In honor of Halloween, my favorite holiday, I offer this. For the last 20-plus years, I’ve had the same two favorite movies. Except I’ve sometimes been just a bit hesitant to declare them because I didn’t want to sound like I was trying to be intentionally “strange.”
But, eventually, I always just go ahead and say it: My two favorite movies are “The Wizard of Oz” and … “Night of The Living Dead.”
Of course, at first blush, this may seem a ridiculous combo. But it really isn’t. Because, and this took me years to fully realize, the truth is that they’re both horror movies. And horror is my favorite kind of movie.
Hold on, you say. Judy Garland and Toto dancing and prancing down the Yellow Brick road is a horror movie? Well, it is not just a horror movie. It’s a musical, a fantasy, a childrens’ classic, etc. But it is also a horror movie, make no mistake, and I consider it actually the first horror movie I ever saw.
My first viewing was at age 3, and, yes, I remember that far back. I was lying on the floor watching it on TV, and was terrified of much of it. I kept hiding my head under a blanket every time you-know-who came on screen.
Is there any character who’s probably frightened more children than the Wicked Witch of the West?
In fact, there are three terrifying monsters in “The Wizard of Oz,” and that’s not even counting the flying monkeys, the creepy marching guards at the witch’s castle (before they turn “nice” at the end) or the wizard’s giant-head projection of himself.
The three primary monsters are, in order of appearance:
1. Miss Gulch. She’s absolutely awful. She is not just mean and threatening. She is the worst thing you can imagine as a child: Someone who wants to kill your pet. As scary as the rest of the movie is in “The Land of Oz,” I still think that Miss Gulch back in Kansas is the scariest character of all, when you really think about it. This miserable excuse of a person is actually going to try to kill a small animal who, even if it did bite someone, couldn’t possibly really hurt them. I mean, come on, Toto clearly doesn’t have rabies. And this little dog is the beloved friend of a very lonely, isolated girl who’s already lost her parents, as she lives with her aunt and uncle. The witch is terrible, but she’s at least “supernatural,” and it only takes water to get rid of her. Miss Gulch is a human villain, and they are the worst of all.
2. The tornado. If you grew up in the Midwest like I did, this may be even more frightening than if you’ve never seen the skies look the way they do – admittedly in sepia tones – in the “Wizard.” I have lived much of my life in Missouri and Kansas. I’ve never actually seen a tornado in person. But I dream about them. I’ve heard warning sirens. Seen the splintered remains that have been left over from these vicious storms. I think I first started referring to tornados as “monsters,” though, when I wrote a poem in eighth-grade English class about the storm that went through Wichita Falls, Texas. My teacher said, “Why did you write about this?” I said, “I don’t know … I guess I think about tornados a lot.”
The tornado in the “Wizard” is very well-done, actually, especially for what special-effects options were available in 1939. And while it wasn’t a “monster” per se with intent – it’s just weather, after all – it still has a very ominous and threatening presence. Then again, I’ve always believed, even though they don’t show it in the movie, that the tornado ended up doing a great act of good: That it killed Miss Gulch. Or at least I hope so.
3. The Wicked Witch of the West: This goes without saying, of course. She’s green and yucky-looking. She shows up in a burst of smoke and flame. She has no mercy and no conscience. She likes to toy with you and frighten you before she murders you. And she’s really quite frank about it. There are few scenes in movie history more bone-chilling than when the witch flat-out tells Dorothy, “I am going to kill you, I just have to figure out how to do it to not damage the shoes.” Then she turns over the hour-glass, saying of the time Dorothy has left to be alive, “It isn’t long, my pretty, it isn’t long.”
I mean, seriously, is there any doubt this is a horror movie?
That said, for as scary as the witch is, you have to admit she has one hell of an achilles’ heel. As I wrote once, actually on ESPN.com, she’s largely defenseless: All it takes is a bucket of water to do her in. You could just use one of those super-soaker water guns, right? How effective at evil is the entire witch family, actually? One somewhat timid and bumbling Kansas farmgirl managed to inadvertently take out two supposedly high-powered witch sisters.
Not to mention that if you read “Wicked,” you end up sympathizing with the Wicked Witch of the West. She gets a lot less scary when you hear her supposed side of the story.
However, that is not the character we see in “Wizard of Oz.” The one we see is as dastardly as they come … but in the end, she loses to a heroic little dog and an ultimately brave gal in a blue gingham dress.
So on top of everything else that Judy Garland did in her amazing (if unbearably tragic) career, she was also this: A bona fide horror-movie heroine.