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Calgary Herald (30/Jul/1990) - Fear is the key: Hollywood knows what it takes to scare us



Fear is the key: Hollywood knows what it takes to scare us

Steven Spielberg may seem like a nice guy, but he knew what he was doing with Jaws. And it wasn't nice at all.

He's doing it again, indirectly at least, as the executive producer behind Arachnophobia, which opened this month. A lot of people already have a low threshold for spiders, and the creepiest-crawliest movie of the summer is designed to send them away feeling jumpy and wrecked.

Knowing what scares us is one of Hollywood's most potent weapons. Find the weak spot and press. When it works, cinematic phobia-mongering induces a sort of mass neurosis — and hearty derision when it doesn't.

Jaws worked.

Webster's defines a phobia as "an exaggerated, usually inexplicable and irrational fear of an object or class of objects." In the summer of 1975, that object was a mechanical shark named Bruce.

For many summers beyond, Jaws gave frolicking in the ocean an uncomfortable new dimension. For the most impressionable moviegoers, even wading was cause for trepidation. Silly, yes. But it testifies to Spielberg's brilliance as a filmmaker and psychological manipulator.

The urgently menacing music, those diabolical underwater camera angles — Jaws made people at least think about a statistically improbably danger that had rarely entered their minds before 1975.

The movie's reach extended even to the news media, which seemed to take a keener interest in reporting shark attacks after the Jaws phenomenon.

While Spielberg succeeded marvelously at raising a vague fear to the surface, Alfred Hitchcock actually created a phobia with Psycho. In the 30 years since its release, taking a shower hasn't been the same.

Perhaps not coincidentally, music and camera tricks also were crucial to that movie's effectiveness. Its infamous scene of murder in the shower was made more shocking and violent by the shrieking music and the jarring, frenetic camera work, the closeups on Janet Leigh's naked flesh and the blood rushing down the bathtub drain.

Psycho gave us an irrational new reason to feel vulnerable there behind our plastic curtains, naked and soapy.

Norman? Is that you?

See-through curtains help, but opting for a bath remains the best defence.

Some critters just get to us.

Like spiders. By conventional standards, they're ugly. Some bite, some jump, some are hairy. We hate that. Never mind that they rid us of less desirable insects and that we're much bigger than they are.

Arachnophobia is the ultimate spider movie. `Eight legs, two fangs and an attitude," taunts the ad campaign.

The killer arachnids don't skitter to a memorable melody, but the camera gleefully follows them into everyday places guaranteed to fan the mildest phobia — in shoes, under bedcovers, in the toilet.

Still, Arachnophobia is relatively kind and gentle. Perhaps because fear of spiders is so common — and, for some, so intense — the movie generously leavens its horror with humor. It's not built to leave lifetime scars.

Arachnophobia spans the history of movies. James Bond and countless other heroes and heroines have awakened to find deadly spiders in their beds. Giant, superimposed tarantulas sent hundreds of extras scurrying around movie sets in the '50s.

Among other crawlers, big, mutant ants are a favorite. The biggest ant movie of them all, Them, is a classic horror movie. But it's doubtful that it heightened anyone's fear of the little ants we step on every day. We've all been bitten, and, really, it's no big deal, right?

Snakes are as popular, or as unpopular as spiders. Oddly enough, though, there's no great snake movie. Plenty of good cameos and B-grade embarrassments, but no writhing, phobia-rattling serpent classic. Probably the most memorable guest apperance by snakes is a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, yet another Spielberg movie.

Another strong snake contender is the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove. When the Irish lad wades into his first Texas river and disturbs a nest full of water vipers — well, let's just say it's made tubing down the Guadalupe a little less carefree.

Bees also are ripe for exploitation. Stingerless duds like Bees and Killer Bees so far have failed to fulfill the terrifying potential in the idea of being chaed around by hundreds of hacked-off hornets.

Bats hold promise, too, but get little play beyond supporting roles in Dracula movies.

But frogs? Please. Most people over 10 don't enjoy touching them, but no one's going to go screaming into the night about it. The 1972 movie Frogs, starring Oscar winner Ray Milland, found out the hard way.

Frogs tried to feed off the success of Willard, which had been a huge hit the year before and remains the undisputed king of the rat movies. By today's standards, it was crudely done: When the rodents were supposed to be attacking, they looked more like they had just been flung across the room by someone off-camera, which, of course, was the case.

But it doesn't take much cinematic sophistication to scare people with rats. Generally, just the sight of one will do. Why? Because they're filthy, brazen, sharp-toothed little eating machines.

Willard wasn't one for the ages, but for the moment, it made a few people squirm.

Some people are afraid of birds, but it's doubtful that Alfred Hitchcock contributed greatly to their numbers with his 1963 movie The Birds. Birds just aren't that intimidating. Most moviegoers couldn't understand how people could let themselves be pecked to death.

That so many people were willing to suspend disbelief for The Birds attests to Hitchcock's brilliance. The movie, however, was neither his first nor his last phobia film.

In Vertigo, he integrated fear of heights into a dizzying mystery plot. In Marnie, Tippi Hedren's phobia is sex.

If fear of being falsely accused of a crime counts as a phobia, then it appears to have been Hitchcock's favorite, the mistaken identity theme is the heart of several of his movies.

Hitchcock imitator Brian De Palma has emulated the master's phobia fondness a coule of times. In 1984's Body Double, the hero's claustrophobia is key. De Palma's 1980 film Dressed to Kill falls back on the perils of showering.

The award for the most clever twist of all in the movies' long history of playing on fear goes to William Castle, the low — budget horror mogul who loved gimmicks like vibrating chairs and stationing "nurses" in the lobby for fright patients.

In 1959, Castle released The Tingler, which stared Vincent Price as a man who discovers the existence of nasty little creatures that grow from the base of people's spines. The catch is that the "tingler" strikes only when the victim is terrified.

"The next time you're frightened in the dark," Price challenges in the film's sinister coda, "don't scream."

Nothing to fear but fear itself.

They know what scares us.