by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
My first pick is the opening of Twilight Zone: The Movie. In this prologue (titled “Something Scary”), Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd play two guys driving in darkness one night. To pass the time, they recount episodes they love of The Twilight Zone television series. After a while, Aykroyd asks Brooks if he wants to see something really scary. Brooks says yes and Aykroyd tells him to pull the car over. Aykroyd then asks Brooks again if he’s sure. Brooks says yes, so Aykroyd hides his face. A few seconds later, Aykroyd turns around as a monster that begins strangling Brooks.
This scene is my first memory of being scared at a movie. The makeup design on Aykroyd is part of it. He looks like a demon, which was a thing I wasn’t well versed in when I saw Twilight Zone: The Movie at probably five years old on cable. At this point, I’m pretty sure I saw Ghostbusters, or a number of comedies Dan Aykroyd starred in, and developed a trust in him as an actor that he was a nice guy or a jokester that would never scare me. Then he pulls this shit. I remember thinking in my head “Why would he do that?” The element of the scene that freaked me out the most was the lack of context. I didn’t get the goal of the scene, so I just thought it was a fun moment of two friends talking. After seeing that scene, the monster’s face was burned into my brain and I could recall it anywhere especially in my bedroom where it kept me up at night. There were other childhood scares that tormented me (e.g. Pizza the Hutt’s laugh in Spaceballs, the post-credit of Masters of the Universe where bald Skeletor popped out of the pit and said, “I’ll be back”), but Dan Aykroyd in Twilight Zone: The Movie scared me so much as a young child that it still gets to me a little. It doesn’t help that the film itself feels haunted for obvious reasons. It’s weird to think how unsettling the movie is when the television show isn’t.
Rob: I’ve still never seen Twilight Zone: The Movie. At first, I had no interest, and then I discovered the film’s tragic production history and avoided it intentionally. This might be the year I finally check it out, and this recommendation helps.
The Silence of the Lambs. A little obvious for me, I know, but there’s a reason it’s my favorite horror movie. It’s all in the setup: We start at the Baltimore State Hospital, where Hannibal Lecter tells Clarice Starling that Buffalo Bill is looking for his next victim. Demme then smash cuts to Brooke Smith singing Tom Petty’s “American Girl” in the car. Smith is really wonderful in a really difficult role, but the tragedy comes later; for now, it’s seeing her in this moment of innocence that makes what comes after that much worse. The song choice, her singing right into the camera. It’s so perfect. I also love how pathetic the strong and imposing Ted Levine (as Jamie Gumb) manages to make himself look in an effort to lure her in. The way he says, “Would you?” when she offers to help him move the sofa really underlines his deviousness. And the cat in the window! Demme is humanizing Martin and dehumanizing Gumb at the same time. Obviously, there’s the manipulation and the brutality (thankfully off-screen), but the thing that gets me most in this entire sequence is the sound design in the last shot: As Gumb slices off Martin’s shirt to expose her back, we hear her labored and desperate breathing, as if she’s holding still to avoid any pain. I’m thankful that Demme never cuts to her face. It might have made a difficult scene unbearable.
Adam: I need to see Silence of the Lambs again. It’s been such a long time that I don’t even remember that scene. My next pick is a couple of scenes from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I didn’t see the movie until my senior year of college. I rented it from Blockbuster (there was a reissue following the release of the 2003 remake) and I watched it alone in my room one night. The movie freaked me out overall because of its noise and relentless pacing towards the end. It’s a great movie that achieves an almost unbearable sense of tension that builds and builds and builds. The two scenes I remember bothering me the most were when The Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) cuts his hand and the dinner scene at the end when the cannibal family torment Sally (Marilyn Burns). The latter scene works because the scariest moments in horror movies for me are when characters are being mocked and/or humiliated. It’s not bad enough that the victim is doomed or terrified; they’re also being mocked for acting that way. It’s incredibly evil. The former is because of an experience I had once where a mentally unwell person taunted me at a grocery store, and I asked for help from store employees and they acted like I was crazy. The Hitchhiker scene reminds me of that, where you’re just going about your day and you think everything is normal, then the facade is obliterated and you realize how helpless you are when the unexpected occurs. After watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that night, I remember ejecting the disc, putting it back in the case and driving right away to Blockbuster because I didn’t want it in my apartment anymore. It’s one of the few movies I love that I will never own.
Rob: I have a similar feeling about Requiem for a Dream. I liked it. I responded to it. I showed it to friends. But I’ll never watch it again. I don’t have quite that same response to Texas Chain Saw, but I can totally understand it.
My next pick is the lakeside murder scene in Zodiac. David Fincher’s masterpiece is full of terrifying moments (although the basement scene never gets to me the way I imagine it’s supposed to; it feels too anticlimactic), but I literally have to skip over this chapter every time I rewatch the disc. Again, it’s all in the bluntness of the violence and the guttural viciousness of the sound design: On a bright, clear day, Zodiac walks up to Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard (Patrick Scott Lewis and Pell James), offers some straightforward, demeaning orders, ties them down, and then brutally stabs them both to death. It’s simple. Mechanical. Dispassionate. The thudding of the knife. Even the way the pistol clicks and snaps when Zodiac takes the clip out to prove it’s loaded. At first, we think (like the characters) he’s going to just rob them, but we’re wrong. No musical swell. No melodramatics. He just starts stabbing. Fincher’s decision to keep his camera close to Lewis’ face allows us to feel his character’s shock, pain, and agony, but I actually find James’ reactionary screams so much worse because they carry over into her character’s own murder. It’s so simple, and yet so unnerving. It’s this grotesque little vignette in the middle of the film. I even find Zodiac’s hokey outfit terrifying!
The Blair Witch Project. Just like everyone else, I had heard all the hype around the movie for months by the time I saw it in late July 1999. I went with a group of friends to the nearby mall theater where another one of our friends worked. The show we wanted to see was sold out, so he told us we were allowed to sneak in. In hindsight, that probably contributed to me being on edge during the movie because I was afraid of being caught without a ticket. It was even worse because I could see people who did have tickets looking for seats and in my head, I was like “Leave. Just go! This is torture. I’m sorry! Don’t make me feel this way. Why won’t you just give up and see The Haunting??” So, the movie plays and it’s scary, especially the sound design (kids giggling, rustling tents, twigs snapping etc.). I get home and think I’m fine. I’m lying in bed, I can see my Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar posters on my bedroom door, I’m living the good life. Then the door (which never squeaks) started to squeak and groan. I bolted from my room (convinced a ghost or something was in there with me) and slept on the couch in the family room that night. I remember my dad woke up before me the next morning and asked why I was sleeping on the couch and I just said, “That movie freaked me out.” A couple of weeks later, I took another friend to see the movie (it was his first viewing, my second). As we were leaving the theater, I thought it would be funny to stand in the corner facing the wall, so I did. My friend, Jeff, goes “Come on, stop!” I didn’t. I just stood there for a minute. When I turned around, he was crying (hard tears) and let me tell ya that was an awkward drive home. #Shame
Adam: Poe would have been proud. Remember the scary fake cat?
Rob: That place rules. Anyway, my last pick is Sarah Connor’s nuclear holocaust fantasy in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I know T2 doesn’t really qualify as a horror movie, but there’s no denying that this scene has been scaring me shitless for twenty-five years. Again (and by now, you’re seeing a trend), it’s the way the film establishes character and emotion before the horror begins: Sarah Connor approaches her younger self playing with her son at a park. It’s the version of her life she may have had if Skynet hadn’t existed. Other moms and other kids. It’s nice. She lifts her hands to the chain-link fence, and the shot is framed as though she’s going to have a bleary-eyed cry over what could have been. But then she starts banging on the fence, screaming “You have to run!” But no one’s listening. She’s completely helpless behind the fence as the sky turns to fire and everything turns to ashes. We finally get to share the nightmare she’s had a thousand times. And then we have to watch an actual nuclear explosion sweep through downtown LA (apparently, the most realistic depiction ever committed to film at the time). And then! And THEN, not only do we have to watch the flesh burn off Sarah Connor’s bones, but we get that horrible blast of fire right at the end that blows her into tiny chunks. That final scream before she explodes? This may be the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.
Adam: That never bothered me. You’re hot for a few seconds, then it’s done, and you don’t have to go to work anymore. I’m not sure how to transition, so I’ll just say we’ll be back next week with more Reserved Seating as Rob and I check in on our Scary Movie Month and give highlights and new recommendations. My month has kicked ass so far. Until next time…
Rob: These seats are reserved.