Fear itself: To Kill a Mockingbird’s nightmare legacy

Perhaps due to Elmer Bernstein’s stirring score and to its own final notes of reconciliation and the healing power of love, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962) encourages you to forget the horrors that are tucked up into its plot like straight pins left carelessly within the folds of a store-bought shirt. The movie hurts and ultimately it leaves the viewer smarting in ways that are apparent only upon reflection. Even if we were to discount the element of Southern small town prejudice and the ugly courtroom trial that occupies the film’s center, this adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee is just plain spooky… and it is my feeling that it has bestowed upon us a legacy of horror that we can see echoed in later American tales of terror.

First, a disclaimer. Film critics are perhaps overfond of crying “influence!” The hardest thing for believers of auteur theory is to admit that people can, at different times, in different places, and using different tools, achieve the same result. Having said this, I do feel that, by intention or serendipity, the horror genre is enriched by recurring motifs, themes, and even camera angles and that these elements add to our shared sum of knowledge, or imagination, the sum of all fears. It bears mentioning that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was made at Universal Pictures, where the horror genre was born in 1931. In its own aesthetic, however, the film eschews the broad stroke fearmongering of the Universal monster rallies to hew closer to the style of the suggestive fright films produced by Val Lewton at RKO Radio Pictures – namely THE CAT PEOPLE (1942), CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1945), THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), and others. Dealing with the fear of small children cobbling together a belief system in an atmosphere of ignorance and superstition, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD makes evocative use of menacing shadows that were the stock-in-trade of Lewton and his directors (Robert Wise, Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson); MOCKINGBIRD director Robert Mulligan even pulls off a couple of “Lewton walk” situations, in which a character ventures apprehensively through dark and potentially dangerous territory. Early in the film, the now-grown Scout (voiced by an unbilled Kim Stanley) references Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address and the  classic line “… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…” by way of setting the tone for a journey of discovery whose ultimate destination can only be the death of innocence.

I’m a horror lifer but I am often frustrated by the insularity of fandom and the inflexibility of genre aficionados who are quick to cry “influence!” between this horror movie and that one but who stray too rarely off the reservation. Any dude in a XXL black RE-ANIMATOR (1985) tee shirt can point out the influence of INVISIBLE INVADERS (1959) and THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964) on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) but you rarely hear of non-horror movies that might have played some small part of that equation. Like KEY LARGO (1948), for example — one of the Top 10 people-sitting-around-in-a-house-getting-on-one-another’s-nerves-while-the-world-goes-t0-Hell-outside movies and a clear precursor to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD — but I don’t recall anyone else pointing that similarity. Similarly, no one to my recollection has ever linked NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and yet every time I revisit the latter I’m pointed towards the former. Why Bob Ewell (James Anderson) alone, shambling in his drunkenness through the woods of Maycomb County and stewing, slack-jawed, in his hatred, self-loathing, bile, and corn liquor, seems as valid a progenitor of the post-Romero zombie archetype…

… as personified by Bill Hinzman, the Cemetery Ghoul (aka Zombie One) in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. And what is Bob Ewell…

… but an horrific husk of a man, bereft of humanity, driven by some feral instinct and consumed with the need to hurt. A nightmare figure. The Boogey Man. Remember that I said that.

I’m not saying that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was inspired directly by TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, that it pays specific homage to the Mulligan film, that it intentionally borrows…  nonetheless, I do find compelling similarities, not the least of which is the casting of a black actor (Duane Jones) as Romero’s hero, who in the last seconds of the film (STOP READING HERE IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD AND ALSO SHAME ON YOU) falls victim to a bullet fired by a well-meaning sheriff’s deputy… a fate he shares with the wronged Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) of the Mulligan film. (END SPOILERS, LOSER.) Interesting also is how the opening scene of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, of a brother and sister attacked by an oddly lurching predator, is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD‘s final setpiece, alike in form to the point of having the brother attempt to defend his sister, at his own peril.

Who knows what sparks flew in the minds of Romero and cowriter John Russo when they were crafting NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, production of which was separated at the time from the release of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by only five years. I suspect MOCKINGBIRD has a bigger footprint on horror movie terra than most devotees would admit. In the year following its release, Robert Aldrich went to work on his WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) follow-up, HUSH… HUSHSWEET CHARLOTTE (1964), another kudzu-cloaked tale of fear and dread in the deep south. As in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the Aldrich film is set in and around a purportedly haunted house, to which the local children are drawn.

This plot point echoes scenes in MOCKINGBIRD in which the pint-sized protagonists dare one another to set foot on the front porch of the benighted Radley House, where purported maniac Arthur “Boo” Radley is purported to be kept chained to his bed. In HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE, the purported maniac is Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis), an aging Southern belle purported to have hacked up her lover during Prohibition.

In CHARLOTTE, a gaggle of area youths agree to let a new kid in town join their gang if he can prove his worth by trespassing on the Hollis property, with extra credit given if he manages to get inside the house and obtain something belonging to Miss Charlotte. The choice of young actor to play the new kid is telling…

… given that it’s John Megna, who played the precocious Dill in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

There are other, softer echoes of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, among them the choice to have a lead character (Judith O’Dea, who is attacked with her brother in the first scene) go catatonic in the second act and stay that way throughout. Her silence reminds me of the unreachability of Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), Maycomb’s resident “maniac,” and both characters are particularized by light complexions, light hair and neutral-colored clothing that make both seem like ghosts in life. But maybe it’s time to hop off this connection, in favor of another.

Many years ago I was called upon to review the Italian psychological thriller NON SI SEVIZIA UN PAPERINO (1972), whose title translates as DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING or DON’T TORTURE THE DUCKLING (a colloquial reference to, of all people, Donald Duck). The movie had in those days a spotty reputation with fans of what we called Euro-cult. The title drew comparisons, mostly unfavorable, to such Dario Argento psychothrillers as THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1969), CAT O’NINE TAILS (1970) and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971) — Argento’s “animal trilogy” — but most self-professed connoisseurs found it lacking, attenuated, convoluted to a fault, its plot a puttanesca of child murders, regional prejudice, pedophilia, a drawn out police investigation, voodoo, mob justice… and while I cogitated on the point director Lucio Fulci and screenwriters Gianfranco Clarici and Roberto Gianviti were trying to make it dawned on me that DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING was TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD turned inside out. As had NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the Fulci film kicks off with a woodside attack, the pursuit and murder of a child through the woods whose death incites the residents of a rural Italian village to turn on one another, to find a scapegoat in the local madwoman (Florinda Bolkan), whose use of wax effigies representing the string of murdered children…

… seems to echo the soap dolls that Boo Radley leaves as a gift for the young protagonists of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

Both TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING open with the sounds of someone humming quietly and contentedly to themselves while hands enter the frame to reveal safeguarded objects — in MOCKINGBIRD a cigar box of kid treasures, in DUCKLING the bones of a long-dead, unbaptized infant — and both build to scenes in which a mob of local men mass for a measure of justice that they feel due process had denied them. Sadly, there is no Atticus Finch in DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING and the wrap-up isn’t so comforting. Children play an integral role in the Italian psychothrillers called gialli (Italian for yellow, a reference to the color-coded covers of pulp paperbacks) and childhood traumas are often the films’ inciting event. In Dario Argento’s PROFONDO ROSSO (DEEP RED, 1975), a series of victims are being knocked off by a killer who has clearly kept all of his or her old toys…

… with the use of marbles that roll out of frame or compel the camera to pursue reminding one of similar keepsakes in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

Even the knife that Boo leaves for Jem (Phillip Alford) in the knothole of the tree…

… is reborn as a switchblade in DEEP RED.

Coincidence? Maybe. Serendipity? Probably. Homage? I can’t discount the possibility… especially when Argento throws in this visual:

It’s not a mockingbird. But still…

The last time I sat with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, this short scene in which Jem and Scout (Mary Badham) are pointed toward the whereabouts of their father by the local pensioners reminds me of the bit early on in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)…

… in which the main characters (led by a brother and sister) are directed towards a family grave by a clutch of gold ol’ boys (one of them former blacklisted radio commenter John Henry Faulk, author of the Red Scare chronicle Fear on Trial, source of Lamont Johnson’s 1975 TV movie of the same name). There are other points of similarity. The cannibals in CHAINSAW seem a mere generation removed from the Ewell clan, whose patriarch, by raping his own daughter, is in effect consuming his own family. And what is Leatherface but the realization of all the worst fears about who Boo Radley might be? And by little things in between…

Though I note that the swing on the Radley’s front porch…

… has been moved in CHAIN SAW

… out to the front lawn. It wouldn’t be saying much to point out the kinship between the Radley house and the one in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE — there’s a kinship shared by all damned places — but it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to another haunted house…

… the old Myers place in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978). TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD takes place over the course of a full year and change, beginning in summer, pushing through towards another, and ending in the fall… on Halloween, to be exact. Boo Radley saves Jem and Scout Finch from Bob Ewell on Halloween night and Jem, in her later years, remarks that it was the night Boo “came out,” as the ad campaign for HALLOWEEN would crow that it was “the night he came home.” He being Michael Myers, another local boy gone wrong, another shaming branch of somebody’s family tree. The unseen Boo Radley (whose presence is represented before the final five minutes of the film but his shadow) is, like Leatherface, an effective blueprint for Michael Myers, aka the Boogey Man, who follows the protagonists, silently shadowing them as Michael Myers would do to the victims of HALLOWEEN many years later. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was shot by Russell Harlan, a veteran Hollywood cinematographer best known for his westerns but who was also director of photography on the science fiction classic THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), which had a direct and clear influence on HALLOWEEN (a debt John Carpenter acknowledged by including scenes of THE THING in his movie). We get our first good look at the Thing (James Arness)…

when the protagonists open a door to find him standing right there and Boo Radley is revealed in a somewhat similar way, hiding behind the door of Jem and Scout’s bedroom…

… in the aftermath of his rescue of the children from the clutches of Bob Ewell. In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, George Romero introduces a new set of characters well into the second act by having them enter through a heretofore unnoticed cellar door…

… while in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, Tobe Hooper reverses the gag by having Leatherface make his first appearance through an open pocket doorway to claim his first victim, after which he slams the door shut with an air of dreadful finality, leaving us alone in a moment of stillness that makes us confront the possibility that what we just witnessed didn’t even happen.

And then in HALLOWEEN, Carpenter uses a swinging doorway to reveal Michael Myers…

… playing a game of peek-a-boo with a prospective victim by concealing the reality of horror underneath the archetypal accoutrement of a bedsheet spook. So… what are we saying? Ultimately I guess the point of all of this is that when horror is good there is no waste. Elements are recycled because they have meaning to us. The brother and sister of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are the brother and sister of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD are the brother and sister of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE are the brother and sister of JEEPERS CREEPERS (2001) are the brother and sister of THE PACT (2012) are the brother and sister of the HALLOWEEN sequels (1981-2002) and how their relationship changes from picture to picture helps us understand the complex tapestry that is humanity in all its shades, varieties, possibilities, and perversions, in its hopes for better days and its worst case scenario night terrors. Whether movies have direct kinship with one another is less important in the final analysis than that they draw from the same wellspring of shared knowledge, revealing a common fund of nightmare imagery pumped to the surface by imagination, a measure of honesty, and the desire to tell one hell of a story.

0 Response Fear itself: To Kill a Mockingbird’s nightmare legacy
Posted By sinaphile : November 16, 2012 3:30 am

Thank you for writing such an incredible piece on one of my favorite films of all time utilizing many of my favorite films of all time. This is an incredible piece of work, sir!

Posted By sinaphile : November 16, 2012 3:30 am

Thank you for writing such an incredible piece on one of my favorite films of all time utilizing many of my favorite films of all time. This is an incredible piece of work, sir!

Posted By pilgrim52 : November 16, 2012 6:46 am

When I watched this movie as a kid, I found To Kill a Mockingbird quite scary! The shadowy images, the house that was rumored to have crazy people in it, mysterious finds in a tree. I loved it! Great comparison too to other horror movies. Tropes are good. Horror tropes, doubly so.

Posted By pilgrim52 : November 16, 2012 6:46 am

When I watched this movie as a kid, I found To Kill a Mockingbird quite scary! The shadowy images, the house that was rumored to have crazy people in it, mysterious finds in a tree. I loved it! Great comparison too to other horror movies. Tropes are good. Horror tropes, doubly so.

Posted By robbushblog : November 16, 2012 10:36 am

You make very interesting points. I can totally see it now that I have read this piece.

Posted By robbushblog : November 16, 2012 10:36 am

You make very interesting points. I can totally see it now that I have read this piece.

Posted By Dennis Cozzalio : November 16, 2012 11:29 am

This is a spectacular and insightful piece of work, Richard. It starts off with this:

“Film critics are perhaps overfond of crying ‘influence!’ The hardest thing for believers of auteur theory is to admit that people can, at different times, in different places, and using different tools, achieve the same result.”

And just keeps getting better. Thanks so much for the illumination into some of those dark corners.

Posted By Dennis Cozzalio : November 16, 2012 11:29 am

This is a spectacular and insightful piece of work, Richard. It starts off with this:

“Film critics are perhaps overfond of crying ‘influence!’ The hardest thing for believers of auteur theory is to admit that people can, at different times, in different places, and using different tools, achieve the same result.”

And just keeps getting better. Thanks so much for the illumination into some of those dark corners.

Posted By Miguel Rodriguez : November 16, 2012 3:24 pm

This is a really excellent article! I’d love to speak more about it. I talk a lot on my podcast and in articles about people’s tendency to over-compartmentalize genres and have ridiculous arguments about what does or does not constitute horror. This was quite refreshing. Thank you!

Posted By Miguel Rodriguez : November 16, 2012 3:24 pm

This is a really excellent article! I’d love to speak more about it. I talk a lot on my podcast and in articles about people’s tendency to over-compartmentalize genres and have ridiculous arguments about what does or does not constitute horror. This was quite refreshing. Thank you!

Posted By AL : November 16, 2012 7:39 pm

Thank you for another of your wonderful articles (& stills!). This one jogged my memory about one of my favorite films; one that nobody seems to know of–HOME SWEET HOMICIDE…AL

Posted By AL : November 16, 2012 7:39 pm

Thank you for another of your wonderful articles (& stills!). This one jogged my memory about one of my favorite films; one that nobody seems to know of–HOME SWEET HOMICIDE…AL

Posted By Brian : November 18, 2012 7:50 pm

Terrific article. I’ve read so many concerning Mockingbird but this one was fresh territory. I especially enjoyed the comparison to Val Lewton’s films. Mockingbird even has its own “bus” moment when Scout is jolted by the sound of a shotgun.

Posted By Brian : November 18, 2012 7:50 pm

Terrific article. I’ve read so many concerning Mockingbird but this one was fresh territory. I especially enjoyed the comparison to Val Lewton’s films. Mockingbird even has its own “bus” moment when Scout is jolted by the sound of a shotgun.

Posted By fumanchu32 : November 20, 2012 2:37 am

Excellent piece, Mr. Smith; thoroughly enjoyable and insightful.

Posted By fumanchu32 : November 20, 2012 2:37 am

Excellent piece, Mr. Smith; thoroughly enjoyable and insightful.

Posted By Sam Muffitt : November 23, 2012 7:42 am

Very thoughtful.

Kudos to you.

Posted By Sam Muffitt : November 23, 2012 7:42 am

Very thoughtful.

Kudos to you.

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