Sunday, October 31, 2010

Movies That Scared Me, But Are Not Horror Films: A Sunday Halloween Journal

Halloween is a great time to re-visit and make lists of one's favorite (or scariest) horror movies of all time.  Most eveyone agrees on a handful of timeless classics, and, depending on your tolerance for gore and mayhem, a few others make the lists consistently. (Personally I can't top "Psycho," or "The Exorcist", or "Night of the Living Dead", and "Rosemary's Baby" is an all-time favorite, too.)

I generally agree with these lists, and generally can't add anything more to what true connoissuers have already said.

So I've compiled a list of movies that are not considered "horror" films, that nevertheless scared me in  different ways, often profoundly, sometimes in ways I can't explain.  I would love to hear if any readers have been terrified and shaken by mainstream films that are not in the horror genre.

Here (in no particular order) are my 6 choices.  Have fun!


If Kyle MacLachlan's discovery of a severed ear in a vacant field isn't enough to unsettle you, then what he observes while hiding within Isabella Rossellini's closet should do the trick.  Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth is pure, unredeemable evil. David Lynch unleashes an inferno of disturbing images and dangerous emotion, and plumbs the rot beneath seeming innocence.  Rarely have I been as startled and uncomfortable, even though I could not force myself to look away.


The director's characteristic generosity turns malevolent.  He confronts viewers with the stuff of his nightmares, in a world that is as alien and yet ominously familiar as the fall of Rome is to modern culture.  It's an eerie procession of images of gluttony, violence, and decadence, while haunted and haunting faces stare back at us. Fellini immerses us in a Nighttown of hermaphrodites and madmen, decapitations and pestilence, nymphomania and cannibalism.  Even the sound and music are unworldly. Truly, this is Fellini's science-fiction version of the ancient past. 


Naysayers complain that this movie is too long, especially the protracted first hour, which recreates a Russian/American Orthodox wedding and the mythical male-bonding of a deer hunt.  The film saturates us with iconic American images and overwhelming detail that, in time, we take for granted.  Then, with one cut, it all makes horrific sense; the familiarity with which the film surrounds us is yanked away, forcing us into a hell where nothing makes sense, where people that we have grown to love are pitted against each other in a  brutal contest of Russian roulette. The contrast between the safety of home and the fear of the unfamiliar touched primal fears of abandonment and death. The violence and tension of the film's second third left me as terified as anything I had ever experienced at the movies.


Robert DeNiro again. His Travis Bickle is a terrifying study of a forgotten man unhinged by loneliness.  What's most frightening here is the certainty that people like Travis walk among us every day, and we never know when the inevitable time bomb will explode.  In 1976, few of us were prepared for the power of the last ten minutes of this film; and the slow buildup to it kept us in a state of unease.  Director Martin Scorsese himself had a terrifying cameo as Travis' passenger, who cooly explained what he would do to his unfaithful wife and her lover.  "Taxi Driver" has lost none of its shock value.


My hero of European Art Film, Ingmar Bergman, often created his films to examine the human soul.  His chilling visions of existence in a universe without God reached its peak with "Cries and Whispers", which I saw as nothing short of a metaphysical horror film.  A dying woman struggles to connect with her caretakers: two sisters with troubled psyches, and a servant who has her own mysteries.  It's a thriller complete with an agonizing death, a wandering soul come back to haunt her survivors, and blood-red-soaked images of terryfying beauty.  Bergman described the soul as a moist membrane in shades of red.  Candles flicker, winds howl through the drafty corridors of a wintry estate, clocks tick, and each character tries to silence the whispers and the cries of the demons from their past.  Not meant as a casual moviegoing experience.


OK, my tongue-in-cheek selection.  It wouldn't be Halloween without a little bit of drag.  In this case, it's the singing group The Village people: Biker, Native American, Construction Worker, Soldier, Cowboy, and Cop, who gave music history such classics as "Macho Man" and that staple of high-school sporting events, "YMCA".  Here's the ill-conceived and disastrous disco-era saga of how the group was formed.  What was most frightening to me were the implications for our culture and civilization in general.  And has there ever been a more terryfying assembly of talent?  Bruce Jenner, Valerie Perrine, Steve Guttenberg, director Nancy Walker (Valerie Harper's mom in "Rhoda" and star of the Bounty Paper Towel commercials) and producer Alan Carr (infamous for the 1988 Oscar fiasco with Rob Lowe and Snow White).   Actually good for a laugh...if you can get your jaw off the floor.

Now, it's your turn! 


  1. Blue Velvet is incredible. Just saw it recently at a special screening. My God, Dennis Hopper is SCARY! I need to see more Fellini and Bergman, clearly, since these two films have been recommended to me four times this month. What makes Taxi Driver so terrifying, for that I had classmates who were inspired to shave their heads to be more like Travis Bickle. Talk about missing the point, only on a disturbing level. The Deer Hunter: perfect. As for Can't Stop the Music: "Do the shake! Do the shake! Shake your milk, shake your milkshake, do the shake!"

  2. Hi Tom,
    Absolutely loved the Deer Hunter (and I found out when we lived in Cleveland that the scenes from the wedding were actually filmed at a real church in Cleveland, no less!).
    A few movies come to mind which scared the heck out of me--both have Kevin Spacey in them. One is called "Seven" in which a man goes about murdering people one by one and listing the 7 sins of sloth, greed, etc.
    The other is called "Usual Suspects"--also very scary.
    One movie which scared me as a kid was "Billy Jack". All the movies which scared me (except the Exorcist--scariest of all time for me) had to do with man's capacity for evil and the cruelty he inflicts on others. YIKES.
    But the horror films like Dracula scare me too.

  3. It's not a horror but as a kid I was terrified of watching the Black Hole, because of the robot with a whisk attachment.