Well, there’s no accounting for poor taste. That did not stop the Chicago Film Critics Association, apparently as desperate for attention as myself, from issuing a list of the one hundred “scariest movies.” Let’s have a look at the association’s choices, as they were published today, just in time to cash in on the Halloween business. Only in recent years, Halloween has become big business here in the UK and in my native country, Germany. Considering that the tradition is so ancient, it is surprising how slow marketers were to catch on.
I remember watching Spielberg’s E.T. upon its first release, being baffled by the costumes with which the children paraded on the streets. Dressing up, in my youth, was reserved for Carnival (or Mardi Gras). Nowadays, the pagan festival of Halloween is upstaging Christmas, probably because it does not pressure folks to spend on others the money whose power to shock and awe they’d rather display on themselves.
Even the small town of Aberystwyth, in mid-Wales, is having its own Halloween film festival, cheekily called Abertoir, which screens classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Roger Corman’s The Raven, as well as recent camp like Poultrygeist (by director Lloyd Kaufman, who is a special guest of the events).
Now, I appreciate the diversity of the Chicago Film Critics Association’s list of scary movies, which, topped by Psycho, includes must-sees like Nosferatu, Frankenstein (1931), and I Walked With a Zombie; and even though I doubt that anyone is likely to be terrified watching Creature from the Black Lagoon, it qualifies as a beloved late-night drive-in staple. Then there are beauts like Eyes without a Face, which I haven’t seen in ages, and Carnival of Souls (presumably the original). Also getting a nod from the CFCA are genuinely disturbing films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Blue Velvet, and Fritz Lang’s M. An eclectic list, in short.
Inexplicably, though, my personal favorite did not make the bloody cut. It is Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957), based on “Casting the Runes,” a short story by the aforementioned ghost storyteller M. R. James. On US radio the story was dramatized under its original title on the literary thriller series Escape. When it was shown on BBC 2 TV here in Britain a few nights ago, I seized the opportunity to go once more into that not so gentle Night. Much to my relief, I had not yet become immune to its powers.
Once again, I was startled by that hand on the banister; once again, my skin showed pimply evidence of the film’s workings upon my imagination. After the screening, my unimpressed partner, an incorrigible prankster who knows how to make me jump (which is not all that difficult), caught me unawares (which is easier still) and passed me a slip of paper with a runic-looking message. Upon closer inspection, though, it bore an inscription of three little words far more reassuring. Though constantly under attack, my heart is still beating for him.
In its two versions, Night (or Curse) is central to the debate about horror and terror—the former trying to shock by showing, the latter causing unease by the subtler force of suggestion. A curse on the CFCA for not casting their votes for it! Anyone got runes?