Well, 'tis the season when you can't help but ruminate on all things scary and I thought I'd look back on the things that have given me a serious case of the wiggins over the years.
The first time I remember being terrified of something was when I was about six or seven years old. It happened after a trip to the Bill Lynch traveling fair. Now, I know that carnivals can be scary just due to the genetic casualties who run and repair the Spanish Inquisition-style torture equipment that passes for amusement rides, but the source of my terror was incidental.
My Dad had won game of ring toss game and the "prize" was a green and black felt head shot of Frankenstein's monster. I tried to put on a brave face and told my Dad how "cool" I thought it was. When we got home, he put up on the wall opposite my bed.
Well, that was all well and good until the lights went out. Turns out that f#$@%^ glowed in the dark. All night I stared at that baleful visage and thought it was the face of my inevitable doom. I must have been a pretty sheltered kid since this was the first time I recall seeing something so pregnant with the insinuation of death and horror.
"Can't sleep, Frankenstein'll kill me. Can't sleep, Frankenstein'll kill me. Can't sleep, Frankenstein'll kill me."
Next day I was so tired I nearly fell forward into my Rice Krispies. My folks confronted me and I tabled my theory very calmly that the poster on my wall intended to murder me in my sleep. They took it down and put it away, much to my relief.
But this moment was watershed. My parents had done such a good job taking care of me, it was the first time I'd really felt a primal fear. It was as if I had been suddenly made aware that there were things in the world both real and imagined I'd been protected from, things that were spawned from dark, sinister and unconventional places. The thrill of terror, agonizing at the time, now seemed like a rush in afterthought. I'd survived the process and could look back on it now and feel just a tad stronger.
But fear could come out of left field, when you least expected it. Not long after I got cold-cocked on, of all things, a sunny Saturday afternoon. The first of my assailants was, believe it or not, the classic Star Trek episode "The Corbomite Maneuver". I don't know how many of you Kind Readers out there remember this one so here's a quick summary:
The U.S.S. Enterprise comes across a scout ship in deep space, which looks like a glowing version of those hydrogen molecule models that you used to see in school. Of course, Kirk goes all aggro on the thing and phasers it into oblivion. Well, things go from bad to worse when the mother ship shows up, which resembles a ginormous soccer ball with a bunch of Christmas lights stuck on it. I, like many other impressionable viewers, watched in rapt fascination as the pilot of this mammoth vessel opened up a ship-to-ship conference call with the Enterprise and this is what we saw on the view screen:
Some fuse in my brain burned out when they revealed this thing for the first time. All I could think was "RED ALERT! RED ALERT! FIRE ALL PHASERS! DAMN THE PHOTON TORPEDOES! KILL IT!!! KILL IT!!!"
Well, as it turns out, the alien pilot (named Balok, which was creepy enough in it's own right) is merely a more-intimidating stand in for Ron Howard's freaky older brother Clint:
Y'know how kids usually grow out of their awkward phases? Well, poor Clint didn't. He's known, along with folks like Michael Berryman, as one of the more unconventional-looking character actors out there right now.
It's pretty sad when Ron Howard is considered the cute one of the family:
Anyway, when I first saw Balok's true appearance it kinda freaked me out even more. "Bring back the scary dummy!" I yelled at the screen. "At least I knew he wasn't real!"
As if my jangled nerved hadn't been through enough that day, the T.V. station I'd been watching decided to segue from the world's scariest Star Trek episode into the world scariest movie. And what was the title of this magnum opus of fear?
Okay, so, in the immortal words of a certain habitually howling SCTV character: "Even Count Floyd wasn't scared of that and I get scared real easy!"
By the way, do ya like the groovy theme song there at the end? Well, here's the extended dance mix version. See how far you can get through it before you lose control of your bodily functions...
♫♪"Is it just something in your head? You'll believe it when you're DEAD! Green Sl-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-me!!!"♪♫
All I can say is...Wow. Y'know, I always thought that the Saw movies might benefit from a country and western theme song...
John Kramer was a civil engineer
Who built a place where addicts had no fear.
One bumped his wife with a door one day
So their baby went away
That's why John Kramer became Jigsaw so they say! Yee-HAW!!!
Okay, so in retrospect, The Green Slime certainly looks more goofy then scary, but in the mind of a six or seven year old kid it was pretty intense. In fact, there's a scene where an astronaut goes into a confined space by himself to look for the Green Slime and gets all f#$@%^ up just like Tom Skerritt did in Alien. To this day I'm convinced that Ridley Scott saw this piece of poo and said: "Yknow if I replace the goofy, tentacled one-eyed blobs with something designed by a borderline insane Swiss surreal artist I'm pretty sure I can scare the piss out of people."
After this one-two punch of unmitigated terror, I was shaken up at first, but ultimately left exhilarated, like someone proud to have survived the roller coaster at Crystal Palace in Moncton. In light of the scarcity of home video availability at the time and my complete and utter chicken-shittery over being caught sneaking into "R"-rated movies, I trained myself the only way I could: though monster movie books.
One by one I digested such illuminating titles as Horrors: A History of Horror Movies, The Encyclopedia of Horror, and Everything You Wanted To Know About Monsters (But You Were Afraid To Ask!). A series of library staples particularly near and dear to my heart were the Crestwood House Monster Series, collected here in this awesome photo:
So, by the time I was eleven or twelve, I knew the real names of horror icons Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff (Bela Blasko and William Henry Pratt respectively), the best method to destroy the vegetable-alien in the original The Thing From Another World (you cook it!) and the pains that Lon Chaney went through to realize his startling makeup as The Phantom of the Opera.
At around the same time an affiliate television channel WLBZ out of Bangor, Maine started a "Midnight Monster Madness"-type show on Saturday night called Weird. It was through this show that I finally managed to see all the classic Universal monster movies like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Mummy.
More television fare continued to toughen me up. The 1982 T.V. movie The Fall of the House of Usher staring Ray Walston and Martin Landau scared the fertilizer our of me. This effect was further compounded when I manged to negotiate the ability to stay up late one night to watch a heavily-edited version of Alien on ABC. Even with half the scenes chopped out and the film barely making any linear sense, it still gave me friggin' nightmares.
Feeling as if I'd been suitably toughened up, I now felt ready to venture back into the terror dome. Still "bustable" if I went into a video store to rent horror movies I had to wait until one of the pay cable movie networks like "First Choice" decided to have a free trial weekend on Halloween. In the Fall of 1982 I got my grim wish. My folks went out for the night and I settled in for a long marathon of good-old fashioned, unedited, no-hold's barred frights.
And soon discovered that I was in w-a-a-a-a-a-y over my head.
First up was George A. Romero's original Night of the Living Dead. As the eerie music cued up and the stark black and white scenes established a grim and austere mood I thought: "Cool! It's just like the old 'Universal' monster movies! This is gonna be neat!"
For the record, of all the colorful adjectives you can apply to Night of the Living Dead, 'neat' is not one of them.
The film began with Barbra and Johnny, two bickering siblings, who have come to a spooky graveyard to pay respects to their dear, departed mother. All of a sudden, the two are attacked by a lanky, ghoulish fiend who kills Johnny and then chases after Barbra. She barely manages to make it to old abandoned farmhouse and barricades the door. She then ventures upstairs and, to her horror and mine, finds a half-eaten corpse, which the film-makers helpfully show us in wince-inducing close up.
More survivors appear. They barricade the house for a brief moment of respite, find a television set and this is what they see:
'Whoa!' I thought to myself. 'Dead bodies are coming back to life with a taste for human flesh? Even a resurrected loved one will want to nibble on your elbows? And you have to shoot them in the friggin' head to kill them? Man, this is gonna get a lot worse before it gets better..."
And boy, did it ever. Much worse. When a plan to get gas into an abandoned truck goes horribly amiss and a pair of the characters die in the resulting explosion, the zombies rip into the vehicle and partake in a little, shall we say, human fricassee.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. A terrible thought dawned on me: 'Oh my god, the guy who made this movie is obviously insane. He's actually showing these zombies...*URK!*...eating people!'
I was horrified. If Romero was willing to flat-out break the taboo of cannibalism on screen, what the hell else was he willing to subject us to over the next forty minutes?
And Romero, the mad genius that he is, actually trumped himself not once, but twice more in Night of the Living Dead. I'd already been slapped in the face by the movie. But when the sick little girl dies, then gets back up and kills her own mother with a garden trowel, I felt like I'd been thrown down a flight of stairs. Then, as if my wits hadn't been abused enough, Romero throws on a brutal shock ending that is, in essence, the equivalent of someone in jackboots coming down to the foot of those steps and kicking me in the gourd.
I had no idea cinema could be that nihilistic, that devoid of scruples and so cruelly terrifying. Unlike the reasonably innocent frights provided by the monster movies from the 30's and 40's, Night of the Living Dead was refusing to play nice.
I fought the temptation to whimper and shut off the T.V., but up next was Poltergeist. I decided to stick it out since I'd heard good things.
'Okay," I thought to myself, 'I can handle this. It's just a PG-rated Steven Spielberg movie. Probably like a horror film with training wheels.'
Well, for the first third of the film, I was right. I was lulled into a false sense of security with the ample humor and familiar scenes of Spielbergian-flavored suburban bliss. In fact, for quite some time, it played out like the evil twin of E.T. which had come out earlier that same year.
But then when you least expect it, Poltergeist takes off the kid gloves and starts hammering you with loads of eerie lore, ghostly manifestations, and EEK!-worthy scenes with the inherently creepy Zelda Rubinstein.
And then this happened:
"No fair!" I yelled at the screen. "You can't show maggots and some dude ripping off his friggin' face in a movie rated PG! You just can't!"
Next up was the remake of Cat People, but I was too far gone. In retrospect, that's kind of a shame since Nastassia Kinski spends huge tracts of time strolling around in the film sans clothing. Idiot.
So, I shut off the T.V. and then proceeded to turn on every light in the house.
It was obvious at that point in time that I still had a long way to go before I could call myself a horror movie maven. I also knew there would be sterner tests to come, but also more rewarding chills.
But that is a tale for another Halloween!
Have a good BOO!-Day and stay safe, peoples!
FAIL: Maybe I shoulda started here: http://www.esquire.com/the-side/feature/top-ten-horror-movies-list-102809