I chose to name films that were in the era where I first really started watching movies and fell in love with cinema. I didn’t watch movies as a kid because my family was a member of a church that didn’t think movies were a good thing—they thought they were the work of the devil—so I didn’t see many movies until I was out of college. There was an art house in the town way upstate in New York where I was teaching and I went to every movie that opened there.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
This was one of the movies that just completely enthralled me and scared me at the same time, where I was watching a film that was a pretty moving work of art as well. There are several scenes where the parents glimpse their missing little girl—wearing the raincoat she was wearing when she disappeared—appearing down at the end of a dank alleyway in Venice. The sense that the child is either a ghost or is torturing them with her presence by disappearing was a wonderful example (not that I followed it) of being able to scare without showing blood.
Blow-Up was also a very mysterious film where you did not see much violence at all. This was one of Antonioni’s films, about a photographer coming back from a shoot who sees something in one of his photographs that he hadn’t realized he’d photographed. He blows it up, then blows it up again, and it appears to be a human foot sticking out from behind a bush, so he goes back to see what it might have actually been. He’s pretty sure he’s onto a murder, and he comes back to his loft apartment after finding nothing, finds his place has been tossed, and realizes his life is in danger. It is a very masterfully constructed, gorgeously photographed, and almost surreal film of impending threat and doom—again without much clue of what actually happened or what is going to happen. It is quite extraordinary. Even though I didn’t go on to make films that are quite this art film-ish, these were the films that really inspired me to take the liberty of even what I did in Nightmare on Elm Street, where I could go into these macabre visions in a way that was permitted by the very nature of the film itself.
The scene that really frightened me the most is the one at the top of the stairs where Martin Balsam, playing the detective, comes up and there’s a high-angle, sort of canted shot, where the mother—or what seems to be the mother—comes out of the doorway with the knife raised over her head, charges at him, stabs him in the chest, and he’s so startled he’s not able to move. Hitchcock did a very surreal thing where he put his actor on a lift so he could be flying backwards in midair in slow-motion in a very surreal, dreamlike way. It was utterly terrifying.
The Virgin Spring (1960)
The basic plot of The Virgin Spring, which was lifted off a Medieval tale, became the framework for The Last House on the Left. Two girls go off on a pilgrimage and while they’re in the woods they run into a band of shepherds who are nearly feral, and they are ultimately raped and then murdered. That was horrific enough, but what really was terrifying to me was when these shepherds are lost in a storm and take shelter at a house that they find, and they do not know that this is the home of one of the girls they just killed. The parents discover who these people are by discovering some of the girls’ clothing, and there’s this long sequence where the parents prepare to kill these men. The father systematically murders each one of these shepherds, and that to me, oddly enough, was the most terrifying because his revenge was done so graphically. There was a young boy that was traveling with these shepherds—he was utterly innocent and he ends up being killed, too. I found that really a stunning thing to be depicted in a movie where you have what in an American movie would be justifiable revenge, but at the end seeing how revenge can itself be a murder of the innocence of the victims, how they can transcend from being normal people to being victims to being murderers themselves. That was fascinating to me.
Repulsion by Polanski is one of my real inspirations of several of his films. It was one of these films spun out of spiderwebs and ether. A woman was left alone in her apartment, and just bit by bit, her sanity is eroding so that the apartment became the literal symbol of her psyche. There’s a wonderful moment where she seems utterly haunted and locked into her apartment—even though she can leave if she wants to—and one of the walls simply cracks. This crack races across the walls of her apartment as if the very building itself is about to collapse. Years and years later, when I did Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, I began the film with an earthquake hitting Los Angeles, and we’re watching the actress who played Nancy on the original Nightmare on Elm Street. So you’re in Heather Langenkamp’s home, and her house is struck by an earthquake, and the first clue that something is happening is one of the walls in her home simply splits in half. Later, I did an appearance where I was showing Repulsion as one of my favorite films, and I’m sitting in the theatre watching the opening of it, and when this crack goes across the wall of the character’s apartment I realize, holy moly, I lifted that whole crack and put it in my movie without remembering where I saw it.
Beauty and the Beast (1946)
Beauty and the Beast was again the idea of near-madness and the fabric of reality being created and replaced with things that were surreal. I think I was very affected by surrealism in general as a sort of outlaw form of looking at the world as semi-mad, especially this scene where a character’s going down a hallway and the sconces for the hallway lights are hands, and they begin grasping and reaching out at the character was just terribly, terribly frightening to me. I think there were elements of that in both The People Under the Stairs and certainly in the hallucinogenic sequence in The Serpent and the Rainbow where Bill Pullman is running down between a wall of cells in a prison and these long, long arms and hands are reaching out for him.
War of the Worlds (1953)
I snuck into a theatre with my older brother to see this one. There’s an invasion of aliens and they land in these big saucers, and the scary thing about these saucers is they put out these long sort of…it looks like the goose-neck lamp material that is kind of coiled and you can turn it many different ways, and these things are very serpentine with a kind of snakelike head, and they’re just sort of looking around the room to sense the presence of humans. I just remember being totally terrified by that.
I think the most frightening thing to me about Frankenstein, after getting over how Boris Karloff looked, was a scene where he has escaped his tormenters and he’s in a sort of bucolic setting, and there’s a small lake and he comes across a small girl there, he goes up and kind of makes friends with her. In her innocence, she doesn’t turn around and run screaming, and the next time you see her she’s dead. It’s pretty clear he killed her, and there’s that sense that a movie can show you something you just don’t think a movie is going to show you. Obviously, by today’s standards, that’s pretty attenuated, but at the time when I saw it, it was just so shocking that they would show a dead child, that this creature had actually murdered a child.
The way Nosferatu looked was my inspiration for casting Michael Berryman in The Hills Have Eyes. Michael Berryman had been born with a series of birth defects that made his skull misshapen, and he just had an extraordinary look. He was completely a normal human being inside but he looked really, really frightening. Nosferatu to me, just as a character, was so utterly frightening looking, it looked to me like it couldn’t actually be a human actor in there—it had to be this sort of monstrous, vampiric creature.
The Bad Seed (1956)
That’s the delight of the evil child, I think she’s just so revolutionary and so anti-American, where the nice little girl could never be bad. I think later, in The Omen for instance, you got into an evil child, but at this time it was very, very shocking to see this little girl who very cogently and nefariously started killing people in a way that always made it seem like she was utterly innocent. I think it was extraordinarily intelligently written, and it’s one of the few things that I saw as a young adult that never was really remade. I was always struck by the fact that they never did a modern version of it.