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Scariest films by decade

Saturday 11/25/23

I'm not going to do all decades here, but will rather jot down a few thoughts about the golden age of horror, which I believe encompasses the 1930s through the 1950s.

When I say scariest horror film I don't necessarily mean best--they can be two separate things. They don't have to be. Consider 1935's Bride of Frankenstein. It's one of our finest American pictures, but how frightening is it really? There are moments of horror frisson, but are they sustained? Are they meant to be the point? What we take away from the film?

You could argue that the first truly scary horror film was 1942's Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur, and the first in the series of Val Lewton-produced RKO "psychological" horror pictures. The walk scene, the pool scene--scary then, scary now.

Cat People achieved Lewton's fear-based aims and served its purpose beautifully, but it's not as strong a film as its follow-up, Curse of the Cat People (1944), one of America's richest and most rewarding pictures. Is it scary? In part. It's unique. (And it does what the best Christmas films and works of art must do--transcends Christmas.) The whole thing feels like a departure from the ordinary, but, ironically, for the purpose of dealing with, living with, living within, the everyday world.

Next up in that decade we have Lewis Allen's The Uninvited (1944), 1945's British omnibus, Dead of Night, and finally 1947's It's a Wonderful Life. Why do I include the Capra picture? Because within that movie one will find what is perhaps the ultimate American horror film. It starts with George Bailey yelling at his kids, then heading out into night--and what a night it is. The set-up of the bridge scene over the river with the attendant's quarters recalls Dickens' "The Signal-Man." I could go through and itemize all of the horror touches--the compositions, the music, the looks, the way lines are delivered.

Think about when Bailey asks Clarence who he is ("Look, who are you?"). That's a terrifying moment. If you asked me to select the finest representation of horror in the US, I'd cite this film starting when Bailey leaves his home until he's back on the bridge for a second time. I could write a whole book about that portion of this movie as perfect terror. It's a film within a film.

You know where you would have found honest to goodness scares in the 1940s? On the radio. There was "The House in Cypress Canyon," "Ghost Hunt," and "The Hitch-Hiker" (in which Orson Welles gives one of the great performances of his distinguished radio career) from Suspense, and "The Thing on the Fourble Board" from Quiet, Please, among others. Radio was the real home for frights in mid-century America.

The 1930s stands out as what we might think of as horror's quintessential decade. We get three Frankenstein films, The Mummy, Dracula kicking it all off, The Black Cat. These are all classics and cinematic archetypes. Pop culture archetypes and icons. Again, though: Are they scary?

As a boy, I was definitely scared having walked in on a mid-afternoon showing of Dracula in which Van Helsing was pointing out two puncture marks on a dead woman's neck to other doctors. That was disturbing to me. I love those early Universals, but I wouldn't say they're honestly scary. At the time they were, because there hadn't been anything like them. In life, until you know better--with seasoning, experience, whatever it may be--anything can be scary. Well, not anything. But think of something you were once scared of that you no longer are. Is it scary in and of itself? Kind of a complex question.

What I would cite as the lone truly scary pictures of the 1930s could be a surprise to some: The Wizard of Oz, which was written by Noel Langley, who also wrote, of course, 1951's Scrooge, a horror film I published an entire book about. Langley: horror guy where you wouldn't expect any. Or not to the degrees on offer.

While we're on the subject of The Wizard of Oz: Has anyone ever been better in an American film than Judy Garland is in this one? I'm talking in terms of how much talent was required for the role and then displayed fully. Buster Keaton in his best pictures is worthy of being in this conversation. Garland is phenomenal. Think, too, of how early she sings "Over the Rainbow"--it's the first vocal musical number. I don't believe that the twentieth century produced a better popular singer. Listen to how she sings the bridge sections, which are very hard sections to sing.

Then there's the acting--the role of Dorothy is not an easy one. She has to be part child, part adult, protected and a fast learner, sheltered and brave, insecure and confident--and, crucially, a fast maker of friends. Pay attention to how quickly relationships happen--and believably happen--in The Wizard of Oz. (Some nice black humor in The Wizard of Oz as well; "We melted her," always makes me laugh.)

We see the same thing with George and Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life. They don't have a huge amount of time together in the picture. But we believe in the characters and depth of their relationship right away and the character of that relationship. Even though they just met. Writers could learn something from these films in this regard.

You see it as well in Star Wars (1977). People meet, there is immediate and believable depth to the relationship; time is "gotten around," as it were. We are not incredulous. We're all in. We don't doubt. And we care about these relationships. They don't require protracted ramping up. This is so important. You don't always have to do this, but if you're actually good at writing, you need to be able to do it.

Things were different in the 1950s after the war. You could do more. In the States and England it was like viewers were growing up the way a kid does when they progress from PG-type fare to the R-rated material. We have Hammer's Dracula (1958); Scrooge, which I've mentioned; the short film, Return to Glennascaul (1953); and then you get sci-fi scares with The Thing from Another World (1951) and especially Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

The 1960s had two honestly scary films near its start: Carnival of Souls (1962) and The Haunting (1963). One feels that they could not have come from any earlier time. The Lewton pictures had to be made before someone would have attempted The Haunting or thought to, and it's fitting that Lewton-veteran Robert Wise directs the movie based on the Shirley Jackson novel. (By the way: Have you ever noticed the overlap between "Surrender Dorothy" being written in the sky in The Wizard of Oz and "Help Eleanor Come Home" being written on the wall in The Haunting?)

And then I think things become less scary after that. A lot of the mystery--that quality of, "What is that? Was that something? Was that my imagination?"--went out of horror films. It's still a ways off, but there are few things I think of as less scary than 1973's The Exorcist, or more risible. There's no mystery. It's an attempt to shock. Doesn't work on me. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is smart and artful. No film shares its look, but I wouldn't say it has that mystery, and mystery is often integral to frightening us. The unknown. That which could happen that we can't quite adumbrate. We just fear this shadowy form that's out there. I'm not just talking monsters and ghosts, or even primarily monsters and ghosts. I'm talking life.


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