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When horrific is terrific

Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”

I’m not a fan of horror films, due to the kneejerk “scare tactics” that many of them resort to. I also get distracted by the irony of having to pay for the “privilege” of getting terrified and traumatized out of my aching skull.

And I’ve developed a major aversion for the freaky film fad du jour, those nasty zombie flicks full of hundreds of flailing, twitching corpses that haven’t gotten the memo about their definite, definitive demise!

Very occasionally, however, I’ve watched and have truly been scared by some horror movies whose scare tactics have been more subtle, psychological and unexpected, hence their effective ability to catch cynical viewers vulnerably off-guard.

Topping my list of cinematic “terrifics” is a relatively low-key and bloodless film, Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents.” What makes it deeply, powerfully scarifying is its “child factor,” with governess Deborah Kerr slowly but creepily coming to the realization that the lovely children she’s been hired to take care of in an old mansion are—not what they seem to be!

Also memorably terrifying is Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” a surreal and claustrophobic viewing experience capped by Jack Nicholson’s inspiredly frenzied performance.

Another psychological humdinger is Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” in which Mia Farrow’s titular child turns out to have been sired—by Satan himself!

Polanski is a past master of “creepy” cinema, having come up with other incursions into the horrors and terrors of abnormal psychology, like “Knife in the Water” and “Repulsion.”

We also recall getting totally freaked out when we watched Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” with Robert De Niro giving us nightmares at noon with his spot-on portrayal of the movie’s venomous villain.

And Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” scared us so much that we stopped swimming in the ocean for years!

As for “The Exorcist,” we read the novel before watching the film, and recall devouring the book in one long, sleepless night—with all the lights in our home switched protectively on!

Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents”

The film itself similarly caused more sleepless nights with its shocking images of Devil Power in full display—so, our “Exorcist” experience turned out to be a one-two knockout punch.

Reaching much earlier into film history, we watched “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” in film class many decades after it was shot—but were still bowled over and deeply disturbed by its visionary visuals, which were memorably mined for all of the fear and dread they could engender.

The effectiveness of old and even “primitive” films to scare the bejesus out of vulnerable and impressionable viewers proves that horror and terror flicks don’t have to resort to blood and thunder and twitching, flailing zombies to shock and scare moviegoers—where they live and breathe!

Other scary classics cited by film buffs include Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques,” David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” Phillip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter,” George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” Drew Goddard’s “The Cabin in the Woods,” John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London,” Wes Craven’s “Scream” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”

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