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    Off the Wahl: Smart Chills and Thrills

    By Jan Wahl–

    This is the time of year scary movies are celebrated. Whether it’s Halloween or the darkening days of fall, let’s get our minds out of the real frightening world and into a smart suspense thriller. It seems that latter films in this genre are often gross out horrorfests, so I’m including some of my favorite classics that don’t need gore to entertain. 

    It doesn’t get better than 1955’s Night of the Hunter. Robert Mitcham’s brooding and demented Harry Powell learns in prison that a condemned man has hidden $10,000. Obsessed with finding it, Harry tracks down the widow and children who unknowingly have it. Lillian Gish and Shelley Winters lead a strong cast, with some of the best lighting ever in a black and white movie. It is hard to believe this was the only movie Charles Laughton directed; he definitely shows a true talent for it. 

    Cape Fear (1962) brings us Robert Mitchum again, this time as a man obsessed with hunting down the small-town lawyer who put him in prison. Gregory Peck is perfectly cast as the lawyer who has to save his family from the deranged man bent on revenge. This is one of those thrillers with a superb climax, keeping us tense and afraid for the good guys. The 1991 remake was good, but I’ll take the original every time.

    Time for laughs mixed with classic horror: Young Frankenstein (1974). Gene Wilder, who stars and wrote the screenplay, told me it was the favorite of his films. All of us can see why, because it is a truly brilliant spoof and satire of every horror film made by Universal Pictures in the 1930s and on. Wilder portrays a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein, journeying to Transylvania and eventually reanimating a dead body. Director Mel Brooks insisted on making this movie in black and white, much to the studio’s dismay. It was a good call. Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Gene Hackman, Marty Feldman, and Madeline Kahn play it straight, with actual props from the original classic films adding to the reality of the sets. 

    Alfred Hitchcock is front and center this time of year. Though we have a long list of perfect films from the Sultan of Suspense and the Master of the Macabre (Rear Window, The Birds, Psycho, Vertigo), my own favorite is Strangers on a Train (1951). Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, a gentleman villain tries to entice a tennis star to participate in a double murder. The carousel climax combined with a riveting tennis game brings out the worst in Bruno Anthony, beautifully played by Robert Walker. Bruno is one of the weirdest characters in a Hitchcock film, and that’s saying something!

    1988’s Beetlejuice is imaginative and also strange. A couple tries to chase an obnoxious family of post-modern art lovers who move into their home. They meet the demonic Michael Keaton, who promises to rid the house of the intruders. Big mistake.  This is a surreal farce, directed by Tim Burton. Not surprisingly, the film won the Oscar for Achievement in Makeup!

    There is no need to be left grossed out or gasping with movie thrillers. Have fun with the smart ones!

    Emmy Award-winner Jan Wahl is a renowned entertainment reporter, producer, and teacher. A member of the prestigious Directors Guild of America, she is regularly featured on KPIX television (every Monday morning starting at 6:15 am) and on KCBS AM & FM and other media outlets. To read and listen to her reviews for KCBS, go to: For more info about her remarkable life and career: Check out her entertaining and informative videos at

    Published on October 21, 2020