By John H. Foote
What scares you might not scare me at all. In the last 15 years, I have come face to face with what definitely scares me in life. Number one was becoming a dad. But in films, though some can work dark magic on me, rarely do I emerge from a movie truly frightened by what has transpired on the screen. Here are some films that DID scare me, but for their startling realism, nothing else.
THE MUMMY (1932) — The entire scene lasted about two minutes but seared itself into my mind when I was a child. A young man sits in an Egyptian crypt, the mummy not far from him, centuries old. The young man speaks some words from a parchment, equally old, and the mummy begins to move, coming to life in the crypt. It walks to the table where the young man is working. He sees it and screams in terror. As the mummy walks away, something snaps in the young man’s mind, repeating as he laughs maniacally, “He went for a little walk!! He’s gone for a little walk,” descending into insanity. It still scares me nearly 90 years after it was first released.
POLYTECHNIQUE (2009) — A Canadian film about the Montreal massacre of female university students in 1989. A madman walked into a school in Montreal and began shooting. Driven by a deep hatred of women, he was relentless in killing all those in his path. As the father of two daughters, one in university and the other recently graduated, I often think about this. Nothing scares me more.
JAWS (1975) — On Cocoa Beach in Florida, I walked into the Atlantic Ocean with my little girl gripping my hand. Though surrounded by other swimmers, my eyes scanned the sea for a shark’s fin speeding towards us. What was lurking beneath those waters in that vast ocean? No doubt creatures were close, but I did not see anything until my wife Sherri nearly stepped on a giant stingray buried in the sand near the shore. It had been years since Jaws first emerged, but here I was 30 years later, unnerved by being in the ocean. When I came out of the water, my wife asked me if I was cold. Though I was shaking, I was not cold. Not at all.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) — In this masterpiece, we have two serial killers, the first is in jail for his crimes, a brilliant psychiatrist known as Hannibal the Cannibal (Anthony Hopkins). He took no trophies; instead, he ingested his victims. Standard testing cannot measure his IQ, and he picks his way into the minds of those sent to talk to him, toying with them like a cat with its prey. The second and most fearsome is Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), a killer who skins young women for the flesh suit he is making to allow him his dream of being a woman. If there is a more terrifying scene than Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) seeing the photographs of the murdered women Buffalo Bill has skinned, I have not seen it. KIllers like this are real, documented by the FBI…that scares me.
KILL BILL: Vol. 2 VOLUME TWO (2004) — Tossed into a make-shift coffin and buried in a grave, Beatrice (Uma Thurman) seems doomed. I could barely watch the sequence with her in the box because I am intensely claustrophobic. It freaked me out. Sitting in my theatre seat, I was sweating uncontrollably and shaking. It was so bad a critic behind put her hand on my shoulder and asked if I was ok. I answered one word: claustrophobic. She got it. I watched as Uma broke through the wood and climbed her way to freedom out of the coffin and ground. I have seen the film a couple of times since, and I skip past this sequence, thank you very much.
SIGNS (2002)/ WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005) — Yes, I believe there are other civilizations out there in space, who have been watching us for a very long time, and long ago were frequent visitors. Seeing mankind’s destructive nature must have scared them away. However, some films have been startling in their realism of alien visitors, especially those benign who do not have an interest in destroying the human race. But those that do are many, only a couple truly great. M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) was among the most terrifying films about alien invasion I have ever seen because of the matter-of-fact delivery of the story. Quiet, near solemn, it was frightening and filmed with incredible realism. Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds was a shocking terrorism allegory and brilliant until the last 30 seconds when a character returns after throwing himself into a battle he could never have survived. The creatures rise from beneath the earth, creating a massacre, unlike anything we have ever seen in a film. They mean to wipe out the human race. In the end, water and bacteria are all the weapons they need. I hope we are visited by a friendly species because, if they are as advanced as I suspect they will be, we won’t stand a chance.
TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935) — Flying over his destination Hitler looks down on the tens of thousands of people who have gathered to hear him speak. As if descending from the heavens, the plane touches down. The god, the savior of the German people, steps off to greet his people. Like a modern-day rock star, he moves through the crowd, steps up to the microphone to speak. The camera is placed beneath him, shooting upwards to give a towering appearance as he speaks to the massive crowd. Leni Riefenstahl created a masterpiece with this propaganda film that made Hitler a cult leader to the German people. It staggers me they could not see what the rest of the world was seeing. It taught me the power of film politically and its inherent danger. One of the greatest and the single most dangerous documentaries ever made.
Of course, more frightful than any of these movies that came before would be a biography of President Donald Trump. Now that sends chills down my spine and would scare me more than any horror film ever could.
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.