As you may have gleaned over time, I love a good thriller: the intrigue, the mystery, the suspense, all of which make a compelling cinematic experience for viewers like myself who enjoy feeling temporarily off-axis, excited to enter a world where things are not what they seem.

Over the years, the film industry has produced a stunning array of dark and enigmatic works that play with our anxieties and fears — usually resolving them reassuringly—but not always. We see thrillers in virtually every cinematic period, from the earliest works by German Expressionist directors to more recent explorations of secrecy and fear.

I am not a fan of bloody slasher films, believing that the best of the genre are exciting for their ambiguity, their subtlety, their investigation of afflictions of the mind rather than the knife. Here are three, separated by decades, but all engaging and pleasingly disturbing.

‘The Uninvited’ (1944)

This atmospheric British mystery, a ghost story of sorts in the best tradition of such tales, is set on the Cornish coast of England. A brother and sister, Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) come upon a beautiful but deserted old manse on a cliff above the sea, are smitten by its desolate beauty, and buy it from the owner at a surprisingly low price.

Said owner is one elderly Commander Beech, who lives nearby with his granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell); Stella’s parents are dead, her mother having died years before in a fall from the cliff. It is not long before the new residents sense something foreboding about the dwelling; they hear strange wailing and other unexplained noises at night and gradually come to believe the house is somehow visited by nefarious spirits; Stella, who had lived in the house as a child, feels an affinity for the place as it is her only connection to her deceased parents, but her grandfather worries that whatever phantom lurks in the place has evil designs on her.

As the occupants investigate the mysterious goings on, they learn that Stella’s father had been involved with another woman, which caused the family to fracture. Roderick, who is unflappable and determined to root out the sinister history of the house, develops romantic affection for Stella, but any hope for the couple’s future happiness requires that the truth behind the hauntings be revealed and the malice exorcised. Critics have described the film as “one of the spookiest ‘old dark house’ films ever made.” Quite satisfying and surprisingly sophisticated.

‘Halloween’ (1978)

John Carpenter’s brilliant 1978 film is the mother of all Halloween chillers and utterly the best. Many sequels, mostly falling short of the original, have been produced, and the initial film inspired decades of similar scare-fests (the Friday the 13th series; the I Know What you Did Last Summer series, and a number of other seemingly interminable, usually mediocre movies that lack the subtlety and the psychological richness of the prototype film).

As the film begins, it is Halloween night, 1963, in small town Haddonfield, Illinois. Michael Myers, a six year old boy, inexplicably stabs his teenage sister to death, apparently repelled that she is sexually active. Given the horror of the crime and its unlikely perpetrator, young Michael is institutionalized in a nearby asylum, where it is hoped he will be cured of his pathology. There he quietly pass 15 years staring into space, forgotten by the community. When his psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) learns that his still deranged patient has escaped the sanitarium on Halloween night, he knows full well that Myers will return to Haddonfield to wreak havoc on the townsfolk.

Enter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in a magnificent screen debut), a serious-minded high school student (actually a younger sibling of Myers, unbeknownst to most people) who, unlike her pals, is sexually innocent. The friends accept baby-sitting assignments on Laurie’s street as the community trick-or-treat activity is going on, hosting trysts with their boyfriends, Lori excepted. The ordinariness of the town’s ritual October doings is set wonderfully against the Myers’ murderousness.

Myers is stalking each of the girls, lurking in shadows, re-living his childhood aversion to sexuality. His disgust turns to rage as he systematically dispatches each girl, but what is so frightening is that his movements are robotic and his facial expression is blank—one cannot see or gauge the inner evil from his visage. Laurie, more savvy, eludes her pursuer, as viewers wait in suspense for Dr. Loomis and the authorities to capture him. This summary does not do justice to the complexity and nuance of the film, nor to its brilliance at evoking psychological terror, but those elements make Halloween a superior film. I recently re-watched it and was, well, dazzled.

‘Get Out’ (2017)

Just when you thought there could not be new evocations of twisty thrillers, 2017 welcomed this clever, teasing mystery that both defies convention and re-validates it.

In a tour de force directorial entrée by Jordan Peele, who also wrote the clever script, actor Daniel Kaluua plays Chris Washington, a young African American photographer who is brought by his girlfriend Allison (Rose Armitage) to visit her upper middle class Caucasian parents, who own a prosperous farm in upstate New York.

As the drama ensues, it seems to focus on the social issues embedded in their interracial relationship, an idea enforced when Allison hits a deer on the road as they travel to the farm, but Chris is the one targeted by the policeman for questioning. Arriving at the family compound, Chris is gradually struck by the strange vibes present there. Allison’s parents (Missy and Dave, played by Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford), seem overly solicitous toward Chis, as if compensating for their apprehensiveness about the couple’s pairing, then later drop barbs about black people.

As the visit evolves, signs begin to appear that all is not right in this domain. The family’s African American domestic and farm workers exhibit peculiar behavior and Chris’s antennae alert him to something sinister going on. The fact that Allison’s mother is a hypnotherapist and her father is a brain surgeon, innocuous at first, writ large as the film’s ominous hints turn pernicious. How Chris’s increasingly perilous plight will resolve itself is the question that shapes the film’s electrifying denouement. A stunner!

Liahna Armstrong is a retired professor of English and Film Studies at Central Washington University.


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