“'Elm Street” director — and board member of Monday’s Scream 2009 Awards — recommends his favorite fright flicks, including “War of the Worlds,”' '“Frankenstein,” and “Psycho”
Directed by Michaelangelo AntonioniI saw Antonioni's “Blow-Up” when it first came out, in a theater in Potsdam, N.Y., the small town where I was teaching at the time. Clarkson College, Department of Humanities. I went back to see it three times in the next week, fascinated by it. The oblique, non-linear, suggestive ambience, the incredible control of color (Antonioni painted whole streets to accord with his needs), the shocking (for that time) sexuality, and the impenetrable complexity of its mystery absolutely beguiled me. It wasn’t long after seeing this film that I quit my job and headed off to New York to seek my fortune in the film business. Absolutely naïve as to what it would take, but utterly determined. The impulse seems to have worked out rather well.
‘The Virgin Spring’ (1960)
Directed by Ingmar BergmanThe influences on me of Bergman's “The Virgin Spring,” another film I saw while still teaching, are more than apparent in my first film, “Last House On the Left,” since the plot of the latter is a blatant reworking of that of the former. I read somewhere that “Virgin Spring” was based on a medieval morality tale, so I thought it was fair game for being the springboard for my irreverent update. But I was never in less than awe of Bergman. His stunning visual sense, restraint, depth, and dark vision appealed to me with enormous power. Maybe to most everyone that loved film in those days. He was part of a great flowering of filmmaking by perhaps a dozen powerful auteurs that were stunning audiences throughout the world, and I often think I was strangely blessed in a way to not be seeing films until this unique moment in cinematic history.
Directed by Alfred HitchcockI remember as a kid my mother talking to another woman about a film made by some “terrible man”' that made awful, scary movies that had no business being made. No person, she declared, should be allowed to see his latest film. Of course that was Hitchcock she was referring to, and his masterwork “Psycho.” Years later I watched it at a revival theater and was stunned by its power, even decades after it first played for audiences. Well, all one needs to do is watch the opening of “Scream” to see how I valued the lessons of that film.
‘Repulsion’ (1965)Directed by Roman PolanskiIn Polanski’s mind-bending “Repulsion,” beauty is brought down by raw fear and the rooms of an apartment become mirrors of the rooms of a tortured mind. The images from this film never left my mind, even though I might have thought they had. I rewatched it recently and was astonished by images from my own films that were inspired by Polanski's masterpiece. The opening moments of “New Nightmare”, Freddy pressing through the wall in the first “Nightmare.” Polanski has been a huge influence on me.
‘Beauty and The Beast’ (1946)Directed by Jean CocteauPerhaps influencing not only me, but Polanski, was the French genius Jean Cocteau: poet, painter, playwright, and surrealist filmmaker. His images, epitomized in his masterwork “Beauty and the Beast,” stay with you forever. And, certainly, the image of hands pressing through walls that both Polanski and I happily used were invented by him. The contribution of the French to cinema would be hard to underestimate, and among the most gifted of the artists France has given us would be Cocteau. His works, which were at the forefront of surrealism, sprang out of his era's fascination with the new revelations of psychoanalysis, from the radical deconstruction of visual reality by cubism, his own deep roots in the Catholic Religion and, yes, from just a bit of opium for good measure.
‘The War of the Worlds’ (1953)
Directed by Byron HaskinOnce, when I was just a child, my older brother Paul snuck us both into a theater to ''see something fun.'' The film was “War of the Worlds,” and I still blame my brother for nightmares I’ve suffered since. Who can forget those goose-necked-lamp eye-stalks from the spaceships poking through windows, looking for human prey, or the haunting, chilling sound they made. Of course, invasion, either of our bodies or our planet itself, is one of humanity’s primal fears, perhaps hearkening back to some primeval realization that there were things that could get under our skins, into our guts or bloodstreams, and kill us from within. Or maybe it's just the fear of the Other — the thing or being that is different, or worse, indifferent to our lives.
‘Frankenstein’ (1931)Directed by James WhaleSpeaking of primal fears (a favorite subject of mine), James Whale's “Frankenstein” is a perfect example of another: our fear of science and all that it represents. Obviously, science, especially medical science, has brought an enormous amount of good to humanity. We live healthier and longer lives than any generation before us. But each step of science also brings a certain cold sense of how alone we are in the universe, how fragile our bodies are — and how utterly unprepared our societies, laws, beliefs, or institutions are for whatever the geniuses among us are unleashing upon us next. And Boris Karloff, with his haunting, minimalist, and strangely moving portrayal of ultimate outsider, puts an unforgettable human face on it all. The Other. Horrifying, threatening, and at the same time unsettlingly recognizable — a dark mirror to us all.
Directed by F.W. MurnauMurnau's “Nosferatu” broke from the traditional view of the seductive vampire and gave us instead a terrifying vision of monstrosity so human it is appalled by itself, hypnotically beautiful in its very ugliness. Thin, malformed, huge-eyed; it is like some grotesquely elongated and aged fetus from the womb of Hell, helpless in its need to devour.
‘The Bad Seed’ (1956)Directed By Mervyn LeroyThe monstrous child. Think of Damien in “The Omen,” or Regan in “The Exorcist.” Then go back decades to one of the first brilliant depictions of this theme: “The Bad Seed.” I love this movie. It's so delightfully evil, and has some of the best dialogue of any genre film I can recall, full of acid wit and near poetry, especially in the dark ravings of the one crazed old man who sees just how bad this little girl is. What kid doesn't get away with murder? Certainly this one, brilliantly played by Patty McCormack, does, and enjoys every minute of it.
‘Don't Look Now’ (1973)Directed by Nicolas RoegIf there’s anything more terrifying than the evil child, it’s the lost child, the vanished child. Cut to a married couple in a dank, shadowed Venice, who have inexplicably lost their precious little daughter. In searching for her, through the cold streets and sluiceways of this ancient city, they find their very sense of reality falling away like water through fingers. And we the audience find ourselves at a loss to know reality from the madness of grief, hope from fear. Nicolas Roeg's unforgettable “Don't Look Now” brings us Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie giving the performances of their lives, and a film of beauty, sexuality, hope, and pain so complex and compelling it will haunt your memory for the rest of your years.