The Return of Movies That Scared Me – When I Was Young

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March of 2011.

Narrowing down 10 selections for the article Movies that Scared Me—When I Was Young wasn’t an easy task. As soon as the story was filed, I immediately thought of 10 others that could have easily been part of the list.

To date, we have received over 175 [Editor: now over 900!] comments from enthusiastic fans who added their own memories of films they once saw that scared or shocked or at least made a hell of an impression on them.

I’ve had a lot of fun going through your commentary and suggestions, so I decided to compile a sort-of montage of them, mixing some of the titles you guys wrote about with my commentary. I hope you enjoy this and continue to add to the growing list of comments and personal responses.

Lots of big bug movies got mentioned, particularly those made during the 1950s.Them! from 1954 was singled out several times, and it’s easy to see why, as it is considered a classic of its kind. The film tells of ants that become gigantic from nuclear testing, and then terrorize everything in their way. Directed by Gordon Douglas –whose career began with The Little Rascals and who later worked extensively with Frank Sinatra (Robin and the 7 Hoods, The Detective)–a mix of Cold War fear, solid special effects and a sturdy cast that includes James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn and James Arness help make this ant-hology a leg above the rest. Other giant critter movies mentioned were Tarantula (1955) and The Giant Claw (1957) with the original Big Bird.

Some of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creations sprung vivid images from readers’ noggins.  Someone cited the dinosaur from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and another singled out the octopus that has a couple arms up on the Golden Gate Bridge in It Came from Beneath the Sea. Another reader wrote that he was so fearful of the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts that he was convinced they were waiting for him in his hallway at night. Me? I was petrified of the Harpies, the winged critters that reminded me of the—AHHHH!—flying monkeys of The Wizard of Oz.  I was also creeped out by the UFOs slicing off the top of the Capitol building in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

And speaking of flying saucers and Washington, D.C., several readers reminded us that The Day the Earth Stood Still had its chilling moments—we’re talking the 1951 Robert Wise original, folks, not the Keanu Reeves remake. “Klaatu Barada Nikto,” commanded laid-back space traveler Klaatu (Michael Rennie) to Gort, his giant, robotic, metal-vaporizing companion. They landed their UFO in downtown Washington, D.C., and were looking for a solution to all countries’ warring ways. But before they take off in their spaceship, they’re sure to scare some kids at the height of the Cold War, with America fighting in Korea and Senator Joseph McCarthy wielding his anti-Red power. Also mentioned, and in the same mold, is the same year’s The Man from Planet X, a shot-in-six-days wonder from  the ever-resourceful Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour) in which a mysterious visitor from a newly discovered planet lands on a Scottish moor where he encounters scientists, a woman and a newspaper reporter. What are his motives? And how he will react when one of the researchers wants to use him for his own means?  These questions obviously got kids a’thinkin’—and creeped them out at the same time.

Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is recognized today as a bona fide science fiction masterpiece, and still manages to scare audiences today. Entire books have been written on the low-budget 1956 outing about the pod people taking over a small California town—and, maybe, eventually, the world! Once more communism, the Cold War and McCarthyism come into play in this moody and suspenseful adaptation of Jack Finney’s story. But it’s the scares that brought it attention at first. Like Invaders from Mars, the film tells of what happens when “normal” people start behaving differently, without any personalities. In place of Martians, we get yucky pods hatching the alien alter-egos of real people. The movie is shot with lots of shadows and darkness, making it a sci-fi noir of sorts. And, of course, there is Kevin McCarthy as the film’s doctor hero, becoming more frazzled as the film wears on and striking fear in many moviegoers.

Many 1950s offerings were passed on to us. People waxed nostalgic about the fears found in 1953’s House of Wax with Vincent Price, presented originally in 3-D. (Pay no attention to the 2005 remake with Paris Hilton but pay attention to its inspiration, 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum with Lionel Atwill, Glenda Farrell and Fay Wray). When they weren’t used for the gimmick’s sake—like ricocheting a paddle ball into the theater—the 3-D effects were pretty neat, but they were also effective for eliciting scares in the icky melting sequences and a pursuit through dark city streets of the leading lady (Phyllis Kirk) by the mysterious, dark-clad murderer.

Our prior article had mentioned The Tingler, another Vincent Price starrer, as one of the scariest films we encountered when younger. That film has a key scene set in a movie theater, as does the oft-mentioned The Blob, the 1958 sci-fi horror staple with a young Steve McQueen fending off giant goo from outer space. The red menace gets loose in a movie house (actually Phoenixville, Pa’s still-standing Colonial Theater), envelopes the projectionist during the showing of a horror movie, and oozes out of the booth, causing patrons to skidoo out of the theater and onto the streets. Based on several reactions we received, it appears that many film fans at the time may have had the same urge.

The Blob was a Saturday matinee perennial, as was The Screaming Skull from 1958. In this black-and-white chiller, a woman settles in with her new hubby in the home where his first wife was killed in a mysterious accident. The new bride gets more and more unhinged in the secluded house as she begins hearing strange noises and witnessing frightening visions of a human skull scoping her out. I recall going to see this film as a kid, and it absolutely terrified a friend that accompanied me to the theater—so much so that he insisted on me calling my parents to pick us up from the theater. When I refused (his parents were away), he ended up heading into the lobby, waiting until the film was done. It damaged our friendship, but, hey, at least I got to see the end of The Screaming Skull.

Another favorite from the matinee circuit was The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, which several people wrote to us about. Perhaps the fear factor was raised because kids expected pure laughs from this 1966 Don Knotts vehicle, but got some surprising jolts instead. There were recollections of an old woman playing creepy organ music as being particularly disturbing for children. But who would have thunk that Barney Fife, the guy afraid of his own shadow, could scare anyone?

It’s not surprising that Hitchcock, in the form of Psycho and The Birds, registered strongly in comments. Disney, too, creeped out kids, with scary segments from animated masterworks  like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (the witch and the poison apple) and Pinocchio (Monstro the whale, the transformation scenes of kids into donkeys in Pleasure Island, Stromboli), but–as frightening as those things could be to young moviegoers–the drunken clowns from Dumbo really did me in. And let’s not forget the dragon from Sleeping Beauty, Cruella de Vil from (the animated) 101 Dalmatians, and the fire from Bambi as well as Bambi’s mother’s death by hunter.

While many readers voted for versions of Frankenstein (Karloff and Lee), The Mummy (Karloff and Lee again), Dracula (Lugosi and Lee), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Chaney, Laughton and Quinn) and The Phantom of the Opera (Chaney, Raines, Lom), we also handled a surprising number of mentions for two gothic classics from the ‘60s.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), directed by Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen), paired screen greats—and longtime off-screen rivals—Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in a moody, deranged melodrama that pits the two against each other. In a plot that takes sibling rivalry to new heights, Davis plays a former child star whose popularity was eclipsed in adulthood by actress sister Crawford. Years later, the two live together, Bette as a drunken, bitter has-been whose main entertainment is sadistically torturing her wheelchair-bound sibling Joan. This exercise in Grand Dame Grand Guignol obviously triggered memories of the wicked ways sisters mistreat sisters. Two years later, Aldrich and Davis brought a similarly ghoulish goulash to the over-the-top proceedings of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Bette plays a wacked-out Louisiana recluse who enlists cousin Olivia de Havilland (a role Crawford bailed on) to help save her ancestral estate from a planned highway.  Olivia has other plans, however, involving wresting control of Davis’ decrepit manse from her. It’s all for one and one for disturbing head games in this campsterpiece.

From the same era and garnering lots of mentions is 1967’s Wait Until Dark, a film that Stephen King called “the scariest of all time.” In this adaptation of a hit Broadway play, Audrey Hepburn plays a blind Greenwich Village resident whose husband has made her a gift of a doll, unaware that the plaything contains a secret cache of prime heroin. Three thugs—old pros Jack Weston and Richard Crenna, and their contractor, unpredictable beatnik creep Alan Arkin—attempt to snag the smack while Hepburn is alone in the apartment.  The last 20 minutes of the film—theater owners turned off ALL the lights in the theater to make things even spookier—are what childhood nightmares are made of.

So many memorably macabre moments from so many movies: The Uninvited with Ray Milland (finally out on Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray); TV’s Sheena, Irish McCalla, in She Demons; the British Quatermass movies; the original King Kong; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (with its creepy Child Catcher), The Brain Eaters, It! The Terror from Beyond Space (which inspired Alien), Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath with Karloff, Village of the Damned, the TV movies Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Dr. Cook’s Garden, Crowhaven Farm and Trilogy of Terror, Dead of Night (particularly the installment about the dummy), the ’58 version of  The Fly and lots more.

Do you have any more suggestions of movies that made chilling impressions when you were young that you can’t shake?  We’d love to hear from you.

If you dare!