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Unshakable scenes

The moments that still make us squirm

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 31, 2010

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As anyone who watches more movies than is good for him knows, “scary’’ is not the same as “gory.’’ “Gory’’ shows, while “scary’’ implies. “Gory’’ does all the work for us, while “scary’’ leaves it up to our imagination — and our imagination tends to be a much darker place than the common consensual playroom of the movie screen. When filmmakers subtract, we’re all too happy to add: The most delicious and lasting terrors are those we watch between our fingers, afraid to take in the big picture.

I learned this early. In the autumn of 1965, when I was 8 years old, one of the Boston TV stations struck upon the programming masterstroke of showing the classic 1930s Universal monster movies in the week leading up to Halloween. One per day, scheduled in the afternoons when I should have been doing homework. Who could do homework? I glommed them all, fidgeting ecstatically through “Dracula,’’ “Frankenstein,’’ “The Invisible Man,’’ and “Werewolf of London,’’ the latter surprisingly tame despite pro viding Warren Zevon with an excellent future song title.

By the time the station worked up to the original incarnation of “The Mummy,’’ I was a nervous wreck, and I watched the film’s opening scenes with one hand on the channel knob, ready to spin over to “The Major Mudd Show’’ on Channel 7 if the going got tough. It did: The idiot adventurer (Bramwell Fletcher) opened the crypt against all common sense and the moldering thing in the corner started moving and — eeek. I admit it, I bailed. The experience was so traumatic that when the Great Northeast Blackout hit two weeks later, I took all my 3-inch-high plastic monster figurines out to the back porch so they wouldn’t get in when they came to life, as I knew they would.

I worked my way back to “The Mummy’’ in later years and was of course surprised to find a neatly desiccated drama about romantic dread rather than a full-on horror flick (and certainly not a rampaging theme-park ride like the 1999 remake). Chickening out had robbed me of a perfectly effective movie experience, a lesson you’d think would stick.

It did not. Fast forward a decade or so, and I’m watching the original 1974 “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’’ at a midnight college screening. It’s Halloween and maybe I’m a little the worse for wear. When that steel door flies open and the horrifying vision of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) appears, wielding his sledgehammer like a berserker Thor, I scream like a little girl and hightail it up the aisle, taking comfort with my fellow weenies in the nearby student union snack bar. Again, I revisit the film a year or so later and am stunned to find a picture that exudes horror like slime-mold while barely showing you anything.

So I learned to tough it out, and in the process came to appreciate that what terrifies a person is, big surprise, personal. It turns out that I have a remarkably low tolerance for scenes involving razor blades and body parts, so I made it through the ear-slicing sequence in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs’’ (1992) once and only once, and I will not be going back any time soon.

At the same time, I slowly developed the thick hide of any modern moviegoer. I learned I could appreciate full-on gore if leavened with subversive humor, as in the “Evil Dead’’ series with its Three Stooges-style nyuk-yuck-yucks or the proudly gonzo “Re-Animator’’ (1985), surely the greatest film involving an undead severed head and a tied-up naked woman. (By contrast, the anatomical viscera of current horror movies is just technique, and jaded technique at that.)

My true appreciation remains for those movies that spring their scares with finesse, building terror out of mood and craft and the delirious expectancy that the worst could happen at any moment. Two of the most legendary fake-outs in the history of the cinema are bloodbaths that come at the end of a long sigh of relief: The shower scene in “Psycho’’ (1960), in which Marion Crane washes away her sins only to be brought brutally to account, and the cafeteria sequence in “Alien’’ (1979), with the spaceship’s deceptive calm broken by a very, very bad case of indigestion.

Memorable movie fear always involves vulnerability — ours and the characters’ onscreen — in the face of the unspeakable. The single most terrifying film performance I have ever seen is Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet’’ (1986), a man with no compunction about visiting evil upon an innocent world. The words “help me’’ still raise the hairs on the back of my neck not for one but two cinematic reasons: the desperate plea of insect-man Al Hedison at the end of 1958’s “The Fly’’ and the desperate plea on the raised skin of the possessed Regan (Linda Blair) in 1973’s “The Exorcist.’’

The movies are a voyeur’s medium, of course, and often the entertainment is in seeing other people get scared. It’s why we go to horror movies in a crowd, our screams playing off each others’ in a complicated dance of thrill and release. Part of the fun of renting the original “Diabolique’’ (1955) recently was watching my teenage daughters climb the walls when Paul Meurisse (Michel Delasalle) rises from the bathtub with those awful dead eyes.

Sometimes it’s not so much fun. One of the more frightening movie experiences in my life was seeing Brian De Palma’s “Carrie’’ (1976) with my college roommate and his girlfriend, the latter an emotionally fragile young woman and a horror movie newbie. I could hear her whimpering unhappily throughout the film, and when the Big Scream comes at the very end — Carrie White’s dead hand shooting up through the grave to grab poor Sue Snell, ahhhhhh! — it was as if someone had popped the top on her psyche.

The audience screamed and screamed and laughed and laughed, and after the end credits rolled, my roommate and I had to bodily carry his girlfriend back home, where she sobbed uncontrollably for hours. And that is when I understood that none of the monsters we pay to see on the screen — our common therapy, proof that they’re conquerable — are a match for the ones we carry inside.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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