It's scary-movie season and here are some recommendations. I tend to go for psychological horror—some might call it girly horror. But these are some of the scariest films because they seem fairly plausible, working from our own possible mental deficiencies. It doesn't mean men don't experience the creepy-crawlies too. They just drown them out with beer and football. But enough gender stereotyping. Here's my list.
The Innocents (1961) is an excellent adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. With a script punched up by Truman Capote, who was no stranger to creepy behavior, we get the best ambiguous ghost story committed to film. Is Deborah Kerr's governess Miss Giddens seeing actual ghosts that are haunting her young precocious charges? Or is the tremendously large and depopulated mansion they inhabit just working on her sexually repressed nerves? Capote added whispered ghostly dialog that hints at several sexual taboos. Great cameo by a spider as well.
The Haunting (1963) is another entry in the ambiguously haunted-lady genre. Masterly adapted from a Shirley Jackson novella, "The Haunting of Hill House," Director Robert Wise employs inventive camera and audio tricks to keep us unsettled. just like his group of paranormal investigators, holed up in an abandoned mansion built by a religious zealot whose madness is hinted at by the talking wallpaper, pounding hallways and breathing doors.
Maybe it's because I grew up in earthquake country, or perhaps because I saw this film on TV when I was very young, but The Haunting with its malevolent, breathing house, has always given me the heebie-jeebies. The scene where Julie Harris sits up in bed in the middle of the night wondering whose hand was clutching hers, is ingeniously low-budget and scary. It's a great horror-movie performance—right out of the book. Her character Eleanor is an annoying protagonist and Harris didn't shy from that—a brave actress who lets her fears show all over her face. Accept no substitutes.
What's more dream-like than silent film? Or nightmare-like, as in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932). Close-ups work so well when you have actors who can convey hopelessness, unspeakable hunger, and malevolence. Check out this scene. No special effects required--it's all acting and editing. And it's scary.
Night of the Living Dead - The original 1968 George A. Romero version, made for $100,000 in an abandoned farmhouse outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I saw this while babysitting in a dark split-level home in suburban Northern California. And I was scared. Oh yes.
The 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead is a better movie and excellent pointed satire of consumer culture. But Night... started the whole trend, which doesn't seem to be abating any time soon. Because it was so low-budget and couldn't show all the gore, due to censorship issues, it's more creepy than terrifying. But it'll stick to your ribs. Amazing what can be horrifically effective with a bunch of non-actors, stiffly-walking extras, a garden trowel, Bosco chocolate syrup, and several pounds of raw meat.