Of all the genres designed to disturb, this one is the creepiest. What makes the films so unnerving is the normalcy of the main characters and their surroundings and how that comfort zone is turned upside down and inside out by tragedy or evil. Everybody loves the tingle when we know that a protagonist is about to turn the corner and come face to face with his or her demise, when we realize that the sicko’s phone call is “coming from inside the house,” or that maybe some unsettling event is not a dream or an aberration, but reality.
These are the ghost stories we tease each other with from the time we learn to speak and that we listen to from others, wide-eyed and cringing. The more ordinary the characters and their situation might be at the beginning, the more upending the effect when the unthinkable and unexplainable take over their lives. When a great filmmaker seizes on the opportunity to present this in the imaginative and effective ways with visual clues, suspenseful editing, and a frightening score, no member of the audience stands a chance. I often wonder if the gesture of hiding our eyes behind our hands or a pillow even was a thing before movies because it certainly is a thing now.
How many times have we said aloud – eyes covered, “Don’t go down/up/out there,” “Behind you!” or “Shut the fucking door!” More times than we care to remember, I would assume, because we never tire from being both appalled and thrilled to see someone like us in peril.
Here are but five from a genre that includes thousands of choices:
The Haunting – Robert Wise (1963)
Hill House is the mother ship of haunted houses not because of anything obvious, but because of the insidious habit it has to shift from normal to frightening in a split second. Acting giants Julie Harris and Claire Bloom perfectly register events as they are doled out to them and their small group of colleagues as they try and get to the bottom of a number of deaths that occurred in the house. As with later films like Amityville Horror and Poltergeist, the house is having none of it. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the storytelling – devoid of any slam-bang FX – that makes the film so effective. Or maybe it’s because Robert Wise worked as a film editor before he became a director and knows every trick down to the millisecond about how to get the most effect with the least effort.
Don’t Look Now – Nicolas Roeg (1974)
The loss of a child is probably the most traumatic thing that can happen to a parent and the grief can be insurmountable. Although they are slowly recovering a normal life and relationship, John and Laura (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) are both haunted by the death of their daughter by drowning. Roeg is most definitely a visual impressionist, so the choice of Venice as the primary setting for the main portion of the film throws us off-kilter enough that we, like John, believe in the flashes of a child’s red coat as it disappears around corners and behind buildings. Grief can be crippling as it blinds us from realistic possibilities and coincidences. It also narrows our focus and we become oblivious to the fact that things are not necessarily what they seem, and we forget important details, such as the police report of there being a serial killer on the loose.
The Shining – Stanley Kubrick (1980)
Although it’s based on Stephen King’s novel, the film version is very much a Kubrick manifestation. It’s hard to believe that he received a Razzie nomination for Worst Director that year considering how the film’s legacy over the years has increased as our admiration catches up with Kubrick’s vision. I know from experience that the idea of placing a wannabe writer in a mountain lodge that is inaccessible for long periods during the winter can be a blessing or a curse, and of course for King and Kubrick, the latter works like a charm. The only wrinkle in the idyllic setup is that the previous caretaker murdered his family there. Now throw in Kubrick visuals and unusual score choices, toss references (everything from Diane Arbus photos to Ed McMahon’s opening line for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show) around like confetti, and get Jack Nicholson pull out the stops on his peculiar type of madness. No wonder Shelley Duvall damn near quit acting when they were finally finished – after an entire year of principle photography.
Rosemary’s Baby – Roman Polanski (1968)
What could be more upsetting to a woman pregnant with her first child than to believe mounting evidence that her infant is the target of a witches’ coven. What poor Rosemary (Mia Farrow in what is probably her best role) doesn’t know is that is only a portion of the story. Polanski ramps up the paranoia interfering neighbors, a husband whose ambition knows no bounds, and an anagram sent from an old friend who has suddenly died. As usual, Polanski knows the limits of tolerance of his audience and proceeds to take things a step further anyway, all to the strains of Krzysztof Komeda’s sinister lullaby of a score. Of note – this film is rumored to be one of Stanley Kubrick’s favorite films.
Cat People – Jacques Tourneur (1942)
Horror Noir on steroids. I searched-out this landmark film only after watching the Paul Schrader’s reboot in the 80s and I wasn’t disappointed. The premise is simple, if a bit puritan – a woman of Balkan descent (where else?) believes she has inherited the curse of turning into a panther when crossed or sexually aroused. Sexual politics aside, the situation kind of limits the possibilities, and Irena (Simone Simon) must face them all when she is persuaded to marry in spite of the legendary curse. The film is beautifully shot in B&W, with lots of long shadows and double exposures, and is the origin of the “Lewton Bus” technique where a moment of tension is broken by a snap back to reality – in this case, a panther’s snarl turns into a bus pulling up to a stop.
If you haven’t watched some of these, it’s the season so go for it. Just don’t blame me for any spilled snacks or recurring nightmares.