There’s nothing scarier than the familiar made unfamiliar, and here are five instances of faces made to look distinctly horrifying, be it by super-computer, vampiric influence, a heavy current of electricity, demonic possession or God laying down the law. Enjoy!
1. Vera Webster (Annie Ross) in Superman III
Definitely a universal nightmare inducer for anyone the right age back in the eighties, this totally out-of-left-field but unforgettably freaky moment during the climax of Superman’s third (and second worst) Reeve-era outing burned into my psyche like few other scary moments in family films have.
So get this; Lex Luthor is (wisely) doing his own thing, so B-list villain Ross Webster (an enjoyably smug Robert Vaughn) is holed up in his mountain lair with his sister Vera, helium-voiced femme fatale Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson) and ‘comedy’ henchman Gus (Richard Pryor), not to mention a super computer that can do all manner of supery and computery things. Superman, fresh from having killed himself in a scrapyard fight (definitely the best scene in the film), shows up to take out the trash but the super computer becomes most averse to being shut down, so it starts getting tetchy. The bad guys start to flee the computer’s cavernous innards, but poor Vera is too late to escape, being dragged in by its force-field and cocooned in its claustrophobic catacombs, where her body is turned robotic in a series of absolutely horrific shots where bits of metal are magically plastered onto her face and hands as she screams helplessly. There’s a particularly disturbing bit where her screams are suddenly silenced and she closes her eyes, and that’s when we know she’s no longer home. Just in case you weren’t sure though, we get an extreme close-up of her eyes, and they’re just lifeless silver balls – no irises, no pupils, just nothing. Her brother and Lorelei look on flabbergasted as Vera’s hair has suddenly puffed up and gothed-out to the extent that she now looks like Robert Smith from The Cure, with a scarily expressionless face and awkward walk – to be honest, most of us were so frightened already that it didn’t matter that Vera from The Cure didn’t do much else after this except shoot out a few lasers and continue to look scary, but that didn’t matter. The damage had been done.
2. David (Kiefer Sutherland) in The Lost Boys
As anyone who’s listened to our audio commentary for this film will already know, the sequence two thirds into Joel Schumacher’s super-80’s vampire horror-comedy is definitely the one single scene that has scared me more than anything else.
Vampires had always frightened me deeply as a child – I think it’s because they look so close to human, whereas other monsters were fantastical-looking enough to remain immediately untrustworthy. Vampires however, looked and sounded just like us, and even when the fangs came out, they still looked like us. I was fully aware of The Lost Boys being a vampire film, yet the film’s poster artwork showed Kiefer Sutherland’s teenage bloodsucker in his regular, non-ghoulish look. The UK poster (still my all-time favourite film artwork) showed a frightfully stark, pale white David staring right at us, his demeanour cool, almost melancholic but still threatening. I wondered what that face would look like when the fangs came out. I hoped I would never find out. Fat chance.
I first watched The Lost Boys on its BBC1 New Year’s Day premiere in 1991, and despite being a certfied wimp when it came to horror, I braved it because I was watching it with my mum and my sister and it was ‘only’ a ’15’ and therefore was assured it wouldn’t be that bad. How wrong I was. One of the best things about the film is its reluctance to show the vampires in their form until we’re already well into it – by doing this, I remained gripped to my seat, scared to keep watching, too proud to give up, reassuring myself that at least there hasn’t been any scary faces. Yet. I knew it was coming.
The film, set in the fictional Californian coastal town of Santa Carla, follows brothers Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) as they settle into their new life by the sea only for the former to fall in with the wrong crowd and the latter discovering that said crowd are really vampires! Michael is taunted and teased all the way to a make-or-break sequence on a beach when he finally witnesses his new friends in blood-drinking action. David wickedly throws down the gauntlet with ‘Initiation’s over Michael…it’s time to join the club!’ and comes out of the dark in ghoulish, sickly yellow lit, fanged and wild-eyed horror, it still shocked the hell out of me, so much that I rapidly left the room, too scared to watch anymore. Good thing I did, considering what followed was a mini-orgy of neck-breaking, scalp-ripping, head-biting, body-burning horror. The other three Lost Boys’ vampire visages ranged from goofy to quite freaky, but David’s face was the one. The image of that face would haunt me in the dark, and was iconic enough to be used on the reverse of the UK VHS, so any trips to video shops or HMV would always be spoiled by the knowledge that the film’s video spine was there amongst the shelves, mocking me, beckoning me to be brave enough to pull out the case and gaze once more upon that back cover. I even remember being in Covent Garden market and seeing a photo still of that face amongst lots of other glossies, and feeling that chill all over again. Of course, I would brave the film once more a few years down the line, and since then it is the film I have watched more than any other.
PS: Oddly enough, it’s big change is pulled off using the oldest of cinematic tricks – normal face is obscured in the dark, evil face emerges into the light. You don’t need millions of dollars wasted on morphing technology!
3. Peter Venkman (voiced by Lorenzo Music) in Episode 3 of The Real Ghostbusters, ‘Mrs. Rogers’ Neighborhood’
Kids cartoons. Sometimes they could sneak in the scariest imagery, all undercover of a family-friendly afternoon slot. The Real Ghostbusters, obviously supernatural in essence, enjoyed scaring young viewers on a far more regular basis than anything else of its time, and none more so than the frankly terrifying finale of what starts out as just another haunted house investigation. By the end, one of our most beloved characters, the always jovial and delightful Peter, has been possessed by a heavy-duty demon named What (or Watt?). What tricks Peter into heading down into the basement, the site of the Ecto-Containment Unit (where all the old ghosts are incarcerated), which he can shut down in order to release all the bad ‘uns. In a similar way to my above reasoning as to why vampires scared me so much (their closer resemblance to humans than any other monster of its kind), the possession factor is so scary because it takes a person we’ve come to know and trust and love and demonises them. Sometimes this is done by turning them into a vampire, as I discovered to my shock in the brilliant Attack of the Killer Tomatoes episode ‘Spatula, Prinze of Dorkness’ when lovely, sweet Tara is vampirised (an episode that utterly, utterly terrified me as a child). Still, multiply that terror a thousand fold for Peter’s own possession, which wasn’t simply scary – it was disturbing. Peter’s possessed face looks sickly, diseased even – the poisoned icing on this distinctly unpleasant cake is the close-up bit when Peter screams in a desperate attempt to win back control of his body, only for What to come back with a truly evil, demonic cackle. For a moment, Watt even looks set to have won, but in a remarkably rapid turnaround of events, good prevails about thirty seconds later. Yay!
See also: In another instance of good guys taken over by bad things, think of poor Mags (Jessica Martin) at the end of Episode 4 of McCoy-era Doctor Who episode ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’, where a fake full-moon proves enough to change her into a very scary werewolf. And it was shown before the watershed.
4. The angel from the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark
The odd, unconventional ending to Spielberg’s amazing blockbuster chooses to feature its big, balls-to-the-wall action sequence before the finale – I mean, most people would save that truck chase for the final act, but instead that’s all over and one with before the real conclusion, an unexpected and totally terrifying sequence where the legendary Ark of the Covenant is unwisely opened up, unleashing the wrath of God onto any one not smart enough to have closed their peepers at the time. First of all the contents appear to be deliriously ethereal, with lots of dreamy swirly mist and a beautiful angel emerging from the mist to approach Paul Freeman’s deliciously mercenary and urbane villain Belloq, as well as super-creep Toht and deputy scumbag Deitrich. Thinking that the opening and exposure of the Ark will lead to guaranteed invincibility, Belloq can’t take all of this wonderment anymore – ‘IT’S BEAUTIFUL!!!’ he exclaims, and John Williams’ score seems to agree, but then all of a sudden the angel’s face becomes a horrifying skull that appears to sprout misty fangs! The music pulls of a tremendous switch, going all Psycho on us, and who can blame Toht for screaming like a little girl at that sight? What follows is a massacre from The Man Upstairs that is so horrific that it regularly tops polls for Most Horrifying Sequence in a PG film Ever. Yeah, you couldn’t ask for a more deserving bunch of victims, but it’s still terrifying. Much is mentioned of Temple of Doom’s darkness and unsuitability for younger viewers, but I only ever grew up with the heavily cut UK version of that film, so for me it was Raiders that was the really scary installment, and the only one that gave me sleepless nights. Whenever the film was on TV, I would cover my eyes during this ending. I could still hear it though. Shudder.
5. Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) in Batman Returns
The greatest comic book movie of them all (shut up, it’s true) reaches a remarkable, deeply haunting and unforgettable finale where Batman (Michael Keaton) removes his mask in front of Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) to try and win her back from the dark side, but the truly evil tycoon/murdering bastard Max Schreck shoots the Caped Crusader and then puts bullet after bullet into his former employee as she approaches him in a state of near dazed delirium. He keeps shooting, but she keeps approaching him, right up until she has him cornered up against some seriously heavy duty electricals. There’s a touch of the supernatural about this sequel – I say that because how else do you explain Catwoman’s ability to withstand so many perilous drops from tall buildings, and in this case, point blank gunshot wounds? You could say that her psychosis has led her to truly believe in her ‘nine lives’ advantage and that it’s all a case of mind over matter, but either way, she’s willing to use another life up as she takes an exposed electrical cable and goes in for a very deadly kiss with Max, frying the both of them on the spot. Moments later, Batman searches through the resulting wreckage in an attempt to find Catwoman but she’s gone. All that’s left is a dead Max, now looking exceptionally freaky after his shocking demise. He no longer resembles himself at all – there’s just a morbidly ghoulish, charred visage that’s pure Tim Burton in its sideshow freakiness. His mouth seems to have elongated downwards to a staggering degree, as though he was truly left jaw-dropped by his encounter. His hair was always a shocking white, but here it looks more like a symptom of what’s just happened. We only see this face for a second or two, but when I saw it at the cinema back in 1992, it really stayed with me, and was just one of many examples of a superb, dark (as well as sad) conclusion to a summer blockbuster masterpiece, the best Batman film of the lot.