A Couple of Older Horror Films

Going back and revisiting something that you really liked is risky. You may find that you're too old to relate to the story so while your children may now enjoy "The Tiniest Bunny's First Day at School" you wonder what you ever saw in it. Or worse, you absolutely loved a movie when you were in college and now you think it's dull, stupid and a rip-off of a thousand other films you've seen. But sometimes when we're pleased to see that a film is just as good as we remember, possibly even better. This week I watched a couple of movies that fell into the last category, one by Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Rear Window) and one by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, King Kong).

I'd seen Psycho years ago in some film class (the class was so dull and so early in the morning I slept through most of the movies) but didn’t remember much beyond the obvious, a car in the rain, the shower scene, and Norman Bates and his secret. And really, once you know that, what's the point of watching? It's not like there are going to be any big surprises. That's what I thought, until I took the time to sit down and watch last weekend and I was surprised by how very wrong I was.

There was quite a bit more to the story than I remembered, starting with Janet Leigh's character embezzling forty thousand dollars (back when that was a pretty good bankroll) and going through entire characters I'd forgotten about like the detective sent to try and find the missing woman and money. Scenes that I did remember were so much more than I expected – I think that the ones in my head suffer a little from all of the homages, pastiches and parodies that have been made of this film, particularly the shower scene. Who among us doesn't recognize the awful screeching of violins that made up the soundtrack for that scene? Eeee, eee, eee, eee, until you want to scream yourself. Pure brilliance.

There is so much to love about this film. The lighting, Hitchcock's use of shadow and rays of light to accent the actors and the actions; for instance in one scene a door opens and a sliver of light in the shape of a knife shines forth moments before a knife actually appears. The acting is spot on, especially Anthony Perkins as the confused and tormented Norman. The actor switches from lonely hotelkeeper to overburdened son to frightened accomplice with ease, making it all look natural and effortless.

But we expect great acting and cinematography from an Oscar winning film, and Psycho was nominated for four of them: Janet Leigh as Marion Crane for Actress in a Supporting Role; Joseph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy and George Milo for Art Direction (Black-And-White); John L. Russell for Cinematography (Black-And-White) and finally Alfred Hitchcock for Directing. There are two interesting things about this list; that a film dubbed as the first slasher film took home so many Academy Awards, which are often thought of as highbrow art films and if Janet Leigh was only a supporting actress who was the lead? Not, I think, Norman's mother.

The second movie is The Frighteners, a project that I was a little leery of when I first saw the trailer but loved when I saw it in theaters. It was on cable the other day and I snapped it on, expecting it to be less than I remembered. But happily it has held up well and is an intriguing mix of slasher and ghost story with a charming performance by Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister, a psychic con man with a trio of ghostly companions. Bannister is planning to do his usual thing; get his dead friends to haunt a victim until the victim is frightened enough to pay to have the ghosts removed. Unfortunately for Bannister a creepy grim reaper like spirit is targeting and murdering people Bannister has interacted with, putting him under suspicion. A crazed federal agent (played brilliantly by Jeffrey Combs) comes to investigate and allows his preconceived notions to endanger both Bannister and his new love interest, Lucy Lynskey. While this movie is also a comedy, there's enough tension and horror to satisfy. I found the faces emerging from the wall to be particularly scary when I first saw this film back in the mid-nineties.

While that effect has been used since then, possibly to the point where it is trite or dull, The Frighteners, was the first movie to be made using these types of special effects. Much like Psycho, what may be stale now was groundbreaking at the time of filming. That's one reason watching the original can be both fascinating and a little surreal, because we have seen these same shots and scenes remixed in so many ways.

One-Paragraph Review
This week's one-paragraph review is from CGI, who wrote in about Shrek the Third. "The animation is incredible, esp. the horses but the story and humor carry the show." Do you have a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.