Those who know me are probably aware of my passions for music, literature, film, nature, and baseball (in no particular order), but my love for classic horror has likely outlasted all of those.
As I briefly mention in a recently-revised introduction to RED JACARANDAS, my upcoming collection of original supernatural horror and suspense, it all began at the Bing Theater in Springfield, MA. In the 1960s, horror, fantasy, and science fiction B-movies were made strictly for kids and by the bushel, meaning a double feature for 75 cents every Saturday afternoon at the Bing. My best friend David Ihilchik (“Hooch” to us) and a gaggle of other pals were dropped off at the theater by someone’s mother, where our packed audience of pre-teens dared each other to keep both eyes open during scary scenes. The day Boris Karloff appeared in a trailer for Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and used a shock cut to this—
every one of us in the theater dropped to the cold, gum-littered floor like we were hit with cattle prods, before we quickly got back in our seats to make plans for going to that film. As much as cheap horror affected my sleep, I always returned for more because I knew it was a safe experience in terror, much like roller coaster rides would be in later years.
I watched every scary movie they would show on late night local TV, including Hitchcock classics, or Diabolique, or Fiend Without a Face, or The Man With the X-Ray Eyes. A signature feature of all of these films, including the Roger Corman ouvre at the Bing, was that they were scary in concept and effects, but never resorted to gratuitous violence. My still-favorite ghost movie of all time, Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, frightens the bejeezus out of you without really showing one frightening thing.
When John Carpenter’s Halloween was released in 1978 and became a huge hit, that all changed, and slasher movies took over the genre. I became bored with them pretty quick; watching naive, impressionable teenagers die bloody deaths was not my thing. The outbreak of body-maiming movies like the Saw franchise were even worse. Thankfully, 1999 brought us The Blair Witch Project, the ingenious, non-violent indie film that launched the “found footage” horror genre, which is playing itself out now but still produces occasional gems like REC, Cloverfield, and Host.
Thankfully, non-violent horror is still being made, and recent postings of my eight favorite scary movies of the last 21 years now has a champion: THE DESCENT. Neil Marshall’s 2005 film has also been called “Chicks in a Cave” in some circles, and it perfectly sums up the premise. Recovering from a traumatic car accident that took the life of her husband and daughter, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) joins her adventurous girlfriends on a spelunking expedition into Appalachian caves.
For anyone who was afraid to swim in the ocean (or a lake) after seeing Jaws for the first time, The Descent taps into an entirely different phobia—fear of tight spaces. Indeed, one of the scariest moments ever on film is a scene where Sarah crawls alone through a very tight tunnel a mile below the earth’s surface and suddenly has a full-blown panic attack. And this is before the group encounters a race of hideous cave-dwelling creatures that are never explained and begin picking them off. There have definitely been more thoughtful, textured horror films this century, but for sheer “safe” terror, nothing for me has topped The Descent.
Here are the recappings of the other seven films from my list…
2. MIDSOMMAR (2019)
3. THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012)
4. THE RING (2002)
5. TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)
6. THE BABADOOK (2014)
7. A QUIET PLACE (2018)
8. THE OTHERS (2001)*
*While I admired The Witch, The Conjuring, Get Out, Drag Me to Hell, and 28 Days Later, they didn’t quite make my Scary Eight.
Which brings me finally to the aforementioned Red Jacarandas, my attempt at capturing the fun terror of the Bing Theater experience—in book form and transported to modern Los Angeles. The book will be released Tuesday January 11th (Amazon page), and if you get the e-book version, be sure to view the two screenplays in white on black type for maximum spooky effect. You can also find links to my three video “pre-readings” on the Grassy Gutter Press page, which you can follow for news of any upcoming Red Jacaranda items or events. Scream on!