For the final post in my “Halloween” series; I thought that I would discuss the three movies which I think are among the scariest of all time: “The Wicker Man” (1973); “Poltergeist” (1982) and, Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, “The Shining” (1980).
Maybe I’m just getting old, but in the days before CGI, film-makers really had to work to make their movies authentically scary. You couldn’t just put an actor in front of a green screen and ask them to emote terror against some yet-to-be created monster.
Shit was real.
This was especially true for the first of my scary movie choices:
The Wicker Man (1973)
I first saw this movie when I was in college back in the late ’80’s. It was the first episode of a cult movie showcase called “Moviedrome”, hosted by film director Alex Cox, and aired late on Sunday nights on BBC2.
Starring Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland and Christopher Lee, it was a low budget B-movie with a (now defunct) X rating – meaning sex and violence. While not particularly fast moving, (or particularly graphic by today’s standards) the gradual introduction of Woodward’s police officer into the weird remote village where the action takes place, effectively dials up the spooky factor without need for elaborate visual effects.
Without giving away any of the plot, suffice to say that the dramatic finale left me sleepless for the night and a couple subsequent nights.
Nicholas Cage starred in a horrible “remake” a few years ago and I would urge you to avoid it at all costs and see the original. The bare-bones production of 1973 is by far superior and genuinely creepy.
This movie is another example of the original surpassing the remake in quality. I first saw this movie when I was a teen, I can’t remember if it was on TV or video but I do remember the bejeezus being scared out of me – mainly because there was a big tree outside of my bedroom window that reminded me of The Tree in the movie.
After discovering that their home is built upon an old Indian graveyard (naturally!), the Freeling family experience frightening paranormal activity, including the abduction of their youngest child by a demon who lives in her closet. With pools of muddied skeletons, creepy clowns and demons that emerge through the TV, (Hello, “The Ring” – been there, done that) it is absolutely terrifying. The aforementioned tree still gives me the heebee jeebies.
“Poltergeist” was remade in 2005. Maybe it’s my grown-up self speaking, but I don’t think that is as frightening as the original, despite the 21st century special effects.
In addition, the series of bizarre deaths surrounding the original cast members, lends a further level of creepy to this super-scary movie.
The Shining (1980)
As far as I’m concerned, “The Shining”, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is one of the greatest movies of all time – as well as being one of the most frightening. Unlike both “The Wicker Man” and “Poltergeist”, the very lack of visceral blood-letting (at least until the final third of the film), establishes a claustrophobic terror as you witness the descent into madness of Jack Torrance, (memorably played by the one and only Jack Nicholson).
Torrance, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duval), and their son Danny, move into The Overlook Hotel as caretakers while the resort closes for the winter. Recently fired from his teaching job for attacking a student, Torrance decides that he will start writing a book to pass the long winter months. However, the remote isolation of the hotel and its sinister past, along with writer’s block and alcoholism take their toll upon his psyche.
Young Danny, who (we are told) has “the shining” – the ability to see into the past and future – has an imaginary “friend” (Tony), who communicates through him but in a strange, lower voice. After entering the forbidden Room 237, “Tony” gradually overtakes Danny and repeats the warning of “redrum”, and the rest, as they say, is movie history…
As an exercise in film-making, “The Shining” is a masterpiece of restrained, escalating terror. The slow pacing reflects the monotony of the days and the isolation of the family,and becomes increasingly menacing as madness descends. Jack Nicholson gives one of his most memorable performances – one is hard pressed to imagine who else could have taken on the role of the psychopathic writer. The wild eyebrows and sneering drawl perfectly manifest barely contained violence.
I have watched “The Shining” many times and find it every bit as terrifying each time, even though, (or maybe, because) I know what is coming. All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but it also produced a work of intense, epic horror.