Today writer Jason Sechrest shares his entry for our 5 Films That Made Me Love Horror feature.
I grew up with a father who loved horror. That should probably say it all.
My parents divorced when I was 4, and throughout the 1980s I would visit my dad every other weekend. I can recall the biggest poster of Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolfman gracing the slanted ceiling of his apartment, so that when you laid down on the floor, it looked like his face was glaring down at you, bloodthirsty and savage. Old Aurora models kits of Frankenstein and the Creature from the Black Lagoon decorated the television set, next to which were piled stacks of VHS tapes, full of fright flicks recorded from television, in SP if you were lucky.
Despite all of this, by the time I was 7, I still had not adopted my father’s love of such films. I refused to watch anything scary, and I really refused to watch anything in black and white. All of that changed one October night when my father sat me down in front of a movie called Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1949).
I can remember resisting, undoubtedly screaming something like, “I don’t wanna watch this crap!” while munching on popcorn and Twizzlers. “This stupid old movie is in black and white!”
But the cartoon title sequence had me at hello. Those scared skeletons jumping out of their coffins, bones crash landing to spell out movie’s title. That’s all it took. I was hooked.
One of the first and best horror comedies, decades before Young Frankenstein (a brilliant movie in its own right), Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein remains the perfect introduction to horror, as it is an introduction to all of the genre’s most famous monsters. It is, in fact, the only Universal monster movie to bring Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man together in the same film. Even today, the humor holds up, and there’s a good handful of scary scenes too, most notably the sequence in MacDougal’s House of Horrors. It is a shame we don’t get Boris Karloff here in the title role, but Glenn Strange does a good enough job as Frankenstein’s Monster, and with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. on board, there’s little to complain about. For my money, Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein is about as close to perfection as you can get in a movie, regardless of genre.
No longer adverse to horror or black-and-white, I vividly recall flipping through cartoons one Saturday morning not long thereafter when I stumbled upon a movie called Cat People (1949). Something about Simone Simon’s portrayal of Irena was hypnotic to me as a child. Years later, viewing the movie as an adult, I think Cat People is so much more than a horror movie. It’s a commentary on what was then-modern-day schizophrenia. More specifically, it is a film about the secret duality of women; the lives they lead in public, and the lives they lead inside themselves. As children, we all lead secret lives inside ourselves, and so I was captivated. As a little boy, my heart went out to Simone Simon’s Irena so deeply, I felt she deserved all my attention that morning – much more than Garfield and Friends.
It is worth noting that the suits at RKO were extremely unhappy with the finished picture, too subtle they felt to compete with Universal’s brand of horror in the 1940’s. But audiences fell in love with Simone Simon, just like I did. Cat People was in theaters for so long that critics who had originally bashed the film were able to see it again and many rewrote their reviews with a more positive spin.
If Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein and Cat People were the pilot light that ignited my love of horror, the movie Psycho (1960) set the whole damn house on fire. Psycho was another one of those movies my father sat me down in front of, and not a minute too soon. To this day, I insist that 8 or 9 years old is about the perfect age for Psycho. If you try to show Psycho to an adult, or even a teenager, they usually have already heard too much about it. To see Psycho without knowing a single thing about the movie is to see the film as it was meant to be seen.
By my estimation, Psycho is not just the greatest horror movie of all time, but quite simply the greatest film ever made. It is a perfect movie, and no other has come close to making such a strong impact on the history of cinema. Director Alfred Hitchcock had one-upped himself into a corner after North By Northwest, a sprawling epic so huge it saw its protagonists running across the top of Mount Rushmore. The biggest question in Hollywood at that moment was: How will Alfred Hitchcock top himself this time? Like the genius he was, Hitchcock decided to go in the opposite direction. Instead of making a bigger, splashier, grander film, he made a low-budget horror movie based on a novel by Robert Bloch that was loosely inspired by the true life story of Ed Gains.
The storyline was kept so top secret that Hitchcock bought up every copy of Bloch’s novel that he could get his hands on so no one would know the ending. The trailer itself shows barely anything from the movie at all, instead opting to have Hitchcock himself take you on a hilarious tour of the set. Upon the movie’s release, posters of Hitchcock were plastered to movie theater walls warning patrons to be on time; for no one was to be permitted into the theater after the movie had begun.
Credit must also go to Bernard Hermann for his cutting score, without which much of the beauty of Psycho would be lost. I enjoy a lot of things. Writing. Reading. Spirituality. Video games. …But there are few things more fun than finding that rare someone who has never seen Psycho and knows nothing about the movie, so that you can relive the shock and awe all over again.
As the world turned a decade older in 1990, so did I. At 10 years old, I would make the leap from lover of horror movies to reader of horror fiction, all because of an author named Stephen King. My love of King, a passion which continues to grow with each book he releases to this day, began with the television miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s IT (1990). Now you’ve gotta understand, a big part of what made Stephen King’s IT so terrifying is that it was on television. When the two-part miniseries made its premiere on ABC in the Fall of 1990, it did so during prime time! Which meant kids in elementary school (like myself) had not yet gone to bed, and thus were able to witness little Georgie’s fate upon discovering Pennywise the Dancing Clown in a sewer which takes place within the movie’s first few minutes.
That scene became one of the most famous in horror history and made an indelible mark on its impressionable television audience as it was viewed in over 19 million households. The blood oozing from Georgie’s portrait later in the movie was also extremely unusual to see on TV in 1990, paving the way for TV movies and miniseries to start pushing the envelope more than they ever had before. The second half of the miniseries gets a lot of flack, and while I will admit the ending is a real clunker I always enjoyed the story line of the adults just as much as that of the kids and felt they had just as much chemistry. Of course what really makes IT work is Tim Curry, all but unrecognizable and traumatically terrifying as Pennywise. Curry would not speak to any of the children while on set, to instill a greater sense of fear into them.
Stephen King’s IT wasn’t the only adaptation of King’s work to scare audiences in 1990. If Pennywise took television by surprise, Annie Wilkes took the world by storm. In Misery (1990), after being rescued from a nearly fatal car accident, author Paul Sheldon finds himself in a remote cabin under the care of his #1 fan, Annie Wilkes – a deranged woman who intends to keep him in her possession as long as possible. Based on the novel by Stephen King, Rob Reiner directs Misery like a Hitchcockian three-act play — all suspense, right up to the movie’s end credits. In order to make Misery “the perfect thriller,” Rob Reiner watched every movie Hitchcock ever made, studying the master of suspense meticulously.
James Caan makes a perfect Paul, and Kathy Bates makes history in her Academy Award winning turn as Annie. (Fun fact: The role of Annie was desperately sought after by Mary Tyler Moore, and turned down by Bette Midler.) Stephen King was so impressed with Kathy Bates’ performance in Misery, he wrote an entire novel with her in mind as the title character: Dolores Claiborne. Bates, of course, went on to portray Delores in the 1995 adaptation of his novel.
Horror is a category that is absolutely packed with tremendously well-made films. (Okay, okay… so there’s some really bad ones, too.) It’s hard to play favourites. How can you herald Kathy Bates in Misery without praising Dee Wallace Stone in Cujo? How can you talk black-and-white horror without mentioning the genius of William Castle classics like The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill? How can you neglect the slasher films of the 80’s (Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm St.), the slow burn horror of the 70’s (Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, The Amityville Horror), or the budget defying Vincent Price and Roger Corman Poe films of the 60’s (The Pit and the Pendulum, The Fall of the House of Usher)?
Yes, it’s hard to play favourites, but when it comes to the horror movies that had the biggest impact on me, these five films – Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Cat People, Psycho, Stephen King’s IT and Misery – each carry their own unique ingredients. From laughter, scares, and social commentary to sociopaths, fanatics, real-life bullies and supernatural monsters, all of these ingredients concocted the perfect potion to keep me this boy-at-heart falling in love with horror again and again.
JASON SECHREST has been a published writer since he was 15 years old, when he began his career as a staff writer for Femme Fatales Magazine, interviewing women of the horror, science-fiction and fantasy genre. In 2016, he was hired by Stephen King’s publishers, Cemetery Dance Publications, to write the monthly column “What I Learned From Stephen King”. In it, he explores the wisdom, life lessons, and spirituality hidden within King’s many works. Sechrest is also the host of Company of The Mad: The Stand Podcast. Follow him online @jasonsechrest and visit his Patreon here.