Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Movie Picks from Women in Crime Ink

by Vanessa Leggett

It's that time of year. For kids, Halloween night means dressing up and venturing out for candy. For party-pooped adults, it means dressing down, staying in, and watching a scary movie.

If you don't like scary movies, you're not alone. Neither does our Texas prosecutor, Kelly Siegler, who put it more bluntly: "I hate scary shows."

And it's little wonder. Like other criminal justice professionals who write for WCI, Kelly might be one of those who look to movies for escape from the real-life horror she encounters day in and day out. Right now, watching a scary movie would be last on Kelly's to-do list. Our "prosecutor for hire" is in the middle of a capital murder trial, where a film of a game warden's shooting death is wearing like the Zapruder reel.

Sounds Like Halloween

If, like Kelly, you don't spend your free time watching scary movies, but your significant other does . . . don't count on shutting your eyes to keep from jumping out of your skin. Usually it's what we can't see that's more frightening—the closed closet door . . . the lengthening shadow of something around the corner . . . the creaking floorboard. . . . Sounds, in fact, can be more frightening than anything seen or suggested on-screen. It only takes two notes from an oboe in JAWS to send chills along the spine . . . or shower sounds and a few strains from the violins of Psycho . . . or a phone's shrill ring, as in When a Stranger Calls and on the other end of the line the killer breathes "Have you checked the children? . . . "

Most of us here at Women in Crime Ink enjoy scary movies, and we like to watch with our eyes open. For Halloween, we polled our contributors for their favorites.

Our Favorite Classics

Every Halloween, Donna Weaver looks forward to her annual dose of Arsenic and Old Lace. Two of Diane Dimond's favorite classics: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Rosemary's Baby. Scary-movie lover Tina Dirmann highlighted Wait Until Dark among several others. And Stacy Dittrich gave Burnt Offerings as her favorite scary movie, while Pat Brown picked The Haunting of Hill House.

"I always thought Shirley Jackson wrote the creepiest stories—more mentally creepy than physically," said profiler Pat, who recalled "the part in The Haunting where the walls are going 'boom, boom' and one woman tells the other to hold her hand until it stops and then, when the noise ceases, she opens her eyes and realizes the other woman is sleeping in a bed all the way across the room . . . eeowww."

No one could argue with Pat that "anything Hitchcock" is scary. Pat liked The Birds while Diane Fanning cited Rear Window as a favorite. Fanning also mentioned "An Unlocked Window," from the TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." That episode is about a killer on the loose, a man who slips into the cellar window of a medical ward and poses as a female nurse. "That still gives me shivers," Diane said. The chill factor might have been spiked by the set, which was the same house used in Psycho. The Master of Suspense enjoyed tapping into the collective unconscious; he understood the timelessness of terror. Tina Dirmann rents Psycho every year.

Scariest of Them All

But the "scariest movie ever," according to Tina, is The Exorcist. I agreed, as did Connie Park and Cynthia Hunt. The film was based on the William Peter Blatty novel of the same title. Blatty wrote the book and Oscar-winning screenplay, drawing inspiration from actual exorcisms he'd studied, especially the documented exorcism of a 14-year-old boy in 1949. Actress Linda Blair was cast at the same age. (She is probably still in therapy from that childhood role from Hell.) Because of death threats after the film's release, the young actress had to hire bodyguards.

What made The Exorcist, so scary? Perhaps surprisingly for a "supernatural movie"—its realism, thus the threats against the life of an actress whose lines came from a script, not from possession.

"Nothing is scarier," said Cynthia, "than the reality that there is a demonic spirit world that exists alongside us and that the enemy, Satan, is constantly trying to defeat, infect, and destroy everything that is good."

Fear Factor

A modernized battle between Good and Evil can be found in the 1991 remake of the '60s Gregory Peck classic Cape Fear, which was Katherine Scardino's favorite. It's no mystery our defense attorney found this film scary, since the movie depicts a realistic nightmare of every criminal advocate: A vengeful client who blames his lawyer for a stiff sentence. In Cape Fear, an attorney breaches professional ethics by purposely offering a less-than-zealous defense to a vicious rapist, who, upon his release from prison, stalks the lawyer and his family, targeting the attorney's teenage daughter. . . . Equally afraid of a predator's release would be the D.A. who put him away, so it's no surprise that Cape Fear was also a top pick of our sex-crimes prosecutor, Robin Sax. The 1991 version of Cape Fear was a popular choice among several contributors, including Kathryn Casey. (Other thriller picks: Jagged Edge from Robin Sax, and Andrea Campbell recommends Fallen.)

A number of us found favorites in movie adaptations of novels by Stephen KingCarrie, Misery, and Michele McPhee's favorite, The Shining. Who can forget Jack Nicholson as a madman driving an ax through a bathroom door, announcing "Heeeeerz Johnny!"

An earlier Jack Nicholson scene our resident psychiatrist would rather forget: When Nicholson's character is lobotomized in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "I can't watch that part," said Lucy Puryear.

Another hard-to-watch lobotomy is found in Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. The FBI agent played by Ray Liotta is lobotomized by cannibal psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

The Power of Silence

The majority of our contributors ranked The Silence of the Lambs as their favorite scary movie. Based on Thomas Harris's novel of the same title, the film, like the book, is more thriller than horror flick. While this film is one of my all-time favorite thrillers, I would not classify it as a "scary movie."

That said, out of all the horror films I can conjure, the climax to The Silence of the Lambs contains one of the most frightening scenes ever to flicker across the big screen. You remember the scene, when FBI Agent Clarice Starling faces off with serial killer "Buffalo Bill" in his dungeon-like basement.

Sidebar: Buffalo Bill was based on a real serial killer, Edward Gein, a quiet Wisconsin farmer who dressed his victims like deer—using their skins and bones for furnishings (like lamp shades and cereal bowls from skull caps) rather than for actual dresses, or female "body suits," as in Thomas Harris's story.

For both Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter, Harris borrows traits from Gein (pictured above). Like Gein, "Hannibal the Cannibal" ate his victims' body parts. Edward Gein also reportedly served as Hitchcock's inspiration for Psychofilmed a couple of years after Gein's crimes were discovered—as well as "Leatherface" in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which chilled our cold-case detective, Connie Park.

But back to the scene from The Silence of the Lambs. You would be hard-pressed to find an actor who has captured the emotion of fear better than Jodie Foster did as Clarice, when her face is framed in the grainy green light from the killer's night-vision goggles. Again, it's what we can't see that makes the heart pound. Don't take our word for it. Watch for yourselves. (Warning: This scene contains language and violence unsuitable for younger viewers.)

Our True Crime Favorites

While The Silence of the Lambs is loosely based on a real villain, there are a number of other films directly adapted from true stories and true-crime books. Since a number of us write fact-based books, this post would not be complete without mentioning our favorite scary movies based on real stories. Here they are, with contributor nominators in parentheses: The Amityville Horror (Tina Dirmann, Vanessa Leggett, Connie Park, Donna Pendergast); In Cold Blood (Jenna Jackson, Vanessa); Helter Skelter (Tina); The Honeymoon Killers (Susan Murphy-Milano); and The Onion Field (Diane Dimond).

So find yourself a scary movie and enjoy the holiday weekend. Now that you know our favorites, we hope you'll share yours with us. A safe and happy Halloween to everyone.

For best-reviewed scary movies, check Rotten Tomatoes, the definitive movie review site:


Anonymous said...

What about the Omen? (the 1st one)

Women in Crime Ink said...

More about Susan Murphy-Milano's pick:

The Honeymoon Killers is a little-seen, true crime masterpiece based on the case of Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck, the unlikely lovers who, after a murder spree in the late 1940s, became known as the "Lonely Hearts Killers." It's the first—and easily the best—of several films to be based on the couple's seamy story, which also include 1997's striking, Mexican-set Deep Crimson and this year's middling Lonely Hearts. The latter, which split focus between Ray and Martha and the real-life New York cops who investigated them, was a blood-drenched and, at times, erotic look at the notorious murderers, that also featured a graphic recreation of the couple's electric chair deaths. In contrast, the mini-budgeted, black-and-white Honeymoon Killers has relatively little gore (okay, one scene, but it's quick), with most of what was sensationalized in Lonely Hearts left implied or kept off-screen.
It's a case of less is way more as The Honeymoon Killers' great strength is in its stark simplicity and chillingly unglamorous treatment of Ray and Martha. For example, in Lonely Hearts, Martha, who was reportedly so obese she couldn't fit into the electric chair, is portrayed by the gorgeous Salma Hayek, while here she's played by the fleshy, plainly unattractive, and utterly frightening Shirley Stoler. The first-time film actress (later seen in Seven Beauties and The Deer Hunter) was perfectly cast, as was Tony LoBianco as Ray, the dashing but spineless conman who meets 30-ish nurse Martha through a mail-based, lonely hearts dating club.

For Ray, these pen-pal hookups are his gravy train, enabling him to meet an endless flow of spinsters and widows, woo them with his "Latin lover" charms, and then abscond with their nest eggs. But after a torrid first weekend with the tough (and smitten) Martha, Ray realizes he's met his match and they're soon in business together, crisscrossing the country as "brother and sister," while Ray does his bit with an array of gullible older women. Martha becomes so wildly jealous of these ladies, though, that her anger threatens to blow her and Ray's cover, ultimately leading the pair to commit a series of ill-planned murders to silence their victims. Four corpses and several years later, Ray and Martha were found guilty of these heinous crimes and executed at Sing-Sing.

It's an eerily vivid, riveting tale, written and directed by Leonard Kastle with the confidence of a seasoned filmmaker (it remains his one and only film credit). The picture has a stunningly blunt, you-are-there feel to it, yet there are moments that are so devilishly twisted they're like something John Waters might've cooked up (the plus-size Stoler, whose harsh delivery occasionally slips into camp, could've flourished in Waters' stock company). Make no mistake, though, this is tragic, disturbing stuff, further enhanced by Kastle's brilliant use of classical composer Gustav Mahler's booming, menacing score.

In addition to the late Stoler, LoBianco is also terrific as the vain, manipulative Ray, with a host of effectively dotty performances from Mary Jane Higby, Barbara Cason, Kip McArdle, and Marilyn Chris as Ray and Martha's various casualties. A startlingly young Doris Roberts also appears early on as Martha's meddling, Alabama-inflected neighbor, Bunny.

The Criterion Edition DVD includes an enjoyable, comprehensive sitdown with Leonard Kastle, filmed in 2003. The effusive, one-time opera composer seems as proud and passionate about the movie (originally titled Dear Martha) as if he'd just directed it, recounting the film's shoestring production and its place back then as the anti-Bonnie and Clyde. The most notable factoid: Kastle replaced none other than Martin Scorsese as director after the future Oscar-winner was fired for working too slowly. The disc also contains bios of Kastle and the cast, as well as the film's amusingly lurid theatrical trailer, which aptly advises: "If you've never heard of Martha and Ray, then see The Honeymoon Killers and try to forget."


LadySheila said...

Yep... Silence of the Lambs for non-fiction (I think that was non-fiction) though I probably prefer true crime stories which is what prompted me to write this time.
I'm one of those that love scary movies (ok, thriller, actually) but can't watch them as it always made me have bad dreams and as a 'grown up' am still prone to night terrors which haunted me as a child. I even skipped over this post and only came back to it when I finally got the nerve today, on Nov. 2. I always wanted to watch Dark Shadow's re-runs but was just too afraid! Anyhow, it is fun to dress up and go trick-or-treating, pretending for a bit to be frightened or frighten others or watching a suspenseful movie, knowing you are safe and snug, BUT, when you are in the middle of one of these favorite American 'treats' and something goes awry, LIKE THE REAL SHOOTING DEATH OF A 12 YEAR-OLD THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR WHEN HE WAS GETTING READY TO ASK FOR CANDY in Sumter, SC on this Halloween evening, well, I would have to say that THAT is the scariest of all. I, like you, can't believe it. I just can't believe it!! That was worse than the wake on Halloween evening (yes, you heard right) and subsequent funeral the next day of an acquaintence who was suddenly killed in an auto accident (she was looking in her purse and veered into the other lane, head-on). I know you all will be covering that story and I will be sitting right here, spellbound.

cheryl said...

Err..I know this is going to sound picky,(and gruesome) but Ed Gein DID have a "female body suit" of sorts. It was a torso, breasts included,which he had skinned,that held together by tying in the back.

The Ed Gein saga was probably one of the most disgusting and disturbing things I've ever read or heard about.

Vanessa Leggett said...

Thanks for your comments!

Anonymous - The Omen (1976) is another classic. Lots of really scary movies from the '70s. It seems the teen slasher films in the wake of 1978's Halloween-- Friday the 13th (1980) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and all their sequels--spelled the end of serious horror films like The Omen.

Lady Sheila - We'll see if one of us can find out more about that tragic trick-or-treat shooting.

Cheryl - Thanks for that info on Ed Gein. I'd never have thought it possible to give Thomas Harris too much credit for his twisted imagination!

Pat Brown said...

Mukesh Bhatt's Kasoor! I do love this movie…true Bollywood Masala…love, romance, sexy cast and scenes, great music, and a serial killer and scaryness. I really was on the edge of my chair with this. Can be ordered from Netflix for anyone who wants something different in a scary movie (most Americans hated it from what I can see from the reviews. I guess they couldn't get over a murder mystery with music and dancing in it. I remember seeing a video of a lovely song featuring a man romancing a woman in Switzerland – in Hindi – and rolling about in the snow – and then when I finally saw the movie, the man turned out to be a demented stalker…ah, gotta love Bollywood for its fantasy scenes!)

What I like about the Bollywood treatment of even a film like this (which is basically Jagged Edge) is that they spend a lot of time on character development. You REALLY get to like the protagonist and, since the movie is near 3 hours long (well, maybe it could be 2 and 1/2 but that would be short by Bollywood standards) there is lots of time to get involved emotionally. Of course, even if the movie sort of sucks, you get great music, dancing, and a fashion show of the latest hot outfits!

Cynthia Hunt said...

Flight 93—was one of the most disturbing and scary movies I've ever watched. Even thought I knew the ending, seeing it unfold and knowing this could happen again was terrifying.