STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
We are deep into the Halloween season, and many of us are cooped up at home with our streaming services, scrolling through movie after movie full of monsters, murderers, jump scares and rivers of blood. But what about those of us who are scaredy cats? Maybe we're into the idea of horror movies but aren't looking to be grossed out by gore or freaked out by jump scares. Well, this is the discussion for you. I'm Stephen Thompson. And today we are recommending three great horror movies for scaredy cats on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
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THOMPSON: Welcome back. Joining us is NPR arts correspondent and horror movie enthusiast Neda Ulaby. Thanks for being here, Neda.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Hey, Stephen. Thanks for having me.
THOMPSON: Oh, it is such a pleasure. Now, before we get into your recommendations, Neda, talk to us a little bit about your history with horror movies. You and I were both little kids in the '70s, which is, I'd imagine, when you started to be aware of these films.
ULABY: Right. You know, in the 1970s, when you and I were young wee bits of lads and lasses...
ULABY: ...That was a period of time when horror movies were really getting amped up in the culture. They were really pushing the boundaries of what was disgusting, you know? I mean, do you remember being a little kid and the movie "Halloween" came out or the movie "Jaws"?
THOMPSON: Mmm hmm.
ULABY: You know, I remember just walking through a bookstore and seeing Peter Benchley's book "Jaws" at exactly my level at age 7, and it just scared the pants off of me. And I was fascinated by these movies. And, you know, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" was coming out, "Clockwork Orange." And I was too little to see these movies, but they had that thrill of the forbidden. So I contented myself by trying to scare myself desperately by what was on late-night television. And I don't know. Did you watch, like, old Hammer movies, like old Hammer horror movies with Peter Cushing as Dracula...
ULABY: ...Or old creature features? Or, like, for example - you know, there were a lot of, like, "Godzilla." I remember running home from school to watch "Godzilla," which was, I think, my first ever horror movie. And these are all not scary, scary movies, but I think my favorite were movies that were made by Roger Corman.
THOMPSON: Mmm hmm.
ULABY: And what's your impression of Roger Corman?
THOMPSON: I mean, I think of, like, cheap and efficient and kind of surprisingly well-made genre pictures...
THOMPSON: ...Is kind of what immediately pops into my head.
ULABY: Right, a lot of, like, student nurses or bikers from hell - you know, but he also churned out a lot of really silly kind of campy horror movies. And he adapted eight - well, adapted is kind of a loose word. He made movies that were inspired by Edgar Allan Poe - some poems, some stories - and some were actually mainstream successes. So "Fall Of The House Of Usher" (ph) was a relative hit, and so was "The Pit And The Pendulum," both of which starred Vincent Price.
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VINCENT PRICE: (As Don Nicholas Medina) You are about to enter hell, Bartolome - hell. The netherworld, the infernal regions, the abode of the damned, the place of torment, pandemonium, Abbadon, Tophet, Gehenna, Naraka, the pit - and the pendulum.
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ULABY: And the pendulum (laughter).
THOMPSON: There's only so scary you can be (imitating Vincent Price) when you are talking like this.
ULABY: Pretty much. I think the scariest thing about these movies is their unfaithfulness to the source material.
ULABY: My personal favorite of all of these was a movie called "The Raven," which was one of Jack Nicholson's very first screen appearances, in which he plays the son of Peter Lorre.
THOMPSON: Oh, wow.
ULABY: Boris Karloff is on it. He's a dueling sorcerer. It's hilarious.
So I don't know. I'm just kind of bringing up these Corman movies because they kind of laid a template for a kind of movie that we started to see a lot of in the 1980s and also because Peter Lorre in particular was making me think of how not-scary scary movies don't have to be compromises. There are so many classics of world cinema that were maybe really scary when they came out, but they aren't that scary now. You know, those old Universal horror movies like "Dracula" and "Frankenstein." Great movies - you have to have a pretty wild imagination to be frightened by either one of those right now.
There's a great Japanese movie called "House" that came out in the 1970s that's insane. It's so over the top. It - like, futons attack people.
ULABY: It's not scary right now. But a disembodied head, like, bites people's bottoms. I was thinking about pulling it - a clip from that, but I decided not to. Instead, I decided to pick another classic of world cinema. And by the way, this Japanese movie was given the Criterion Collection release, and so was this movie "M," also starring Peter Lorre. And "M" is, I feel like, one of those movies that a lot of people feel like they should have seen, but they haven't. It was made in the early 1930s. It's German. It has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And it stars a very, very young Peter Lorre as a depraved killer of children.
ULABY: Not a scary movie, but a really chilling one where Peter Lorre stalks the streets of Berlin, whistling as he closes down on his prey, little boys and girls.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "M")
PETER LORRE: (As Hans Beckert, whistling).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking German).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking German).
ULABY: So what you're hearing, by the way, is a mother inadvertently, unknowingly rescuing her blond, pigtailed little girl who Peter Lorre was just about to pounce on as he was whistling away.
So this movie gets credited as being the very first serial killer movie, and Fritz Lang was the director. He pioneered, in this movie, tons of innovations that you see in horror movies since, like, you know, the camera's hiding in the bushes; the camera's stalking the victims - all of that stuff, he was doing for the first time in 1931. And in a funny way, it's a great movie for right now, also, because it touches on themes like the rise of fascism, perhaps, that don't feel completely irrelevant.
ULABY: There's a lot of stuff about public hysteria, the power of mobs, punishment, privacy, the very nature of evil itself. But it's honestly, like, a movie you could watch with your kids aged 10 and up, and nobody's going to be traumatized.
THOMPSON: My parents actually showed me "M" when I was probably - I want to say - 7 or 8.
ULABY: (Laughter) Oh, God.
THOMPSON: My parents had this whole thing about how they wanted to show me movies, quote-unquote, "for my education," which is a great way to make (laughter) a kid feel like watching entertainment is a chore.
ULABY: It's a great way to raise a future podcast host.
THOMPSON: You know what? It worked. (Laughter) Mission accomplished. But I remember thinking that Peter Lorre performance was just one of the most amazing things I had ever seen. And that's a perfect example of a movie that does everything a horror movie does but without actually really showing - it doesn't show you anything. So gore is not a part of it at all, but it is still a haunting and pretty incredible movie.
ULABY: Did it scare you when you were a little kid?
THOMPSON: It creeped me out. I mean, it definitely (laughter) had the effect of me being creeped out. I was much more scared of sharks.
ULABY: "Jaws" - 'cause we're the same age. And you also saw those Peter Benchley posters for the movie or the book cover, which was the same as the poster of the movie "Jaws." I mean, I will go to my grave traumatized by these noble creatures of the deep.
All right. What else you got?
ULABY: Well, it's funny. I'm so glad you talked about getting creeped out. And I wanted to kind of hit a little bit of a balance between creepy movies that creep you out but don't, like, really scare you in the way that, you know, a movie like "Halloween" or "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" might and, like, just sort of - I don't know - movies that you can watch with your kids but also movies that are legitimately grown-up movies.
But you look back now at - you know, I don't know. I was looking thinking about shows like "Stranger Things" and how they reference the '80s because that was such a moment when horror movie directors were, like - you know what? - we can just have fun with this, and it doesn't have to just be buckets of blood. It can also be playful and kind of cute. And there can be a sweet good-heartedness. We saw this with Tim Burton movies, as well. And when I think about my favorite horror movies that aren't that scary, I think of, like, you know, "Tremors" and "Shaun Of The Dead."
ULABY: I think of TV shows like "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and more recently "Lucifer," a show that I really, really love. And that brings us to the third example. Did you - have you seen "Warm Bodies" from 2013?
THOMPSON: I have not.
ULABY: It's a Romeo and Juliet story, but Romeo is dead. (Laughter). He's a zombie. And he is played by a legit heartthrob, Nicholas Hoult.
THOMPSON: He's in "The Great."
ULABY: Yeah, he was the guy who's in "Mad Max: Fury Road," Brit - although he plays an American zombie in this movie. And he was in "X-Men." He was in "Skins." And he falls in love with Julie, who is a living girl. She's played actually by Teresa Palmer, who people might know from "Discovery Of Witches" now. This movie came out in 2013, so they were teenagers then. Now they're grown-ups.
And so they're pursuing their doomed or perhaps not so doomed romance. Julie's father is played by John Malkovich. He's a vengeful vigilante who, in this scene, is intent on making sure that his daughter, a human, does not fall in love with a brain-chomping zombie teenager.
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JOHN MALKOVICH: (As Grigio) We're their food source. They are not becoming vegan, OK? They don't eat broccoli. They eat brains, your mother's and your boyfriend's included, OK? So I want you to wake up.
THOMPSON: Neda, those are fantastic picks. Once again, Neda's picks are "The Pit And The Pendulum" from 1961, "M" from 1931 and "Warm Bodies" from 2013.
Neda, thanks so much for being here.
ULABY: Thanks, and Happy Halloween.
THOMPSON: Thank you for listening. We will see you all right back here tomorrow.
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