By John H. Foote
Sure, when I was a kid, the old Universal monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Wolfman- scared the beejeezus out of me. Imagine sitting in a dark old house, my father in the middle of the couch, my brothers and I are on either side of him, a blanket around us all, close to midnight and our eyes fixed on the television.
A woman pulls the mask off a hideously deformed man playing the organ, his face first visible to us, scare one, then he turns to her, scare two, and finally the camera closes in on the creature as he turns to the woman in full. This was Phantom of the Opera (1925) the first silent film I had ever seen.
The doctor watches intently his creation. It moves. “It’s alive, it’s alive! Now I know what it to be God!’ roars Dr. Frankenstein, seeing his monster given life.
Sitting in an Egyptian tomb, a young scientist speaks aloud words from Sacred Scrolls bringing a long dead mummy back to life. We see the eyes gleam with light and the centuries old mummy moves, coming across the room to retrieve the scrolls and walks into the desert night. The young scientist’s mind cannot handle what he has seen, and he begins to laugh, babbling insanely, “He went for a little walk! He went for a little walk!” It was the single most frightening sequence in The Mummy (1932).
Most terrifying of all was Larry Talbot seeing what he dreads most, the full moon. He collapses into a chair and before our eyes, the man becomes The Wolfman, the stuff of many nightmares.
These were the Friday nights of my childhood, off to bed at seven, awakened by my Dad at 11:15 to watch Fright Night Theatre on WKBW out of Buffalo. No doubt this was the place my lifelong obsession for all things cinema was born.
As I grew I studied the history of film, the development and tried to see everything I could. Genres evolved, changed and my beloved horror films went through the greatest change. By the time I was a teenager I knew mummies coming to life, vampires walking the night and werewolves did not exist. They were borne of the supernatural tales out of Europe and early America.
In 1960 a truly terrifying monster was unleashed on unsuspecting audiences in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). This was one scary film; it still is because it is plausible. In fact it happens often, boy next door, unassuming, decent looking young guy is a serial killer! How often have we heard this on the news!
Realism scares me. Authentic portrayals of terrifying events scare the hell out of me.
Devil worship in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), demonic possession in The Exorcist (1973), a killer Great White shark feasting on bathers in Jaws (1975), a seemingly superhuman killer in Hallowe’en (1978), these are the kind of films that scare me.
And still makers upped the ante.
Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), John Doe in Seven (1995), they scare me because they are real possibilities. Brilliant monsters capable of terrible acts of violence, they are both horrifying. And never forget the infinite patience of John Doe, turning a man into an emaciated “thing” on a bed, knowing the torture he was experiencing and yet still doing it. THAT is frightening. Was Gwyneth Paltrow’s character still alive when Doe cut her head off? Imagine the mind that could do that?
Those qualities are terrifying.
Something happening to helpless children, women or the elderly scares me.
Serial killers such as Kevin in the terrifying We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) scare me because we hear of them snapping at Columbine or Parkland. They exist, they walk among us, their own parents do not suspect their madness building.
Vicious aliens (because I believe in them) scare me too, especially in Under the Skin (2015), Annihilation (2017) and A Quiet Place (2017), cause absolute raging terror within me. I believe other planets far from us are inhabited and centuries ago they were regular visitors to earth, but they stopped coming. Why? Did they see the cruel, inhuman acts man was capable of? Perhaps. If they should ever return can you imagine their intellect, having found us? Their weaponry would be terrifying.
Religion as a cult, as a theocracy both scares and worries me. The Crucible (1996) because it happened frightens me, perhaps more because it has happened since 1692 with McCarthyism in the fairies. Religion as theocracy is dangerous as history has proven, that scares me.
Most of all mankind terrifies me, so films about man’s vile behaviour to each other, will always and forever scare the hell out of me. Think of the line “terminate with extreme prejudice” to gain insight into man. Watch Schindler’s List (1993) to experience true horror. Nothing supernatural, just a deep hate driven madness causing unspeakable horror. Like a little girl in a red dress, moving through the chaos of the Jewish ghetto, later to turn up dead, on a wagon.
THAT above any type of horror film was truly terrifying.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.