The scariest part of a zombie movie is not when the audience sees a person eaten by a horde of the undead, but when the horde remains hidden until that very first glimpse. You know they’re coming. You know they will consume anyone in their path. The terror-inducing shivers felt hearing but not seeing an eater is enough to drive anyone to want to sport a chin guard in a padded room.
I tend to dedicate Monday Mayhem to all that is zombie. Today, I’d like to try something different. Today, let’s delve into what makes horror movies scary. In particular, let’s look at three movies that leave me lying in bed staring at the dark ceiling wondering if anything lives in my closet.
Alien—In 1979, when I was barely in my teens, director Ridley Scott presented his version of what an alien should look like. At the time, the trailers featuring an egg as the catalyst for a possible invasion drew critical acclaim. What audiences didn’t know is the flick is actually a horror movie dressed in sci-fi clothing. “In space no one can hear you scream” became the tagline for this original motion picture. When I first saw this movie, I couldn’t help notice how subsequent sightings of the creature throughout the film turned more graphic with every scene. It created an uneasiness I hadn’t ever experienced. It wasn’t until days later that I had appreciated how not seeing the alien terrified me more than if it had appeared earlier in the story.
The Exorcist—I had written about this 1973 film in my October tribute to Horror for my Women Who Wow Wednesday series. Directed by William Friedkin and starring Linda Blair as the child possessed, the big screen adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel went on to become one of the most successful horror movies of all time. How did it do this? We never see the real culprit at work. We see the effects and the aftermath of what happened. But why or by whom remains a mystery. What’s more? The progressive escalation of events increases the tension further by leaving the audience wondering what is causing the terror. I saw this movie in my teens when my parents went visiting relatives. I had nightmares for a week. Now, that’s a good horror flick.
The Shining—Can anyone deny the phrase, “Redrum. Redrum. REDRUM!” chills the bones? This 1980 Stephen King vehicle starring Jack Nicholson as a writer wanting a quiet place to work, showcases classic scenes one would come to expect in a horror picture. As with Alien and The Exorcist, The Shining also highlights an effective acceleration of plot points to a heart-stopping climax. Making this Stanley Kubrick film unique, the individual scenes watched as individual units confuses, if at best, mesmerizes. As a whole though, every scene builds on the last, layering an intricate design of terror, which, by all accounts, gives the viewer an immersive experience in regards to the events surrounding this foreboding tale of murder and supernatural bedlam.
Overall, the movies Alien, The Exorcist and The Shining underscore what true horror is all about. Not so much what you see, but what you don’t see that makes things scary.
I’m not going to lie. The Exorcist is a disturbing film. The mood, the images, the scenes—they all convey a sinister quality that few films, if any for that era, possessed. It doesn’t help knowing that nine people associated with the project died prior to release. This includes actors Jack MacGowran (Burke) and Vasiliki Maliaros (the priest’s mother) whose scripted characters coincidentally also died in the movie.
I can hear the question already. Whom have I chosen from The Exorcist to be part of my Women Who Wow Wednesday series for my month-long salute to Horror?
Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress with a teenaged daughter who goes by the name of Regan (Linda Blair). Chris’s marriage is nonexistent. When that man forgets his daughter’s birthday, she looses it, cursing and swearing, taking God’s name in vain. Some have attributed her blasphemous nature to what happens later in the film.
But Chris is a mom first, actress second. Regan is her whole life. Whoever or whatever interferes with her daughter’s life would have to deal with her. She’s the all-encompassing protector who will sacrifice anything for her daughter’s survival.
One night Chris hears noises coming from the attic. The next day she refers the matter to her butler stating clearly, she thought she had heard rats. The butler dismisses her claim, yet she’s adamant he check the attic and set traps.
This is where I have to stop. If you haven’t seen The Exorcist, I suggest you skip to the last paragraph because I’m going to reveal a few plot points that may ruin your enjoyment of the film.
Okay. We’re safe.
Director William Friedkin planted a few specific clues in the movie to foreshadow a number of events. As I’d mentioned, Chris blasphemes God’s name, lending credence to the fact that she’s opening the door for demons to invade her home. As the movie continues forward, Chris finds that Regan’s been playing with an Ouija board, talking with an entity called Captain Howdy. We later find out Captain Howdy is more than who he says he is. During the bedroom scene where Chris tucks Regan into bed, Regan licks her lips a number of times in an obvious fashion. This is not important until we see what Regan looks like in later scenes.
Continuing with the story, early one morning before sunrise, Chris gets a call to show up on set. She finds Regan had slept with her all night claiming her bed was shaking. At that very moment, a noise once again emanates from the attic. Without thought, Chris heads to the source. She lowers the steps, flips the lights, but the lights don’t work. The lights have been flickering on and off for a while that week. It doesn’t bother her. She climbs the stairs into the attic and the noise gets louder. By candlelight she moves from one section to another noticing the rat traps empty. No rats. That’s when her candlestick bursts into a flame and her butler appears at the top of the stairs. See, he says, no rats. At the same time, Friedkin shows the audience his first shot of Regan possessed; suggesting hadn’t Chris gone to the attic she wouldn’t have released whatever was up there to take over her daughter. But in this instance, whatever was bothering Regan was already shaking her bed before Chris opened the attic door. So this was a red hearing
Moving along, after another incident of bed shaking Chris attempted to quell by diving on the mattress to control the vibrations, she takes her daughter to a doctor at the Barringer Clinic and Foundation, a top New England medical facility. This is where Chris begins to assert her motherly instinct in full force. She asks the doctors what’s wrong. All the doctors could come up with is a diagnosis of a lesion in the temporal lobe, which is causing the seizures. Remove the scar, remove the problem.
Chris reluctantly cedes to the doctors’ request for tests, and Regan undergoes a battery of EEG scans. The tests come back negative. Regan’s clean of the lesion.
By this time, Chris’ nerves are on the way out the door. When she brings her daughter back from the hospital, the doctors knock on her door as a follow-up visit. But when they get there, they get more than what they bargained for. Screams emanate from Regan’s room, prompting Chris to run to her rescue. In the room, the door spontaneously slams behind her. Regan then begins to shake back and forth, slamming on the bed over and over again. She then pulls out a crucifix and proceeds to use it for malevolent purposes, uttering vile obscenities at her mother as she pleasures herself with it.
Now, this is the part of the movie where I’m going to have to step out to tell you what went on in the theaters back in 1973.
In the UK, a number of town councils banned the movie from playing in their theaters prompting entrepreneurs to take advantage of an opportunity to bus folks to neighboring towns where the film screened.
Theater owners in America banned the trailer from screening because they deemed the film too frightening for the audience to absorb.
Paramedics rushed to various theaters due to people fainting, vomiting and flying into hysterics in the aisles. True story.
In the meantime, Linda Blair, who played Regan, needed a 24-hour guard for six months after release since religious zealots proclaimed the movie glorified Satan.
Back to the movie. When the head doctors of the medical clinic meet with Chris, who by now is a frazzled wreck, they offer a very scientific and clear-cut explanation. Regan is suffering from “Pathological states, which can induce abnormal strength and accelerated motor performance.”
Of course, Chris freaks. She explains the bed shook while she was on it. That thing on the bed was not her daughter. And she wants answers.
Another doctor adds his thoughts. He believes it’s “Somnambuliform possession. A conflict or guilt leading to delusions of bodily invasion.”
No way. Chris has had it. Eighty-eight doctors and they’re telling her that she ought to bring her daughter to a witch doctor?
Now, if you skipped the post and you are here, this is my point for featuring Chris MacNeil. Throughout her daughter’s ordeal, Chris keeps it together. Despite the circumstances, she manages to maintain her eyes on the goal—get her daughter help so she can be well again. It doesn’t matter how many times she falls to the ground, how many obscenities fly her way, or how many hits she takes, her daughter’s health is first and foremost her main concern. Chris is willing to give up everything for Regan. And isn’t that the point of being a mother, to love unconditionally regardless of what changes a son or daughter’s attitude to make them want to hate their parents?