One of the neatest memories I have of university — at least, of the ones I’m willing to share with strangers — was the night a bunch of us tossed cushions and sleeping bags on the floor of Glendon Hall to watch scary movies.
There were huge windows looking out on the thick, leafless forest that wound down to the athletic complex and Don River way below, and the atmosphere was appropriately spooky.
This was the late '60s, and we were taking a break from saving the world by watching a couple of flicks, though, it goes without saying, we were way too sophisticated to let anything like a movie monster get to us.
A certain senior editor of Pro Tem, the student newspaper, was deemed to be the resident expert on such films, which in those days came on reels with projectors and screens — ask your grandparents — and would be rented from the same places in downtown Toronto that shipped them out to movie theatres around the province.
Get both a monster flick and a scary one, said the student council organizers of the students’ genteel soiree. And even though the student newspaper didn’t normally take orders from council.....
The monster film was Them, by far the greatest of the 1950s BEM (Bug-Eyed Monster) movies, in which atomic testing once again threatens to destroy the world, in this case with giant ants. Everyone had a hoot talking back to the screen, especially when stolid FBI agent James Arness showed prehistoric gender-role attitudes towards ultrasmart scientist Joan Weldon.
And then we got to the second film, by which time those of a legal age — would it be any other way, we being law-abiding 60s self-styled radicals? — had slowly sipped an Export stubby, maybe even two, and some scurrilous hippie weirdo freaks at the back had lit up some funny objects, though, it again goes without saying, the rest of us held our breath and refused to inhale for the entire evening.
Anyway, back to the second flick.
The late Nathan Cohen, who was the theatre critic for The Toronto Star, occasionally would give readers a heads-up about extremely low-budget unknown films, and his rave review had sent me off one day after classes and before hours in the library to a grind house on Bloor across from Honest Ed’s to see a Barbara Steele Italian vampire film — be still, my beating heart — and a tiny, tiny unknown film called The Night of the Living Dead.
And when the cosily assembled students of Glendon College — otherwise known as the main campus of York University — heard that title, and saw the black and white ultra-cheapo opening scene start to unfold, they laughed.
Laughed right through Johnny and Barbara at their parents’ graves in the rural cemetery outside Pittsburgh, and Johnny going, "They’re coming to get you, Barbara. Look! There’s one of them now!"
And within a few seconds, the laughter stopped, and the screaming started.
Real, legitimate, genuine shrieks.
Maybe you’ve seen way too many zombie films now, most of which have ripped off pretty much every scene in the original NOTLD. Even George A. Romero himself never regained that same claustrophobic atmosphere, the same terror. Sure, the acting is awful, apart from the late Duane Jones, but that added to the sense of reality, and to never being sure what would happen to any character.
If you’re not old enough to remember the film’s first run, before all the ripoffs, you have to take into account that NOTLD shattered barriers and went immeasurably beyond what horror films had done before. Not just the handful of gruesome scenes, but the fright, the real fright. Psycho had a couple of scenes that went beyond what audiences were used to, but NOTLD genuinely tried to scare people from beginning to end, and Romero succeeded.
If you rent it this weekend for Hallowe’en, don’t, under any circumstances, rent a remake or the colourized version.
That holds true for any of the genuinely scary films, the older flicks that knew how to give you the creeps. Val Lewton in the 40s, of course, knew that what you didn’t see on the screen was immeasurably more frightening than a guy in a rubber mask and fake claws. The scariest parts of The Exorcist were Ellen Burstyn going up into the attic alone early in the movie, or walking the dark and rainy streets of Washington while that fantastic Tubular Bells music played, not Linda Blair spinning her head in circles or hurling pea soup.
The most frightening film I’ve ever seen remains the original The Haunting, in which a small group of researchers gathers to investigate a haunted house. The scene in which Julie Harris and Claire Bloom huddle in their bedroom while — whoops, I don’t give away key scenes or endings.
Then there was the original Carnival of Souls, which plays out like a 100-minute nightmare episode of the first season of Twilight Zone, filmed just like NOTLD in black and white with a no-name cast, made in a small and non-glamourous Kansas town, just as NOTLD was filmed outside Pittsburgh.
And an Australian film, Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on the true real-life events that surrounded an outing by a private girls’ school, unbelievably tense and unsettling. No, it’s not a slasher film, no pedophiles, but beyond that, I’ll say no more except to urge you to see it.
These are films that build up an atmosphere of foreboding, that give you the willies and just never let up. Such films are rare these days — I haven’t yet had the time to see Paranormal Activity, but really look forward to it.
I’ve seen almost no slasher films, and none of the torture porn of Saw or Hostel and such films. The original Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes were truly disgusting, and I can’t imagine or want to know what the remakes were like. But the original Hallowe’en — made by John Carpenter when he was coming off the brilliance of Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13 — was good then and holds up pretty well.
Event Horizon was a poorly-reviewed film a few years ago that has a cult following, about a spaceship investigating what happened to the first faster-than-light experimental flight — which may have poked a hole into another dimension, or even into the biblical hell. It creeped me out from start to finish. And the original Alien — like NOTLD, it’s been ripped off by dozens of cheap and lousy films — had incredible levels of claustrophobic suspense and tension.
The best vampire film I’ve ever seen is the contemporary Swedish film, Let the Right One In, a brilliant spookfest that you absolutely have to watch in subtitles with the lights out. Child the elder and I watched it this past April the night we opened the cottage with ice still in the bay, lights turned out, the fireplace flickering, and a neighbouring cottager dropped by to say hi and stuck his face up right against the window to see if we were in — if you can arrange that to happen at your place, and don’t care what kind of a hole you leave in your ceiling when you freak out........