It’s a Horror to Know You: Todd Miller author of A Silence of Spiders!
1. What was the first film that ever scared you?
My parents did a pretty good job of keeping me away from scary images in the movies and on television—until that fateful plane ride to Amsterdam in the summer of 1978. Just seven-years-old, I was tricked into watching the in-flight movie: Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe. At some point Jacqueline Bisset is wandering around in some fancy kitchen, when she opens up one of the ovens and out pops a hideously charred human arm! I spent the rest of the plan ride cowering under the seat, bitterly cursing Dutch hospitality.
But the first scary movie I remember seeing all the way through was The Black Hole. I can hear Walt Disney now…
“Hey, kids! Come to our wholesome Walt Disney movie! It takes place in Outer Space, just like that other Outer Space Movie you kids like so much. And our movie’s got robots! In fact, our movie has a big, scary red robot named Maximillian. And he’s got little chainsaws for hands. Look out, spaceman Anthony Perkins! Maximillian is going to get you! Oh, no! Look, kids! Spaceman Anthony Perkins is getting butchered right before your very eyes! And here’s a bunch of black-robed, lobotomized drones with hideous ghoul faces under their gleaming metal masks! And here’s that lobotomy machine we were talking about earlier. It shoots lasers into your brain! Uh-oh, now everybody’s getting sucked into that giant black hole, and oops! Now the bad guy is trapped in a burning Hell surrounded by the flailing bodies of the damned!”
1. What is the last film that scared you?
The last film that really creeped me out was Carnival of Souls. This movie marches along to the beat of it’s own drum, and man, that drum is weird.
A young woman named Mary is the sole survivor of a drag race gone bad, and shortly after the accident she takes a new job in a far-away, desert town as a church organist. And, well, things get really strange from there.
What’s going on in that dark, abandoned amusement park on the edge of town? Why does Mary always play that creepy organ music as if she’s in some kind of hypnotic trance? And what exactly is causing those unsettling moments when Mary appears to become invisible to everyone else?
And then there is The Man. A white-faced apparition who appears without warning, in her dreams, in her waking hours, reaching for her, trying to pull her back to the whirling, never-ending dance at the amusement park…the dance of the damned.
2. Name three horror movies that you believe are underrated.
1. If Frankenstein is the Grandfather of all Mad Scientist movies, then Island of Lost Souls is their Great Uncle, the bad one that nobody talks about anymore. It’s too bad that the movie seems to be best remembered for inspiring the lyrics of a Devo song, because Island of Lost Souls is a wild, kinky freak-out festival of darkness and perversity.
The film is based on H.G. Wells’s book The Island of Dr. Monreau, but plenty of liberties are taken with the source material and what ends up hitting the screen is a boiling cauldron of American fears, circa 1932. And these fears aren’t pretty (or politically-correct): The perils of Colonialism! Eugenics! Miscegenation! Rape! And, of course, the dangers of playing God with Science!
But, I’m making this sound way too academic.
A castaway ends up on a mysterious island and is gleefully taken in by the even more mysterious Dr. Moreau. The good doctor does experiments here in his secret jungle laboratory. Secret, mysterious experiments that usually involve someone…or something…screaming in agony. But don’t worry about the Doctor. He’s only a cheerful, smirking, civilized little sadist who likes to play with a whip.
And never mind the island’s lumbering, hirsute inhabitants, with their fangs and pointy ears. They obey The Law. What is the Law? Not to run on all fours. Not to eat meat. Not to spill blood. Are we not men? Here, meet our only woman, Lota…don’t you find her…strangely alluring? Wouldn’t you like to…get to know her better? Never mind her strange fingernails…
2. In the 1970s, kids weren’t just bad, they were Evil. And the Doublemint twins of Evil are Niles and Holland Perry, from The Other. Based on a book by Tom Tryon (author of the also excellent Harvest Home), The Other is a crafty, gothic tale of madness and murder set during the summer of 1935.
I know what you’re thinking: one of the twins is good, and one is evil, blah, blah…YAWN. But, what if both of the twins are evil…or what if something else entirely different is going on? To say anymore would give away the devious plot twists that raise the movie to a whole other level of horror.
Instead, I’ll just throw out a few tid-bits: a mysterious well, a woman in the attic, a grandmother from the Old Country, a circus freak show, a rickety staircase, a white rat, a pitchfork, Dad’s old ring, a voice in the darkness, a book about Changelings…
The movie’s deliberate pace isn’t what we’re used to these days, but try to stick it out. Holy moley, what an ending! It gave me goose bumps.
3. You know that Roman Polanski movie about the person who goes crazy in their apartment building because all the other tenants are evil? No, I mean the other one. Okay, I mean the other, other one—Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, based on a book by Roland Topor.
The Tenant has been called the last film in Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy,” and the story involves a somewhat meek man named Trelkovsky (played by Polanski) trying to rent a new apartment in a busy section of Paris. It seems the apartment’s previous tenant just threw herself out the window, and when Trelkovsky goes to visit her in the hospital, he can’t help but notice that one of her teeth is missing. Shortly after his visit, she dies, and the apartment becomes his to rent.
Ah, but the landlord is unreasonably strict, the other tenants are boorish and mean, and the noise complaints against Trelkovsky begin to pile up. Soon he can’t help but notice that the neighbors are spying on him. A little house cleaning reveals a bizarre object that belonged to the former tenant, an object which sets in motion Trelkovsky’s frightening descent into paranoia and madness. But is Trelkovsky going crazy, or is everyone really out to get him?
Why does the landlord insist he hears a woman in Trelkovsky’s apartment at night? And why does Trelkovksy wake up one morning with painted fingernails? Or…does he? And, what’s with the tooth?
This is a classic Person-Going-Crazy horror film, my favorite in the genre.
3. Name three horror movies that you enjoy against your better judgment.
1. Poor H.P. Lovecraft. There’s never been a really good, big-budget adaptation of any of his stories. But there have been plenty of bad ones. One of the goofiest has to be Roger Corman’s The Dunwich Horror, filmed in 1970 and staring Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell as the evil hippie wizard Wilbur Whateley. And hey, the soundtrack is by faux-exotic lounge music composer Les Baxter!
Okay, they didn’t have a lot of money for special effects. But, man, they try really hard to invoke the mind-blasting, sanity-shaking horror of encountering one of Lovecraft’s cosmic baddies. What other movie presents a hideous dark god from another dimension in the flesh as a really, really bad acid trip? Incense and Peppermints! Yog-Sothoth!
Oh, those weirdo hippies with their Free Love and their Elder Gods! Dean Stockwell is perfect as an oily, ascot wearing youth with dangerous hair who needs the body of Sandra Dee to open up a portal to another universe. And just who is going to come out of that portal? I think you know…
2. The Stepford Wives is another movie which has been reduced to a pop culture catchphrase. You may think you don’t need to see this movie because you already know the main surprise of the story. And it all sounds so completely over–the-top. Women getting replaced by robots? Please.
But, really, how is it any different than getting replaced by aliens from seed pods, or getting turned into a zombie, or any other horrible thing that can happen to a person, to their identity, in any number of scary movies? What is the loss of your identity, if not a kind of death?
It’s all here, all the trapping of a good horror movie: paranoia, creepy clues that Something is Wrong in Stepford, our heroine’s growing sense of isolation and fear as her friends are changed and her enemies grow stronger…
And then suddenly there’s violence and the appearance of The Strange Thing…
“I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe. I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe. I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe.”
3. Way before Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal Lector, he was Corky Withers in Magic, a movie about an evil ventriloquist dummy. C’mon, we all know ventriloquist dummies are evil. Look at them. With their dead eyes and gaping mouths!
Okay, maybe the dummy isn’t evil. Maybe eccentric, short-tempered ventriloquist Anthony Hopkins just has something wrong with his head. Crazy-wrong! Killing wrong!
As goofy as the concept sounds, the movie is incredibly clever. Let’s just say that as Corky starts to make mistakes, and the bodies start to pile up, that watching him twist and turn in mental agony is good, creepy fun.
Plus, the dummy really is evil.
4. Send us five places on the Internets!
MATTHEW KIRSCHT – shout-out to my friend Matthew Kirscht, an artist whose work is inspired by 19th century Halloween imagery. (He also draws Wacky Packages for Topps.)
CTHULHU LIVES – The official website of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. They did a cracking-good silent movie adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu.
SPACE 1970 – A really fun blog about 1970s science-fiction movies. Soylent Green! Rollerball! Logan’s Run!
MIKE”S AMAZING WORLD – A great resource for tracking down old horror comics.
THE BOOK DESIGNER– Helpful advice for self-publishing authors.