Elegance in a Shuttered Room

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I saw her only once.

It was Thanksgiving Day, 1970. At my aunt’s house in New Jersey. After dinner, Bown showed one of his silent movies. She sat like a tiny sparrow on the sofa. But there was a large elephant in the room. Why was everyone acting so strange?

I didn’t see her the first 12 years of my life, and never again the last 10 years of hers.

When I was very young, I used to ask my parents about her. “Why don’t we ever visit Grandma?” And they always told me that she was “in the hospital.” It wasn’t until my teen years, when I was in my dad’s study and accidentally-on-purpose read an opened letter that she’d written to him, that I finally understood why she was always “in the hospital.”

Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile, eggshell mind.

My grandmother was born in 1895 in an upscale section of Harlem. Her mother was descended from one of the first families of New York, and her father from early Massachusetts Puritans. She must have begun piano studies at an early age, because she eventually became so talented, she was invited to tour with composer Victor Herbert. But it never happened.

In 1918 she married my grandpa. A more unlikely pairing you couldn’t imagine. He was from central Pennsylvania farm stock and 15 years older. He was a practical New York businessman, she a musical romantic. According to my aunt, he’d had a date with her older sister, Blanche, at Delmonico’s. Afterwards, Blanche invited him to her Harlem brownstone to meet the family. He took one look at the younger sister and was besotted. Poor Blanche.

She gave birth to my dad in 1922, and my aunt two years later. Maybe raising two children was too much for her. She probably had something that she’d inherited. Could it have been from her grandfather, the Civil War naval captain who was court-martialed? No one knows.

In 1930, she entered the hospital for six months, but was released. A year later she entered for good. Permanent vacation. Imposed communal living for the next 50 years. Jeezus. That’s a lot of piano-playing in the day room.

My dad never talked about her. She wasn’t at his wedding. Early in his marriage to Mom, he told her “I never had a mother.” But here’s a quirky upside: her absence brought him very close to his father. “Dad could have left her, and nobody would have faulted him. My dad adopted his dad’s strength of character.

I remember a few things from that Thanksgiving Day. I had a Craig reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I taped conversations in the kitchen while the turkey roasted. Goofing off with my cousin and brothers. Dallas playing Green Bay. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” all over the radio.

And there are one or two photos of the meal. Bown, married to Aunt Blanche’s daughter, wearing a pin-striped suit, sitting erect with his hands folded on the table, a benign smile on his face. Grandma is at the head of the table, with her hands up to her face, her mouth open, as if surprised, tired, or confused. Her hair is gray and frizzy. She looks small and insignificant. And I remember the other adults, including my noble dad, treating her gently but awkwardly, as if she might break any moment.

Then came the movie. I remember the dark, claustrophobic living room with the thick, Persian rug, and the musty but pleasant smell of old things. A step into antiquity. The movie was “The Thief of Bagdad,” starring dashing Douglas Fairbanks. It was released in 1924, six years before Grandma went into exile.

I remember Bown acting as master of ceremonies and working his bulky black movie projector. He gave a florid introduction, then intermittent narration. Mainly, I remember his politeness to Grandma. “What do you think of the motion picture, Mrs. Kurtz?” he must have asked her three or four times. And Grandma – her eyes blinking in the glow from the movie screen, with God knows what fantastic thoughts and images ricocheting through her broken brain – gave the same response every time:

“Very elegant.”

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Do NOT Watch Alone! Five Great Chiller Movies for Halloween

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In my last blog piece I wrote about my hike on the Appalachian Trail. I talked about people’s fears of being in the woods at night, and I name-dropped a few scary movies with outdoor “creatures.” One movie I omitted was George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, about a bunch of zombies who terrorize a young couple. I also forgot to mention an eye-catching t-shirt I saw on my hike. It was worn by a bored-looking teenage girl who was hiking with her family. It said: “I Can’t Wait for the Zombie Apocalypse.”

Zombies are trendy these days for some inexplicable reason. By “Zombies,” I don’t mean the British rock band from the ‘60s. I’m talking about people who walk around in a daze, moaning, with their arms held straight out (kind of like Cleveland sports fans). I’m not sure why zombies are so popular. But I do know that scary movies never seem to go out of style.

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Janet Leigh in the now-classic shower scene of “Psycho”

The ball got rolling in the 1920s with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, starring Lon Chaney. In the 1930s came Tod Browning’s DRACULA and FREAKS, and James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN. Monster movies became increasingly prevalent (and low-budget), hitting rock-bottom in the ‘50s with the movies of “The Worst Director of All Time,” Edward D. Wood, Jr. But Alfred Hitchcock, “The Master,” soon rescued fright flicks with psychological thrillers like PSYCHO and THE BIRDS. Most horror flicks today, unfortunately, spring from the Wes Craven and John Carpenter school of fright. They’re loaded with shocks and violent bloodletting, but have little Gothic or psychological horror.

Hitchcock and the 1960s were possibly a high-point for horror flicks. For this article, I’ve chosen five movies from the ‘60s that I consider some of the best horror flicks of all time, but which don’t get viewed much anymore. They’re very psychological. They start slowly and build in suspense, methodically drawing the viewer into the maelstrom. By the end of the movie, one feels drained. Some of them, like THE HAUNTING and REPULSION, can worm their way into your dreams.  Or nightmares..

So here they are, listed in order of their release. If you haven’t seen these movies and enjoy the stuff of nightmares, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Make sure you watch these at night. But a word to the wise: DO NOT WATCH THESE ALONE!

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VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960, starring George Sanders): Residents of a rural English village one day fall asleep at the same moment. When they awake, things are different. Women become pregnant at the same time. The children born to them all have blond hair, hypnotic eyes, and are emotionally frigid. As they grow, they begin to huddle together privately, away from the other children. But this is only the beginning of the horror.damned

The movie is adapted from a novel called “The Midwich Cuckoos.” I saw it as a kid and had to sleep with my parents for several nights (the kids in this movie were far scarier than the bully down the street). Most children are innocent and playful. But these “creatures” are just the opposite: they’re abnormally intuitive, and they never smile. Whoever said “blondes have more fun” didn’t see this movie.

NOTE: John Carpenter remade this movie in 1995, and there’s a sequel to the original called CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1964). But the original’s the one to watch.

THE INNOCENTS (1961, starring Deborah Kerr and Michael Redgrave): All the right ingredients for a ghost story are here: a dark Victorian mansion, a neurotic English governess, rumors, mysterious deaths, plus the same disturbing child actor who led the homicidal brats in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. The story is adapted from Henry James’s classic novella “The Turn of the Screw,” written when Sigmund Freud was postulating his revolutionary theories of sexuality, dreams, and the unconscious (James’s brother, William James, is considered the “Father of American Psychology”). innocents2The casting of talented Deborah Kerr, as the governess “Miss Giddens,” is spot-on. Her saucer eyes and halting voice perfectly convey the paralyzing fear of a woman on the verge of a breakdown.

NOTE: Truman Capote co-wrote the script for this movie between publication of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood.” Capote was originally from Alabama, and he added a Southern Gothic aura to the film.

THE HAUNTING (1963, starring Julie Harris, directed by Robert Wise): The classic New England haunted house movie, adapted from a novel by Shirley Jackson entitled “The Haunting of Hill House.” I saw it with my daughter when she was about 13, and she says it’s one of the scariest movies she’s ever seen. hauntingNow, that’s a plug! (She normally hates black-and-white movies). But THE HAUNTING is a movie that could only have been filmed in B&W. The gray, shadowy cinematography gives the film depth and atmosphere, and accentuates the oppressiveness of mounting fear. Like Deborah Kerr in THE INNOCENTS, Julie Harris gives a standout performance as a young woman veering toward insanity. Is it the spooky house, or has she always been unstable, or is it both? You have to watch this movie to find out… but DON’T WATCH IT ALONE!

NOTE: this film has hints of Lesbianism between the characters played by Harris and Claire Bloom.

NOTE 2: the movie was remade in 1999. I haven’t seen it, but it supposedly stinks.

SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (1964, starring Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough): A domineering wife and her caspar milquetoast husband devise a plot. They will kidnap a young girl and hold her for ransom so the woman can get publicity for her psychic abilities. In the beginning, they have no intention of harming the girl. But the woman, haunted by the early death of her son Arthur, slowly begins to crumble mentally, and contemplates murder. Her meek husband is the only thing standing in her way.seance

SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON is a tour-de-force of acting, direction, and atmosphere. This was only Stanley’s second movie, and she didn’t make many afterwards. She was most known for theater work and for doing the narration in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But hers is a powerful performance that earned an Oscar nomination. Richard Attenborough is also great as the submissive husband. The subject matter is sensitive, but it’s handled with care. And the movie title, well… let’s just say they don’t write ‘em like this anymore.

NOTE: the part that Kim Stanley eventually got was turned down by both Deborah Kerr and Simone Signoret (famous for her role in DIABOLIQUE, a sort of French take on Alfred Hitchcock)

REPULSION (1965, starring Catherine Deneuve, directed by Roman Polanski): A definite pattern has developed in this list. Why stop now? Catherine Deneuve’s character in REPULSION makes the mental instability of Kerr, Harris, and Stanley seem like a walk in the sanitarium garden. I saw this movie for the first time two years ago. All I can say is “Wow.” And not just for the shimmering beauty of Deneuve. RepulsionDirector Polanski crafted a movie about a sexually repressed young woman whose older sister leaves her alone in their apartment for a week. At first, the woman’s behavior is just a little odd. But over time, we realize she’s slipping dangerously downstream. When she finally cracks, it’s a shocker. Watch this movie through the last camera shot, which is a close-up of a photograph of the woman as a young girl. Very unsettling.

NOTE: REPULSION was Roman Polanski’s first English-language film. It’s ranked #14 on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of best-rated films.

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After making this list, I noticed four out of five of the movies have a woman in the central role. Even PSYCHO and THE BIRDS feature a beautiful woman at the center of the plot. It was purely accidental on my part. But I’m glad I could strike a blow for women’s rights, even if all of these femmes are a little “off.” Maybe because women’s psyches are more vulnerable? Or have more complexity?

Whatever the answer, I hope that, if you do watch these movies, you’ll agree that one doesn’t need a lot of violence and blood to convey horror. On the contrary, psychological horror is far more riveting than monsters, aliens, or comic-book figures like Freddy Krueger. The greatest horrors are intangible: they lurk inside the human mind.

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