The ancient air of New England shifted, and the winter leggings are readied. What better time than the first week of Autumn to lay out my Top Five Horror Film Scenes? Most of my selections are from the classics–overplayed perhaps–but there are reasons why they’ve endured. I assume most of you have seen these films already, and please do chime in with your own choices (and tell us why you love them).
1.) “The Exorcist” (1973, dir. William Friedkin) – Crucifuck
When this carnage of terrifying hidden forces, spiritual redemption, and pea soup was first released not long after the Watergate Scandal, it was the first horror film many “ordinary” people had gone to see. The United States has never been a stranger to anxiety, but for various reasons William Peter Blatty’s story hit a raw nerve in our collective psyche, became a smash box office hit, and popularized the horror genre exponentially.
What makes the Crucifuck scene work for me is not the scene itself but the buildup towards it–the scene of Lieutenant Kinderman’s interview with Regan’s mother, Chris MacNeil. It’s a quiet conversation in which Kinderman is playing “good cop” to fulfill his duty as an homicide investigator whilst also being delicate with a mother agonizing over her daughter’s illness. So far he’s made useful contact with Father Karras but has turned up few details surrounding the death of Burke Dennings. The circumstantial evidence leaning toward young Regan’s value as a primary witness to Burke’s murder is plain to him. But Chris makes even more plain to Kinderman that Regan is in no condition to be interviewed until her health improves, Kinderman decently relents and attempts to diffuse her resistance with small talk. However, as Kinderman relays more details of the case, Chris grows increasingly nauseous with the realization that Regan has definitely murdered Dennings. She offers Kinderman more coffee and when he accepts gratefully, she turns to us with repressed hysteria etched on her face (“Why the hell did I offer?!?“). This is the role of her lifetime–keep cool until the cop leaves.
Once Kinderman departs and Chris MacNeil closes the door behind him, she looks like she’s about to shatter into a zillion screaming pieces. She paces towards her daughter’s room, traumatized and in shock. The demon plays on states of mind (especially dread and regret) of its nearby victims. So the best is yet to come, right then in the broad Georgetown daylight, and that’s when we all get slaughtered, and devoured. Then the real screaming begins.
“She screamed until she fainted.”
This is the final breath of free air for Regan until the ultimate martyrdom of Fathers Merrin and Karras.
2.) “Salem’s Lot” (1979, dir. Tobe Hooper) – Open the Window
I was eight years old, watching the newscaster announce the evening schedule, and qualified the premiere of “Salem’s Lot” with something to the effect of “If you think horror movies are just movies, tonight’s movie might just change your mind.” I was intrigued, hooked, and destroyed in fairly short order. Our nightmares and nocturnal fears can’t be written off so easily, especially during our pre-teen years. I still sleep with at least one ambient light on.
There are so many damn terrifying scenes in the 1979 original miniseries, but Ralphie Glick’s post-transformation window visit to his brother Danny in the middle of the night takes the prize. This sequence has no dialogue, just a subtly pulsating soundtrack and searing inevitability as the two brothers, both dressed in their PJs, reunite in the clouded darkness of Barlow’s corruption. I remember Clive Barker mentions during his introduction to a later edition of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot that the town effectively commits suicide through its own corruption. This resonates, because I don’t think Straker nor Barlow are foreign, invading forces–rather they are from and of the township, the Marsten House, latent malignancies hatched out and giving the little petty world exactly what it is asking for (and deserves). They were summoned, and one could even say they’re on a mission of mercy.
The worst part of this? The scratching. Tell me you haven’t look at your window during the nighttime, briefly registering the deep darkness beyond, and half-expected to see this vampire child slowly approach in a shroud of vapor, fixating you with the terrible hunger of its eyes, and begin scratching, summoning.
3.) “Alien” (1979, dir. Ridley Scott) – Kane’s Son
Horror most certainly affects the body, a source of semi-automated natural processes and the most penetrating anxieties. We steer these apparent accidents of organismic evolution that give rise to both miracles of imagination and ingenuity along with the lowest depths of depravity. And none of us have an great shelf life, to begin with.
This is why I love body horror the most–we can entertain the idea of fleeing some bogey or maniac chasing after us with a weapon, but how do you escape your own body when it assaults itself [and I most certainly do include the mind, which seems to be the cause of most WTF]?
“Alien” is widely considered the most successful fusion of science fiction and horror, hence its canonical longevity. In this scene, all body hell breaks loose and from there on in, Ridley Scott’s film stands on the dread-accelerator pedal. Kane is first to wake, first to volunteer, first to discover, first to die. Ash doesn’t quite know what’s coming, but we can see him quietly observing Kane, cold and “still collating” during the small talk that precedes the beginning of this extended clip (which I am seeing for the first time, myself). Parker is so elated at the prospect of returning home, he’s bullshitting with his superiors rather than grumbling at them. Lambert, who throughout the film looks like the embodiment of crestfallen defeat, cracks a little smile. Kane is even jovial despite the coma. Ripley is quite deftly understated here, virtually a non-player.
A recent book-length study of “Alien” by Roger Luckhurst reveals many valuable insights into the film’s background. The actors, with the sole exception of John Hurt as Kane, had no real idea of what was about to happen in the scene–they knew about as much as the first-time audience. The script simply states, “The alien exits from Kane.”
And blood sprays into the face of Lambert, most vulnerable, and doomed to embody the ravening anxieties of the audience, the final crew member to perish in the clutches of this “perfect organism.”
4.) “Maniac” (1980, dir. William Lustig) – A little inconvenient
Although this film may be seen as dried-up grindhouse jizz, Frank Zito (played by Joe Spinell in the role of his life) is one creepy eek-a-zoid. Not only does he embody so many of the antisocial tendencies so prevalent in this day and age (oh hai Gamergate), he’s physically massive–Patrick Bateman has nothing on Frank Zito. Written and released not long after David Berkowitz “The Son of Sam” terrorized New York City, “Maniac” is the most authentic and terrifying portrayal of derangement, eclipsed only by a certain later movie with the name “Henry” in the title.
There’s no earthly need to waste time speculating on ideology, Frank’s inner world, mommy issues, or even the gratification of watching Tom Savini blow up his own head. While that subway scene with the nurse-chase is fairly absurd, Frank’s “conversation” with his victim’s scalp at 45:15 continues to give me the willies. Death at the hands of someone like Frank Zito is considerably more than just a little inconvenient.
5.) “The Evil Dead” (1981, dir. Sam Raimi) – The whole damn film
My filter. The first and final. Seeing the first “Evil Dead” film was like hearing Slayer “Reign in Blood” for the first time. You don’t recover. If aliens land and ask to be shown the quintessential horror film, this is the one I would show them.
Even though some of violence in this film plays out like “The Three Stooges” or “The Young Ones,” the imprint is undeniable. Anything can grab out at you, anywhere at any time, and swallow your soul. These are not just ghosts when they take possession of both living and dead flesh. They level-up to shit-spewing fear of what lurks beyond every navigable corner, the damnation layers of the woods, the latent energies that still make me afraid to do laundry in my basement at night.
Sure, the franchise turned funny and goofy. There is even a highly enjoyable musical adaptation of “Evil Dead.” But I’d say this first film was the first real horror of my childhood, and remains my filter until the bitter, tormented end.
I wanted to post the final scene, when Scott suddenly rises as Ash is battling Cheryl by the fireplace, but it doesn’t seem to be currently available. So let’s work with Cheryl’s card-guessing game and sudden talents of levitation.