All last week and concluding today, the Woot writers are each writing about the movies that scare them the most. Today on Halloween, Matthew Norman talks about five frightening flicks that managed to scare the bejesus out of him even though he's never really seen them…
(WARNING: Some of the following trailers may be slightly NSFW. Watch... but at your own risk!)
It was my first or second grade year, so I would have been somewhere between six and eight. I don’t remember my classmate’s name—Rolando? Roberto?—but I can fairly distinctly recall a couple details from his birthday party. One is that there was a piñata, something I never had at any of my birthdays, and which seems, thinking back on it now, not a good activity for the living room. If I ever find myself hosting a party where blindfolded kids are swinging a broomhandle or whatever it was—I’m going to take that outside.
The second and even more memorable event from the party was that after the games, the gifts, and the cake, we all settled in to watch Cujo (1983), Lewis Teague’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel about a rabid, killer St. Bernard. It seems like “poor choices” might actually have been the theme of this party.
I knew I was out of my depth. I told my classmate’s mom that this movie was going to be too scary for me, so she called my mom, who came to pick me up early. I waited for her by the front door, the lone fraidy-cat, while the other kids watched the opening scenes a room away. (They weren’t separated by a door or anything, so I did see Cujo get bit on the nose by that bat.)
I’m not sure where I got the gumption, little kid that I was, to pipe up and opt out of the screening. Given my strong tendency to go along with the crowd, I must have been pretty scared to ask to be excused.
What the hell, though? Cujo? For seven year olds? I mean, look at this clip, for crying out loud. (NSFW let alone appropriate for a little kid’s birthday party.)
02. Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff
Lou Costello, dopey bellboy at the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel, finds himself the primary suspect in a murder investigation, conducted in part by house dick Bud Abbott. Mix-ups! Hijinks! And not too many scares, really. It’s a comedy, after all. The characters are scared, but we aren’t supposed to be. Their yikes are our yucks. So why did this scene, a variation on Abbott & Costello’s “Changing Room” routine, terrify me so much?
Later, these bodies are moved to a card room and arranged around a table so it looks like they’re playing bridge. And you thought the dead-body-as-physical-comedy-prop originated with Weekend at Bernie’s!
For several days after seeing this movie, I hated opening my closet for fear of discovering a body inside. I had to stay in my pajamas late into those mornings, because there might have been a stiff in with my clothes. Unsurprisingly, when I would finally screw up the courage to throw open the door and check, there never was. So much for Schrödinger’s cadaver, I guess.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one unnerved by all this corpseplay. Wikipedia reports: “In Australia and New Zealand, every scene with a corpse was removed prior to distribution. The film was banned in Denmark due to the scene where corpses play cards.”
03. When A Stranger Calls
It’s only the potentest tales that make it into the canon of folk legends. This one about the babysitter and the man upstairs, whoo, man, that’s creepy!
This high-concept hair-raiser has such a simple, scary premise that just seeing an ad on television for a late-night cable airing of When a Stranger Calls was all it took to afflict me with a medium-term case of the heebie-jeebies. Thinking back on it now, it’s almost sad. I was a happy, innocent, and sheltered enough kid that it had never occurred to me to fear an intruder in my very home. Suddenly an ad comes on for When a Stranger Calls, and I’ve got a new set of nightmares. Thanks, cable television! They probably ran the ad in the middle of “Tom and Jerry” or something, too. Child abusers.
By the way, I never did watch this flick, but I just read the plot summary for When a Stranger Calls, and the rest of the movie seems like it’s probably way less harrowing than the urban legend at its core. The premise is the scary part. They shouldn’t have even made a feature film, just an ad for one.
04. Cat People
This 1982 “erotic horror” film gave me nightmares for weeks despite my only watching about 45 seconds of it. I was on a family vacation in the mid-eighties, probably in Traverse City, Michigan, though I couldn’t say for sure. The purpose of the trip was for my dad to attend some conference or other, but the big upside for me was access to the game room in our hotel.
Personal computers have improved our lives in more ways than I can probably begin to imagine, but one regrettable side effect of their ascendance has been the all but total extinction of the kind of shabby little arcade nook you used to find everywhere.
This is going to blow some of our young readers’ minds, but there was a time when people didn’t carry gaming-capable computers around in their pockets everywhere they went. If you wanted to play an arcade game, you had to go find a machine. Fortunately, they were all over. And in weird, unpredictable places, too! You never knew exactly where one might turn up. You could find a Kangaroo machine in a back corner of a barber shop, or Galaxian tucked into some alcove near the mop closet at a movie rental shop. But one place you almost could count on having video games was a hotel. No hotel worth its sanitized toilet wrappers lacked a game room. And this particular hotel’s game room was nice. By which I mean it had three or four arcade games, a pinball machine, air hockey, and a TV.
If you’ve grown up with with huge multimedia libraries of games and music and movies on tap at all times, wherever you go, always at hand, ready to sate your most fleeting appetite for the most exotic entertainments—you can’t imagine how exciting it was just to stumble onto a couple of crummy video game machines. Try to understand this: Before I saw this little arcade room off the lobby of our hotel, I was probably planning on reading a book.
Anyway, I loitered in that game room for a good long time trying to decide how best to spend the 75 cents my parents gave me to spend. Those three plays were like wishes from a genie; I was going to have to choose wisely. Meanwhile I was also trying to keep my eyes off the TV, because this older kid, whose dad was attending the same conference as mine, was watching Cat People on it. He kept trying to convince me to join him, but I gave him my Cujo answer: I don’t like scary movies, and this one looks too scary for me.
“But it’s not even really scary,” he argued. Like a schmuck, I believed him. I shuffled over behind the sofa and looked up at the screen just in time to watch Ed Begley, Jr. get his arm ripped off by a jaguar.
I couldn’t find a video clip of this scene online, by the way, so I guess the Internet isn’t quite finished cooking yet. I’d be interested to see it again now so I could compare it to the replay that ran in my head over and over and over for the rest of that vacation, especially at night while I was trying to go to sleep.
Besides that dismemberment scene, Cat People also features incest, sexually activated were-pantherism, and maybe a little bestiality, so you don’t exactly have to be L. Brent Bozell III to conclude it’s not a great movie for kids.
05. The Blair Witch Project
All the above movies frightened me in childhood, when, let’s face it, most of us scare pretty easy—and at stimuli that often seem pretty innocuous to adults. (Especially the kind of adults who would rent Cujo for their second-grader’s birthday party. Man, I still can’t believe that.) But when’s the last time a movie truly freaked you out as an adult?
I don’t mean just the kind of nervous tension you feel in the theater wondering when the bad guy’s going to pop out, or the momentary shock you get when he does. I’m talking about the kind of deeply creeped-out feeling that sticks with you after you leave the mega-cineplex, and for days or weeks afterward, making you lock the bathroom door when you shower, and undermining your comfort every time you’re home alone.
Admittedly, I don’t see many scary movies, but that basically doesn’t happen to me anymore.
I had one last good chance at it in 1999, on a car-camping trip with the girl I was still dating from college. After setting up the tent, we drove into the nearby town for food or something, and saw that The Blair Witch Project was playing. I was all for seeing it.
“Just think how scary it will be!” I said. “We’ll come out of the theater and it will be dark and we’ll have to spend the night at the campground! It will be like the total experience!” But she was not even a little bit interested in this plan, and I should probably thank her for vetoing it, because I probably would have had a fatal, anxiety-induced heart attack at some point during the night. It would have been, I think, too in tents.