Today’s edition of 5 Films That Made Me Love Horror comes courtesy of writer Derrick Ferguson,
First of all, I got to be upfront and say that for various reasons there’s several tons worth of horror movies that simply don’t scare me. One of those reasons I freely admit is downright racist because to me, most horror movies are about a buncha fool white folks putting themselves into situations they have absolutely no business putting themselves into in the first place and then have the nerve to be surprised when bad shit starts happening to them. Most horror movies only work when you start out with characters that quite frankly are too stupid to live and we watch them get offed in the grisliest manner with a gleeful, secretive nod and whisper to ourselves; “well, they had it comin’.”
Oh, I enjoy horror movies as entertainment and in fact, I’ve just come off my Annual Halloween Marathons of my #1 & #2 Favorite Horror Movie Franchises: A Nightmare on Elm Street and Phantasm and am getting ready to jump into Resident Evil before finishing up with the Hammer Frankenstein movies. So, I do love horror movies just as I love westerns, science fiction, and comedies, but when people say to me they were scared by say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Friday The 13th I go, “wait, what?”
True Story: Went with a bunch of friends to see the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre during its theatrical run and after about fifteen or twenty minutes my friends made me get up and move to another seat away from them because of my laughing. I couldn’t help it. I simply refused to accept that I was supposed to being taking this thing seriously. I honestly thought I was watching a spoof of the genre. Who knew the thing would go onto be a touchstone of the horror movie?
But that’s enough of my half-assed pontificating. You’re probably wondering why I’m here writing about horror movies when I obviously have no respect for them. Such is not the case. I respect the imagination and artistry that goes into those movies. It’s just that most of the horror movies I like are ones that I can pretty much see happening in real life. Such as:
Night of The Hunter (1955) is one of the few movies that actually affected me psychologically as a child. My mother loved horror movies and when they would come on late night Friday and Saturday night TV in the 1970s and 1980s, she would wake me up so I could come and watch with her. Now most horror movies even at an early age I could watch and it wouldn’t bother me but the blood-freezing scene with Shelly Winters in the car at the bottom of the lake caused me to avoid watching this movie for at least a decade.
Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) shares a cell with a condemned man doomed to hang (Peter Graves) In a moment of weakness the doomed man confides to Harry that he’s hidden $10,000 dollars in his house. When Harry is released, he takes the guise of a wandering preacher and makes his way to the man’s hometown. Harry quickly ingratiates himself into the community and even romances the man’s widow, Willa (Shelly Winters). Willa’s two children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) don’t trust the preacher one little inch. The children know where the money is and they’re both determined not to let the preacher get his hands on it.
John and Pearl go on the run down the river but Harry Powell relentlessly follows them, a nightmarish figure on a horse that is as patient as Death itself. The two children are eventually taken in by an old woman (Lillian Gish) whose faith in God and a loaded shotgun is unshakeable. The movie comes down to a battle in an isolated farmhouse between these avatars of Good and Evil, not just for the money but also for the souls of the children.
Part of the reason why The Night of The Hunter is so frightening to me is the way it’s filmed. This was the only movie directed by Charles Laughton and he borrowed heavily from German Expressionism to create a dream-like world. Considering that the main characters are children, it’s an appropriate way to tell the story since it can be looked on as a child’s nightmare. It’s not a realistic movie as the sets actually do look like sets and the inside of houses are stylized with strange angles. But it works. It creates its own world that you buy into because it may remind you of your own dreams.
Duel (1971) : For me, Duel is a movie that represents one of my worst nightmares. A movie like Saw doesn’t scare me at all because there is zero chance of me being forced to play some bizarre game designed and engineered by a hyper-intelligent serial killer. But there’s every chance I can innocently piss off some maniac behind the wheel of a truck and without meaning to find myself engaged in a life or death battle on a highway.
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) starts out his day peacefully enough. He’s a salesman, driving on his way to an important business meeting. In a wonderful bit of characterization, during a phone conversation with his wife (Jacqueline Scott) we learn that David actively works at avoiding confrontation, a personality trait that greatly factors into what happens to him during the course of his horrifying day.
During his drive he encounters a tanker truck driving slower than the posted speed limit. David passes the truck and thinks no more of it. But after a stop at a gas station he is passed by the same truck which gets in front of him and again slows down. David again passes the truck and the truck’s driver (who we never see) appears to take umbrage with this as he first tries to trick David into a collision with another vehicle. The truck’s driver continually ups the ante of this deadly game, chasing David down the highway, trying to push his vehicle into the path of a passing freight train. As this long day goes on, David cannot escape the fact that the driver of the truck is trying to kill him, and if David wants to survive he is going to have to stop running and confront his unseen enemy.
MIRACLE MILE (1988) is a prime example of the real deal when I talk about horror movies. Because it’s something that could actually happen and something I wonder about and ponder how I would behave if I were in that situation.
Miracle Mile begins with a sweet romance between Harry (Anthony Edwards) and Julie (Mare Winningham) who meet up at the La Brea Tar Pus Museum and fall in love at first sight. They spend the day together and make plans to have dinner and go dancing after Julie gets off work at an all-night diner. Due to a power outage, Harry oversleeps and misses the date. He races down to the diner and finds out she’s left for home. Harry goes outside the diner to use a pay phone to call her. The phone rings and Harry picks it up. What he hears changes everything as he thinks it’s a panicky message about how nuclear missiles have been launched and World War III is only 60 minutes away. Harry attempts to find out more is cut off by machine gun fire and a voice on the phone telling him to go back to sleep.
Harry returns to the diner and informs the other patrons of what he’s heard. Most of them are folks you would expect to find at a diner at 1AM and they don’t believe him. That’s until the chick at the end of the counter (Denise Crosby) who is dressed like a lawyer takes her satellite phone out of her purse, calls a few numbers, asks Harry a few questions and confirms that everybody important in Washington, DC from the President on down to the janitor who cleans the toilet at The Washington Monument is leaving town and heading for everywhere nuclear missiles can’t reach.
Everybody immediately scrambles to try to get out of Los Angeles before the missiles hit. But here’s the thing that makes Miracle Mile so brilliant: we’re never really sure if what we think is happening is really happening. Are nuclear missiles really coming to turn America into a radioactive wasteland? And does that make any difference when we’re so willing to turn on each other and become brutal, bloodthirsty monsters just to survive?
And then there are the horror movies that I love simply because of their batshit insanity:
THE BABY (1973): I am so thankful and grateful that I live in a world where movies like The Baby were once made. There is absolutely no way on God’s green Earth that The Baby could have been made today. It’s one of those movies that even while you’re watching it you honestly can’t believe what you’re watching. And I do not exaggerate, trust me. Just when you think The Baby can’t get any crazier it ups the ante and gets crazier. And the last fifteen minutes of the movie finishes up the job of blowing what few fuses are left intact in your brain.
Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer) is an earnest, well-meaning social worker who is assigned a new case involving the Wadsworth family. There’s Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman) and her two daughters: Germaine (Mariana Hill) and Alba (Suzanne Zenor). And then there’s the youngest and strangest member of the Wadsworth family. Baby (David Manzy) is a mentally impaired man in his early twenties who mind is still that of an infant and so he acts as such. The behavior is strongly reinforced by his mother and sisters who treat him as such. His mother never even bothered giving him a proper name and so everybody calls him “Baby.” He sleeps in an oversized crib and crawls around on hands and knees just like…well, just like a baby. And yeah, I know what you’re thinking: that doesn’t seem very creepy or horrific. You just go ahead and watch the movie and then try and tell me that, cousin. David Manzy is a guy who throws himself into his role so well you may end up like me, wondering exactly what he did to prepare for the role.
Ann takes a special interest in the case, thinking that if Baby has proper training and treatment in the proper facility, he can start acting older and more appropriate for his age. No, he’ll never be a “Jeopardy” contestant but at least he won’t be wearing a diaper. Seeing as how she and her daughters are getting a nice chunk of change from the state for Baby’s welfare, Mrs. Wadsworth has a solid reason for keeping Baby exactly the way he is. In addition, Alba gets her kicks from torturing her little brother with a cattle prod while Germaine likes to sneak into Baby’s giant-sized crib at night to play Doctor.
But Ann is determined to get Baby the help he needs and gradually it dawns on us that Ann is just a little too determined. It doesn’t take Mrs. Wadsworth long to pick up on the fact that Ann has her own agenda for Baby. One that doesn’t include the Wadsworths.
SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959) is even more twisted. In fact, for my money, this movie qualifies as a full-blown, all out deep fried Southern Gothic Horror Movie that should be watched every Halloween. Don’t believe me? Then what else would you call a movie whose major themes involve insanity, lobotomies, implied incest, pedophilia, cannibalism and ritual murder/sacrifice? A movie that takes place mostly in an asylum?
Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) is fed up with the poor working conditions at the state hospital and he’s ready to quit. But then a lucrative offer is dangled in front of him by the hospital’s alcoholic, sleazy administrator (Albert Dekker) This offer involves Dr. Cukrowicz meeting with the obscenely wealthy and eccentric Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn). Violet Venable will finance a brand spanking new wing of the hospital with state-of-the-art equipment if Dr. Cukrowicz will do a favor for her. Seeing as how he’s a brilliant surgeon who is considered the leading pioneer in the field of lobotomy, Violet will come across with the filthy lucre if Dr. Cukrowicz will lobotomize her niece Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor)
Quite naturally, Dr. Cukrowicz wants to know why such a radical procedure has to be done. Especially after he meets the extraordinarily beautiful Catherine. It’s his opinion that she has suffered from a severe emotional shock but she’s not lobotomy material. But it cannot be denied that Catherine’s cousin Sebastian died under highly mysterious circumstances while he and Catherine were on vacation in Europe last summer. Circumstances so frightening that Catherine suffered a nervous breakdown and has blocked the memory of what really happened.
In fact, after having some really bizarre conversations with Violet, Catherine’s mother, Grace (Mercedes McCambridge) and Catherine’s brother George (Gary Raymond) Cukrowicz discovers that they all have reasons to want Catherine to be lobotomized so that the truth about Sebastian’s death can never be known.
Dr. Cukrowicz finally decides to use a combination of truth serum and hypnosis to unlock Catherine’s suppressed memories of what happened the day Sebastian died. Cukrowicz assembles the family members in an almost Agatha Christie-like gathering where he puts together the clues he’s gotten from all of them and along with the frightening story that Catherine at last remembers and tells he is able to solve the mystery of what happened to Sebastian.
Hopefully I haven’t bored you too much with my ramblings which you shouldn’t take too seriously. Halloween is all about having good scary fun and Odin knows there’s more than enough of them out there to satisfy us all. Happy Halloween, ya’ll!
Derrick Ferguson is a writer, critic, podcaster and creator of the Pulp character Dillon. He was also one of our dear friend Glenn Walker’s favourite writers. Follow Derrick online here, learn more about him here, and discover all of his various writings here.