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Horror You Can Sink Your Teeth Into

October 5, 2010

Can’t you feel the tension creeping into your very soul?

Just an innocent walk home after a long day of work and suddenly a hand comes out of nowhere, grips you by the throat and hurls you into oblivion. Soon you’ll feel the fangs in  your throat and the very life sucked out of you.

Or maybe you’re not at work. Maybe you’re enjoying the beach. Casually splashing about as you paddle around offshore on your inflatable raft. How can you possibly know that a killer is lurking beneath the surface, gliding silently, purposefully, ignoring all the other swimmers just to zero in on you?

How about some hill climbing? The villagers are desperate to show you the view from the top. How are you to know that a prehistoric creature, awakened by Man’s foolish atomic experiments, will stick its head over that hilltop and issue filmdom’s most frightening and memorable roar? You don’t care as you’ll be fleeing in abject horror from a creature that will soon turn thousands of your fellow countrymen – innocent men, women and children – into funeral pyres.

Might as well seek the peacefulness of the country. Nothing can go wrong there, right, not like in those big cities? Hmm, sure are a lot of cats and dogs missing. Should I leave my window open tonight? What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe an eight-legged neighbor and about a million of his closest friends will drop in?

Hello and welcome to the world of my nightmares, better known as the horror movies that inspired and influenced me.

If you haven’t guessed, I am talking about The Night Stalker, Jaws, Kingdom of the Spiders and Godzilla.

These films were highly influential on me as a kid and even as an adult. Each one had a different effect on me, effects that I now find myself using a lot in my horror and science fiction.

I remember not going into the water for a long time after seeing Jaws in 1975. An intelligent shark? Who would’ve thought it? I mean, getting Chrissy Watkins for swimming nude at night was one thing, but ignoring allthose people at the beach to zero in on the kid on the raft? Well, that did it for me. If I was really brave, I’d go out waist deep at Revere Beach or Cape Cod, and I had trouble getting close to the gunwales of the ferries on school field trips to Nantucket (where they really filmed Jaws).

Now, you’ll find me using that silent, creeping-up style of terror in my short stories like the prologue to Red Herring that I told everybody not to read right before bed. Are those cockroaches on your legs or just the wind caressing your hairs?

The Night Stalker was the highest-rated TV movie of the time when it aired in 1972. Of course, I was only 5 when it aired originally, so I didn’t see it for a few years. And then when I did see it, it was on late at night. Right before bed. Good timing, eh?

Darren McGavin’s stark, matter-of-fact narration and the vampire’s running battles with the police certainly didn’t look like Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee’s Dracula.

Somehow, I think McGavin’s Carl Kolchak might have inspired me to become a journalist. I didn’t cover the weird, the supernatural or the horrible (no, I left that to the guys covering the Cubs) but I had the writing bug nonetheless.

Now, Kingdom of the Spiders could have fallen flat because of the hammy  William Shatner as the lead guy Rack Hanson. But, director Bud Cardos was

No beaming out of "Kingdom of the Spiders"

able to overcome that with some tight direction, good camera work and  about 10,000 real tarantulas. Yes, folks, those actors and extras really were  covered with live tarantulas!

One particular scene that creeped me out was when the sheriff (played by the Marlboro Man) has to tell Altovise Davis that her husband, played by Woody Strode, has been killed by the tarantulas. As the scene unfolds, a tarantula sits on a fence, watching it. When she hears the news and bursts into tears, the spider slowly crawls away as if it had been waiting to see if the handiwork of its companions had the intended effect.

From that movie, I got the idea to use nature against Man and to do it in a way that could not be solved at the last second by the military or by some hastily-created weapon. William Shatner couldn’t overcome the tarantulas (and actually had to be rescued by Tiffany Bolling), so why should my characters in Crawl be one-man armies? That relentless wave of eight-legged horror (especially the scene where they’re leaping at the shoes of the little girl on the swing) was light years better than the CGI in Eight-Legged Freaks.

And, finally, last but not least is Godzilla. I’m referring to the American version with Raymond Burr.

You see, up until then, monsters created or affected by nuclear radiation threatened mankind only to be taken out by the military (Them!, Tarantula) or by science (Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came From Beneath the Sea). But, here was Godzilla, a creature that withstood Man’s weapons and even wiped out a tank corps. He melted electrical towers with radioactive breath and burned thousands of innocent people to death. Yes, he was finally stopped by science, but the scientist responsible didn’t make it to the end nor did he get the girl. That never happened to Kenneth Tobey, Jeff Morrow or James Arness.

No giant monster movie has affected me like Godzilla. Not even Jurassic Park or Cloverfield. Those films were gimmicks or cliché plots about people trapped in confined spaces against monsters. Godzilla predated all of those “nature takes revenge on Man” films that have followed since. The black & white photography, the realism (the ship burned up in the beginning was based on the real-life incident of the Lucky No. 5 that wandered too close to the H-bomb test), Raymond Burr’s stark narration, the monster’s relentless assault on Tokyo, they all worked together to create a sense of dread and doom like no other, pushing a sense of helplessness.

Is that what we are truly supposed to feel when we watch horror? Are we supposed to feel helpless, like Dennis Weaver in that beat-up old car trying to outrun that maniacal trucker in Duel?

Is that my job as a horror writer? Am I supposed to yank away your security blanket and leave you hiding in the closet hoping, with baited breath, that the person opening the door is there to save you?

Well, am I?

Okay, okay, just relax, folks. These are all just movies. Nothing to really be scared about. In two hours or less, they’ll be over and we can all get back to the horror of the real word, right?

Right.

Oops, getting late. Better get ready for bed. A nice warm shower…ah, that hits the spot. See, all of the terror I created is washing down the drain.

Wait, did the bathroom door just open?

Hello, is anybody ther–

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2010 7:12 am

    Gregory,
    I’m with you all the way. Stories on camping outings and overnights? Told with flashlight streaming up to the face. Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. Once heard a priest read the crucifixion of Christ (from the Bible, enhanced with his own “research”) flashlight in face, and it creeped our youth group out-we got the heck out of Dodge in a hurry! A favorite scene of mine is in Ghostbusters when Vinkman thinks up the StaPuff Marshmallow Man. He can’t help it.

    Ah, the things we can’t help but love to be scared of! That is the point, isn’t it, to take the reader along on a dangerous journey? You know they aren’t supposed to go into that haunted house alone, down into the cellar with the light that doesn’t work, have to escape in a car that won’t start.

    Love it, and the talented Horror writers, like you, who take us on this wild ride. Thanks for the great post.

    What was that I heard? I think it’s, oh no! It’s……

    • October 5, 2010 5:50 pm

      That was one of the things I loved about my favorite movies. Explanations were given to explain when people did stupid things — the stripper is mad because her friend didn’t pick her up from work, so she takes a short cut home; Chrissy Watkins is drunk and we know bad things can happen when you’re drunk. The others, well nothing they did could save them.

      I liked those movies because I didn’t have to suspend common sense, along with belief. I could actually see those horrors happening in real life to unsuspecting people.

      Thanks for reading, Sharon and wasn’t it Ray who thought up the Mr. StaPuft? Venkman was asking Spengler and Winston if they were the ones who made the choice and then they all looked at Ray.

      • October 5, 2010 10:05 pm

        YES! You are so right. It was Ray. In fact, I remember the line now: “Ray, what were you thinking? Ray?”

  2. October 5, 2010 8:25 am

    Ouch! Why am I crying out in pain, you ask? Was it the shark just below the surface? The grip of the vampire at my throat? No, it was the dig at my beloved CUBS!!
    Very cool, Greg. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. I recall the scene in The Night Stalker when the vampire finds McGavin hiding in the closet. I was a kid then so it was stamped pretty boldly in my subconscious. I recall another Shatner role; that of the Twilight Zone and the guy out on the wing of the plane.
    Thanks for the post.
    -Jimmy

    • October 5, 2010 5:52 pm

      You are very welcome. And I couldn’t very well mention my beloved RED SOX with the digs, so I had to take the easy way out.

  3. george allwynn permalink*
    October 5, 2010 11:29 pm

    Greg – GREAT ending! Loved it!

    I often find it so strange how the simplist things from our childhood come to haunt us as adults.

    Even more so with writers – those things that shape us, or things we listened to on the radio, watched on television or even world events, somehow end up (or in some way) influence what we write.

    You mentioned some great movies (any trekker can tell you the Kingdom of the Spiders is cringe worthy not only for the spiders, but for Shatners cheeziness…) However, would you believe I’ve never cared for any of the Godzilla movies or Jaws? (*duck and cover…)

    Not to date myself, but thanks to Deroit’s UHF channel 50 ‘Creature Feature’ and channel 20 horror hosts ‘The Ghoul’ and ‘Count Scary’, I cut my milk teeth on such classics as ALL the Universal movie monsters (b & w of Dracula, Frankenstine, Wolfman, the Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon, etc) as well as all the monters Abbott and Costello met.

    This lead to Little Shop of Horrors, I was a Teenage Werewolf, The Fall of the House of Usher, 39 steps, The Birds, Pyscho, The Blob, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, orgininal movies of Cape Fear and Last House on the Left, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and any Dr. Phibes movies.

    By the time I was teenager, I was primed for the big time – Dawn of the Dead, The Exorsist, Amityville Horror, Phantasm, House, Evil Dead, CHUD, American Werewolf in London, and La Vampyros Lesbos… just to name a few.

    When penning some darker stuff, my mind always races back to the way these movies made me feel. It wasn’t the blood and guts that made my skin crawl – it was the ‘tone’, the ‘ambience’ and the ‘mood’ in which the movie was told.

    Hitchcock was a master at this…

    When I write a romance that has some horror elements, I want to re-create those creepy feelings to my readers. I don’t need to describe the blood bath and the body parts – I need to imply things on a pyschological level, because my readers can scare themselves silly with their imaginations, moreso than any grotesque description of evil and mayhem.

    I just have to lead them down to the dark path and point…

    That’s where all those hours of spending Saturday afternoons in front of the television (instead of being outside in the sunshine) did me good. NOT that my mother (god rest her soul) would ever be convinced.

  4. October 6, 2010 8:52 am

    Very well done, Greg. You never disappoint. I watched Them! in seventh grade. For some odd reason the school thought it would make a good movie to watch in an assembly.

    I don’t know why – maybe the principal was a scary movie fan? Took us two days to watch it and I was spell bound. I can still clearly see the giant ants breaking through some wall to terrorize a group of soldiers. Amazing what sticks with you for almost 30 years, isn’t it? I only watched it the one time and it made a big impression.

  5. October 6, 2010 5:49 pm

    Reading your post, Greg, makes me realise just how much I never knew I didn’t know! You are a mine of movie info! And its all grade “A” stuff, polished for consumption!

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