Sunday, May 8, 2011

The 10 scariest films of all time

In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I would impress you all with my knowledge of great scary films, but only as a way of offering my advice as to what you should watch to make yourself scared this Mother’s Day. Since I am an adult now, and I don’t get scared by movies (the only things that scare me now are (1) losing a limb, (2) human children, and (3) murder by enema), all of my choices are movies that I saw when I was a child. Most of these movies I haven’t seen since, so my memory of them is vague, but that’s okay, because I am trying to help you to find scary movies to watch on your own. You’re welcome, and here we go:

Number 10: Sammy Terry, the host of “Nightmare Theater,” the Friday night horror movie show on Indianapolis’s WTTV channel 4

For something like 30 years, channel 4 had this show called Nightmare Theater, in which a man appeared in weird nonsensical makeup, a cape and hood, and yellow dishwashing gloves and introduced horror films that were either in the public domain or could be obtained by the station on the cheap. His look was disconcerting, but even as a small child of five I was more befuddled than frightened by him (he sort of looked like Cthulu’s kitchen help). Moreover, he was always described on the show as a “ghoul,” and I didn’t know what a “ghoul” was. So one day I asked my mother what a ghoul was, and she explained, “A ghoul is someone who digs up dead bodies and has sex with them.”

Now I was scared of him. That is genuinely creepy. Why on earth would the independent Indianapolis station have as their host a man who digs up dead bodies and has sex with them? And exactly how did he do it? Did he dig up just any body, at any stage of decomposition? From that point on, any time I saw Sammy Terry, Ghoul, I wondered about his grave-digging and corpse copulation activities, and was genuinely terrified. They never actually showed him having sex with dead bodies, but often times horror lies in what is not seen, not what is seen.

Number 9: The episode of some show from the 1970s, I think it was “Starsky and Hutch,” in which the killer turned out to be some guy dressed as a woman.

I can’t remember all the specifics on this one, but there was something about a killer, and there was a scene toward the end of the episode where the killer is getting ready to go out, and he sits at a vanity and puts on makeup, and lipstick, and a wig. The room in which he was sitting was eerily lit, as if by candles. He was talking to himself, but I can’t remember what he was saying. I’m not even sure if it was actually “Starsky and Hutch” or not, but for some reason I’m remembering that the actor David Soul was in trouble, but maybe I’m conflating this terrifying 1970s television program with the ludicrous and decidedly unscary vampire movie, “Children of Iowa,” or something like that.

Anyway, I do remember watching this episode in the little pink dress that my mother used to make me wear. She had always wanted a girl, and was painfully disappointed by my birth. It would be a full three years before my sister was born, so I must have seen this killer-in-women’s-clothes show when I was around two or three. And because I was wearing girls’ clothes, I wondered if I, too, might one day turn out to be a killer. I am happy to report that I did not.

When I did a YouTube search for "Starsky and Hutch cross dressing," this video came up. I don't know if this is the actual episode I remember.

Number 8: The picture of Sissy Spacek covered in blood from the movie “Carrie.”

When I was very small, we had HBO, and every month they used to publish a small booklet which contained a programming guide, complete with descriptions of upcoming films, and some photos. The month before the film “Carrie” was to air, we received in the mail one such guide, featuring the aforementioned photo. Not having seen the film yet, I was filled with horrific questions. How did that blood get all over her? Did someone stab her in the head, and the blood leaked all the way down her body?

I asked my mother about it. “How did she get all that blood all over herself?” My mother just smiled, and told me to wait a month and we’d find out, together. See below.

This image, or something like it, appeared in HBO's programming guide. Way to go, HBO ("Human Body Odor").

Number 7: The scene in this movie, I think it might have been called “War of the Gargantuas,” but I’m not sure, in which a man floating out in the middle of a large body of water looks over the side of his small boat and sees a large, terrifying creature standing on the bottom of the water and reaching up his giant hand to grab the boat.

When I was a small child, there were only a few cable television stations. I think that TBS was one of them, but I might also have been watching WGN. These were called “superstations.” They used to show old movies on the weekend mornings and when my mother hadn’t come back from partying the night before I would get up, make myself some breakfast, and watch whatever happened to be on. One particular day I was watching a movie with the scene described above. Just as the hand was about to reach the boat and my anticipation had reached a painful fever pitch, the phone jangled horribly. I dropped my cereal bowl and got cereal all over the chair on which I was sitting.

On the phone was my mother, asking me to call my aunt to ask her to come and bail her out of jail (she’d forgotten my aunt’s number and she only got one phone call – I’m not sure where my Dad was). I never did find out if that fisherman got killed by that giant hand; I had to spend the next hour cleaning that chair. Mother hated it if I spilled anything, and I was such a nervous child. Oh, nevermind.

I think one of these creatures reached up out of the water and grabbed a fisherman's boat. Scary.

Number 6: The commercial for the National Enquirer tabloid, in which they suggested that Marilyn Monroe’s ghost claimed that she had been murdered.

I don’t know how many commercials the National Enquirer ever ran, but I do know that at least one of those commercials is among the most terrifying films of all time. The narrator said something about “Did Marilyn Monroe’s ghost cry murder from the grave?” and then a woman’s voice plaintively called out, “Murder!” It sounded very much like the voice that my mother used when she’d hide in my closet and cry out “Murder!” in an attempt to lull me to sleep.

This isn't the commercial I remember, but it does feature a horrible story about a mother who married her son.

Number 5: The cover of Meat Loaf’s “Bat out of Hell” album.

When I was a child, every single house I ever went to had two albums, always and without fail. The first was Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors.” The cover of that album is fairly innocuous, although I certainly don’t want to spend any time gazing at it. The second was Meat Loaf’s “Bat out of Hell.” This terrifying image of an elegantly constructed blond man straddling a motorbike with a horse head on the handlebars that is exploding out of a grave while a demonic bat watches from his perch on a gravestone was hypnotic in its terror. It was so beautiful, so amazingly rendered that I could not bring myself to look away from it, even as I filled with terrible loathing. The man that my mother claimed was my father, a motorcycle enthusiast himself, eerily resembled the man on the bike – enough so that I wondered if the artist who painted the cover, the great Richard Corben, might have used this man as a model. He was away from home enough that it was plausible. Perhaps on one of those long “road trips” he wasn’t just staying with his other family, the one he really loved, as my mother used to tell me, but he was making a living posing for Richard Corben.

When I discovered Heavy Metal magazine and Mr. Corben’s great science fictional fantasy comic “Den,” it seemed this guess might be correct. Den, too, slightly resembled my father. In fact, all of Mr. Corben’s men slightly resembled my father. Come to think of it, the women slightly resembled my mother.

And I haven’t even mentioned the terrifying spoken prologue to the song “You Took the Words Right out of My Mouth.” And I won’t, either. It’s too terrifying.

Number 4: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

When I was around three or four, my favorite television show was “Fernwood 2Night.” This syndicated show was a parody of talk shows, in particular those one might find on independent stations (like WTTV channel 4 – see above), and featured Martin Mull and Fred Willard as the hosts of a talk show in Fernwood, Ohio. The show was hilarious. Unfortunately, it aired weeknights at 11:30, which was well past my bedtime. However, I had a deal with my parents: If I fell asleep on the couch before my 8:45 bedtime, I could sleep on the couch all night. So, I would pretend to fall asleep on the couch, and they would leave me alone, and watch TV.

This plan was completely flawless, except for one notable flaw: The show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman ran at 11 pm. This program, which also took place in Fernwood, Ohio, was the show from which “Fernwood 2Night” was spun off. It was a parody of soap operas, and my mother’s favorite show. Although it was ostensibly a “comedy,” it was in fact the most horrible kind of horror, featuring as it did a man impaled on a Christmas tree (I think that character was a wife beater, and played by Martin Mull), kidnapping, and a child televangelist electrocuted when a television set fell into his bathtub. Also, one night my parents had sex on the living room floor while it was on, and I had to pretend to be asleep.

Number 3: Homebodies.

Why do the young fear the elderly? It because we see in the lines of their faces the mirror image of the decay that inevitably affects us all, despite our best efforts, the only cure for which is cold death? Could be. Or, it could be that the elderly are cold-blooded killers. That is the message of “Homebodies,” a film about elderly people whose apartment building is being seized by the government so that a private company can turn it into expensive condominiums, or something like that. The libertarian angle appealed to me, I admit, but that’s not really the point of the film.

The point of the film is that a bunch of old people go around killing normal people.

“Don’t they look like your grandparents?” my mother asked me.

“Yeah, that reminds me, you’re going to have to visit your grandparents for a couple of months this summer. Mommy and I are going to take some ‘us’ time,” my father added.

I was too sad and scared to make any reply.

“Oh, look, he likes this movie so much he can’t take his eyes off it,” my mother said.

“You like this movie, Ricky?” my father asked.

I mumbled something.

“We’ll be sure and let your grandparents know how much you love this movie, so you can watch it all summer long,” he said.

My grandparents appreciated that they had a movie to keep me occupied while they went to their nightly poker games. For myself, I was left to watch over my sister, and suffer through “Homebodies,” with its images of elderly murder, endlessly.

If you're interested, you can watch the film "Homebodies" on YouTube.

Number 2: The first ten minutes or so of the 1966 “Batman” movie, in which Batman is attacked by a shark.

Please don’t ask me to elaborate on this one. Mother loved sharks.

Number 1: The movie “Carrie.”

When I was a small child, HBO would show R-rated movies only at night:

My mother very much wanted to watch “Carrie,” but was too scared to watch it on her own, so she agreed to let me stay up and watch it with her. Actually, she forced me to stay up and watch it with her. I was four at the time, so I couldn’t resist her. She put some black cherry incense on, turned off all the lights, and we sat there together on the couch and watched the film. My mother, who had frizzy red hair, very much resembled Piper Laurie, the actress who played Carrie’s mother, and told Carrie that menstruation was god’s way of punishing her, or something. Whenever something bad would happen to the title character, my mother would laugh and laugh. Sometimes she’d say something like, “Take that, you little bitch!”

By the end of the movie, when Carrie goes crazy and starts destroying stuff, I was so scared that I wanted to go to my room, but mother wouldn’t let me. “The movie’s not over yet, and I’m not raising a quitter!” she said. Finally, mercifully, I passed out. When I awoke the next morning, I found a note taped to my forehead. Could I please take care of my sister, as my mother had gotten a call from someone and had to rush out to join him at two in the morning.

If Carrie were around today, she would probably be one of the X-Men.

These memories are what Mother’s Day is all about. I hope that you make some sweet memories yourself, today.

Carrie pic source.
War of the Gargantuas pic source.
Bat out of Hell pic source.

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