To New Yorkers, the south is kinda scary. I know we have our share of horrors in the boroughs, the Gemini Lounge in Queens and the Son of Sam from, uh, Queens, but for the most part you can’t hide 2,000 Maniacs on a city block. They might live there, but we’d know about it. The south was filled with swamps and quicksand and guys living in the woods that’d make you squeal like a pig. And not in a good way.
My mom took a bunch of us on a couple road trips to Florida. She’d heard horror stories about the ride from various aunts and uncles. Somewhere outside of Atlanta the locals couldn’t understand my aunt’s thick thick Brooklyn accent and locked up her husband as the Georgia skunk ape. Another uncle who made the trip couldn’t get through a waitress’s honey molasses accent and when she asked if he wanted grits he thought she said grass. It was too early for grass, but hey, if she knew where he could get it. Well, another Georgia skunk ape locked away safe from the public. My mom told me to buy a hat and hide my hair under it. We watched Hamburger Helper commercials to practice how to answer questions, if asked. We topped the tank with gas in North Carolina because there was no way we were stopping until we hit Florida. No matter how many Stuckey’s and South of the Border signs beckoned.
The South was scary. I didn’t know the difference between the south and California, all I knew is it was easier to bury bodies in the woods than in concrete, so I also associated Manson with the South. What did I know from accents?
13. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
I was waiting at some guy’s apartment when I was a kid for my old man to pick something up. The TV was on and there was this scene of these kids hiding in a car while some guy with searching, clutching fingers, tried to get at them through the almost-closed window. The child actors were great. They were filled with terror. They shrieked and shrank and tried to get the windows closed before that guy’s fingers found the lock. The man’s face was distorted into a devil’s mask of hatred, anguish and the absolute intent to kill. To kill children. I’d never seen a movie that had such a horrible monster going after kids. He meant it. If he got in through that door those kids were toast and they knew it.
For years I wanted to know what that movie was. But I was asking about a horror movie. Finally one day I finally caught the masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a special showing on TV. It hadn’t been shown in yada yada years. In the middle of the movie is that scene. As soon as it came on I had that beautiful feeling of dread. I still feel it when I see that movie. I know it is a classic that is uncovering a much more insidious evil, but I get the thrill of wanting to shut the windows and lock the doors.
12. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
The first time I saw this I only caught the end. That scary lady flailing around in the southern half-light, running from scarier old ladies selling flowers for the dead scared the shit out of me. Blanche du Bois obviously had all the blood sucked out of her by that guy I loved on the motorcycle. Blanche wasn’t just pale, she was painted a deathly white, dressed in ghostly flowing white satin in the middle of a dark New Orleans nightmare. She looked like a moth. She called Brando a pollack. Her eyes crackled with insanity. Sure, she wanted to kiss that delivery boy softly, sweetly on his lips, but her eyes hinted that there might be a lethal weapon on her somewhere. Vivien Leigh takes you with her on her descent into madness. She’d seen the south crumble from Gone With the Wind to A Streetcar Named Desire. Leigh had her own fragile psyche to draw on as we saw the burning of Atlanta in every one of those paper lantern she hung to hide the light.
11. Lil Abner (1959)
This was one of those Deliverance kinda movies, right? 10,000 maniacs living in the back woods all thinking they’re Elvis impersonators? And they were talking about running away from Catwoman? Yes, Julie Newmar has a role as Stupefyin’ Jones and the scene she’s in makes it looks like she’s something to be avoided. That scared me. That was so obviously wrong-thinking. I associated it with Tennessee Ernie Ford being afraid of Lucille Ball’s evil city woman who was a vampin’ him. I wanted to be vamped and anyone who thought that Catwoman was a thing to be feared gave me the creeps. I was just a kid when I saw it on afternoon TV, sick from school, but I knew I wanted to be stupefied.
10. The Yearling (1946)
This is a kid’s film? They have a personal graveyard in the backyard and it looks like they only bury children in them. In the opening scene the kid gets bit by a snake and they kill a doe to cure him. Kill a doe? I never want to get bit by a snake in the south. Then the kid takes the orphan doe and they end up shooting him too. The Hudson. I’d go as south as the Hudson. Maybe the Hackensack River.
9. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers didn’t scare me until my friend, Gary Kass, drew a perfect New Yorker style cartoon called “Seven Brides for Seven Frankensteins.” I have always wanted to write the musical. But I’m scared.
8. Sweet Home Alabama (2002)
Most of these movies scared me when I was a child and impressionable. I saw Sweet Home Alabama as an adult and I am still afraid to close my eyes around wedding cake. Reese Witherspoon had escaped all the way to New York. She’d gotten away clean and changed her name and bleached her already too legally blonde hair and they still got her. Dragged her back down south and trapped her there, pregnant. There’s a scene where she walks over thousands of dead soldiers in a Civil War reenactment where the soldiers of the south rise again and give directions. I shudder. Just writing about it, I shudder. I will let Jim Knipfel take over.
When I was a kid and long before I’d seen any of them, my dad told me about his experiences seeing Frankenstein, Dracula, and King Kong in the theater for the first time. King Kong was and would remain in his mind the greatest movie ever made, and he could lay it out scene by scene. Tod Browning’s Dracula was pretty slow and boring, he assured me. And the scene in which the monster’s hand first twitches in Frankenstein was an image that would stay with him forever. But, he said, in terms of sheer terror, all those horror classics paled when compared with the 1936 adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, starring Randolph Scott. Last of the Mohicans was hands down the scariest movie he’d ever seen.
This didn’t make much sense to me at the time. How could a movie about frontiersman and Indians be scarier than something with monsters and vampires and mad scientists, right? He was probably just trying to trick me into seeing another Randolph Scott picture or something. Then I got a little older and it occurred to me that although I’d been living on a steady stream of horror films for much of my life (and maybe for exactly that reason), they didn’t really scare me the way they were supposed to. Oh, a few scenes in a few of them made me jump, but as a genre, and love them as I did, they weren’t fulfilling their mission. They didn’t give me lasting chills and I never had nightmares about them. I thought The Exorcist was a fine film, but I can’t say it ever scared me. Never could figure out what all the hubbub was about. Same with the likes of Alien and Halloween and The Shining.
No, the films that scared the living shit out of me were usually films no one would ever consider calling horror films. Something about them, though, wormed inside my head and terrified me. An image or a mood or even a gesture that would, in my mind, transform a comedy or a melodrama into the scariest thing on earth. After the film ended I’d remember nothing about it except that one scene or gesture, which would define the whole experience.
It turns out it’s not that uncommon. Ask around and you’ll find a lot of people, thanks to some psychological glitch, some newly awakened unwanted memory, consider non-horror films among the creepiest things ever. The films differ wildly depending on the psychology of the individual watching them, and few can say exactly why they seem so frightening, but there you go. Den of Geek’s own Tony Sokol tells me he saw one scene from 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird when he was young, and came away convinced it was a horror movie. Likewise, I once saw a brief snippet from Orson Welles’ 1942 the Magnificent Ambersons (Agnes Moorehead alone in an enormous room in a decayed mansion) and thought it was a ghost story. Others have cited David Lynch’s Eraserhead(1978) which, though it takes the form of a twisted dream, isn’t really a horror film in the traditional sense, or the realistic post-nuke TV film The Day After (1983). Still others bring up the 2000 crime drama Sexy Beast, where aging mob boss Ben Kingsley has more than a little Satan in him, or the deeply disturbing 1961 film Something Wild, in which Ralph Meeker, as an alcoholic auto mechanic, gently holds would-be suicide Carol Baker hostage. (Jesus but Something Wild always gives me the willies.) And you wouldn’t believe (or maybe you would) how many people say they were scarred for life by Disney cartoons. Not the obvious choices like Dumbo or Bambi or Fantasia, either, but Mickey Mouse shorts.
Ask any normal person about any of these films and you’ll get a normal response. A small handful of us, though, will run away screaming.
As I started compiling a short list of the films that scared me more than anything when I was little (not counting Rankin/Bass or Charlie Brown specials, all of which mortified me), I noticed a curious pattern developing.
7. Deliverance (1972)
Until I dared watch it again when I was 15, I was absolutely convinced John Boorman’s film (based on James Dickey’s bestseller) wasn’t a movie about proving one’s manly manhood, or even a wilderness survival picture, but a zombie film. I saw it for the first time on TV when I was seven or eight, and came away numb and trembling. It was the only movie that ever gave me nightmares, all thanks to five images, none of which took place in the woods, and none of which included any lines about squealing like a pig. I wouldn’t remember any of that. What stuck with me was the underwater shot of the corpse tangled up in the ropes getting further entangled with Jon Voigt; the shot of that damned creepy inbred Deliverance Kid laughing silently as he played “Dueling Banjos;” that hillbilly dancing in the dust like a twitching cadaver in that same scene; James Dickey as the Sheriff near film’s end, leaning in the car window, smiling coldly and quietly explaining he knows something went on back there on the river; and of course that dead white hand rising out of the water. My god, that fucking hand. It found its way into my nightmares for months afterward. Somehow in my young brain I put all those moments together and constructed my own version of Deliverance, a terrifying horror film about zombies who lived under water (except for the creepy Deliverance Kid), and the evil Southern Sheriff who knows full well what’s going on, but won’t do anything about it. By the time I saw it again, I knew who all the actors were, I knew who John Boorman was, and I’d been hearing all those “squeal like a pig” references for years without recalling the scene. No matter how profoundly disturbing a film it was at times, it struck me as the story of four assholes who get their comeuppance when confronted with even meaner assholes, and it still couldn’t hold a candle to my underwater zombie epic.
I think being a Midwesterner may have had something to do with it, but more than anything I point a finger square at Deliverance for helping instill in me a deep fear of the American South. As a result, all those Southern-fried drive-in features that followed in Deliverance’s wake struck me as horror films. It didn’t matter if they were comedies or revenge pictures or teen rebellion films, if they took place in the Deep South they were horror films to me.
6. Walking Tall (1973)
Phil Karlson’s biopic of buford Pusser, a no-bullshit Tennessee sheriff out to clean up all the vice and corruption in his small hometown, was an enormous drive-in hit despite being savaged by the critics. As Pusser, the great Joe Don Baker does his best Elvis ever in a film that attempted to make some important points about race relations in the South, the irreplaceable virtues of a solid and loving family, and the value of an oversized baseball bat when it came to expressing one’s political ideals. Maybe I was again too young when I saw it, but all of that was lost on me. Like Deliverance, the film scared me to death, and I took away only three scenes: a redneck creep carving a wicked series of gouging cuts across Pusser’s chest and stomach with a knife; Pusser climbing out of a ditch and onto the road in the rain, his tattered yellow shirt soaked in blood. And a red bullet hole appearing suddenly and neatly between the eyes of a nasty, nasty woman who ran a local bar and whorehouse. I had never seen brutal, realistic violence that bloody or gruesome onscreen before, and that’s all I remember it being—a long string of stabbings and shootings and beatings and torture scenes. So to me Walking Tall wasn’t a film about the battle for justice and right against the depraved forces of corruption, it was a splatter film on a par with Herschell Gordon Lewis. The only thing missing was some woman having her tongue ripped out with pliers. (The really sad thing is that upon seeing it again a few years later, I found myself siding with the forces of wickedness against that self-righteous bastard of a Sheriff.)
5. Macon County Line (1974)
Macon County Line opens like a nostalgic road trip comedy with a ‘50s pop song soundtrack. In 1954, two brothers decide to whoop it up around the South for a few weeks before reporting to the Army, and run into all the standard road trip movie speed bumps. They pick up a cute hitchhiker and before you know it their car breaks down in a dusty Georgia town. That’s when the tone of the film starts to slip. Nearly the entire film was shot with available light, so the deep shadows and darkened interiors may have accidentally accentuated the sinister atmosphere I was reading into every damn scene.
After all those seasons playing a goofball Okie on The Beverly Hillbillies, producer/writer/star Max Baer thought a change of image was in order, so here plays a borderline psychotic Southern sheriff. It’s always the sheriff, ain’t it? Maybe it’s just me, but Southern sheriffs are the scariest fucking people on earth. Anyway, he doesn’t cotton much to outsiders in his town, and makes this perfectly and quietly clear to the stranded trio. So what was a nostalgia comedy a la the next year’s American Graffiti becomes a tense melodrama with a handful of character-based comic touches (including a great cameo from Doodles Weaver). It’s anything but a horror film, though, at least until the last 20 minutes. After a series of unlikely coincidences (but don’t worry about those because it’s, um, “based on a true story”), the film suddenly and unexpectedly takes on all the hallmarks of an ‘80s slasher film, complete with a twist ending. Nobody else seemed much bothered by this or by Baer’s insane turn and the movie became one of the highest-grossing drive-in pictures of all time. In my head, however, Max Baer became a horror icon ten times scarier than Jason or Michael Myers. Those goddamn Southern sheriffs, I’ll tell you. And when Jethro Bodine loses his mind and gets ahold of a shotgun? Hoo-boy.
One interesting bit of trivia here. Future Tiger Beat heartthrob Leif Garrett played Sheriff Pusser’s son in Walking Tall. In that film, Pusser tried to show his boy the importance of racial tolerance. The following year Garrett once again played the son of a sadistic Southern sheriff in Macon County Line. In this case however, Baer gives him a fatherly speech explaining why it’s better black kids and white kids went to different schools, and why it would be better if Garrett didn’t play with the little black kids near his school anymore. Despite what’s being said, it’s an oddly touching scene. Still though, lord knows why anyone would think of Leif Garrett when they were looking to cast redneck kids.
4. The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
After making a big splash with his fake skunk ape docudrama The Legend of Boggy Creek, Charles B. Pierce decided to round up another cast of mostly non-professional actors to make another docudrama, this one actually based on a true story. In 1946, a hooded figure in Texarkana killed four people and seriously wounded half a dozen more. Given the regularity of his attacks, they came to be known as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders. In spite of the largest manhunt in history up to that point and the efforts of J.D.
Well, this one I never bothered to see until nearly 20 years after its release. The commercial told me all I needed to know. Everyone else, too, it seems. The terrifying TV spots featured screaming teenagers, shotgun blasts, ominous narration, and closed with a freeze-frame of a man wearing a pillowcase over his head. Add that title together with the inescapable magnet of “Based on a True Story” and it immediately became the film everyone absolutely HAD to see, but was too scared to see. I wanted to see it, but my parents, who’d caught the ads themselves, wouldn’t let me. That was okay. I could imagine my own version.
When I did finally see it in the ‘80s, I realized what a brilliantly cheap ruse that ad campaign had been. Yes, it is the true story of a string of murders in a small Southern town, but upon the arrival of legendary Western character actor Ben Johnson as Morales, it turns into a standard Southern-fried drive-in comedy. Every cracker-barrel cliché you could hope for is here, including a police chase accompanied by banjo music and ending with a deputy driving off an open bridge into a shallow pond, then mugging for the camera. As far as non-horror movies are concerned, this was an oddball. I get the impression all those audiences who (briefly) flocked to theaters in ‘76 to see this were expecting the same film I was imagining, only to come away later realizing the commercial had been a hell of a lot better.
3. The Intruder (1962)
Roger Corman’s message film about race relations and desegregation in small-town Alabama contains no monsters, no aliens, no mushroom clouds, no mad killers and no flesh-eating plants, but it’s still the scariest damn thing he’s ever done. It wasn’t William Shatner’s amazing performance as a devil-in-a-white-suit racist rabble-rouser that terrified me, but the portrait of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, all these every-day, smiling, neighborly, commonplace folk who could so willingly and easily be whipped into an angry, cross-burning mob ready to lynch anyone who looked at them cross-eyed. It’s a film about the horrors we all carry around within us, horrors more frightening than anything a horde of zombies or vampires could offer, just waiting to seep into the open when the circumstances are right. Apart from Southern sheriffs, there’s nothing scarier on earth than mob mentality.
Audiences, well, they weren’t much interested in being told in such ugly, realistic terms that we’re all monsters (especially when they were expecting an alien movie), so they stayed away in droves, and Corman’s scariest film became one of his very few to lose money.
2. Wise Blood (1979)
I didn’t start reading Flannery O’Connor until I was in junior high, a year or two after I’d seen most of these pictures. I don’t know if I found her stories so much more frightening and attractive than anything Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft could offer because of the image of the South I’d gleaned from the movies, or if I found both the films and her stories so profoundly disturbing on account of something that was there to begin with. Maybe I was unwittingly outfitted with a Southern Gothic mindset, who the hell knows? Of all her characters, few are more memorably twisted and unnerving than nihilistic amateur evangelist Hazel Motes. And there’s no other actor who could have so memorably brought him to life than Brad Dourif in John Huston’s dark and gorgeous adaptation. There are no hillbilly ass rapings here, no cross-burnings or lynchings, no scenes of outrageous violence, but somehow this black comic portrait of cynical religion in the poverty-stricken South is far more unsettling on a broader scale than anything I encountered in any of the others. There’s nothing about it that even hints at it being a horror film, nothing like that dead hand at the end of Deliverance to give me nightmares, but there’s a humid, melancholy atmosphere that permeates the whole picture and makes me uneasy. Brad Dourif’s wild, glaring eyes don’t help either. Even that stark and grim photo of the Dairy Queen during the opening credits gives me the heebie jeebies, which may explain why this is one of my favorite films of all time.
1. Reflecting Skin (1990)
In recent years The Reflecting Skin has been sneaking its way onto horror movie lists, and that confuses me. It’s a lot of things, but it’s not a horror film. I’ve always thought of it as a kind of Southern Gothic in its own right, an exaggerated Flannery O’Connor story but without any overt references to the South. Given the settings and the accents, it more likely takes place in the heartland, which in its own way can sometimes be even more terrifying than the South, what with all those open, empty, inescapable plains. The film contains a string of creepy and disturbing images and set pieces: an exploding frog, a man swallowing gasoline and setting himself ablaze, wandering child molesters, a dead baby or two, a young sailor slowly dying of radiation poisoning, a one-eyed, one-handed sheriff, oh, one after another. And every character you meet has some horrible story to tell. But taken as a whole, and in spite of all the talk of pulp magazine vampires, what it is at heart is a simple weirdie along the lines of Un Chien Andalou (1929) Sonny Boy (1990), or Terry Gilliam’s Tideland (2005). I think more than any other single film it reminds me of The Tin Drum (1979) in its use of extreme and bizarre imagery to portray both the horrors of childhood and the horrors of growing old while wandering from set piece to set piece without ever telling much of any story at all. And come to think of it, what could be scarier than that? Forget about axe-wielding maniacs, aliens and giant monsters, let’s talk about short-term memory loss and incontinence.
I could easily add those four above-mentioned films to this list as well, but you know, for all the deep and solid scares these films regularly give me, come Halloween I’ll probably stick with Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), which is a story in itself. As I watch, I’ll start trying to work up the courage to write about those Charlie Brown specials, but there are no guarantees. Those things really do bother me more than any other film I can think of.