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31 Days of Creepy – Testament and Threads

Testament1983I talked the other day about how deeply affected I was by the threat of nuclear Armageddon back in the early 1980s – the idea that any day could be our last. The movie industry was very much aware of that situation, because not one but three major films came out in 1983-84 focusing on the theme of all-out nuclear war: the enduring The Day After (which generally gets all the publicity), Testament, and Threads.

THREADS is a very small, intimate story, focusing on the residents of a small town about 90 minutes away from San Francisco – particularly on a mother (Jane Alexander) and her three children. When the unthinkable happens, she has to find a way to keep her family going: keep them fed, keep them safe, find as much normalcy as possible. It’s a heartbreaking story, and Ms. Alexander’s performance is masterful. Unlike The Day After, there are no happy endings here – no miraculous reunions, no closing scenes that insist that “humanity will persevere.” There is no hope for Carol Weatherly and her children – there is only love.

oB1h2CAUvTlnzrUJInahwR0HJBwThe British production THREADS is even more bleak than TESTAMENT (which reinforces my opinion that nobody knows how to do horror like the British). It focuses on two families, one working class and one middle class – but here, the characters aren’t as important as the situation. Everything’s irradiated. There’s no food, no water. Nuclear winter sets in, and the closing scene is truly blood-chilling.

What I generally find most frightening isn’t stories about ghosts or vampires or Michael Myers-type serial killers — it’s stories that make me think, “Man… this could happen to me. It could happen to all of us.” All three of these 1983-84 productions do that, each with a different focus. I’ve picked these two to recommend because they sidestep the (undoubtedly TV network-mandated) sort-of happy ending, the idea that families will be reunited, everything will be rebuilt, and life will go on. TESTAMENT and THREADS are deeply chilling because of their firm focus on things going bad — reminding us that sometimes, when it comes down to it, all you have to turn to is yourself, and the people you love.

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31 Days of Creepy – Ghost Story

ghost story - peter straub - pocket books - apr 1980“What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

Those are the first words in Peter Straub’s classic horror novel, which I read for the first time back in 1980. Back then, Stephen King was my favorite author (and he still is) — but I discovered something new with Straub. Straub digs deeper. Finds out where we really live, what our deepest fears are.

Four old men, friends for many years, meet periodically to tell each other ghost stories. They call themselves the Chowder Society. Their lives are ordinary, more or less – until one of them dies. Then the past rises slowly but surely out of its grave, and the remaining members of the Chowder Society are forced to acknowledge what they did many years ago… and pay the price for doing it.

Straub is a master of his craft. He unfolds his story not in a straightforward manner, but in bits and pieces. Time jumps around. Perspective changes. The whole time, the language is beautiful and evocative.  “Time whittled down to a solid capsule encasing him as he sat helpless in a flying car. Then the texture of the moment changed, time broke and began to flow, and he knew, as passive as he’d ever been in his life, that the car had left the road: everything was happening with unbelievable slowness, almost lazily, and the Morgan was floating.”

A dead girl. Guilty consciences. Making amends for a long-ago mistake. It’s good stuff, beautifully told.

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31 Days of Creepy – A Little Peace and Quiet

logoI bet you’ve been expecting me to talk about THE TWILIGHT ZONE – meaning the original Rod Serling classic. And I will… but right now I’m thinking about the 1985 reboot, in particular part 2 of the first episode. “A Little Peace and Quiet” stars ET’s Melinda Dillon as a harried suburban mom who’s desperate for a break from her noisy, stressful life – and finds it in the form of an odd amulet she unearths in her garden. At first she thinks it’s just a pretty necklace, but when she’s pushed to her limit and screams “SHUT UP!!!!” … that’s exactly what happens. Everyone around her freezes. Time stands still, something that’s at first amusing and useful. But when international tensions reach the breaking point…

4978536391_79140ca6d1This episode sticks with me 30 years after its premiere because the 1980s were a time of incredible stress around the globe. The U.S. and the Soviet Union had amassed a spectacular number of nuclear weapons that might be launched at any time. (“Well, we aren’t that close to anything…” I said to a co-worker. His response? “We’re a couple of miles from the arsenal. If they launch, you can kiss your butt goodbye.” Nope, not the response I’d been hoping for.) So housewife Penny’s dilemma in “Peace and Quiet” resonated with me. She’s got a solution, but it’s a horribly imperfect one, and the final scenes are chilling.

You can find the episode on the DVD set, and on YouTube.

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31 Days of Creepy – The Entity

516YDEWE8PLThere are scary movies – movies with scenes that make you jump and shriek. Scenes that make you cover your eyes – although that’s usually because somebody’s being dismembered onscreen.

Then there are movies that disturb you so deeply you can’t go home. That’s what happened to me back in 1983, when I had a solo movie night with THE ENTITY, starring Barbara Hershey. It’s taken from a supposedly true story involving a young single mother whose home was invaded by an invisible entity that raped her repeatedly over a period of months. In the film version, she enlists the help of a group of paranormal investigators who are at first skeptical… and then come to believe her.

Sometimes, when you live alone, the night gets very, very dark.  I watched this movie at the theater knowing I’d need to go home by myself… in the dark. I don’t honestly believe in supernatural home-invading entities, but THE ENTITY got under my skin so deeply that I couldn’t face being alone. Instead, I went across the road to another theater and detoxed with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. That eased my fears somewhat, but I still slept with a light on that night.

I don’t know if the movie would have the same impact on a guy, but… maybe. Turn out the lights, make sure you’re alone, and give it a try. I dare you.  🙂

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31 Days of Creepy – Our Mother’s House

51BsGQprh7L._SL500_SX319_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve always figured, no one knows how to do “creepy” like the British – and that’s particularly true of this little book, which originally came out in 1963.  I bought it five years later for the princely sum of 50 cents, and have held on to it as one of my favorites ever since.

OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE is the story of the seven Hook children, who are left on their own when their mother dies suddenly. Rather than take the chance of being sent to an orphanage, they decide to bury their mother in the back yard and pretend she’s still alive, supporting themselves with monthly trust fund checks that one of the boys endorses in his mother’s name. All goes more or less well for a few months… and then their mother’s shiftless ex-husband appears.

The story is eerie and disturbing, particularly when the children turn on one of their siblings for daring to interact with a stranger – and in the way they respond to the father they’ve never really known. It’s a tale that will grab you around the throat and hold on, so masterfully told that it will stay with you years later. It’s not available as an ebook, so you’ll have to buy a used copy for a couple of dollars – but it’s well worth the trouble. Turn down the lights, start turning the pages… and start wondering if you can really trust your kids. Or your siblings.

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31 Days of Creepy: One Step Beyond

newland1Even people much younger than I am know about The Twilight Zone. Some genre fans have probably heard about The Outer Limits. But there was another series on TV at around the same time – the supremely creepy One Step Beyond, hosted by John Newland.

Like its TV siblings, OSB was a black-and-white anthology series with a different cast and a different story in each episode. Unlike the other two shows, though, its host claimed that the stories being told had actually happened.  Combine that with eerie music and a lot of characters terrified by hauntings, precognition, astral projection, and mysterious disappearances and you have a show that scared the bejeebers out of little grade-school me.

Nicely written and directed, featuring a roster of fine performers, the show holds up well 55 years after its initial run. Some of the episodes are more eerie than others, and the anecdotes the episodes are based on date back a long time – but if you’re intrigued by a man predicting the 1906 San Francisco earthquake the day before it happened, a house from which a number of people mysteriously vanished, a little girl who’s apparently possessed by the spirit of a dead neighbor, and a lonely woman who’s befriended by a man who died long before she was born, then the inexpensive DVD sets of this terrific series are a great investment for you! (There are a number of different collections available at Amazon – click the photo to see one of them – and you can also find the individual episodes on YouTube.)

Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at one of my favorite scary books!