Fear can be a powerful motivator. It’s common knowledge that it can save a person’s life when their fight-or-flight response kicks in, but can fear ever take a person’s life? Can someone ever be so scared that their body just shuts down, involuntarily, and they die? This is the concept that was explored in 1963 in director Lew Landers’ (The Raven) last film, the generically titled Terrified.
Terrified is the story of a masked killer who kills by inducing fear in his victims, so that they don’t actually die by his hand, just by his methods. The film opens with the killer, dressed in a suit and tie with a stocking over his head, pouring cement on a victim in a shallow grave. The victim is alive, and the killer stops just before his head is covered. The narrative then switches to a couple who are driving in a car when another car that is coming towards them steers into their lane in a deadly game of chicken. They dodge the attacker, and, understandably shaken up, stop into a small diner to calm down. A young lady named Marge (Tracy Olsen from Journey to the Center of Time), who works in the diner, is there with her two (yes, two) boyfriends – the intellectual Ken (The Crawling Hand’s Rod Lauren) and the tough-yet-sensitive David (Steve Drexel from Swamp Girl). It is revealed that the boy at the beginning of the film who is being encased in cement is Marge’s brother, Joey, and that he was driven insane by the experience. Seeking answers, Marge gets David to drive her out to the old ghost town by the cemetery where her brother’s ordeal took place to talk to the caretaker, Crazy Bill, about her brother. When they arrive at the ghost town, they find Bill dead. Ken, who is writing a research paper on the psychological effects of fear on the human mind, follows them out there and soon finds himself face to face with Joey’s tormentor – and he, David and Marge learn a few things about the effects of fear themselves.
On the surface, Terrified looks like a horrible, low budget B-movie. It’s only when the layers are peeled back that the inner greatness of the film is exposed. The premise of a killer who scares his victims to death is genius, and one that is as fresh today as it was back then. The killer’s methods are clever, too; not content to just bury people alive, he also almost drowns, hangs and runs them off the road, all to see how they handle the horror. For the most part, the performance of the B-movie veteran cast is above-average and the film invokes a genuine mood of terror. The picture may not live completely up to its name, but taking into account the minuscule budget and lackluster script, Terrified delivers more than its share of entertainment value.
Lew Landers and cinematographer Curt Fetters (who worked with Landers on the television shows “Bat Masterson” and “Highway Patrol”) do an admirable job of creating the spooky mood of the picture. Aided by the nighttime shooting times, the ghost town and cemetery are downright creepy. The film is shot with little light and lots of shadows and fog, giving it a unique horror-noir hybrid look that works pretty well for what the film is trying to accomplish.
The biggest weakness in Terrified is the script. The whole thing feels padded, like the film could take place in the span of about 30 minutes, but writer Richard Bernstein (From Hell It Came) drags it out into a feature length screenplay. The resulting script is uneven, with too much dialogue in some places and long stretches without dialogue in others. The cat and mouse chases with the killer border on slapstick Keystone Cops cinema, while much too much of the film is told by words instead of shown by actions. The identity of the killer also becomes painfully obvious way too early, ruining the big reveal at the end.
Terrified is generally thought of as an early slasher, but that label isn’t accurate; with the mystery behind the identity of the killer, coupled with the three protagonists’ investigation, the film seems like more of a whodunit than a slasher – but a much more frightening whodunit than the usual cop and killer flick. With its use of head games and torturous methodology, Terrified can also be seen as an early psychological thriller. Whether it’s considered horror, mystery, or thriller, Terrified is an inventive movie that came along about a decade ahead of its time.
Horror films are much more fun when the audience is just as scared as the characters onscreen. While Terrified doesn’t quite hit that mark, it’s a creative little film that should not be missed, especially late at night, when it could really raise some goosebumps.
**Watch the entire movie, Terrified, now below**