#3. Alien -- The Two Most Iconic Scenes (Upon Second Viewing)
There's this thing about horror that makes it a lot like sex -- the first time, it's absolutely terrifying; the second time it makes you scratch your head, wondering what the big deal was. No film is better at illustrating this dynamic than the two most iconic scenes from Alien.
We all remember the moment when John Hurt starts doing The Worm on the dining room table, then gives birth to a Hollywood legend - the Chestburster. It's shocking, freaky, and iconic the first time you see it. But then, on repeat viewing, you realize that the little guy looks kind of like an angry Muppet slathered in a bold, tangy moppin' sauce. In defense, Yaphet Kotto brandishes a spoon -- let me write that again, a spoon -- perhaps threatening to eat it to death. Baby Chesty races across the table, knocking over cereal bowls and juice glasses like something born of Robot Chicken.
"Your meticulously laid-out meal means nothing to my cosmic horror!
Then comes the punch line: a quiet moment in which four of the remaining cast members stand staring off in four different directions, and your mind hears a laugh track and the Seinfeld slap-bass tab.
"I swear ta God, Jerry, the guy at the pet store said he was house-trained!"
The second iconic scene, and the dessert of Alien's second-viewing smorgasbord of unintentional hilarity, is when Ash starts attacking Ripley, revealing that he is a goddamned robot. In that split-second, Ash goes from Bilbo in a little space jumpsuit to a frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic who tosses six-odd feet of Sigourney Weaver around like a wet towel while sweating boogers and madly blinking like Kristen Stewart. It's almost too much for a human brain to handle. And then it gets better. As if he's just had a brilliant idea, Evil Bilbo rolls up a magazine and tries to jam it down Ripley's throat. It's probably a porn mag and it probably has all kinds of foul undertones, but the look on Ripley's face is less sheer terror than it is "Ash, what the hell, anyway?"
Look. Lookit. What am I? What am I? ... A duck, come on!
Ash tries the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique on Yaphet Kotto, who responds reasonably by coldcocking him with a fire extinguisher. Ash responds by moshing around the room, puking his yellowy snot all over the place while shrieking in a way that reminds you of Adam Sandler whenever he pretends he's not trying to sing. And the cherry on top? Yaphet knocks his block off, leaving Ash to search twitchingly, almost apologetically for his own head.
Okay, just give me a moment here, I can explain.
Back in the Days of Innocence, before Torture Porn and Bucky Larson, the horror genre had to rely on foreboding and dread and surprise to get a rise out of the audience. Now, as we get used to flying limbs and spraying bodily fluids, it's hard not to just start laughing right away.
#2. The Birds -- The Gas Pump
Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds is a creepy classic that genuinely shocked audiences when it came out in 1963. The slow buildup of the avian threat is masterfully done, and the fact that the reasons for the bird-pocalypse are unresolved by movie's end make it a rarity of its time: There will be no Act III comfort for you, people of the Mad Men generation! It's effectively scary today even with its very limited, non-digital special effects. (Though it needs to be said: Even with a technological disadvantage of nearly 50 years, the SFX of The Birds still embarrass its schlockfest imitator Birdemic.) Given that it came out in 1963, it is a surprisingly grim, unrelenting study in terror, endangered children, pecked eyes, madly flapping feathers, and (presumably) a massive amount of bird poop.
Above: Scarier than every scene in Birdemic, plus color footage of an actual colonoscopy.
Ah, but there's one unintentionally funny moment. As the crazed birds go into overdrive, a man standing at a gas pump filling his tank is suddenly dive-bombed by a few drunk-with-power birdies. They barely seem to graze the guy, but he goes down like a dropped sack of onions. And -- wouldn't you know it -- the gas keeps pouring out of the pump, flooding the street. The people in a nearby building, huddled away from the people-loathing birds -- including pulchritudinous star Tippi Hedren -- notice the river o' gasoline heading for an oblivious middle-aged dude about to light his big fat cigar.
"I deserve a break today."
Tippi and the people with whom she's holed up throw open the window and try to warn cigar guy by yelling and screaming and generally banging pots and pans, but somehow he doesn't get the message through his thick fedora and -- BLAMMO! He ignites the gasoline with his match! Which blows him up instantly! Then it blows up his car, and everything around it, and then the fire keeps following the trail of gasoline back to the service station where -- DOUBLE BLAMMO! -- it levels the building and sets fire to everything around it!
#1. Pet Sematary -- Toddler Vs. Munster
One day Stephen King had an hour to spare, so he wrote a novel, later made into a movie, paying homage to the classic story "The Monkey's Paw." (He knew that, despite its grim subject, nothing with "monkey" in the title can ever be anything but kind of silly, e.g., "Monkey Murders," "Suicide Monkey," "Cross Country Killing Spree: Special Extended Monkey Edition." See?)
Sometimes, dead is better. But spell check might be best.
Made into a movie in 1989, Pet Sematary tells the story of a young Chicago doctor who moves his family to rural Maine, on purpose (already straining credibility, I know), and discovers an ancient burial ground that supernaturally resurrects those buried in it. When the family cat dies, the man buries it so as not to disappoint his young son. Huge mistake. One should take care never to own a cat, ever. But alas, the cat comes back to life and is even more mean and revolting than a normal cat, if you can believe it.
Then his toddler is hit and killed by a truck, so numbnuts, overcome with numbnut grief, buries his son in the Pet Sematary. What could possibly go wrong? Well, instead of being gut-wrenching, grim and terrifying, the scenes of his return could end up being hilarious, I suppose. And indeed they do.
"Generic fruit snacks?! $#% you!!"
The zombie toddler, played by a real toddler(!) and armed with a scalpel, hunts down and kills the family's neighbor, played by Fred Gwynne. Seeing TV's lovable Herman Munster get his face slashed by an angry toddler is of course comedy gold. But then when the little moppet growls fiercely and helps himself to mouthfuls of Herman's neck, well, it doesn't get any better than that.
Talk about your problem child! [Note: The preceding horrible joke is there solely to justify this clip of Robert De Niro in Cape Fear laughing at Problem Child in exactly the same manner you will upon seeing the toddler murder scenes in Pet Sematary. See how that all comes together elegantly and justifies the terrible pun?]