Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Fear factor

Phasmatodea is now one year old !

Thank you to everyone who's looked in on my self-indulgent scribblings over the past 12 months.

For this first anniversary I'm going to combine two objectives.  The first is to continue my oblique look at this current, and brilliant, series of Doctor Who.  Listen is an episode which promises old-school frights, which started me thinking about televisual and cinematic fear in a broader sense.  The delicious thrill of being scared is what not only started my life-long interest in the ongoing adventures of the Doctor but led to the creation of this blog, where I can write about films and TV which have sought to deliver chills and thrills across the the years.
So my second objective is a brief run through some screen screams which have actually managed to frighten me, which i promise you isn't an easy thing to do.  I'm not at all brave, just a very seasoned horror viewer.  In doing this; I'm harkening back to the creation of this blog and recalling it's mission statement to share and explore these magical productions (many introduced to me by my Mum!)

To return to Listen; it didn't frighten me.  Based heavily upon invoking common nightmares as this episode was, I fall out of the target audience because I just don't have them.  Nightmares, I mean (beyond the recurring 'realising I'm naked in public' one which we surely all have - but I doubt that would make a good Doctor Who episode even in Steven Moffat's hands).  I don't know why my dreaming is nightmare-free - but there you go.
Where the episode achieves greatness is in linking to last year's already sublime Day of the Doctor, and managing to strengthen both stories in the process.  Bravo! Only four episodes in and already this series knocks several others into a cocked hat.

Now, onto the frights.  Rather than just giving a top ten, I managed to rationalise my own personal screen screams into five distinct categories - see if any of these examples chime with your own terrors.

1. The Unseen Terror

This was actually Listen's creepiest moment - the unknown shape under the bedspread which also recalls The Legend of Hell House and the Jonathon Miller adaptation of M R James' Oh Whistle and I'll come to you, my Lad ('Monty' James will figure again soon).  What you don't see is so much more terrifying then any prosthetic, CGI or costume effect.

An invisible object meets an invisible force -
the 'Monster from the Id' breaches the electrical barrier.
As a child I cowered from the unseen presence of the 'Monster from the Id' in Forbidden Planet.  Its huge invisible mass, buckling the spacecraft stairs and leaving evolution-defying prints in the dusty landscape of Altair 4, was fear fodder of the first degree.
In a more supernatural vein, the psychic attack on a cornered Peter Wyngarde in Night of the Eagle, when we hear a demonic siege against a classroom door, but don't actually see anything but his panic, is terrifying.

Now he believes.  Peter Wyngarde in Night of the Eagle.
Night of the Demon (again based on an MR James story) plays a similar trick but shows it's hand with the fiery demon which was inserted against the Directors wishes. (this creature has since become so iconic that the cinematic horror world would be a poorer place without it, however).

It's in the trees... it's coming!

Bringing us up-to-date, the Paranormal Activity series again uses this unseen menace strategy - I've only seen the first, but to my surprise was very impressed.

2. The Transformation

A staple of horror fiction from various Lycanthropes to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  Of all the Hyde adaptations the most effective for me have been Jack Palance's disturbingly satyr-like make-up in the  Dan Curtis TV movie and cuddly old James Nesbitt in the magnificent Moffat/Gatiss-written TV update Jekyll.  But this particular Mr Hyde more properly belongs in the next category.

Jack Palance as Doctor Jekyll - and Mr Hyde.

As  a child I was traumatised by the shock unmasking of the Auton Policeman on Doctor Who - a figure of reassurance suddenly changed into a faceless, murderous monster.  A few years later I was petrified by the 'shock reveal' in the last segment of the Richard Matheson-written anthology Dead of Night.  I took the opportunity to rewatch it last year and although I'm not going to give anything away here, it still rattled me even now.

After performing a black magic ritual, Joan Hackett
gets her precious Bobby back... or does she?

3. The 'Bogey man'

Or 'fear personified'. As I mentioned before, James Nesbitt's startling take on Mr Hyde is properly scary.  Dark contact lenses give him the constant look of a predator about to strike: pupils dilated to eleven, with heightened awareness and deadly malice.  But it's the constant sense of violence bubbling under the surface and about to erupt at any second without warning which really unsettles.

Believe it or not, late Comedian Mel Smith made a genuinely-frightening criminal boss in a 2006 episode of the series Hustle, where he seethed with the same latent but ever-tangible capacity to suddenly deliver severe harm.
The first Hammer Dracula plays a similar trick.  In this film, the Count had so far been an imposing but formally polite gent until Harker makes the mistake of exploring the castle alone. A weird animal shriek heralds his host's violent reappearance, eyes burning red and fangs bared in a snarling embodiment of demonic fury.  I can only imagine the effect it must have had on audiences in 1958  - it definitely makes you sit up and take notice even today.

4. Creeping dread

I suspect this is the most difficult one to pull off effectively, as it's all about creating an unsettling, and sometimes queasy atmosphere which gradually works on your nerves, rather than a 'Boo!' jump/shock moment. And given that there's no accompanying rush of adrenaline , is also perhaps the least fun.

The US remake of the Japanese horror film The Grudge is a good example, with its consistently, disturbingly 'off' tone. The scene where a petrified hospital security guard tracks the shambling progress of a ghoulish apparition as it passes beneath an overhead camera is unbearably unsettling  - all the more so when the figure moves slowly back into view to stare into the lense with its dead black eyes. Brrrrr...
Infamous ground-breaking British  show Ghostwatch achieves its chills by gradually ramping-up the tension with degrees of wrongness in an ordinary suburban home. The events at Foxhill Drive aren't easily forgotten, especially not by me as I was abandoned part way through by someone who claimed that she 'wasn't scared, just tired and had to go to bed.  Right now'.

Parky's in this - so it must surely be true...

5. Coming to life

Ending on a classic technique which rarely fails, whether with a deceased or completely inanimate subject.  The shop window mannequins jerking to life in Doctor Who worked their way so deeply into the collective subconscious that this very scenario was chosen to relaunch the programme in 2005.
It's this scene from the first story which gets me every time though - I know one of them is going to move, but can never tell which ...

Behind you, Dummy!
The dismembered and tidily string and brown paper-wrapped victim returning to life in Amicus's Asylum  just about had me bailing out for bed as a youngster.  Particularly the parceled head which thuds ominously down the steps to come to rest upright, breathing visibly through it's papery shroud.

Finally, if you're ever lucky enough to catch the original television version of Quatermass and the Pit, you'll see an accidental example of 're-animation shock'. Watch out for the first shot of the mummified, insectoid martians, inside their ship.  As the camera moves in on them one of the props suddenly drops loose from the webbing it's suspended in, and made the collective viewing nation jump out of their armchairs in 1958 Britain.

As Doctor Who has featured so abundantly here, I'll wrap up with a quote from the most recent, AND the very first episode of this programme, which perhaps even sums up why some of us like our viewing to be scary:
"Fear makes companions of us all..."

And now it's time for a song, to 'Rock these Horrors':


  1. Little known Kate Bush trivia.

    "It's in the Trees, it's coming" from Night of the Demon which kicks off the Hounds of Love, isn't the original from the movie. She couldn't get a good enough quality version of the audio so they re-recorded it to make it sound like Maurice Denham's original lines. Go on, prove me wrong, I dare ya!!

  2. I wouldn't dream of trying - I love that king of trivia (and Kate Bush for that matter), so many thanks for that!