Scooby-Doo undoubtedly forms the first major influence on my sensibilities, molding my lifelong interest in the Gothic and the macabre. (I can remember penning at age 10 or so a notebook “novel” titled Murder About the Manor, whose sprawling cast included tennis greats Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl–hey, I figured, if the Harlem Globetrotters could guest star on Scooby-Doo…!) The next phase of my development, though, can be traced to a trio of atmospheric mysteries. These movies hooked the adolescent me with their humor, but made a lasting impression with their hints of the horrific:
Murder By Death (1976)
Watching this air on broadcast TV as a kid, I might not have been quite old enough yet to catch the full scale of the super-sleuth parody, but I reveled in the silliness of the Neil Simon script (the sights gags involving Alec Guinness’s blind butler; the politically-incorrect humor centered on Peter Sellers’ Charlie Chan stand-in). I was also absolutely mesmerized by the setting: a fog-shrouded, rain-drenched country house complete with falling gargoyles, a shrieking doorbell, cobwebbed and booby-trapped bedrooms. And long before I ever read a word of his American Gothic prose, I was enthralled by Truman Capote–who here makes a rare acting appearance as the film’s master manipulator.
The Private Eyes (1980)
Tim Conway and Don Knotts play a pair of detectives so bumbling, they make Inspector Clouseau look like Hercule Poirot. To this day, I chuckle over the killer’s hilarious deviations from rhyme scheme in his notes left with the victims (e.g. “He deserved what he got, I don’t regret it a bit. / By the way, you are standing in bull caca.”). Again, though, the film’s darker elements are what delighted me most: the spooky mansion featuring secret entrances, behind-the-walls passageways, and spyhole-eyed portraits; a Shadowy menace (whose black hood and robe make Ghostface’s costume look like a hand-me-down) purported to be the estate’s murdered lord returned as vengeful revenant; the terrific jump-scare inside the family crypt. I watched this one countless times on HBO as a youngster; seeing it again recently, I am reminded of all the wonderful reasons why.
An older cousin brought me to the movie theater to see this adaptation of the Ira Levin stage play, and I soon realized that I was experiencing more adult fare than what Murder By Death or The Private Eyes previously offered. Slapstick humor is replaced by a more sophisticated wit (although there’s still some broad comedy to be found in the meemies screamed by Dyan Cannon’s high-strung character). The violence–even when the weapons prove to be theater props borrowed from the wall of a playwright’s office–is more graphic, and the perpetrators’ motivations more sinister. Watching this finely-crafted film taught me that a plot twist can be more elaborate than a bunch of meddling kids removing a monster mask from some greedy schemer.