Monday, October 21, 2013

Five Still Scary Scenes from Universal Horror Movies

For audiences not yet accustomed to the weird, the macabre, and the grotesque, Universal’s horror cycle sparked its share of terror and even outrage in its time (the delightful Bride of Frankenstein was a particular lightning rod for the more censorious movie markets). Contemporary audiences may find it nearly impossible to view these movies in their original horrific spirit. Whether desensitized by the luridly graphic horrors of The Exorcist or Friday the 13th or unmoved by anything but the most subtle, imagination-stoking terrors of The Haunting or The Blair Witch Project, modern moviegoers associate Dracula or the Frankenstein Monster too readily with cartoons, Halloween decorations, and breakfast cereals to find Lugosi or Karloff remotely scary.

This is not necessarily tragic since these films offer so much beyond chills that they remain highly entertaining, artistic, and even poignant (these days, the Frankenstein Monster’s accidental murder of a little girl is more sad than scary). But has their potential for terror been totally drained? Those who believe themselves to be completely inoculated to Karloff’s ability to frighten may be surprised by at least one sequence in Frankenstein or another in The Mummy. Those who grew up listening to Count von Count’s Lugosi impersonation on “Sesame Street” may be prepared to do nothing but giggle during Dracula, but maybe there are scares to be found in the movie that have nothing to do with Lugosi’s performance. For your consideration, I offer five scenes from Universal horror movies that may still have the power to make the tiny hairs on your neck stand at attention.

1. The Phantom Unmasked

We begin with what must still stand as the most truly terrifying scene in any Universal horror picture, and one that may not have lost a drop of its potency over the past eighty-eight years. Erik the Phantom sits at his organ, churning out hypnotic music. Christine stands behind him, fascinated, terrified by the artist beneath the opera mask. We see the internal debate on her face: should she remove the mask? Shouldn’t she? We-the-audience know that whatever Erik is concealing can’t be good. The suspense is brutal. Finally, she makes her move. That face! That gape-eyed, noseless, skull-like face! The look of surprise, almost triumph on Erik’s face makes it all the more shocking. But that’s not all there is to this iconic scene. The Phantom leaps off his stool, turns to Christine, points his finger accusingly, stalks toward the camera, breaks the fourth wall—he is stalking toward us! No matter how many times you’ve seen Lon Chaney in his Phantom make-up, seeing this scene is like seeing it for the first time every time. That unbearable build up to the unmasking. That terrible, terrible face. Chaney’s crazed reaction and his punishing pursuit of both Christine and the audience. All this adds up to complete and timeless terror.

2. Renfield Revealed

As sinister as Dracula’s nocturnal activities may be, he is still essentially a very well dressed, good looking gentlemen who happens to spend a lot of time in a coffin or flapping around as a rubber prop bat. But he is not the only menace in Tod Browning’s Dracula. What of the count’s lackey, the wannabe vampire Renfield? Dwight Frye mainly plays Renfield comically, but there are other sides to the old fly-eater too. He displays a conscience when trying to protect Miss Mina from his boss. He is more often terrified than he is terrifying. But he is terrifying, particularly when discovered in the hull of the Vesta. Once again, the scene is a suspense/reveal structure. The men who discover the ghost ship hear muffled laughter coming from below. “What’s that?” one asks. “Why, it’s coming from the hatchway!” another responds. “Don’t look in there!” we shout. But they do, and staring up at them and us is Renfield, his eyes and grin almost glowing from the darkness, his caught-in-the-throat cackle unlike anything we’ve ever heard. Chilling.

3. Enter the Monster

Of all the Universal Monsters, the most endearing is the childlike Frankenstein Monster. Yet he receives the most frightening entrance of them all. Henry Frankenstein discusses his bizarre experiments with mentor Dr. Waldman when suddenly we hear the shuffling of heavy feet. The men turn their heads toward the door. “Here he comes,” Frankenstein says. Suspense. He dims the light. Atmosphere. The door opens. A figure backs into the room for apparently no other reason than to prolong the excruciating wait. He begins to turn around. What a relief! It’s just that old square head we’ve seen so many times. It’s Herman Munster. It’s Frankie from “The Groovie Goolies.” No big deal. But then—then—director James Whale pushes in for a series of disquieting jump cuts, throwing us right into the Monster’s face, his cheeks looking more sunken, his eyes rolling up more grotesquely in his skull than we’ve ever seen in any sitcom or cartoon. It’s the same technique Hitchcock used when he forced us to look at Dan Fawcett’s eyeless corpse in The Birds, and it’s nearly as disturbing in Frankenstein.

4. The Mummy’s Stare

The face of another well-familiar monster turns unexpectedly chilling in The Mummy, and it’s not even the monster in full-on monster mode! Karloff only appears in his famed wrappings in the brief opening scene of the movie. He spends the rest of it looking like a really wrinkly yet still fully human fellow named Ardath Bey. Perhaps it is that very thing that lulls us into believing that there will be no terrors in The Mummy and what so shocks us when there is one. Again surprise plays a key role in the shot’s effectiveness. Ardath Bey and Dr. Muller discuss the cursed scroll of Toth in medium shot in a fairly well lit room. Suddenly the perspective changes to a tight close-up of Ardath Bey’s face. The lighting has also inexplicably changed so that all is shrouded in shadow except for his eyes, which glow unnaturally, staring right into our own peepers. The effect is a simple one—director Karl Freund simply lowered the room lights and shined a couple of small spotlights directly into Karloff’s eyes. The results are as unsettling as they are unexpected.

5. Femm’s Fanaticism

Surprise has been an important element in many of these scary scenes, but it may be most effective in The Old Dark House because James Whale’s film is keener to tickle your funny bone than make your skin crawl. This deliriously fun horror/comedy suddenly shifts to the terrifying when Rebecca Femm, the religious fanatic who lives in the title house, starts ranting about her sister’s agonizing demise and the similarly “sinful” women who’ve occupied her bedroom. As the rant intensifies, Whale shows us Rebecca reflected in various objects, her face distorting more and more with each stomach-churning jump cut. If anyone ever tells you that those good old Universal horror movies are nothing but good old fun, a look at this —or any of the other five scenes on this list —just might scare that person straight.

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