Horror movies

Most horror movies are pretty horrible. Not horror-inducing, just bad.




Psychopaths prey on teenagers or unwary travelers with chainsaws, axes, long, sharp knives, or other implements guaranteed to cause pain and death. Spurting blood. Anguished screams.


No psychopath has yet equalled the remarkably non-violent and un-bloody (well, barring one notable scene) Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Terrified victims race from room to room (or tree to tree if lost in a forest). Then, just as safety is (apparently) in reach, the killer leaps out and takes a fatal swing.

Settings are as clichéd as the monsters: Houses where a murder occurred. Abandoned lunatic asylums. Foggy forests. Cemeteries. Halloween.


There aren’t many movies I can say truly scared me, but here are a few I can recommend.

THE UNINVITED (1941), starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, is a traditional haunted house story that, for all its age, uses excellent special effects to create lovely levels of creepiness to this story. Ghosts—there are two—appear unexpected and, in one case, in unexpected form. Even two big handicaps—the lack of acting skills possessed by Gail Russell, who played the young woman in peril, or the purple dialogue handed to an otherwise wonderful actress, Cornelia Otis Skinner—can mar the pleasures of this straightforward ghost story that contains, at its heart, a murder mystery.

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), starring Bruce Willis in one of his best roles, a brilliant Haley Joel Osment, and a lovely turn by Toni Collette, as Osment’s mother, bewildered about how to understand and support a son who obviously doesn’t fit in with other kids. First time I saw this, I did not see the ending coming, and I was delighted, especially when repeated viewings revealed writer-director M. Night Shyamalan played fair: The clues are all there, as are a plethora of red herrings. Creepy moments occur when least expected: Collette turns her back on her neat kitchen for a few seconds, only to turn and find ever cabinet and drawer has silently, swiftly opened. Osment goes the bathroom in the middle of the night and, as he stands before the toilet, something passes down the hallway behind him. Marvelous.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007) scared me silly first time I saw it. Oren Pelli, the writer and director, understood a critical point few writers/directors grasp and fewer put into action: Haunting terror is best evoked not in chainsaws or masked killers but by making the normal suddenly otherwise. In PARANORMAL, a door moves slightly in the middle of the night while the homeowners sleep . . . With no visible help. A Ouija board suddenly catches fire. Footsteps, outlined in powder, appear on the bedroom floor at night. Knocks and thumps abound. All of this is recorded by a video camera set up by the skeptical, but accommodating boyfriend of a woman who senses something isn’t right in their otherwise mundane townhouse. The ending is a shocker, but even so—and there’s no spoiler here—we see only the same characters we’ve been following throughout the movie.

THE INNOCENTS (1961). One slightly paranoid governess (the excellent Deborah Kerr), two bright, cheerful children, a warm and jolly housekeeper, and a huge mansion deep in the English countryside, and memories of the children’s former governess and the absent master’s valet, both now dead. Memories . . . or ghosts? The governess sees a man’s face in a window. A woman stands, very still, on a small island in the middle of the estate’s lake, watching her . . . then disappears. The children begin to behave and speak oddly, and Kerr—who played the uber-governess in THE KING AND I (1956)—grows increasingly confused and frightening. No cheerful Rodgers & Hammerstein songs to set all right in this movie. The fact that many who see this film version of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw know Kerr from KING makes her terror even more effective. Another shocker of an ending, in part because we are given is no answer to the question: Is the house haunted?

WHAT LIES BENEATH (2000). Imperfect, but the first half contains some wonderfully creepy moments created by another director (or writer; possibly both) who realized that terror lies in the familiar suddenly turning strange. Like bathrooms in which the tub fills itself with hot steamy water and words are drawn by an invisible figure on the steamy medicine chest. A front door opens by itself just as star Michelle Pfeiffer reaches for the knob. A framed photograph of her and her loving husband (Harrison Ford) keeps falling to the floor and breaking the glass; the family dog freaks out by the lake water behind the family home. Then there are the dysfunctional neighbors, one of whom disappears under mysterious circumstances. Things go a bit silly and hysterical in the last third, as if all involved in the production became impatient to get it done, but overall this is an entertaining and nicely hair-raising movie.

Ghost Movie of the Month: The Uninvited (1944)

Based on the novel, The Uninvited, by Dorothy Macardle (1942), originally entitled Uneasy Freehold

Screenplay: Frank Partos & Dodie Smith

Starring: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Gail Russell, Donald Crisp

Turner Classic Movies (now, simply, TCM) saved classic movies. The channel bought huge numbers of old films and, through their commercial-free broadcasts, introduced new generations to acting, screenplays, cinematography, directing, and music that came out of big and small studios, in the U.S. and abroad, that otherwise might have decayed within their cans in forgotten vaults.

I have long admired the moviologies made available on the TCM website. Men and women who love movies present information that enhances my own enjoyment of old favorites and new discoveries. It’s not often I take exception to the opinions shared in these, but the other day I found one.

“While it might have chilled audiences of its era,” writes Jeff Stafford, “The Uninvited is not a frightening film by contemporary standards.”


Actually, I should add a disapproving click of the tongue after rereading Stafford’s sentence. And a sneer.

Stafford is wrong. Wholly wrong. Utterly wrong.

The Uninvited is one of the most enjoyable and genuinely frightening ghost stories ever committed to film. It made me jump at least a foot when I first saw it, a number of years ago, and it still conjures pleasant frissons of creepiness when I watch it now . . . which I do, each Halloween season.

The story is simple. A brother and sister, Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald, search England for a home to share while he writes his symphony. They find a beautiful, abandoned house atop the cliffs of Cornwall’s southern shore. On impulse, they buy the house from its owner, a crusty ex-military man, Commander Beech, despite the objections of Beech’s granddaughter, Stella, who cherishes the house as the former home of her deceased mother, Mary Meredith.

The Fitzgeralds move in, and the fun begins. For viewers, anyway.

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Ghost Movie of the Month: The Innocents

The Innocents (1961)
Based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw
Screenplay: Truman Capote
Starring: Deborah Kerr

If you’re looking for the perfect babysitter ghost movie, here it is.

Actually, it’s embodiment of a babysitter’s worst nightmare. An isolated house. No power. Polite kids who periodically turn creepy. Ghostly figures. A guardian who doesn’t show up when he says he would. I was mesmerized by this atmospheric tale of child care gone terribly awry.

I was, in fact, babysitting the first time I saw this movie. I was under18—I abandoned the care of strangers’ kids after I started college at 17—and I don’t remember what poor kid had been commended to my care for that evening, but I’m quite sure I didn’t miss any moment of this movie.

In the late nineteenth century, Miss Giddens (played by the great Deborah Kerr) is hired to care for Flora (Pamela Franklin) and her brother, Miles (Martin Stephens). The mansion in which she is sent to work is a bit out of the way, a bit bleak, and inhabited only by Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper (Megs Jenkins), and one or two servants . . . and Flora, a bright, young girl. Mrs. Grose welcomes Miss Giddens warmly, and Flora seems charming, beautifully behaved, a willing student.

Miss Giddens cannot believe her good fortune.

Than, a short time later, Flora’s brother, Miles, is sent home from school for an incident of moral turpitude that is never clearly explained and which both Miss Giddens and the housekeep dismiss as a misunderstanding on the part of the school staff.

And at first this seems to be the case. Miles is as cheerful, well-behaved, and charming as his sister. The children frolic in the house and gardens, attend their lessons, and all seems well.

Of course, occasionally Miles says things that are . . . well, odd. And Miss Giddens begins to believe the siblings are engaged in a giggling, whispered conspiracy to keep secrets from their governess.

Much worse, however, is the appearance of figures who seem to come and go at will. In the garden, birds suddenly fall silent, and a man appears whom, later, when told of the incident by Miss Giddens, the housekeeper identifies as Quint, a valet now dead who was believed to have exercised a corrupting influence on Miles. Quint’s lover, Miss Jessel, dead of suicide, appears on the small island in the ornamental lake, still and observant. In fact, with one exception, these revenants are seen only from a distance. We cannot see them clearly at first, nor do we know where they will turn up next, and the uncertainty heightens the sense of foreboding.

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