Chill factors

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996


It could be terror, horror, or just a gross-out, but movies of fear, dread, and loathesomeness have been with us for years. Audiences love to be terrified and here are the movies that do it well.

"The Phantom of the Opera" (1925), directed by Rupert Julian, features the immortal Lon Chaney as the embittered and disfigured composer living in the bowels of the opera house in Paris, a mask covering his scars. The overture begins.

"Frankenstein" (1931), directed by James Whale, is square one for monster movies, with Colin Clive as the mad doctor, Boris Karloff as his monster and the whole laboratory, wrong brain in a bottle, castle on a cliff, villagers with torches, and lightning storm extravaganza. The stage is lit.

"Dracula" (1931), directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi, introduced the evil count, his castle, his terrified minions, his befuddled nemeses and the inevitable stake. The curtain rises.

"Freaks" (1932), also directed by Tod Browning, is a genuine curiosity, a movie about circus freaks featuring actual sideshow "mistakes" of nature. Plot involves a scheming woman in the circus who makes the mistake of underestimating the freaks and their capacity for revenge. Ending is macabre.

"White Zombie" (1932), directed by Victor Halperin, has Lugosi as zombies' master on a plantation, calling up the undead to menace a young couple. Lots of atmosphere and chills on a low budget.

"The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), directed by James Whale, contains much of the campy stuff we now associate with Frankenstein movies, including the interlude with the blind hermit and lots of outraged villagers. This sequel is wittier than the original.

"The Wolf Man" (1941), directed by George Waggner, is a tad talky and literate, but it delivers the goods. Lugosi is the werewolf who bites Lon Chaney Jr. and ensures that the curse lives on.

"The Body Snatcher" (1945), directed by Robert Wise, is the first classic in the Val Lewton oeuvre of chillers. This is the story of the Victorian doctor who needs fresh corpses for experiments and must deal with a grave robber, played by Boris Karloff, to get them. Karloff, in turn, most cope with creepy Bela Lugosi.

"Dead of Night" (1945) is an episodic British horror movie that rises to greatness on the strength of a couple of episodes, especially the ventriloquist and his very strange dummy.

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1945), directed by Albert Lewin, stars Hurd Hatfield as the Victorian wastrel whose picture in a closet ages grotesquely while he remains a young and handsome-looking scoundrel. Oscar Wilde wrote the original story.

"Curse of the Demon" (1958), directed by Jacques Tourneur, a British film about an ancient curse, is frequently overlooked, but it's a small classic. The dread builds and builds until the terrifying payoff on a railroad yard.

"The Fly" (1958), directed by Kurt Neumann, puts reckless scientist David Hedison in a lab where he accidently "exchanges" atoms with a fly and gets a fly head. Somewhere (shudder) there's a fly with a human head.

William Castle's "House on Haunted Hill" (1958) has Vincent Price offering a select group a pile of dough if they stay overnight in haunted mansion. It's meant to be a bit campy, but some of the sequences are quite unsettling.

Finally in 1958, Hammer turned out the top-notch "Horror of Dracula" with studio mainstays Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the leads. This is arguably the last great Dracula movie.

Castle's "The Tingler" (1959) is now famous for its buzzer- under-the-seats and creature-loose-in-the-theater gimmicks, but it's still fun to watch on TV. Plot has coroner Vincent Price discovering lobster-like creature that grows on people's spines when they die of fright.

"The House of Usher" (1960) kicked off Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe series with flair. No one did more with crypts, torches, and Vincent Price in a jerkin than Corman.

Corman's "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961) is the second and best of his Poe adaptations. This is the artistic pinnacle of the old style Vincent Price horror movie with cobwebby castles, girls in low cut gowns running down halls, and music going ooo- eee-ooo.

Nobody realized it at the time but a little film made in Lawrence, Kansas, by Herk Harvey called "Carnival of Souls" (1962) was the prototype of a new kind of horror movie. A grainy black and white movie about a woman being shadowed by some kind of zombies, it set the stage for George Romero.

Francis Ford Coppola, directing on a budget of peanuts for Corman, managed to turn "Dementia 13" into a chilly little gem about a group of people in a castle who start turning up as axe murder victims.

"The Haunting" (1963), a haunted house movie based on a Shirley Jackson story and directed by Robert Wise, generates a tremendous amount of fright by what it suggests but doesn't show. This is as gothic as horror movies get.

"Rosemary's Baby" (1968), directed by Roman Polanski, gradually reveals that a group of endearingly nutty New Yorkers in an old apartment house is secretly a witches' coven. They want the baby that Mia Farrow is pregnant with. Excellent contrast of modern day with ancient evil.

George Romero changed all the rules in 1968 with "Night of the Living Dead," the most influential horror movie ever made. Group of people in an old Pennsylvania farmhouse are besieged by an army of flesh-eating ghouls. The terror is almost unbearable.

"The Other" (1972), from Tom Tryon's novel, is the realization on film of all those "my evil twin did it" jokes. There are these twin boys, one good and one profoundly evil...or is it the other way around?

"The Exorcist," directed by William Friedkin, had all of America talking in 1973 about satanic possession. When little girl Linda Blair is possessed, the Catholics send a special priest and a war of nerves begins. This is an emotionally exhausting movie.

"Deranged" (1974) is supposedly the most authentic depiction of the heinous crimes of serial killer Ed Gein. Roberts Blossom is eerily believable as the farmer who kills women and preserves their bodies in his basement.

"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974), directed by Tobe Hooper, has demented cannibal-yokels luring young people into their weird house, where they kill them, and more. Although disturbing and frightening, this movie is not as graphic as people who haven't seen it imagine it to be.

David Cronenberg, the "master of venereal horror," broke onto the scene with "They Came From Within" (1975). Black slug- like parasites are slithering from person to person during sexual encounters inside a yuppie apartment highrise. Ewww!

"Halloween" (1978), directed by John Carpenter, is the first and best of what was to become a flood of slasher and horny- teens-must-die movies. It seems "Michael," a psychokiller, has escaped from the asylum and returned to his hometown.

"Basket Case" (1982), directed by Frank Henenlotter, teases us playfully before it gets around to showing what, exactly, our hero is carrying around in that basket. It's his dangerously twisted mutant brother, doncha know.

"Poltergeist" (1982), directed by Tobe Hooper, has the Spielberg touch as family copes with invasion of ghosts in their suburban home. Special effects are top drawer. Interestingly, the scene that gets cut for network TV is where JoBeth Williams smokes a joint.

Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead" ((1983) is an extremely derivative gross-out movie about some teenagers in a remote cabin who begin to slaughter each other because of demonic possession. Still, those who like this kind of thing, as the saying goes, will find this the kind of thing they like.

Of the countless Stephen King horror novel adaptations, Cronenberg's "The Dead Zone" (1983) is the best. Christopher Walken is endearingly tragic as the accident victim who comes out of a coma with second sight.

"Re-Animator" (1985), directed by Stuart Gordon, brings the zombie movie close to self-parody in a yarn about mad doctor who develops serum to bring dead to life. Sequence with nude girl and lustful severed head is uproarious.

Cronenberg's remake of "The Fly" (1986) contains some bold subtexts worth looking for. It dares to suggest insectile transformation as a metaphor for both AIDS and cocaine addiction.

"Near Dark" (1987), directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is a surprisingly compelling modern-day vampire movie set in the American Southwest, where a van full of bloodsucking cowboys drives around raiding homes and bars. Cast contains several first-rate character actors.

"Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" (1990), directed by John McNaughton, is another horror movie landmark in its stark portrayal of a sick and sadistic--but highly believable--serial killer. Michael Rooker is astonishing in the lead. This movie is clearly a new prototype.

With "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), directed by Jonathan Demme, Hollywood formally staked out new territory for horror movies. The evolution has run from Frankenstein and Dracula to haunted houses to zombies and, finally, to serial killers.

"Dead Alive" (1992), a gore-spattered zombie comedy, is written and directed by New Zealand's Peter Jackson with too much flair and creativity to discount. But it is here, obviously, where the zombie movie has come to a dead end.


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