During a recent New Year’s Eve marathon of The Twilight Zone, I was reminded of something that scared the bejeezus out of me when I was a mere tyke. As a baby-boomer growing up in Philadelphia, I was raised on horror movies on Saturday afternoons (introduced by an amiable ghoul named Dr. Shock) and late night chiller theaters. I also was a slave to such shows as The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond and the aforementioned Twilight Zone. I guess I just couldn’t get enough of horror in my life.
It was during the recent marathon that the Twilight Zone entry called Eye of the Beholder aired. That’s the one where a woman is all bandaged up like a mummy, having just undergone her eleventh surgery in order to look normal like everyone else. There are never any face shots of the solicitous doctors and nurses attending her; it isn’t until the end of this incredibly suspenseful episode that we get the gist of what was going on, as the woman is revealed to be gorgeous (Donna Douglas, AKA Ellie Mae Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies) while the hospital staff is finally shown as pig-nosed, dark-eyed, cleft-lipped monstrosities.
As a kid –the episode first aired in 1960, when I was three years-old—I watched the show over and over again, my hands half-covering my eyes for the final reveal. And I recall how I later sadistically encouraged my sister, three years younger than I, to watch the same episode without warning her of the surprise ending, not-so-loving older brother that I was.
The show still packs a sinister wallop, as do the best installments of “the Zone” (Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, anyone?) and The Outer Limits (I still hate those Zanti Misfits!).
But that recent marathon got me thinking: What else scared the hell out of me when I was a kid?
Here are some of the films I came up with:
The Thing from Another World (1951): I’ve argued the merits of the original versus John Carpenter’s 1982 remake for years, and I still have a fondness for the Howard Hawks-sanctioned, subtle black-and-white classic over Carpenter’s special effects-filled shock show. Ok, James Arness’ monster, on the occasions you got to see it, was essentially a huge carrot, but the scene in which the members of the expedition stand around the frozen pond for the evidence that tells us that a flying saucer has landed there is still a chiller—and not because it takes place in Antarctica. It also proves my point that the fear of the unknown is creepier than the overt gore and head-bludgeoning FX of Carpenter’s concoction.
Invaders from Mars (1953): This is one of those movies that stays with you for years, giving you nightmares. A young kid (Jimmy Hunt) looks out his window and sees a spaceship crash into a nearby sandpit. Soon, his scientist father—and various other adults around him—begin to behave robotically, and now have mysterious marks behind their necks. The police ignore the youngster’s complaints, but with help from a female doctor and an astronomer, the boy discovers that an invasion is underway as aliens with big heads have housed themselves in the nearby dunes. This movie had such an effect on me that I made my parents show me the back of their necks to make sure they didn’t have the same markings as the parents in the film. Then I insisted that my friends’ parents do the same. Because the film centers on a little kid with a vivid imagination, I could relate to his trauma—and so, apparently, could many other folks my age who talk about watching Invaders from Mars for the first time and being genuinely frightened out of their minds. As for Tobe Hooper’s 1986 remake, don’t bother. It’s a travesty.
Target Earth (1954): The idea of a large city being abandoned—ala The World, the Flesh and the Devil, The Omega Man, 28 Days Later…, The Quiet Earth, and I Am Legend—has always touched a nerve in me. It’s probably because of this Cold War sci-fi parable in which a large city—presumably Chicago—is mostly people-less, and robots from Venus are roaming around the streets. At first, the only survivors appear to be a guy from Detroit and a woman who tried to commit suicide by ingesting sleeping pills. Other, less likable remnants of humanity eventually appear (as do scientists trying to resolve the problem), but will they all be able to just get along and halt the Venusians from conquering the world?
The Monster That Challenged the World (1957): The 1950s gave us movies about giant you-name-its, from birds to mantises to octopi. But this is the one and only ‘50s sci-fi film about a giant snail. And while the thought of an enormous escargot may not be enough to give you the heebie-jeebies , take a look at the mug on this thing, and you’ll see why one of my friends wouldn’t talk to me for one whole year after we attended a matinee showing of this one at my behest. It’s got two huge red eyes, a pair of pincers and a saliva-dripping whatsit for sucking the life out of humans. Hatched from a volcanic explosion in the Salton Sea, the scary snail takes on Navy divers, scientists and others although, oddly enough, not French chefs.
I Bury the Living (1958): This is a case where the principals involved seem like an unlikely collaboration that just comes together. The director is Albert Band, father of Charles and producer/director of many spaghetti westerns and gladiator movies. The stars are Richard Boone, best known as the lead in the TV western Have Gun, Will Travel, and Theodore Bikel, a character actor and folk singer best known for playing the male leads during the Broadway runs of both The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof. The plot has successful small-town businessman Boone taking over an old cemetery where the plots are signified on a map by black pins (occupied) and white pins (not). When Boone accidentally mismarks a pair of plots with black pins, and the youthful, healthy owners of those plots abruptly die, he realizes that he may have control over the life and death of others. The spare atmosphere provides much of the film’s tension, with the rundown cemetery office with that large, ominous graveyard map as a primary location and Gerald Fried’s creepy harpsichord score providing a sense of dread. Then there’s Bikel as the Scottish gravedigger who may or may not know more about the secret behind the pins then he’s letting on.
A Bucket of Blood (1959): You laugh and then you shudder. And that’s the joy of Roger Corman’s made-on-pennies companion piece to The Little Shop of Horrors. Here, Shop star Dick Miller is the busboy at a bohemian hangout who wants nothing more than to be considered a real artist like the pompous hipster (Julian Burton) who peddles poetry at his workplace. When Miller accidentally kills a cat, he coats it in clay, presents his “sculpture” at the club, and he’s on his way to beatnik fame. But the rush of celebrity, however, soon has him turning to humans for his subject matter. Corman skews “modern art” and the whole beat movement with satiric flare, but the more grotesque Miller’s works become the more uneasy we get at his artistic abilities.
The Tingler (1959): Except for maybe my gym teachers and Uncle Hymie, William Castle probably scared me more than anyone else in my childhood. Castle also made kids shudder in that era with 13 Ghosts, The House on Haunted Hill and Mr. Sardonicus , but I didn’t realize until I got older how this particular terror tale was years ahead of its time. Vincent Price plays the doctor delving into the physiology of what makes people frightened and discovers that everyone has an undetectable centipede-like creature attached to their spine. Now, if he can just find one on a dead person during an autopsy! Someone gets dosed by LSD! Although the film is in black-and-white, there’s a red-tinted color sequence in which the water in a bath tub turns into blood! And then, of course, there is the scene where the creepy crawly is loose in the movie theater! Exhibitors hired people to act like they were fainting in theaters, and Castle invented “Percepto,” a process in which electric vibrations were sent to patrons’ seats. Still, you couldn’t get louder screams (even sans acting or electrical accompaniment) than the Tyson Theater audience during a matinee showing of The Tingler circa the early 1960s.
The Time Machine (1960): George Pal’s version of the H.G. Wells story may be my favorite movie of all-time. Along with everything that is great about it—the nifty special effects, Rod Taylor as the stalwart lead, a supporting cast that includes Alan Young and Sebastian Cabot, the talking rings, the memorable score by Russell Garcia, and the gorgeous Yvette Mimieux as futuristic fox Weena—there are those Morlocks, bug-eyed beasts who live underground and terrorize the peaceful Eloi with their unpredictable assaults and cannibalistic palates. I’ve seen this film well over 30 times, and the Morlocks, a mix of troglodyte and ape, still offer unsettling glimpses into the future. Are they not men? They are Devo. As for 2002’s remake, directed by Simon Wells (H.G.’s grandson) and produced by Steven Spielberg, don’t bother. It’s a travesty.
Black Sunday (1960): The image of a spiked mask (“The Mask of Satan,” an alternate title for the film) being nailed into the face of sorceress Barbara Steele by a mallet is one of the most shocking in horrordom. But the rest of Mario Bava’s gothic masterpiece is no slouch in the creepiness department, either. Steele actually has two roles, the 18th century witch known as Princess Asa, and Katia, her beautiful descendant. 200 years after her spiking, the resurrected Asa rises from the grave to seek Katia lifeforce so that she may keep ticking for centuries more. The film opened with this little word of advice to get all the kiddies in the right mood: “We feel that the moral obligation to warn you that the film you are about to see will shock you as no other film you will ever see…Therefore, the producers recommend that it only be seen by those persons with mature minds.”
The Haunting (1963): The sounds of Robert Wise’s translation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House are what really spooked yours truly as a kid. The wind whooshes, the doors creak and the walls cry…and what’s that ominous tapping sound? All are found in a house in New England where psychic investigator Richard Johnson is joined by house heir Russ Tamblyn, lesbian ESP expert Claire Bloom and emotionally distraught Julie Harris to determine if the unwilling spirits are real or not. Here Wise and company prove that the cinema of suggestion can often be the creepiest of all, goosebumps guaranteed. As for the 1999 remake, don’t bother. It’s a travesty.
We were curious: What movies can you recall being afraid of when you were young?