Friday, April 1, 2011

TEN THAT TERRIFIED ME

INSIDIOUS, a new horror film opens today and the buzz has been good. (You can check Fandango.com for listings at a theater near you.) Whenever I go to see a new scary movie I hope, first of all, that it is scary because too often they are not. And secondly, I hold out the hope that it will be something more than just a fun way to spend a couple of hours in the dark; that it will be truly special, a memorable monster movie that rattles around in my brain and my nightmares for many full moons.

Over the decades I have seen a lot of horror movies. Some good, some bad, some schlock that’s so terrible it’s good. But when I think about the best films I’ve seen in the genre, my mind readily calls up two dozen or so classics. And there are some characters in those movies that I’m still being haunted by. In a good way. Here then are the 10 characters from the world of horror films that give me the willies. And I’ll bet if you experience them, you’ll be tossing and turning in your sleep too.

10.) ANTON CHIGURH (No Country For Old Men 2007)
Can a bad haircut be terrifying? Yes, when it is so unusual and disturbing, just like everything else about this psychopathic killer, brilliantly essayed by Javier Bardem. Chigurh is an assassin with his own offbeat code. He’ll chase after a helpless naïf (Josh Brolin) who’s unwittingly run off with bad money like he’s hunting for the Holy Grail. And he’ll apply the same intense dogging of a hapless old gas station owner who’s reluctant to call a coin toss. He casually kills anything in his way in this horror western, like a cowboy Jason Voorhees. And when Chigurh shows up in a scene, chances are someone is going to die.
9.) ALEX FORREST (Fatal Attraction 1987)
She’s the other woman, the one who “wouldn’t be ignored” and boy, did she scare the bejeesus out of the male species throughout the land. Married men probably tried a little harder to be faithful to their wives after seeing what happened when Michael Douglas thought he could get away with cheating on Anne Archer with Glenn Close this seminal eighties movie. I originally saw the movie together with a married couple. The man and I were horrified throughout the entire thing. His wife just laughed. To us it was a horror movie but to her, and many other women out there, Alex Forrest was an avenging angel not about to let any bad boy get away with his sin. Not for nothing is Alex always dressed in white throughout.

8.) CESARE THE SOMNOMBULIST (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1920)
This silent film will haunt your dreams because it looks like one, with impressionistic sets and stylized landscapes and horrifically ugly denizens of a repressed society. (It was a foreshadowing of the German psyche turning to fascism, and one of the first things that Hitler did when he came into power was ban this film.) Cesare is a ghoul in a circus act, popping out of the cabinet of Dr. Caligari to predict the fate of those brave enough to ask. When he tells one man that he will die at dawn, Cesare makes sure his record is 100% accurate and strangles the man in his bed. Try sleeping after seeing that. I didn’t for weeks.
7.) DOMINIQUE BLANCHION (Sisters 1973)
In the SUPERMAN movies, Margot Kidder gave me fantasies. When I saw her in SISTERS she gave me nightmares. I told her so when she appeared at Wizard World/Chicago a year ago. She was breezy and cordial and funny, and we talked for some time.  She confessed to me that she was dating director Brian DePalma in the early seventies when he wrote SISTERS for her. She was amused that he saw her as mentally disturbed twins. When you see what she does with a cake knife in the movie, you won’t be amused. You’ll be terrified. And you may never be able to see her as Lois Lane again.
6.) JOHN DOE (Se7en 1995)
Earlier that year Kevin Spacey played Keyser Sose in THE USUAL SUSPECTS, but he was even more chilling here. As the serial killer who has it in for those guilty of the seven deadliest sins, emphasis on the word deadliest, he only shows up for the last 15 minutes of the film. But what an incredible impression he makes in that short time. Doe is a religious zealot and has created theatrical, truly out there ways of punishment for his victims. But at the end, for his final flourish, he’s an entirely in-the-box thinker.


5.) THE GUNSLINGER (Westworld 1973)
How brilliant that the robot gunslinger at the adult theme park in this movie is played by Yul Brynner, in the iconic all-black garb he wore in seminal western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960). Tourists Richard Benjamin and James Brolin enjoy winning shootouts with Yul until the theme park wiring goes haywire and the robots start fighting back. Soon the unstoppable gunslinger is stalking Benjamin through hill and high water. He’s like the Terminator in the desert, and James Cameron must’ve loved this movie to pay such homage to it a decade later.

4.) JANOS SKORZENY (The Night Stalker 1972)
All right, I’m cheating here a bit by including a TV movie, but this film is so expert at scaremongering, it easily could have been released in the theater. A vampire is loose in Las Vegas and the only person who believes it is Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) a muckraking reporter for a tabloid newspaper. Character actor Barry Atwater brilliantly portrays the vampire Skorzeny. And he’s the only vampire that has ever scared me. That’s because there is nothing sexy about him. He’s a coldblooded killer who’s even got one victim rigged to an IV in his home to serve as his own private blood bank. Team Edward doesn’t stand a chance against Team Janos.

3.) THE GREAT WHITE (Jaws 1975)
To me, my all-time favorite horror movie simply gets better and better with each viewing. Steven Spielberg couldn’t show much of his temperamental mechanical beast and it renders the tension even more palpable. Because we can’t see what is out there, the entire oceans becomes a deathtrap. JAWS is a rollercoaster ride that is terrifying and exhilarating. Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Bill Butler’s revolutionary underwater photography, John William’s pummeling score, Verna Field’s deft and witty editing – they’re all sublime. At the end, Brody implores the shark, “Smile, you sonuvabitch!” Every time I watch it, which is at least once a year, I smile too.


2.) THE ALIEN (Alien 1979)
Director Ridley Scott took a cue from the success of JAWS and teased us with only glimpses of his creature until the very end. It was all the more brilliant because what we did see was freaking weird. H. R. Giger designed the monster to look like one part Sasquatch, one part giant phallus, and one part Hoover vacuum cleaner. (What was the deal with all those hoses and wires? Some skeletal structure!) I love many things about this film including Jerry Goldsmith’s pulsating score and the claustrophobic production design. I also love the logic that the alien does not kill the ship’s cat. The orange feline is no threat, and since they are both beasts the kitty is spared. (Or perhaps the alien had read Blake Snyder’s screenplay writing book.)

1.) THE DEMON (The Exorcist 1973)
The scariest movie for a lot of people is also the scariest one I’ve ever endured. Maybe it’s because a devil’s minion is such a huge adversary. Perhaps it’s because the first hour is played realistically as Ellen Burstyn tries to figure out what’s driving the psychosis in her daughter Linda Blair. An hour in, all hell breaks loose, literally, as the demon takes full hold of the young girl and the story becomes absolutely harrowing. The violence, the obscenities, the sexual provoking…it’s hard to believe any studio greenlit such a project. But thank God they did. This is regarded by most as the best horror movie ever made. And that’s because the power of THE EXORCIST compels us!


I am sure I have left one of your favorite monsters off my list. Please share your pick (or picks) and tell us why he/she/it is the one that scared you the most. The best post will get a caricature of said beast done by yours truly. (In case you didn’t notice, all ten caricatures here were done by yours truly.)

NOTE:  I’m posting this same entry at Examiner.com, as I am now their new horror movie examiner/critic/gadabout, so I hope you will follow me there too!

8 comments:

  1. Great list and great caricatures, Jeff. But it's easy for me to think of my favorite monster who you've left off--Noah Cross, from Chinatown. He's the personification of evil, in large part because he's so utterly real. There are hundreds of people in this world just like him, who want to accumulate as much power as they can at the expense of others, and will stop anyone who gets in their way by using charm as their weapon. It is a testament to the strength of John Hustons performance that we like him so much when we first meet him, making us think at first that this sweet old man couldn't be evil.

    But of course, his crimes are possibly the most heinous I know in all film, in large part because of the way Robert McKee explains it. When he had Catherine Mulwray with his daughter, Catherine's genetic makeup is 75 percent him and 25 percent Evelyn. Should he do it again with Catherine, the makeup will be closer to 90 percent. It's obvious what he's trying to do--HE'S GOING TO CLONE HIMSELF. The moment I heard that, I felt my blood run icy cold. Why else would he want that daughter so badly?

    I think I love Noah Cross all the more lately because of Ned Beattys hysterical homage to him in Rango. He even included my favorite line, "The future, Mr. Ran go!"

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  2. Boy that Jeremy F. is smart. Absolutely love these charicatures and all the great writing here. More, please.

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  3. Good God, Jeff - your descriptions of these movies terrify me! I don't see horror movies because...they scare me. (Especially the supernatural ones like The Exorcist). So it's no shocker that I haven't seen many of these. But I love your enthusiasm for the genre. This list is very intriguing...I may have to find some courage and actually view these films! Love this post!

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  4. Thanks for your comments Jeremy, Ron, and Gillian.

    Jeremy, I agree that Noah Cross is one of the greatest "monsters" of all time in the movies. Of course CHINATOWN is not a horror movie and I was trying to keep this list to those in that genre. But you've inspired me to do another post at some point soon about the "Great Villains in Cinema", complete with caricatures since people seem to like that sort of visual interest here.

    Ron, glad you like everything here, including follower Jeremy! (Tee hee) Thanks for being such a loyal follower and fan. I like your posts and appreciate your participation.

    And Gillian, dear Gillian, you can handle some of these films. Maybe start with WESTWORLD or FATAL ATTRACTION. Perhaps you have seen them already, no? And I think you could even handle SISTERS or NO COUNTRY. THE EXORCIST or SE7EN...mmm, maybe not. (Ha!)

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  5. For me? Always has been and always will be...the original HALLOWEEN. Michael Myers. The best horror movie score ever. Very little gore.

    And the very first time I saw it, it was excruciating. It made such an impression on me, for life, because when I saw it in the theater opening night, I too was a 17-year-old high school student and babysitter. Those girls in that film were my “peers”. A terrifying, groundbreaking, yet simple film unfortunately followed by legions of bad imitations. I can’t listen to that music even now without getting the chills. Looking at it today, it does seem a bit dated, but it’s also a nostalgic return to a different time.

    And I’ll be damned if I still don’t get creeped out watching it every Halloween night, with all the lights OUT.

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  6. For some reason I remember being terrified of "Pinhead" in Wes Craven's Hellraiser series when I was a young teen. And how can you forget about Leatherface? Yikes!

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  7. Fan With No Name, you are so right about Michael Myers. Sadly, for me, after that first film, all the sequels and remakes lessened his legacy so perhaps that's why he didn't quite make my top 10. The more we saw him, the more dull he became. Like he and Jason Voorhees were competing to see who could be a duller killing machine. And then they lapsed into parody almost. Pathetic really. But based on that first one, Michael is a superb bad guy.

    Adam, Pinhead falls into the same problem for me, so maybe it's my own prejudices, but Pinhead was so frightening in the first HELLRAISER, and after that both he and the franchise became too silly to frighten. And Leatherface was extremely good in the original TEXAS CHAINSAW for sure.

    Anyone care to list their 10 for us here? I'd love that!

    Thanks again for posting, everyone. And remember, the best choice and story gets a free caricature of that villain!

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