I’m back from my vacation (which was fun and blissfully unproductive, thank you for asking), so I’m slowly getting back to work on this series, among other things. This sixth entry will be slightly different, as I’m going to highlight two creepy scenes whose visual impact has stuck with me since the eighties. They’re both very short scenes and have a similar theme, so I thought I’d just lump them together, if that’s all right with everyone.
I’d like to talk a bit here about things that scare us, or scare me in particular, since part of the appeal of writing this series was, for me, a desire to examine why I find particular images or situations disturbing, when perhaps other people may not. In regards to the two short vignettes I want to discuss, I’d like to focus on a particular subset of body horror, particularly facial “wrongness.”
It seems reasonable to assume that from an evolutionary standpoint, human brains developed with an instinctive ability to assess the physical “normality” of our fellow humans, if only in order to identify genetic fitness in potential mates. It’s why studies that have been done all over the world show that the humans consistently rated as the most attractive are the ones that are the most symmetrical. I’m simplifying here, but you get the gist. Humans know when someone looks okay, and when they don’t, even if they can’t articulate why.
This feature of the human mind can, of course, be subverted. Take, for example, the concept of the “uncanny valley,” that unsettling grey area where a human simulacrum looks so similar to a real human that we are almost fooled, but is ever-so-slightly “off” in a way we can’t quite put our finger on, causing us intense discomfort.
Horror filmmakers, consciously or not, have been playing with the concept of subverting physical normality since horror movies first began. Sometimes it’s blatant, like Regan’s 360-degree head-spin or her freaky “spider walk” down the stairs in The Exorcist, or the strange, jerking movements of long-haired female ghosts in many an Asian horror film. And sometimes it’s more subtle, like simply taking one facial feature and changing it in a way that upsets our deep-seated sense of physical regularity.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) was an anthology film featuring several stories by different directors. The bulk of the stories were adapted from episodes of the classic “Twilight Zone” television series. One of these, the Joe Dante directed “It’s a Good Life,” was a loose remake of one of the most famous TZ episodes of all time (which had been in turn based on a short story by Jerome Bixby), the one that starred Bill Mumy as a functionally omnipotent child who could “wish people into the cornfield” if they did something to displease him.
In the 1983 film version, a schoolteacher named Helen (Kathleen Quinlan) stops at a café while on a road trip and there meets a young boy named Anthony (Jeremy Licht). She intervenes when he is being harassed by bullies, and then ends up giving him a ride home after she “accidentally” hits his bike with her car in the parking lot. Upon arriving at his cavernous mansion of a house, she quickly discovers that something is very amiss with Anthony. His entire family seems deathly afraid of him, and take great pains to bend to his every whim, whether that’s serving candied apples and peanut-butter-topped hamburgers for dinner, or allowing cartoons to play endlessly on every television in the house. It turns out that the family’s fear is well-placed, as Anthony has the supernatural ability to wish anything he desires into existence, and severely punishes anyone who interferes with his wishes.
One of the recipients of Anthony’s wrath is his sister Sara (Cherie Currie, who is perhaps best known as the lead singer of the band The Runaways). As Helen is wandering the vast halls of the mansion Anthony calls home, she stops to peer into a long, darkened bedroom. She smiles indulgently at the rows of identical single beds with their identical stuffed pandas, and then she notices a girl sitting in a wheelchair at the far end of the room. The girl’s back is to her; she seems to be wearing pajamas and is staring at a flickering television screen playing a loop of a black and white cartoon. Helen calls out to her, but the girl doesn’t answer or turn around. Anthony comes up beside Helen in the doorway and explains that this is his sister Sara. “She was in an accident,” he says, and then he and Helen proceed down the hall.
We then see a shot of Sara from the front, though half her face is concealed by the angle of the television set. Her eyes are wide and a bit crazed as they frenetically follow the cartoon action on the screen in front of her. And then the camera tips upward to reveal the bottom half of the girl’s face. She has no mouth, only smooth flesh where the lips should be. It’s a very short but pleasantly chilling moment, and all done very simply. There is no gore, no blatant deformity, just that disturbingly empty expanse where the girl’s mouth should be. Later in the story, we learn that Anthony crippled his sister and took her mouth away so that she wouldn’t “nag” him anymore. The other sister who reveals this information (played by Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson) has an even more horrifying fate; Anthony puts her into a cartoon, where she is pursued and eaten by a dragon.
Don’t fuck with Anthony, is the message there, folks.
The second example of disturbing facial distortion is far more ostentatious, but it affected me mightily just the same. The Tom Holland-directed Fright Night (1985) was one of the best horror comedies of the decade, faultlessly combining hilarity, pathos, and terror into a wildly entertaining whole. Charley (William Ragsdale) is a regular high school kid who lives with his single mother (Dorothy Fielding), has a goofball horror-nerd best friend named Evil (Stephen Geoffreys), and a goody-two-shoes girlfriend named Amy (played by Amanda Bearse, who would later achieve great fame as neighbor Marcy on the long-running and much-beloved TV show “Married…With Children”).
Apparently, Charley also has a vampire as a new neighbor, though naturally no one believes it. Through binoculars, Charley has been watching neighbor Jerry Dandridge (suavely played by Chris Sarandon) evidently picking up high-class prostitutes and later carrying suspiciously body-shaped garbage bags out of the house next door with the help of his carpenter/houseboy/manservant Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark). After trying to alert family, friends, and then police, all to no avail, Charley gets desperate and enlists (well, buys) the services of his hero, has-been TV horror host Peter Vincent (portrayed with great sensitivity and humor by Roddy McDowall) to help stop the bloodsucker.
At one point, the charismatic Dandridge has put his vampy moves on the virginal Amy, chasing her to a downtown nightclub and dancing with her seductively before biting her. Later on in the film, Charley comes across Amy in the basement of Dandridge’s house. She is nearly unrecognizable, her formerly good-girl demeanor completely transformed into a feral sexpot (a giant upgrade in my opinion, but that’s neither here nor there). She approaches him in her see-through white gown and bares her fangs at him, then cruelly teases him: “What’s wrong?” she says, running her hands through her wild red hair. “Don’t you want me anymore?” Charley, frightened by this frankly sexual creature who used to be his withholding girlfriend, thrusts a crucifix at her. She shrieks and turns from him, then tries another tactic. “It’s not my fault, Charley,” she cries pitifully in her good-girl-Amy voice. “You promised you wouldn’t let him get me! You promised!”
Charley, dope that he is, falls for it and drops the crucifix, moving toward her. “Amy…” he says. And then we pan over to Amy’s face, only to see this:
There is a terrifying rictus of a mouth, huge and impossibly wide and filled with sharp teeth. When I first saw that mouth in 1985, I think my heart stopped a little bit; it was just the enormity of it, the way it consumed the lower half of her face. Between the mouth and the round red eyes, I was put in mind of a giant anaconda about to swallow someone’s head. That image has stayed with me from that day to this. For his part, Charley, upon seeing Amy’s bloodcurdling visage, screams and tries to fight her off, foxy vampire or no. He is profoundly relieved when she is transformed back into her ordinary self after Dandridge is killed.
And so Fright Night leaves us with a question for the ages: Better to have a slightly annoying girlfriend who won’t put out, or a supernatural, oversexed hellbeast who wants to eat your face off? Charley chose the safer option; would you? 😉
Until next time, Goddess out.