By Art Schmidt
People are funny. Different things mean different things to us all: songs, pictures, movies, books. Art. It’s all interpreted by the individual, but even more so by the place in life that the individual is in at the time the art is experienced. People cling to old songs like gold; a song from high school not only sounds good, but refreshes the happy memories associated with the song in the listener’s mind. A one-hit wonder band from the mid-eighties may have written the best song you’ve ever heard, but no one else even remembers who they were.
Fans of the original Star Wars Trilogy of the 70s were appalled when Lucas made his infamous modifications to the film, especially the scene in the Tatooine bar in Episode IV where Han Solo shoots Greedo. ‘Artistic license,’ said Lucas. ‘Blasphemy,’ the fans screamed. ‘My movie,’ Lucas retorted. ‘Our childhood!’, the fans wailed.
Halloween always brings out the focus on all things macabre, and will generate ‘Top 10’ lists as long as kids dress up as Darth Vader and adults go to costume parties as politicians (there’s a moral lesson in there somewhere, BTW. I am sure of it). Every Top 10 list is different, and that’s the way it should be. We all experience things in our own way, our own time, and through our own filters. So rather than attempt to list an absolute ‘Top’ 10, predestined for failure, I have listed my own personal favorites. Doubtless others will have vastly different opinions, and some of the things I found terrifying may have barely elicited a small gasp from others.
And that’s ok.
My personal list is not in order of preference or fondness but rather experience, from my earliest memory to the present day. Obviously, my early years contain the larger amount of my personal favorites; the younger we are the more accepting we are of the impossible and the more susceptible to suggestion, therefore media designed to have a strong emotional impact will generally be felt more so by the young. After all, you can only read a Stephen King novel for the first time, or watch Jaws without knowing what’s going to happen once.
Which of course leads me to one of the stories on most people’s lists…
The movie that changed movies, the blockbuster that defined blockbusters, the summer event movie on which the term ‘summer event movie’ was coined. When it came out it was truly a phenomenon, one most people who did not experience it can never truly appreciate. My parents were no less caught up in the feeding frenzy of the movie’s release than anyone else. At the time it was rated a solid PG (there was no PG-13), so taking elementary school children to see it was not a big deal. After all, most Disney movies of the time were rated PG, weren’t they? So along with a large contingent of my aunts and uncles, I was taken to see the movie that would strip me of all my eight-year old innocence and leave me strangely wanting more.
My mother shrugged off the initial shock of the opening scene; it was just an attention-getter, right? Then the child being eaten off of his inflatable raft started her worrying about me. When the head popped out of the boat, my mom literally threw her box of popcorn all over the row of people behind us; she apologized profusely while my dad laughed his head off. My eyes were glued to the screen, what I could see of it between my tiny fingers. By the time the ORCA launched to sea with its two unprepared passengers and doomed captain, my parents had forgotten I was there; everyone was entranced by the story. By the time the greatest and most re-used horror movie joke of all time came, (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”), the entire audience needed that release of nervous laughter.
Viewed today, Jaws is much more an adventure movie than a horror film. Contrasted against the majority of horror films, the comedy of Jaws is heart-felt and sophisticated rather than flippant; the characters are dense and alive rather than stereotypical caricatures; the story is fun and adventurous rather than weighted and dark. And for all those reasons (thank you Mr. Spielberg!) Jaws remains my earliest, most heartfelt and yes, one of my favorite ‘horror’ movies of all time.
Trilogy of Terror – Part 3 “Amelia” (Made for TV Movie)
It was a classic horror story setup: a babysitter, a dark night, a quiet house, a child in front of a television, a killer on the loose. Except, in this case, the babysitter was our next-door neighbor, the house was mine, the kid was me and the ‘killer’ was a little doll on television. My parents were out, my sister was asleep and the babysitter let me watch whatever I wanted. Which in the mid-seventies meant a horrifyingly narrow selection of channels, none of which had the potential for cable profanity or pay-per-view violence.
However, on that fateful night, as I sat in front of the television a bright-eyed eight year-old, I watched a movie that I honestly believe to this day physically altered my DNA. Trilogy of Terror was a made for television movie containing three short stories, all starring Karen Black in varying and un-related roles. The first two I can honestly say I have no memory of whatsoever. I’ve since read about them in IMDB and Wikipedia, but I can’t picture any of it in my head.
The third story, however, I remember in vivid detail.
A woman buys a gift for her boyfriend; a Zuni fetish doll with a gold chain around its neck and a warning. If the chain comes off, the doll will come to life. Of course, the chain came off, the doll came to life, and the ensuing fight for survival within the small apartment left me breathless and terrified. The angry patter of tiny feet throughout the apartment, the monster unseen by the viewer, was brilliant. I put all of my G.I. Joe action figures and army men in my closet, inside a shoebox, then put a small chair in front of my closet door, but I still didn’t sleep a wink that night. The image of Karen Black crouching down in a dark corner bearing the doll’s sharp teeth still makes me shudder.
Sure, it was kitschy. But it was also scary as hell.
The Shining (Novel & Movie)
I read my first Stephen King novel in the summer of 1979, a paperback of The Stand. It was long and brutal and opened up my adolescent mind to all sort of things I had never heard or dreamed of before. It was good, but it didn’t really scare me. There were people and events in it that were big and apocalyptic and scary, and I got all of that, but they didn’t creep me out or make me want to hide under my bed. My second King novel, Salem’s Lot, was also good but didn’t really scare me, either. Then I read Carrie, which creeped me out, and then I read The Shining, and I was blown away. The slow burn of the Jack Torrance character from out-of-work recovering alcoholic to raging failure seeking vengeance on the world is a thing of beauty and horror.
All of King’s powers as a storyteller of horror and tragedy come to bear in The Shining. The huge hotel, empty of people but full of their tragedies, claws its way out of every page, and the Torrances in the novel are among King’s more well-conceived and believable characters.
As far as the movie goes, well, I have to admit that I’m not a big Stanley Kubrick fan. I respect 2001: A Space Odyssey for its vision, but I don’t particularly care for the movie itself. A Clockwork Orange wasn’t my cup of tea, and Eyes Wide Shut made me want to shut my own. But The Shining was nearly as brilliant as the book, despite the changes to the plot and devices and the difference in feel from King’s book to Kubrick’s film. As a horror movie, it stands firmly on its own. The movie captured perfectly not only the demise of the man inside Jack Torrance but also the eerie hotel, the crazy loneliness of the long, cold winter, and the strain on the family that the hotel creates. Despite decades of stand-out horror films ever since, from Paranormal Activity to Scream, for my dollar The Shining is still among the best horror movies ever made. It’s not the best (IMO), however, as that title belongs to another film from the Seventies…
The Exorcist (Movie)
I’m not one for slasher movies, or serial killer movies, or vengeful spirit movies. The first Friday the 13th wasn’t bad, nor was the first Nightmare on Elm Street, but all that followed were tired re-treads of the same old idea: a supernatural killer that you can’t stop who wants to kill you and all of your friends. Lots of blood, lots of deaths, lots of shock. Lots of yawning, IMO.
Then there’s The Exorcist, the horrifying movie from William Friedken that set the bar, that made you think, that grabbed you by your heart and made you really, emotionally believe in Hell. Statistics (and opinions) vary, but The Exorcist was arguably the first movie after Gone with the Wind to gross over $100 million in its initial box office run, and its psychological impact is still rarely matched even in modern times. You have to experience it to believe it.
I know that for me, as a struggling young man with questions about everything, it shook my faith in my beliefs about the larger world around me. That’s the thing about well-crafted characters and dialogue; once you buy in to those people and their world, you buy into their problems and their actions, and then you are affected by what affects them, whether on the surface you find it particularly believable or not. I used to tell people, when they asked, that The Exorcist was my favorite movie of all time. After years and years of odd looks, I began replying Reservoir Dogs, The Empire Strikes Back, or, more recently, The Lord of the Rings. All three of which are in my Top 5.
But I always smile when I think of the chills I got from watching adorable little Regan MacNeil in all of her pea soup-spewing, head-spinning glory.
DOOM & DOOM 3 (Video Games)
When DOOM originally came out in the early 90s it created a sensation throughout the entire video game industry for its unprecedented software engine, evolutionary 3D rendering, and take-no-prisoners play style. It was derided by parental groups for its depiction of blood and carnage, and use of the word ‘demon’ to describe most of the player’s enemies and for the fact that you could play in the previously unheard of mode of ‘Deathmatch’, which virtually every other first-person shooter has implemented since.
Of course, all of these advances in rendering technology and gameplay chutzpah overshadowed one of DOOM’s best qualities: a game that was truly scary as hell. Forerunners in the ‘horror’ video game department were admirable, most notably the ‘Alone in the Dark’ and ‘Resident Evil’ series. But whereas Alone relied heavily on psychological horror and RE on stock horror movie themes, DOOM delivered something new.
The lighting was dark, shot through with spotlights and spinning emergency lights right out of Alien; the monsters popped up out of nowhere and chomped on your character with gleeful abandon; and nothing, I mean NOTHING compared to being extremely hurt, low on ammunition, and hiding in a dark corner with hungry alien/demons prowling around just a few feet away. Playing at night with low-lighting and headphones on, DOOM is more an experience than just a game.
A rash of copy-cats and money-making follow-ups came flowing forth, all adding their own little bits to the new genre and making advances in lighting, sound, and graphics engine technology. None could knock the original from its perch, however. Then, in 2004 the makers of DOOM came out with DOOM3, a completely re-vamped gaming engine with even scarier-looking monsters and genuine leap-out-of-your seat moments than any other game in the medium. The story was nothing special, and the game-play was not ground-breaking enough for the die-hards, but the game sure kept me jumping and looking frantically around my bedroom whenever I played it.
The Exorcist III (Movie)
Little seen, under-appreciated, and largely panned by critics and audiences who had given up after the absolutely terrible trash of The Exorcist II: The Heretic, I loved this movie. It’s doubtful that anyone else will even consider it on any Top-Anything list, but it worked for me.
It ignores the second installment of the Exorcist movies completely and places itself as a sequel to the original classic. George C. Scott plays a detective who was friends with Father Damien Karras of the original movie, and is currently investigating a series of murders in Georgetown where The Exorcist took place. The film draws from the original, having been written and directed by William Peter Blatty, author of the original Exorcist novel. Despite the studio-mandated addition of an exorcism near the end of the movie, where none existed in the screenplay or Blatty’s novel Legion on which the movie was based, and despite the complex plot of demonic revenge against both the catholic church and an abusive father, there are scenes in the film that horrify, and the reconciliation between old friends, one dead and one alive, is a satisfying end to the movie.
There are scarier movies out there, however much I loved this one, and one of the best that came out around ten years later was…
The Ring (Movie)
As previously mentioned, I don’t particularly like revenge spirit movies, but The Ring was so much more than that. It was a mystery movie as well, as the mother races against the clock to save not only herself but her son from the supernatural killer that no one can stop. Much like The Exorcist, the fact that the spirit was a little girl made it all the scarier.
The video tape within the movie is a neat twist as well, creepy on its own and adding to the subtle nuance of the movie’s overall disturbing nature. It doesn’t come right out and scare most of the time, though those moments are there, too. But the little things all add up; the short film, the father’s ranch, the fly coming out of the film, the horse’s reaction to our heroine. The movie is more disturbing than out-right scary, which just makes it all the more horrifying.
The Road (Novel)
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was unexpected recommendation from a friend, not something I knew much about or was really jazzed about reading. And it hit me square in the gut. The Pulitzer Prize winning book is a lonely, desolate tale of a nameless father and son struggling to survive in a savage, hopeless post-apocalyptic world. I identified myself so strongly with the father character that when he would make a bad decision I felt personally guilty. I saw in the son my own son, completely dependent upon his father to provide him food, shelter, and protection from the horrible people crawling the ashen landscape.
That novel stuck with me for months after I read it in a way that no book ever has. Movies are visual and visceral, images stick with us for years or even our whole lives, but books generally do not have that affect. I have always heard people talk about being ‘haunted’ by something; a movie, a book, a chance encounter. Having been a horror fan since birth, I always thought of the expression in the literal sense, and largely dismissed those notions as silly and melodramatic.
After The Road, however, I understood what that really meant.
McCarthy spun a tale at once so deceptively simple and unbelievably complex, so innocent and so wicked, so hopeless and yet so rooted in the need for hope, that it’s mesmerizing. Some parts made me physically squirm, and not in the good-to-be-scared way. Nor did I want to finish it because it was exciting or thrilling; actually, there are long portions of the novel where not much at all happens, and then when something does it’s kind of… plain. Simple, even.
When I first saw No Country for Old Men, based upon another McCarthy novel of the same name, I spent the first half of the movie trying to figure out why there wasn’t more action in it. Once I settled back to the understanding that the guns were just metaphors, and the movie itself wasn’t about money, or greed, or even good and evil, I was able to focus on the dialogue. Re-watching it, I now appreciate all of the interplay between the characters; the slow, steady, knowing march of Anton Chigur and the moral decay of western civilization that he represents; the lament of the older lawmen who just can’t understand that the people they have sworn to protect have abused that security by evolving into the very things that the lawmen held at bay. “The rising tide,” one of them called it. “The dismal tide.”
The savagery and violence of the novel The Road, when it does appear, does so in the same vein. It’s not the focus of the story, it’s just part of life, not actions but rather the consequences of actions or inactions. For good or ill, it has its place. To be fair, I have to say that my wife read The Road and she didn’t particularly care for it.
But then, she’s not a father struggling to protect his innocent child against the dismal tide.
Paranormal Activity (Movie)
I pride myself on being able to predict where movies are going, what’s going to happen to the characters, which ‘type’ of story it is and how it will end, and what details are provided that play into the movie later on. And for Paranormal Activity, this was mostly the case. The low budget and low quality of The Blair Witch Project left me wanting; wanting something better from that type of movie. I was disappointed in that effort to say the least, so when the buzz started up about Paranormal I was frankly not interested. Recent offerings in the horror genre like the Saw series, Hostel and the recent slew of vampire movies left me wondering if there was anything that would really scare me again.
I sat through the first three quarters of this movie and was only slightly impressed. It was a neat take on the haunted story, had some clever ideas, and the night-time recordings of the goings on in the couple’s bedroom was ingenious and carried a few frights with it.
However, it was the last ten minutes of the movie that landed it on my personal Top 10 list. The end of the movie kept me guessing, and when the loud footsteps climb the stairway the last time… and what follows… made me leap off of my seat for the first time in years. If you haven’t seen it, and want to be scared, you should definitely give it a try.