasure, we nominate Richard Blackburn's "Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural," a dirt-cheap (and hard-to-find) tale of a sweet innocent lured into a female vampire's coven. And for sheer shock and blood-and-guts, Dario Argento's "Suspiria" will convince the most jaded filmgoer of one thing: When chased by a maniac, be careful you do not fall into a room filled with razor wire.

Forgive our prejudice, but the best horror is usually that which is implied, and not clearly seen. The zenith of this style was the body of work of producer Val Lewton. The titles of Lewton's horror films made for RKO – "I Walked With a Zombie," "Isle of the Dead," "The Body Snatcher" – were always less subtle than the films themselves, in which events typically unspooled in a swooning, dreamlike daze.

Arguably the best of these, "Cat People" told the tale of an artist convinced she was descended from a race of feline-women who turn into panthers if sexually aroused. Most memorable scene: a woman in jeopardy peering into the shadows surrounding a swimming pool that cloak … something.

Less blatant than one probably remembers, given its shock effects, William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" is less a tale of grotesque horror than it is a story of lost faith and redemption. Based on William Peter Blatty's best-seller, which was inspired by a real exorcism performed on a young boy, the 1973 film builds slowly and effectively from the first rumblings of sinister portent.

David Lynch's films straddle many genres: Is "Blue Velvet" horror, murder mystery, comedy or satire of small-town America? Is "Elephant Man" a Grand Guignol or a drawing room comedy of manners? But his most obvious contribution to the horror cinema was his first feature, "Eraserhead," dubbed by fans the weirdest film ever made, in which a young man confronts the deformed child born of a barely remembered assignation. "Weird" is probably an understatement.

In recent years, Japanese horror films (or in shorthand, J-Horror) have met with international success. Atmospheric, psychologically challenging (if also logically challenged) and deliberately paced, the best of these films brings eeriness to a new level.

Based on a popular Koji Suzuki novel and originally filmed as a Japanese TV movie, the 1998 hit "Ringu" spawned a cottage industry of sequels, prequels, a TV series and remakes (both in the U.S. and South Korea). This tale of a cursed videotape (anyone who watches it is doomed to die within a week) led to a flood of J-horror – Japanese tales of psychological dread and shock effects whose ability to creep out audiences cuts across language barriers. After all, screams are universal.

In addition to "Ringu," Hollywood has plumbed the genre for other films to remake, including "Dark Water," "Ju-On" ("The Grudge") and soon "The Eye."

The current crop of J-Horror certainly owes a huge debt to Masaki Kobayashi's "Kwaidan" (1964), a highly theatrical depiction of four ghost stories transposed to Japan. The film's cool aesthetics and jaw-dropping cinematography made it even more chilling. In the tale "Woman in the Snow" (deleted from original U.S theatrical prints but restored to DVD), a beautiful apparition that drains the life from a man lost in a snowstorm spares a woodsman's life, but only if a promise made can be kept. (And you know how well to trust murderous apparitions.)

Other foreign frights worth catching: George Franju's "Eyes Without a Face," in which a mad scientist grafts the skin of murdered women onto his daughter's deformed face; and the Dutch thriller "The Vanishing," whose climax is so creepy your spine will crawl right out the door.

"Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror" (1922), F.W. Murnau's stylized vampire tale starring Max Schreck, was the first (and still the best) film version of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" – even if it wasn't an authorized adaptation. Some vampire aficionados may prefer Bela Lugosi's aristocratic air or Christopher Lee's overpowering seductiveness. But Schreck's thin and ghoulish appearance seemed the perfect visual depiction of the bloodsucking vampire stalking his victims.

Stoker's widow sued the filmmakers for copyright infringement and won, but fortunately she did not succeed in having every print destroyed, so this classic vampire flick continues to see the light of day.

At its most basic level, the 1979 science fiction thriller "Alien" was a rehash of "The Thing," in which an isolated group is terrorized by an unknown creature. But the startling makeup effects and stunning production design by artist H.R. Giger helped made this a smash – which in turn made Sigourney Weaver (the most resourceful of the hunted crew of the Nostromo) a star.

It also sported the very best ad line ever used for a horror film: "In space, no one can hear you scream."

Ah, but they can in apartment complexes. So keep your voices down.

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