HADDONFIELD, Ill. — Here are five cinematic classics of the horror genre that no fear-seeking filmgoer should overlook this Halloween.
“The Exorcist” (1973)
This arguably the most terrifying supernatural horror film ever made. Based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name, “The Exorcist” tells the story of a 12-year-old girl who becomes the victim of a demonic possession.
In the movie, Regan (Linda Blair) transforms from a sweet, innocent girl into a monstrous possessed figure who spews forth green bile from her mouth, screams blasphemous obscenities and does some inappropriate deeds with a crucifix. In the end, it comes down to two Catholic priests (Jason Miller and Max von Sydow) to try to save the little girl’s suppressed soul.
Although there are too many truly terrifying scenes to mention, perhaps the most haunting is one that audiences didn’t see for almost 30 years. A director’s cut released in theaters in 2000 included a controversial scene that was excised from the original theatrical version — Regan’s spider walk down the staircase.
“The Exorcist” made history by becoming the first movie to be nominated for best picture at the Oscars. After its release, many movie theater owners reported theatergoers fainting or vomiting during nearly every showing, while Catholic clergymen claimed to have been confronted by individuals believing they or their acquaintances had been possessed.
The cultural conversation surrounding “The Exorcist” was made even more powerful after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Film and Broadcasting publicly condemned the movie, creating a conundrum among devout Catholics conflicted between their religious values and their appreciation for quality cinema.
“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974)
Produced on a shoestring budget with a relatively unknown cast, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” reinforced the notion that bigger isn’t always better. The film follows a group of friends who fall victim to a family of cannibals while on their way to visit a family gravesite after reports of grave robbing in a rural Texas town.
Billed as a true story, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was, in fact, only loosely based on the real events of Ed Gein, who exhumed corpses from graveyards and made keepsakes out of their bones and skin. Gein’s actions also served as the inspiration for the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic “Psycho.”
Of all the cannibalistic family members featured in the movie, Leatherface is the character who leaves a lasting impression in the minds of audiences. The first and final appearances of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) are arguably the greatest introductory and closing scenes of a horror character to date — and they’re both disturbing.
It’s Leatherface who makes the first kill of the movie in his celluloid debut. After the group stumbles upon a farmhouse, Kirk (William Vail) enters alone through an unlocked screen door and hears what sounds like a squealing pig coming from a room across the hall. As he runs toward the red-walled room adorned with animal skulls, he trips and loses his footing just as Leatherface appears. Leatherface — a burly man who wears a mask made from human skin — bashes Kirk over the head with a sledgehammer, causing Kirk to convulse on the floor. Leatherface then hits him once more, drags the body into the room and slides the metal door shut.
The final scene of the movie shows Leatherface violently thrashing his chain saw through the air as the lone survivor (Marilyn Burns) escapes in the bed of a passing pickup truck after an intense chase through the woods. It’s a bleak ending in the sense that the damsel in distress gets away, but the monster is still out there.
John Larroquette (better known for his later work in the sitcom “Night Court,” which earned him four Emmy Awards) narrated the film’s prologue.
The original movie poster for “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” preyed on the fears of those who were duped by the ingenious marketing gimmick. The tagline that appeared on the movie poster read, in part, “What happened is true. Now the motion picture that’s just as real.”
This is also the film that paved the way for killers using power tools to dispatch their victims in horror movies.
This is the ultimate John Carpenter classic and the best, well, Halloween movie. Although the greatness of “Halloween” has been watered down by progressively inferior sequels (and a remake that also spawned a sequel), Carpenter’s 1978 classic is the epitome of modern horror, providing an appropriate pacing of tension-building, scares and kills.
“Halloween” stars Jamie Lee Curtis (in her film debut) as Laurie Strode, a babysitter who comes face-to-face with Michael Myers, who escaped from a mental institution 15 years after murdering his sister on Halloween night and returns to the fictitious town of Haddonfield, Illinois, to kill again.
The now-iconic expressionless look of the knife-wielding silent stalker was actually created by taking a William Shatner mask of his “Star Trek” character, Captain Kirk, painting it white, enlarging the eye holes, removing the eyebrows and sideburns and teasing out the hair.
Carpenter not only co-wrote and directed the movie, but he also composed the creepy score that has become synonymous with Halloween, complete with Carpenter’s signature synthesizer sound.
“Halloween” gave birth to not only the modern slasher film, but also the seasonal holiday horror splatter fests of the 1980s (like “Friday the 13th,” “My Bloody Valentine,” “Silent Night, Deadly Night” and “April Fool’s Day”).
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978)
Imagine never wanting to go to sleep for fear of waking up someone else. That is, at its core, the premise of the 1978 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
Directed by Philip Kaufman, this is one of those rare remakes that is superior to the original.
This version of “Body Snatchers” involves a San Francisco health inspector (Donald Sutherland) and his colleague (Brooke Adams) who begin to suspect that the people around them aren’t quite acting like themselves. They soon discover that humans are being replaced by alien duplicates devoid of emotion.
What’s great about this remake is that it substitutes the setting of a small California town for a major metropolitan city. The claustrophobia seems magnified in a sprawling metropolis.
The notion of falling asleep and being reborn is an analogy for death. In this case, it’s the death of the human spirit, replaced by a sheep-like being interested only in its self-preservation.
If “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is an allegory for the dehumanization of society, it just as surely speaks to the end of the free-loving “flower power” era as hippies became yuppies.
The stellar supporting cast includes Leonard Nimoy (Spock of TV’s “Star Trek”), Veronica Cartwright (a year away from another supporting role as Nostromo crew member Lambert in “Alien”) and Jeff Goldblum (David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of “The Fly”).
Look for an uncredited early cameo by Robert Duvall, who has a non-speaking part as a priest on a swing next to a child at a city park. In an homage to the 1956 original, Kaufman had actor Kevin McCarthy, who was the central character of that version, appear as a crazed man who runs into the street to warn Sutherland’s updated protagonist. “You’re next! They’re coming!” he screams, a nod to a scene from the original, before being chased off by an angry mob and struck by a car.
The final scene is subtly terrifying. As Sutherland’s Matthew Bennell walks past the leafless sycamore trees outside City Hall while bagpipes play “Amazing Grace” in the distance, a voice off-camera is heard whispering, “Matthew. Matthew.” Suddenly, the music stops and Cartwright’s Nancy approaches, letting out a smile as a way of signaling her friend that she is still human. But he lets her know that he’s now a pod person.
“The Shining” (1980)
There are two types of horror buffs out there — those who prefer “The Shining” as written by Stephen King and those prefer “The Shining” as directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” is far different than that of King’s 1977 novel, not to say that one is inferior to the other. But as much as “The Shining” leaves readers afraid to turn the page, Kubrick leaves audiences afraid to open their eyes with his loose interpretation of King’s story.
The central character of “The Shining” is Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a failed writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a job as the offseason caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in a remote portion of the Colorado Rockies, where he lives with his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). As a winter storm rages outside, Jack’s sanity seems to deteriorate to the point that he transforms into a dangerous, ax-wielding villain who terrorizes his family.
Criticized by the “king of horror” himself for deviating from the source material, Kubrick was unapologetic in putting his own stamp on the movie version. There is no question, however, that it’s the work of Kubrick, both in cinematography and narrative structure.
There are the eerie twins with a message for Danny: “Come play with us.” There’s the lady in the bathtub in room 237. Then there’s the revelation that the book Jack has been writing the whole time is really just the same phrase written over and over again in different ways: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
“The Shining” was among the first (but perhaps most notable) movies to use the newly developed Steadicam, which is most noticeable during the long tracking shots of Danny riding his tricycle through the hotel.
Kubrick’s musical selection is also superb, with recycled orchestral arrangements of classical musicians like Bela Bartok and Krzysztof Penderecki perfectly synchronized to match each frame of film.
Nicholson was accused of being over-the-top in his performance, but it fits the construct of his character’s transformation. By the end of the film, he’s a snarling, drooling, fool-fledged monster who winds up lost in a hedge maze and frozen to death in the ice.
Was Jack’s behavior cabin fever? Supernatural meddling? Or both? And what about that ending?