Delivering Chills

While I agree with my illustrious writing collaborator, Christopher Leppek, that the core ingredient to an excellent piece of horror – either film, the written word or any other format – is atmosphere, I submit that what truly scares people is perhaps even deeper.We’re not talking about your typical boo scare (like the hand that suddenly lurches upward from the depths of the grave) but something more subtle, more gnawing on our subconscious.I have fond memories of seeing The Exorcist when it first opened way back in the 1970’s.The theatre was pre-megaplex and actually had an outside lobby for people to congregate prior to the next start time.Instead of appealing posters that announced future attractions, the lobby for this particular picture was festooned with actual newspaper articles from around the world talking about one allegedly ‘true-life’ subject – demonic possession.Much like traveling freak shows advertised their attractions in garish posters to whet the appetites and curiosities of the general public, this particular lobby had the same effect on me.No longer was I just waiting to see another movie, I was engrossed in reading each and every article until I became truly frightened.Could the movie I was about to see be based on fact?Was there really such a thing as demonic possession?Could I and my friends be possessed?Would my trusted Star of David necklace protect me?

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The infamous demon — truth or subliminal trickery? — from “The Exorcist”

Not only did I enjoy the movie immensely and its shocking in-your-face scenes, but what truly scared me was the sub-plot of Father Karras visiting his invalid mother in her dank and lonely apartment.I felt his guilt and sadnessall the way down to my tenth row seat, where my wobbly knees embraced a tub of popcorn. Later when the possessed Regan speaks to Karras in his mother’s voice (“Dimmy, why did you do this to me?Dimmy why did you do this to me?”) my skin was literally crawling.Another example of subtle brilliance can be witnessed in The Mothman Prophecies – a gem of a dark classic with convincing acting by Richard Gere.There’s a terrific scene where Gere’s character (John Klein, a prominent newspaper reporter) is alone in his seedy motel room far away from home.Suddenly the phone rings in the middle of the night and he finds himself conversing with some kind of electronically created voice, obviously not human.Klein’s skepticism is quickly dispatched.Indrid Cold:Hello, John Klein.
John Klein: Who is this?
Indrid Cold:My name is Indrid Cold.
John Klein:Unless, of course, you’re Gordon Smallwood…
Indrid Cole:Your father was born in

Racine,Wisconsin. He lived in a green house on

Monroe Street. You don’t remember how your mother looked.

John Klein:What did I just hide in my shoe?

Indrid Cole:Chapstick
John Klein:Okay, you got my attention.

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Richard Gere in “The Mothman Prophecies” on the phone — to what?

Can you imagine speaking to a total stranger (and a non-human one at that) who knows your deepest, darkest secrets?That’s what I call scary.

Dark atmosphere plus perfectly timed subtlety will always be the ingredients of a delightfully hideous brew.What are some of your favorite subtle moments in your most watched and read horror?Demented minds, like ours, want to know.Until next time. . .

The Orphanage

Lovecraft once famously said of horror fiction that atmosphere is the absolute, most important thing.Truer words were never spoken, and for fans of what might be called “softer” horror – such classics as “The Haunting,” “The Changeling,” and “The Others” – this is particularly true. When one doesn’t have dismemberment, slimy creatures, great fountains of gushing blood, torture or power tools to hold the audience’s attention, atmosphere is the final trump card.

The Spanish film “The Orphanage” (recently released on DVD) is a movie in the latter tradition, one of relatively few excellent ghost movies to have been made recently –or ever,if the truth be told. The product of first-time director and writer Juan Antonia Bayona and Sergio Sanchez (and produced by Guillermo Del Toro, who directed the excellent “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone”) the movie is a minor masterpiece of wonderfully eerie atmosphere.

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 Say hello to my little — dead — friend.

 Set in the hauntingly beautiful Cantabria region of northern Spain, the movie is visually high gothic, with misty seacoasts replete with shadowy caves and an appropriately Addamsesque old mansion with long dark corridors and hidden rooms. A melancholy score accents rainy and nocturnal landscapes, all of it combining to create a finely tuned sense of something very sinister lurking somewhere, just out of the range of vision and perception.

The story is no less subtle and gothic than the setting. The mansion in question is actually a former orphanage, in which the female protagonist, Laura, portrayed beautifully by Belén Rueda, spent her own youth. There are indeed troubled slivers of the past slipping through the musty old place – and equally disturbing goings-on in the present, especially when Laura’s adopted son inexplicably disappears.

There is an underlying mystery to the story, which achieves the neat trick of leaving the ultimate answer to the viewer. In other words, is the wretched old manse haunted or is something else entirely going on?Or, perhaps, both?The question is discussed intriguingly by Bayona in a web interview on The Deadbolt.com (http://www.thedeadbolt.com/news/102913/bayonasanchez_interview.php).

Saying much more about the story would amount to plot-killing. Suffice to say that there are plenty of worthy scares– and one or two downright spine-chilling moments – in “The Orphanage,” as well as a story that is not only spooky but essentially human and infinitely sad.That’s a very fine and delicate balance to achieve in film, and Bayona and Sanchez pull it off with style and grace.

If horror with only a light dash of gore – but heavy on the fear factor and rich in atmosphere– is your cup of tea, check this one out.