Graves Registry: Films that jostle in the night | Columnists
I thought I might hijack this week from the real life horror shows that happen every day and recommend some thrillers that Hollywood has conjured up to scare us. You may notice that I failed to mention the classic horror films produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s and 1940s. It was not out of disrespect on my part. I just thought I’d offer a few titles that might not be so familiar.
It is, after all, the season and who doesn’t like a good scare once in a while? So, in no particular order:
“The spiral staircase” (1946). There’s been a series of murders in a small town in Vermont. The victims are all women with some sort of disability. Helen (Dorothy McGuire, in a beautifully nuanced performance) hasn’t said a word since she was a child when she witnessed her parents die in a fire. She works for the Warren family in a secluded mansion that could be a monument to Gothic sensibility.
Elderly, sick, and grumpy Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) worries for Helen’s safety, especially since the return of her wayward son, Stephen (Gordon Oliver). The murders always seem to coincide with his visits.
It’s the quintessential peril during a raging thunderstorm in an old scary movie. Director Robert Siodmak has masterfully combined his roots in German Expressionism with American commercialism, creating atmosphere and menace with shadows and darkness.
It’s very hard to resist the call of a warning to Helen that someone is waiting for her at the bottom of that spiral staircase.
“Hush… Hush, sweet Charlotte” (1964). Faded Southern beauty Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis) has isolated herself in her rundown plantation home since her married lover had an unfortunate encounter with a meat cleaver. The general consensus was that Charlotte used it, although no one was ever convicted of committing the grisly murder.
Her home is her shelter from whispers and pointing fingers and the state intends to tear it down to build a highway. Charlotte enlists the help of her long-absent cousin, Miriam (Olivia de Havilland), to save the old house. Miriam exudes a polished, sophisticated air like a heady, expensive perfume, but Charlotte’s longtime housekeeper, Velma (Agnes Moorehead), doesn’t trust her as much as she might toss one of the white columns adorning the facade of the manor. Velma may be a little careless, but she’s a good judge of character. Or lack thereof.
The film was a follow-up (not a sequel) to “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), a surprise box office hit that proved that even actresses with decades in their rearview mirrors could still sell tickets. “Charlotte” was to have starred the same two ladies who featured in “Baby Jane,” but Joan Crawford and Davis never got along and Crawford eventually quit the production and was replaced by Davis’ longtime girlfriend Olivia. de Havilland.
In many ways, “Charlotte” is a lot more fun than “Baby Jane.” It’s more visceral and less claustrophobic. Director Robert Aldrich shared Robert Siodmak’s affinity for shadows and mood and he also makes the most of a thunderstorm.
Mrs. Davis, sporting an accent you could cut with the aforementioned cleaver, is beautifully exaggerated, and she is ably encouraged by de Havilland, Moorehead (who was nominated for an Oscar), Joseph Cotton, Victor Buono, and especially Mary Astor, in a cameo appearance as a woman who welcomes the prospect of death as the ultimate end to her troubled life.
“The Haunting” (1963). It’s not to be confused with the awful 1999 version of Shirley Jackson’s disturbing novel or Netflix’s bloated 2018 parody.
It’s a cerebral horror story in the best sense of the word. It’s also one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. There are no werewolves, vampires, or other assorted monsters roaming the halls of Hill House. There is no blood running down the walls. There is, however, for the small group chosen for their susceptibility to paranormal activity, a palpable sense of dread buried in the dark stone structure.
Julie Harris, a standout actress who specialized in characters with a tenuous foothold on reality, played Eleanor Lance. Eleanor spent years caring for her crippled mother while her own life went by. The chance to participate in an experiment into the tangible existence of the supernatural led by Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) is the key that will unlock the door that has kept her caged. She opens it revengefully.
The film is scrupulously bloodless, but you may never again trust the hand you’re really holding in the dark.
Halloween Honorable Mentions: “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), “Train to Busan” (2016), “The Uninvited” (1944), “Fright Night” (1985), “Hush” (2016), “An American Werewolf in London” (1981), “Frenzy” by Alfred Hitchcock (1972), “The Innocents” (1961), “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992), “Poltergeist” (1982), “The Howling” (1981 ), “Sleepy Hollow” (1999) and “Dog Soldiers” (2002).
Be sure to close the curtains and dim the lights.
One final note: For those of you who thought his divorce from Angelina Jolie was the biggest mess Brad Pitt had ever gotten himself into, check out “Bullet Train.”