Movies That Scared Me for Life
In a recent issue of Scream Magazine, contributors were asked to write articles on a movie or movies that scared them for life. These were films that had made a lasting impression in the author’s minds that remain with them to this day. While I agreed with many of the films chosen for the articles, I also found myself wondering how others could have ever been considered. The interesting thing about this topic is how subjective and personal the responses can be. A film like Walt Disney’s Bambi, while considered a children’s classic by most people, could have also caused long reaching emotional trauma to someone who saw it at a particularly vulnerable period in their life. There are no right or wrong answers, only what is meaningful to the person making the selection.
I am seizing this opportunity to inject some pop culture discussion into the PCR. We have not had a top ten list in some time so I am taking this theme and modifying it into one. I invite all interested columnists and contributors of the PCR to send there own personal top ten lists in to me in care of this website. Try to have them to me by the first week in August and they will be featured in a follow up column next month.
In the meantime, and to help stimulate the creative thinking process, here is my list of the top ten movies that scared me for life. These films were all released during a four year time span from 1971-1975. I would have been between four and nine then and, with only two possible exceptions, I watched all of these films during this time or very close to it. In reverse order, here are:
The Top 10 Movies That Scared Me for Life:
10.) The Other (1972) – I remember seeing the posters for this odd little film when it was playing theatrically. I couldn’t understand everything that was going in the pictures but I did get the theme of not disclosing some underlying horrible secret and that was eerie enough for a young child. This film went to broadcast television only a year or two later and in an only mildly edited form. The Other is the story of twin brothers, the seemingly good Niles and the homicidally evil Holland (excellently portrayed by real life brothers Chris and Martin Udvanoky). Almost all of the nasty events in the film transpire in bright daylight on an otherwise idyllic looking farm, which sends a subconscious message that evil can strike anywhere. The final act twist and downbeat ending may not pack the same punch today that they did over thirty five years ago but they were shocking to me at the time.
9.) Black Christmas (1974) – I first saw Bob Clark’s Yule Tide themed slasher film a few years after it’s theatrical release on the new pay cable medium Home Box Office (HBO). This gloriously uncut version was shown under the more descriptive and less subtle title of Stranger in the House. The house in question is of the sorority variety and an escaped lunatic holds up in the attic just as the majority of the girls are leaving for Christmas vacation. The house becomes increasingly more vacant as the lucky girls leave and the unlucky ones are killed, with there absence going unnoticed. The beautiful Olivia Hussey (Juliet in the 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet) stars as the central victim who is harassed by bizarre phone calls from the maniac and may or may not have some connection to him. After some well played red herrings and an apparent wrap up, the film delivers a disturbing ending that would be copied for years to come.
8.) Don’t look in the Basement (1973) – This is a gritty tale of the lunatics taking over the asylum that leaves the viewer in desperate need of a shower long before the climax. After a brutal opening act, the film settles into mystery mode in the middle as a newly arrived nurse tries to figure out what is going on and why the doctor that hired her is nowhere to be found. As the gory set pieces return in force, everything becomes clear just before an equally violent bookend of a climax. I first caught this film on a late night and largely uncut local broadcast while out of town on a family vacation. My parents and I had returned to our hotel room and while they were getting reading for bed, I was busy stocking up on nightmare material! The grainy 16mm photography gives this film a newsreel like quality that made the grisly content seem even more real to me as a kid.
7.) Beyond the Door (1974) – The Exorcist, which we’ll talk about shortly, set box offices around the world on demonic fire in 1973, so moderately budgeted cash ins were certain to follow. Beyond the Door is really more of a Rosemary’s Baby rip off with Exorcist style manifestations, like pea soup and neck rotation, thrown in for good measure. The film is short on logic but long on satanic shenanigans and benefits significantly from Juliet Mills (Nanny from the Nanny and the Professor television series!) in the lead role. I first saw this one a few years after it’s box office run when it played on the CBS late night movie one Friday. The film was cut to shreds and this actually made it even scarier because my juvenile mind had to fill in the gaps!
6.) Gargoyles (1972) – While almost an extinct art form these days, made for TV movies were a big deal back in the 70’s since they offered viewers first run entertainment for free in the privacy of their own home. Since these films were, theoretically, appropriate for general audiences, my parents had no problem with me watching a made for TV horror movie when something similar in the theaters might be deemed inappropriate. As a result, you will find no less than three television movies on this list. Gargoyles stars Cornel Wilde (The Naked Prey) and Jennifer Salt (Sisters) as a father and daughter archeology team who stumble on the find of a lifetime. Gargoyles resembling the creatures of legend have lain dormant in remote desert caves and are now reviving with mayhem on their minds! The early scenes of an attack on an old hermit’s shack after he reveals a gargoyle skeleton to the skeptical duo sent more than one young viewer like me diving behind the couch!
5.) Jaws (1975) – This film may be a no brainer entry for this list but the position is well earned. I first saw Jaws with my parents on Saturday of the weekend that it opened and, by nothing other than coincidence, we met my grandmother in the theater parking lot going to the same showing we were. She was a woman of the old school with a bouffant hairdo that required weekly resetting each Friday at the hair salon. During the scene where Ben Gardner’s head pops out of the hole in his boat, a rather large woman in the row in front of us threw an entire tub of popcorn into the air while exclaiming “oh Lodi” at the top of her lungs. For a brief moment it appeared to be snowing in the theater as the pieces, coated in butter flavored grease, began to land everywhere, including in my grandmother’s hair that had just been redone the day before. It was at this point that I learned my grandmother had a vocabulary that extended beyond anything I had previously experienced. This moment of personal cinematic history aside, I spent most of the film with my white knuckled hands furiously clenching the armrests of my seat and thought twice about entering any body of water, including swimming pools, for months afterwards.
4.) The Return of Count Yorga (1971) – Even at the tender age of five, I was a big fan of the old Universal and similar films that would run on local horror programs. My father apparently decided that this meant I liked all horror movies, so he took me to see The Return of Count Yorga at our two screen Wometco theater on the day before I was to have my tonsils removed in the hospital. He received an education that day on the distinction I made between tame old black and white flicks on TV and big screen, full color, gore! Scenes of the Count’s vampire brides digging themselves out of their shallow graves and a family being slaughtered by them shortly thereafter did wonders for my already apprehensive state of mind! This second and final Yorga film is largely a retread of the first one but it still delivers some intense violence and a relentless downbeat ending.
3.) Trilogy of Terror (1975) – Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker) tried multiple times to get an anthology series going on television but never got beyond the pilot stages. For this attempt, he cast the wonderful Karen Black in all three vignettes but even that wasn’t enough to sell the networks on a weekly show. The first two installments of Trilogy are fairly pedestrian and unmemorable but the third, involving a foot tall Zuni fetish doll that comes to life, left more than a few couch cushions soiled on the night it was first broadcast. I managed to avoid fouling the furniture but peered out from under a blanket as this miniature monster loudly chased poor Karen around her apartment with a steak knife. The momentary lapses in horror seemed even worse because you knew another one would arrive at any moment. By the time the even freakier finale played out I knew it was going to be a sleepless night! This film has come up more than any other when the subject of movies that frightened us in our childhood has been discussed by my friends.
2.) The Exorcist (1973) – As previously mentioned, The Exorcist made a hell of an impact at the box office on it’s initial release (pun intended) and returned to theatrical play several times. I can still remember adults discussing the movie when I was a child though I had no idea what all the fuss was about. A few years later when it played uncut on good old HBO again, I quickly found out. My parents were at a Halloween party and friend of mine from down the block was spending the night. We were relatively unimpressed with the first thirty minutes or so but after the infamous crucifix scene we sat in stupefied silence for the remainder of the running time. The impact of this initial viewing stuck with me for many years but I found the edited version from broadcast television a little easier to handle. As I grew older, I began to appreciate the philosophical aspects of the story that were completely lost on me years earlier but even after repeated viewings I still get a subconscious sense of creepiness from this one. (For some more of my memories related to this film, please see: http://www.crazedfanboy.com/npcr06/mikesrantpcr310.html)
1.) Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) – Yes, the number one film on my list is the third made for TV movie as well. Thirty-six years later I still have to rate this one in the top spot even though it may seem rather tame to anyone viewing it for the first time today. A young couple moves into a house owned by the woman’s grandmother shortly after her death. The isolated old house turns out to be infested with tiny goblins that roam the walls and seem intent on not only killing the young woman but somehow turning her trapped soul into their guiding spirit. In retrospect, it isn’t the demonic whispering or shuffling shadows that ultimately cranks up the scare factor here, although they certainly keep it stoked. The characters in this well written tale all react pretty much like normal people would in this situation, at least those who weren’t well versed in horror movie logic. This causes the viewer to both care and identify with them, which makes the suspense more powerful than an entire box of cheap shocks could. By the time everyone finally gets on the program, it’s just a little too late to prevent the diminutive demons from achieving their goal. After making the mistake of viewing this once as a kid, I had no intention of catching the repeats. I finally relented and watched it again about five years later on an afternoon matinee movie at the instance of a neighborhood friend. Neither one of us would admit it since we were practically teenagers but we were both creeped out. (For a more in depth look at this film, please see: http://www.popretrorama.com/forgotten-horrors-dont-be-afraid-of-the-dark/
Well, there you have it folks, the ten movies that most scared me for life. It wasn’t easy pairing this down to a list of only ten and I have a number of honorable mentions (anyone remember Crowhaven Farm or The Norliss Tapes?) but I will save those for another time. Now it’s your turn to send in your list of films and share your scares