Just ask anyone who’s ever walked up behind me when I was vacuuming and they’ll tell you I’m pretty easy to freak out.
Maybe it was the combination of an overactive imagination and a childhood home that was supposedly haunted, but I’ve always been spookable. I’m not squeamish; blood and gore don’t bother me particularly, especially not in horror movies.
But subtle stuff – a shadowy figure in the distance, a pallid face outside a window – in movies really makes me squirm.
Herewith, some stuff that freaked me out in my younger, impressionable years.
Lon Chaney in the 1925 “Phantom of the Opera.” Who wouldn’t be a little freaked out by that face? Mary Philbin and I were in good company in our reactions to Chaney’s masterpiece, both in terms of his film work and his makeup work. In Famous Monsters of Filmland I read all about how Chaney achieved this cadaverous look, manipulating his nose and cheekbones and eyes. But even though I knew Chaney’s secrets, that face made an impression.
The Suicide Song on Dr. Demento. If you’re not hep to what the nerdy kids listened to in the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Demento hosted a syndicated radio show playing offbeat songs like “Fish Heads” and “Shaving Cream.” The oddball doctor introduced a nation of youngsters to the work of Spike Jones and helped launch the career of Weird Al Yankovic. But the song that Demento played that sticks with me, 30-plus years later, was “The Suicide Song.” What was it? Incredibly enough, I can’t seem to find it online. There’s a listing of songs played on the show that includes it but I can’t find an audio or video snippet, which makes me wonder if I’m mis-remembering the name. But once I hear the song again – and its dirge-like, monotone recitation of dire lyrics – I’ll get goosebumps all over again.
“Who are you?” from “Beyond the Door.” The 1974 Italian import “Beyond the Door” was considered little more than a rip-off of “The Omen” and “The Exorcist” with its plot about demonic possession. It’s a curiosity, maybe especially because of its star, British actress Juliet Mills, best known stateside for the sugary sitcom “Nanny and the Professor.” But when I think of “Beyond the Door,” I think of the late-night commercials for the movie showing clips of Mills levitating and twisting around and – unforgettably for me – intoning in a freaky bass voice “Who are you?” I’m battling the heebie jeebies here.
The ghosts in “The Innocents.” I’m not sure any movie is scarier than “The Innocents,” director Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” The story of a governess going to a remote castle to take care of two truly strange children, “The Innocents” introduces a couple of the creepiest ghosts ever. And it does so in a totally freaky way: By having them stand, motionless, across ponds or outside windows.
I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, silent, unmoving figures watching me from a distance is more unnerving than a chainsaw-wielding maniac.
Unless he taps me on the shoulder while I’m running the vacuum cleaner.