by Barbara Roden
Last year I wrote about 10 haunting movies perfect for the Hallowe’en season. Although it is long past Hallowe’en, the current weather situation has all of us trapped indoors and desperately looking for escape. Herewith I present 10 more: films that scare, but don’t (with one or two exceptions) depend on gruesome effects to do so. All of them might well have you turning on a few extra lights when the end credits have finished, and checking to make sure all the windows really are shut. There are ghosts, monsters, and a few entities that are unclassifiable, but chilling nonetheless. Just keep telling yourself: it’s only a movie. . . .
Tired of the way many modern films and TV shows have reduced vampires to little more than brooding romantic figures? Go back to one of the greatest horror films ever made, and you’ll never think of vampires as romantic again. This film – an unauthorized version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula – was almost lost, when Stoker’s widow sued the filmmakers for copyright infringement and insisted all copies be destroyed. Fortunately the film – and actor Max Schreck’s supremely unsettling turn as the vampire of the title, which translates to “undead” – survives, and almost a hundred years later can lay claim to being the creepiest vampire movie ever made.
King Kong (1933)
The granddaddy of all monster films, King Kong continues to enthrall and terrify. Special effects man Willis O’Brien’s groundbreaking stop-motion animation has lost little of its power, and the film packs an amazing number of astounding action sequences into its 100 minutes. Composer Max Steiner’s score revolutionized movie music, and the film remains the definitive interpretation of “Beauty and the Beast”. Moviemaker Carl Denham, embarking on his quest to find and capture Kong, declares “They’ll have to think up a lot of new adjectives, when I get back.” The same could be said about this film.
Cat People (1942)
RKO Studios – which had produced King Kong – hired producer Val Lewton to bring in a series of horror films at less than $150,000 each. Cat People was Lewton’s first effort, and with director Jacques Tourneur he created a masterpiece. The film tells of a woman who is terrified that she is a “cat person” who will, under certain circumstances, revert to her animalistic nature and kill her husband. The film’s low budget meant that Lewton and Tourneur had to suggest, rather than show, horror, and the result is a movie that leaves much to the viewer’s imagination, particularly in a memorable scene shot at a nearly-deserted swimming pool that will have you on the edge of your seat.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Not precisely a horror film, The Night of the Hunter is terrifying nonetheless. Robert Mitchum plays a charismatic “preacher” who is, in reality, an ex-con seeking the hidden fortune he learned about from another inmate while in prison. He woos the man’s widow, and sets off in pursuit of her two young children, who have the fortune. This was the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, who created a beautiful, gripping movie that is at once dreamlike and nightmarish. It was a critical and box office disaster when it was released, but has since become recognized as a classic of American cinema.
Night of the Demon (1957)
Jacques Tourneur had a bigger budget by the time he came to make this film, which is still the only feature-length movie made from one of the ghost stories by the greatest writer in the genre, M. R. James. The story is James’s classic “Casting the Runes”, about a man named Karswell who appears to use supernatural means to eliminate anyone who opposes him. The demon is, apart from a few brief shots, suggested rather than shown, and Irish actor Niall MacGinnis makes Karswell at once charming and terrifying, proving that the devil does, in fact, get the best lines. The film was retitled Curse of the Demon for its North American release.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Although it is, strictly speaking, more in the science fiction genre, Quatermass and the Pit is more terrifying than many horror films. Work on an extension of the London Underground system in an area called Hobbs End is halted when workmen discover human remains that date back more than 5 million years. They also uncover part of a large metal object, which they at first believe to be an unexploded bomb; but subsequent excavations reveal it to be something far more disturbing. Soon Hobbs End is at the centre of a storm of strange events; and no one is reassured to learn that “Hob” is an old name for the Devil. The 1958 British TV serial on which the movie was based is also well worth a look.
The Fog (1980)
Director John Carpenter’s follow-up to Halloween was meant to be a classic ghost story, but the studio—alarmed by the trend towards explicit horror films inspired by Halloween’s success—insisted that the film include a fair bit of gore. Still, the movie manages to be genuinely chilling, especially in its quieter moments, when the townspeople of Antonio Bay, California realize that the terrible acts of the town’s founders a century ago are coming back to haunt them: quite literally. Watch for the pairing of real-life mother and daughter Janet “Psycho” Leigh and Jamie Lee “Halloween” Curtis. Note: avoid the 2005 remake.
Ghost Story (1981)
Peter Straub’s brilliant and sprawling novel, about a group of elderly men haunted by a brutal act they committed many years ago, was pared down on its way to the big screen; but as a movie judged on its own merits it succeeds brilliantly. A quartet of screen greats – Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman, and Melvyn Douglas—give superb performances, while then-newcomer Alice Krige shines as the enigmatic woman who ties together past and present, and seems to transcend time. Peter might not think a lot of the adaptation, as he told me one night in New York, but in my view it’s a very effective ghost story.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Horror and comedy are a hard act to balance; one of the few films that pulls it off is this one, about a pair of American students backpacking in England. Ignoring warnings from a group of locals in a Yorkshire pub, they wander on to the moor, where one of the pair is attacked and killed by a werewolf. The survivor has been bitten by the werewolf, but continues to deny what’s happening to him, even as his dead friend—in increasing states of decay—comes back to warn him of what he has become. You’ll laugh, you’ll scream, and you’ll shed a tear as things come to a head in Piccadilly Circus.
This British one-off special, hosted by a number of real TV personalities, aired on the BBC on Oct. 31, 1992. It purported to be an investigation into a suspected poltergeist haunting in North London, complete with live reports from the house and phone-in segments back in the studio, with members of the public calling in to recount their own spooky experiences. Despite the fact that the show was credited to writer Stephen Volk, tens of thousands of people believed that it was a real, live broadcast of a haunting, and the resulting controversy ensured that it has never been re-broadcast on British TV. A pity, as it’s a terrifying ghost story, with the shadowy figure of “Pipes” sure to loom large in the nightmares of anyone who watches it.