I See A Dark Theater's Seasonal Favorites: Halloween, Part 1
October 21, 2016
It's October, which appears to have morphed into everyone's favorite month seemingly because 1. fall, 2. pumpkin everything and 3. Halloween and scares galore.
By and large, I am not a fan of horror. Modern shock films that contain as much gore as war movies do not interest me. Some of the effects and frights in thrillers rocket me completely out of my seat. Put simply, I don't like to be scared. But I like films that make me think, or even ones that creep me out (only slightly though).
When I think of classic horrors and thrillers, my mind immediately heads towards 1920s German expressionism, such as 1922's Nosferatu and 1920's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the famous Universal horror flicks from the 1930s, including 1931's Frankenstein, 1931's Dracula, and 1932's The Mummy. Of course, they are many, many more that would round out any solid list, but these are among the most well-known of the classic period.
The films above generally rely more on frightening characters, in both design and action, for their scares. Though I enjoy these movies, my (narrow) preference in this area leans more towards the psychological, bizarre, and just plain disturbing - but without the gore or crazy special effects. That being said, below are three of my favorites to watch during October, films that grab the audience in more subtle yet equally powerful and terrifying ways. Next week I'll share three more, so stay tuned!
The Innocents (1961)
If you've religiously followed this blogging journey of mine (thank you and congratulations, if so), you may know that I count The Innocents as one of my very favorite films. I had the chance to watch it on the big screen at TCMFF in 2014, which ranks among the greatest theatrical experiences of my life, and earlier this month I saw it again at the Cinefamily. I hadn't watched the movie in between those two occasions; in fact, I don't think I'll be able to withstand The Innocents again on a screen smaller than 30 feet, despite my brother gifting me the newly restored Blu-Ray for Christmas last year. (Sorry, Chris.)
The Innocents stars Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, a novice governess who takes a job in an isolated country estate to two children, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens). It's not long before Miss Giddens starts to observe strange things around the grounds and wonder whether or not the children are possessed by the souls of the estate's former governess Miss Jessel and valet Peter Quint, who were lovers.
Besides the brilliantly creepy and rather ambiguous script (based on Henry James' equally elusive The Turn of the Screw), stars Kerr, Franklin and Stephens turned in exceptional performances, all walking the line of reality and fantasy established in the story so closely that the audience can never really differentiate between what is real and what's not. And if you didn't think smiling British children could be horrifying, think again. Oh, and Freddie Francis' brilliant black and white cinematography, somehow not nominated for a billion Oscars or BAFTAs, also plays a strong role in the film, illuminating and shading the gothic setting and terse atmosphere by highlighting both minute and unusual occurrences around the grounds and house.
This is the way we're introduced to Flora (Pamela Franklin): through her reflection in the lake.
This tendency, photographed in sweeping CinemaScope, further distances the viewer from certain actions and incidents that normally would be, metaphorically, black and white.
I could discuss the brilliance of this picture more thoroughly here, but I would be (enthusiastically) repeating myself; to read my entry dedicated solely to the The Innocents, click here.
I adore this simple, yet effective Criterion cover for The Uninvited.
The Uninvited (1944)
For years, I read about The Uninvited being one of the - if not the - first film to take a ghost story seriously. I'm not sure if that is 100% true, but compared to supernatural mysteries of the 1920s and 1930s like The Unholy Night (1929) and The Ninth Guest (1934) where inexplicable episodes are explained away with convoluted rationalization, the terrors in The Uninvited - unseen cries in the night, doors slamming unexpectedly - are down to earth: that is, potentially common nightly occurrences that could turn out to be nothing...or everything. I first saw The Uninvited at the New Beverly in 2015, and I must say, the big screen and dark theater provided the perfect viewing environment for a spooky tale like this.
In The Uninvited, Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey play brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald who stumble upon a seaside mansion and extend a cheap offer to buy it. The bid is accepted to their surprise and to the vexation of Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), a young woman who used to live in the house and whose mother died there when she was young. Roderick befriends Stella and they fall for each other, but he and Pamela soon come to realize the eerie sounds and strange activity in their new home must be tied to Stella and her family's mysterious past.
A game like this is never a good idea, is it? The spirits communicate with Dr. Scott (Alan Napier), Roderick (Ray Milland), Stella (Gail Russell) and Pamela (Ruth Hussey) in The Uninvited.
The Uninvited unfolds rather slowly, though it maintains a surprisingly solid and steady balance between the ghost and love stories; the film navigates tones of suspense, humor and romance skillfully, sometimes even within the same scene. I was also struck at how many similarities The Innocents shares with The Uninvited: a house plagued by the memories of deceased lovers that's far too big for its occupants, young ones potentially overtaken by spirits and sequences highlighting the evil and unfamiliar with brilliant black and white cinematography punctuated by the flickering glow of candles and the like (here, executed by Oscar-nominated Charles Lang). As with the various tones that share the space, the performances in The Uninvited, from the fragility and innocence of newcomer Gail Russell (who apparently used alcohol to overcome her paralyzing stage fright) to the menacing Mrs. Danvers-esque Cornelia Otis Skinner as family friend Miss Holloway, all work magnificently together to draw the audience deep into the mystery.
Another fantastic Criterion cover, for Diabolique.
Diabolique (Les Diaboliques) (1955)
I first heard this French thriller discussed at length during a William Castle tribute at the Hollywood Heritage museum and finally saw it on the big screen earlier this month at the Aero Theater. Apparently, Diabolique and the reaction it elicited from American audiences greatly influenced Castle's gimmicky Macabre three years later. (Though Diabolique may have inspired Castle, in my opinion Macabre fails to instill true fear, whereas Diabolique perfects terror in such a chilling and laudable way.)
In a slight reversal of the norm, a mistress, Nicole (Simone Signoret), teams up with her lover's long suffering wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) to murder despicable headmaster Michel (Paul Meurisse). After the women kill him, they dispose of his body in the school swimming pool, but the pool is soon drained with nary a corpse uncovered. Yes, Michel is gone, and both women try to maintain their composure as they are wracked with alleged sightings of Michel and odd occurrences that increasingly lead them to believe he is still alive.
What does Christina (Véra Clouzot) see?
Clouzot did an excellent job highlighting the darkest and most loathsome traits in two of his characters, Nicole and Michel in particular, and the situations the leads find themselves in stand on par with their varying levels of hideousness. The disappearance of the body, which throws a rather exhilarating wrench into the story, brings with it a labyrinth of questions and courses for the women to navigate; it's entertaining yet nerve-wracking for the audience to watch the women's level of tension and anxiety amplify exponentially while their reasoning and sanity begin to crumble - or so we think. Not everything is as it seems here.
Similar in flavor to Hitchcock's tight direction, the last few scenes of Diabolique stand almost unparalleled in their unrelenting suspense, heightening the sense of dread to almost unbearable levels as the viewer really has no idea what to expect and no choice but to keep their eyes glued on the screen. I was dreading those last 10 minutes when I saw the movie at the Aero even though I knew what was coming! More so than any other film on this list, the brilliant climax hit me like a ton of bricks and left me aghast for a few moments. This is one ending that simply should not be spoiled under any circumstances.
Look out for my piece next week on three more Halloween favorites of mine: The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Bunny Lake is Missing (1965) and The Cabinet of Caligari (1962).