Horror movies have been popular ever since the dawn of cinema.
But of what value can they possibly be?
I posed this question to George Romero, creator of the modern zombie mythology established in his seminal 1968 black-and-white masterwork “Night of the Living Dead.”
“I think it’s a way of opening the mind a little bit,” he replied. “I think (horror stories) should be used more as allegory. Nursery rhymes were allegories. ‘Ring Around the Rosey’ is about the plague. I think horror fantasy is important because it opens up your mind.”
“I think horror fantasy is important because it opens up your mind,” George Romero, creator of 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” once told film critic Dann Gire.
I asked a similar question to “Last House on the Left” director Wes Craven during an interview years ago in a limousine on the way to a retrospective of his work at the Chicago International Film Festival. “Movies are society’s dreams,” he said. “People go into a theater, the lights come down, they slip into a dream of an altered reality. Horror films are a legitimate part of our psyches.”
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So, prepare to have your reality altered and your mind opened (a little bit) this Halloween as we take a survey of random horror fantasies from both big and little screens, submitted for your approval and perusal, with occasional commentary from horror filmmakers I have interviewed during the past 43 years.
Special note: Some films, such as Nick Smith’s spooky St. Charles-based thriller “Munger Road,” might be temporarily unlicensed for streaming services and rentals. To check any title for availability, go to reelgood.com/.
Lulu Wilson stars in Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” – Courtesy of Netflix “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018)
Horror has never existed as a TV production like this before. The 10-part Netflix series, directed with panache and style by Mike “Oculus” Flanagan, uses the same source material (Shirley Jackson’s novel) as Robert Wise’s 1963 classic “The Haunting,” but with extremely different results. Here, two timelines intertwine, setting up a fantastical, mind-blowing payoff, not in the last episode, but way earlier. “E.T. — The Extra-Terrestrial” actor Henry Thomas leads a stellar cast dealing with a malevolent house that apparently loves the color turquoise.
Actor Tony Todd shot to international stardom in this Chicago-based horror hit, directed by Brit Bernard Rose based on Clive Barker’s story “The Forbidden.” Todd plays the titular evil spirit summoned forth in the infamous Cabrini Green projects whenever some poor soul says his name five times in a mirror. The film, featuring Chicago’s own Virginia Madsen, inspired three follow-ups, the most recent one released in August. In a 2011 interview at Chicago’s Trump Tower, I asked the 6-foot, 5-inch tall Todd: What question do you get more often than any other? Todd replied, “Did you practice being scary when you were a kid? In my mind, I’m not scary at all. I’m channeling my inner Cary Grant!”
“Darby O’Gill and the Little People” (1959)
I was 6 when I saw this Walt Disney fantasy at my local theater, and when the cheesy but ghostly Coach of Death descends from the sky, I might have considered wearing diapers even then. Albert Sharpe plays Darby, a scruffy old Irishman who captures the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea) and forces him to fork over three wishes. Of course, there’s always a catch. If the Death Coach and the screeching banshees don’t scare you, there’s always a pre-007 Sean Connery singing just before the end credits.
Horror author Stephen King has said that he liked Frank Darabont’s ending to “The Mist,” based on a King novel, much better than the story’s original ending. – Associated Press, 2018 “The Mist” (2007)
A major box-office disappoint that continues to deserve fan love. Frank Darabont directed this Stephen King story as a vintage 1950s creature feature about people trapped in a grocery store by a mysterious mist harboring deadly monsters. Darabont didn’t like King’s ending, so he created a new one that King liked so much, he told reporters that anyone who reveals the last five minutes should be hung by the neck until dead. This, after King attended a test screening in New Jersey. Darabont told me during a 2007 interview, “There was a moment when King jumped three feet out of his chair! That was reassuring.”
“Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” (1971)
This harrowing early cheapie effort from first-time director John D. Hancock (“Bang the Drum Slowly”) makes no attempt to explain anything, and that’s its power. Steeped in hilarious 1971 period trappings (the original title was “It Drinks Hippie Blood”), the story concerns a discharged mental patient, Jessica (Zohra Lampert), who moves to a farm with her hubby just before haunting voices begin taunting her. Reached at his farm near La Porte, Indiana, Hancock admitted to me, “I scared myself writing it!” He cited Robert Wise’s 1963 tale “The Haunting” as a key influence, along with Henry James’ classic novel “The Turn of the Screw.” “You don’t know if it’s just in the lady’s head or not,” Hancock explained.
“The Night Stalker” (1972)
You’d never think a made-for-TV movie about a goofy, fashion-challenged reporter named Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) on the trail of an immigrant vampire stalking Las Vegas could be truly scary. But John Llewellyn Moxey’s razor-sharp direction of Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson’s screenplay created such a documentarylike atmosphere of realism that the movie became a mini-classic, inspiring a dreadful sequel, “The Night Strangler,” plus a short-lived TV series, “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” in which Kolchak works for the Independent News Service in Chicago. McGavin gave hope to the world’s nerds that they, too, could be cool like Kolchak.
“Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (1994)
If you are a true horror fan, you know that “Nightmare on Elm Street” creator Wes Craven hated Robert Shaye’s sequel to his 1984 original movie and disavowed all subsequent “Elm Street” films. He changed his mind after a dream in which he attended a 10th anniversary party for the “Elm Street” movies with stars Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp. In his dream, Craven noticed that Englund’s shadow moved independently from the actor. “It appeared to be that the shadow was casting the actor instead of vice versa,” he told me in 1994. “I felt the presence of a great spirit of evil. This was the thing I had glimpsed and written about for the original movie. When I woke up, I knew I had the story.”
“Trilogy of Terror” (1975)
Another surprisingly potent made-for-TV thriller from “Twilight Zone” and “I am Legend” writer Richard Matheson and directed by “Dark Shadows” creator Dan Curtis. Park Ridge native Karen Black stars as three different lead characters in three vignettes that … wait. Let’s just skip the first two innocuous segments and go right to the coupe de grace: Black stars as a woman trapped inside her apartment by a magic African doll out to kill her with razor-sharp teeth and a mini-spear. The long, eerie ending shot haunted viewers for days. Sometimes longer.
“The Orphanage” (2007)
Easily the greatest ghost movie of the 21st century so far. Noted director Guillermo del Toro has his fingerprints all over this epic scare-fest as a producer. Juan Antonio Bayona’s keen direction creates a mashup of “The Innocents” and “Peter Pan.” A woman (Belén Rueda) and her husband buy the old orphanage where she grew up and transform it into a school for disabled children, unaware that the place has many secrets, including some invisible playmates messing with her little son.
The controversial artistic director of Chicago’s Organic Theatre, Stuart Gordon, directed this hilariously gross, 1985 indie classic between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1984. It’s based on H.P. Lovecraft’s updated Frankenstein tale about a mad scientist (Jeffrey Combs) who brings back the dead, with expectedly horrific results. “We get mileage out of the comedic elements in this movie,” Gordon told me at a Chicago theater rehearsal room in 1985. “Just when you think you know where the limits of the story are, it takes you more and more out of control!” He lies not.
“If you look at the best of horror throughout the last century, it was always made by the independent mind,” said Australian director Jennifer Kent, here filming the horror tale “The Babadook.” – “The Babadook” (2014)
A supremely original concept starring the Mr. Hyde version of a Dr. Seuss character. A top-hatted entity comes out of a child’s book to menace a single mom and her little boy, and preys on the possibility that Mom can’t really love the little guy because she blames him for the death of her husband, killed in a car accident on the way to his baby’s birth. From her home in Sydney, Australia, director Jennifer Kent told me, “If you look at the best of horror throughout the last century, it was always made by the independent mind. It was made to say something, to be subversive, and you don’t get those things when you try to appeal to everyone in the general public.”
“It Follows” (2014)
David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 sexual terror tale projects the ultimate teenage motto: “I gotta have sex or I’ll just die!” A young woman makes love with her boyfriend, who then warns her that she must stay away from “It” because “It” will kill her, then come after him, and track down and kill his previous sex partners. Oh, it gets worse. The only way she can save herself is to have sex with someone else and pass on the curse like a really, really nasty STD. Oh, it gets worse. “It” can assume any identity it wants and can only be seen by its intended victims. (Cue the paranoia-vibe electronic score by Disasterpeace!)
Actor Bill Paxton’s assured directorial debut feels like you’re sitting around a campfire in the deep woods, listening to a master raconteur spin an urban legend that slaps your psyche around. In a small Texas community, a man (Matthew McConaughey) tells the FBI he knows the identity of the elusive serial killer known as “God’s Hand.” Then flashbacks show us how the man grew up with a father (Paxton) who, visited by a holy angel and instructed to destroy all the demons in town who look like normal people, sets out to do his duty with righteous dedication. But can they all really be demons?