RED RUM, anyone? Halloween’s the perfect time to drink a toast to scary movies. Of course, scary is in the eye of the beholder.
Personally, I like a good scare as much as the next gal. I’m not, though, a big fan of gross-out horror. I much prefer psychological horror films, the kind that fill you with doubt about the workings of the human psyche.
The film that still preys on me, after all these years, is a little black-and-white British thriller called The Innocents (1961), based on Henry James’ classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. It was directed by Jack Clayton, with Deborah Kerr in the central role of a Victorian governess whose young charges may or may not be possessed by the fiendish spirits of two departed servants. (Even back then, it was awfully hard to keep good household help.)
I saw The Innocents in broad daylight, in a neighborhood movie house called the El Rey. (Today it’s a trendy live-concert venue geared to people who hardly represent my demographic.) The theatre, as I recall, was half-empty. My junior-high-school classmate and I had no idea what to expect. When the film came on — with the haunting voice of a little girl singing an eerie ballad while the screen slowly filled with the image of a pair of hands clasping and unclasping — we knew we were in for a wild ride. There was no gore, no obvious gotcha moment designed to make you jump out of your seat. By the midpoint, though, tension was so thick that Sabina and I were clutching one another for dear life.
I don’t recall many details about The Innocents, because I haven’t seen it since. Some years ago a fellow film buff kindly made me a VHS copy. But it sits in my cabinet unwatched, not because I’m too frightened to see it again but rather because I’m worried it will seem a lesser film than the one I remember. I suspect Sabina and I watched it at exactly the right time in our lives, as we trembled on the brink of maturity, wondering what lay ahead.
Henry James’ ghost story has long been viewed as an exploration of the governess’s repressed sexuality. That element of The Turn of the Screw was skillfully captured by Jack Clayton, though in a way that was hardly blatant. (It was, however, suggestive enough that the film was initially barred in Britain to children under 16.) Later in the Sixties, psychological horror – with an emphasis on the dark side of human nature — would become increasingly graphic. Many friends have recommended to me Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), a classic spooky-house thriller. It’s full of things that go bump in the night, but I’ve always found it less than scary. Far more disturbing is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), in which Catherine Deneuve is a beautiful but frigid manicurist who acts out her fear of men in shocking ways. All three of these films were made in England, where they seem to know a thing or two about terror.
Of course Alfred Hitchcock was born and raised on English soil, even though he went Hollywood and shot Psycho — perhaps his creepiest psychological film — in Southern California. I was too young to see it in 1960, and by the time I caught up with it, the ghastly secrets had been spilled. Still it was plenty scary, and remains so. But this year, with the onslaught of Frankenstorm, perhaps no one needs any more terror –- or another shower scene.
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