In the Dark | Oct. 6

Growing up, we were never allowed to watch The Brady Bunch. My mom had no patience for any kind of sappiness or “cheese,” and she surely wasn’t going to have her children being corrupted by the sentimental lessons learned by those upper-middle-class, suburban kids.

I was, however, permitted to view just about any scary movie I pleased, and horror films of any type were welcome on our TV at any time. Just no Bradys.

So, I’ve had all the slashers, apparitions, man-eating animals, psychotics, Martians and giant ants I could ever long for in my four-plus decades on this planet, and, at times, it seems I’ve watched everything there is to see in the genre. However, through perusing the cobweb-covered shelves of Mom-and-Pop video stores, searching the bowels of Netflix, and picking the brains of my friends and family, I’ve come to realize that there are still plenty of motion pictures out there just waiting to try and send a chill or three down my spine.

This month, I’ll review different scary flicks, focusing on ones that have somehow remained below my radar up to this point and about which I knew virtually nothing until viewing them… titles that I’ve been “in the dark” about. I’ll write a brief reaction to each, as well as rate it based on the five criteria that I deem most essential for a good scary movie. I’ll use a “zero-worst to 10-best” scale in the categories of:

Sophistication/intellect of story (The Brains)
Does the plot leave my teeth chattering and my brain working simultaneously, or does it have more holes than Charlie Brown’s Halloween costume? I’ll give high points for those that actually make me use my head a bit, and I’ll score low the letdowns that Elvira should be mocking– always mindful that good camp certainly has a place in horror.

Overall creepiness/fright factor (The Guts)
Face it– when people ask you if a particular horror film is a good one, they want to know if it’s scary. Some movies bore me to an early bedtime, but a few are so disturbing they tempt me to reach for the remote to kill the TV. Most though, it seems, fall somewhere between the two extremes. I’m looking for either those understated films that really creep me out or the bolder works that scare the pants off me.

Effectiveness of art direction to establish mood (The Skin)
Sometimes minimal (or seemingly minimal) art direction makes for a more chilling picture, whereas other films require computer graphics, make-up galore and otherwordly sets in order to work. I’ll grade them based on how well they use or don’t use the visual tools available to them.

Revelation of supernatural presence (The Spirit)
One of my least favorite things about a not-so-scary movie is when the monster is revealed too early on, or the secrets behind the spookiness are uncovered too soon, ruining whatever mystery had been created. There’s a handful of terrific films that do indeed offer a rather early revelation of the ghost, creature, mad man or alien invader, but nonetheless still captivate until the closing credits.

Casting and actors’ performances (The Flesh)
Just as a movie is often scarier when filmed in unfamiliar locations, oftentimes it’s also better with less experienced or unknown cast members. Then again, certain horror movies need a strong, movie-star lead that we can root for, and still others are masterpieces of stunt casting– giving us the chance to savor the spectacle of a particular celebrity’s being eaten alive or chopped to bits. Either way, casting the right people is crucial to the success of a real chiller.

I hope I get a kick out of watching them, and I hope your reading about them is a real scream.

Okay, here’s my first stab at it:

Hour of the Wolf (1968, dir. by Ingmar Bergman)

Although it’s unlikely a movie that would be a blockbuster in today’s multiplexes, Bergman’s only Gothic-horror piece is ahead of its time in that it’s presented as a pseudo-documentary about the disappearance of an artist, Johan (Max von Sydow). It opens with his wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) detailing the events leading up to his vanishing as she speaks to the camera.

She explains that Johan has been haunted by “demons” which prevent him from sleeping. Alma had been staying up at night with him, especially during the so-called “hour of the wolf,” when many people either die or are born. It becomes apparent that Johan’s sanity may be questionable, although Alma herself admits to having seen the figures that have been troubling her husband. She ponders whether her love had been too strong or whether it had been solid enough to have helped him.

Supposedly, Bergman had suffered a nervous breakdown while writing the story, which, of course, lends the film some creepiness. But, despite some gore (and some surprising nudity– remember, although it’s from the late ‘60s, it’s still a Swedish film) those looking for a real terror-fest may be a bit disappointed; it’s definitely more of a thinking person’s spooky movie.

Sophistication/intellect of story– 8
Overall creepiness/fright factor– 6.5
Effectiveness of art direction to establish mood– 8
Revelation of supernatural presence– 8
Casting and actors’ performances– 9
Overall Score– 7.9 out of a possible 10

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