Posted by Richard Harland Smith on October 17, 2014
This Sunday, October 19th, marks the 30th anniversary of the death of my sister Cheryl Ann, or Cheri, as we called her. She died just two weeks shy of her 29th birthday. I was 23 at the time, just turned; I’m 53 now and I guess that makes Cheri the baby these days, frozen as she is at that — it seems to me now in my middle years — very young age. I’ve been thinking about my late sister but also watching a lot of spooky movies for the Halloween season and it all came together for me this week how many portrayals there are in genre films of brothers and sisters lost in bad territory. I guess we have Hansel and Gretel to blame for that. Odd that the most famous brothers in western civilization are Cain and Abel and the most famous brother and sister Hansel and Gretel. Maybe it’s because I grew up with sisters that I prefer fairy tales to Bible stories. But anyway. By way of turning sorrow into light, I offer you my highly subjective and far from comprehensive list (please, no comments telling me “you forgot…”) of my favorite brother and sister acts in fright films.
1. Roderick and Madeline Usher, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960)
There ain’t no party like an Usher party/’Cuz an Usher party don’t quit!. Well, until the house falls down. Before the birth of my son Victor in 2007, I was the last of my line (yes, the surname Smith was very near to extinction before I had the good sense to make an heir!) and maybe that’s why I’m so fond of the Edgar Allan Poe story that spawned so many adaptations. My favorite is Roger Corman’s, chiefly because of that gorgeous, intoxicating Technicolor but also because of the casting of Vincent Price as Roderick Usher. Spoilers are unavoidable when you talk about this one because the story is all about the ending. It’s meant to be all kinds of discretely perverse and sick but I find it comforting that Roderick and his kid sister Madeline (Myrna Fahey) die holding one another as their house burns down around them. (You say strangling, I saw hugging.) Hey, there are worse ways to go and it beats dying alone.
2. Roderick and Pamela Fitzpatrick, THE UNINVITED (1944)
This classy, charming adaptation of the supernatural novel Uneasy Freehold by Irish writer Dorothy Macardle portrays a brother and sister in a way many of us wish we had grown up — cultured and polite and nattily dressed and calling our siblings “dear” and “darling.” It’s a fantasy, and a slightly tony one, but I love it. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey make such a delightful onscreen couple that you wonder why Milland bothers with third-billed Gail Russell — he already has the perfect mate in his own sister! I love the way Rick and Pam set up housekeeping when they buy an old house on the stormy Cornwall coast (much more detail of all that in the source novel, which is a delightful read) and their impeccable manners… but they’re a funsy pair, too, and who wouldn’t want to be a guest in their haunted house?
3. Franklin and Sally Hardesty, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)
When actress Marilyn Burns passed away a few weeks back, the horror community began talking about THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE afresh and one of the recurring nagging questions was “Why does Sally stay with Franklin?” If you haven’t seen the movie, Franklin and Sally are a brother and sister traveling through Central Texas with friends; confined to a wheelchair for unspecified reasons, Franklin is a bit of a pill and guided by emotions that don’t seem to be a good fit for his stated age. He’s demanding and unpleasant, while Sally is very nice in the most non-specific way. They and their friends fall victim to back country cannibals and Franklin and Sally are the last to be attacked; Sally sees Franklin die in front of her and then the rest of the movie depicts her ultimate survival via trial-by-ordeal. Fans of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE hate Franklin; truth be told, they love to hate him, the way fans of ALIEN (1979) hate Lambert. Franklin is a hate magnet, his helplessness a dartboard for the intolerance of viewers who know they would all do so much better in the same situation. All delusion and denial to one side, the answer to the question is that Sally stays with Franklin because he is her brother. There were times in my life when my sister — chronologically older but emotionally so much younger than I was — felt like dead weight, when she embarrassed me in front of my friends. In the last years of her life I often merely put up with my sister, limiting my responses to her to monosyllables spoken over my shoulder — behavior on my part of which I’m not terribly proud now — but for all of my inability to engage with my sister I would have, like Sally, laid my own life on the line for my sibling. So I get you, Sally Hardesty. I totally get you.
4. Miles and Flora, THE INNOCENTS (1961)
Even more so than Wednesday and Pugsley Addams, Miles and Flora from THE INNOCENTS, Jack Clayton’s adaptation of the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw (and the subsequent stage play by William Archibald), are my favorite creepy brother and sister act. By the time I was 10, my Mom and Dad had put nearly two decades of parenting under their belt and wanted — understandably — a little play time; as such, I was often left to my own devices. I roamed our town alone, tramped the local forest solo, went to the movies by myself, and spent a fair amount of time in our house without benefit of parental supervision. My sisters and I got into the usual mischief and I can appreciate in THE INNOCENTS (though I grew up in a raised ranch rather than a manor house) a sort of acknowledgement of the eerie imagination of children and how even the most protected childhood can have its dark corners. While the Americans were making Beach Party movies, which seemed to argue that kids were stupid but capable of bettering themselves in the long run, the British film industry half a generation past World War II seemed to have some grave reservations about the next few graduating classes. Movies like VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960), THE DAMNED (1963), LORD OF THE FLIES (1963), THE INNOCENTS and another Jack Clayton movie, OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE (1967), worked up a lot of anxiety about the corruption of innocence and the fallout of repression. Their concern was well-founded, though I don’t know that we’re breathing any easier today than we did fifty years ago.
5. Tammy and Andy, 28 WEEKS LATER (2007)
There’s a Hansel and Gretel quality to the siblings played in this sequel to 28 DAYS LATER (2002) by — hold on, best-names-ever alert — Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton. If you know the film, you will remember that they are among the first Londoners allowed back into the city (actually, a safe zone on the Isle of Dogs in the eastern part of the city) after the military has contained the “rage” situation from the first film. Reunited with their father (Robert Carlyle), whom they do not know abandoned (with reason) their mother (Catherine McCormack) to the Infected. Curious about what happened to their mom, the kids break quarantine and head into the movie’s equivalent of the Forbidden Zone. Their journey out of quarantine has that Brothers Grimm quality to it and the pair suffer no small amount of terrors between the opening and closing titles. The fact that they are constantly on the move and, ultimately, on the run from their own infected (yet oddly resilient) father makes me think of the kids in Charles Laughton’s NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955); they even have an adult guardian in the form of Rose Byrne’s NATO medical officer, but the comforting conclusion of the Laughton film is conspicuous in its absence from the horrorshow that is 28 WEEKS LATER‘s third act. Sibling loyalty is put to the test here and triumphs… but we are left in the final analysis with the question: was this a good thing?
6. Bobby and Brenda Carter, THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977)
What’s remarkable about these siblings (twins?) is not what they bring to the table in THE HILLS HAVE EYES, Wes Craven’s disarmingly potent tale of desert survival (and a cinematic cousin to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE), but what they accomplish in the end run. Bobby and Brenda are fairly typical suburban teens, dragged with rolling eyes and heavy feet on a family trip from Ohio through the desert wastelands of the American Southwest by their father, an ex-policeman who fits to a T the description “prick with ears.” Of the pair, Bobby (played by Robert Houston, who has since matured into an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker) is the more capable and involved in life; he knows things, albeit taken from books rather than life experience. He deals with his sister, Brenda (Susan Lanier) with only vaguely concealed condescension and if their lives had plodded on in the natural way the pair might even have grown estranged and distant. But that’s not what’s in the stars in THE HILLS HAVE EYES, in which this family is snared by an atavistic desert clan (paradoxically a tighter and more cooperative nuclear unit) that makes ends meet by biting through the middle. The logical extension of movies such as HOT RODS TO HELL (1967) and even PANIC IN YEAR ZERO! (1962), in which complacent middle class families are encouraged to reexamine their values in the face of attacks from without, THE HILLS HAVE EYES is a clarion call for people to pay attention to what matters and to stay sharp — capable, able, and willing — and connected before life consumes them one by one.
7. Riff-Raff and Magenta, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)
A lot of my comments about this extraterrestrial brother and sister act would only be an echo of what I’ve already said about Miles and Flora in THE INNOCENTS; I won’t go so far as to say that maybe THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW depicts those two grown up, but there is a kinship there and ROCKY HORROR does strike me as the kind of bedroom pageant my oldest sister, Lisa, might have forced Cheri and me to perform while our parents were off at a cocktail party.
8. Mitch and Cathy Brenner, THE BIRDS (1963)
It’s interesting — Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS begins with Rod Taylor’s character, Mitch Brenner, attempting to buy a birthday gift for his 11 year-old sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, who of course would grow up to play Lambert in ALIEN), but when I went to the DVD to grab frames for this post I was hard-pressed to find a shot of the two of them together, just the two of them. There’s quite an age difference between Mitch and Cathy. Taylor was in his early 30s here and if we take his age to be Mitch’s, that makes the gap about twenty years. Big enough for Mitch to be Cathy’s father rather than her older brother. The Brenner family is an odd one, though maybe not so peculiar. Mitch’s mother (Jessica Tandy) is widowed and perhaps over-reliant on her son and jealous of his interest in socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren); she comes off as aloof, even cold, but Mitch has his own aloofness in the way he constantly fobs Cathy off on other people — mostly Melanie. The product of a broken home, Melanie was nurtured (or maybe “forged” would be more apt) in loneliness and, though her extravagant lifestyle may seem to argue otherwise, she seeks a true union, a life partner, and the sense of belonging that comes with such a relationship. The lovebirds that Mitch tries to buy for Cathy become a symbol — perhaps even a mocking one — for the human capacity for denying nature and the bird attacks that occupy the film’s second and third acts ask us to compare (as we did while watching THE HILLS HAVE EYES) the two societies and ask which most deserves to endure?
9. Johnny and Barbara, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
The kids these days are always making horror movie prequels and I wish someone would do that with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but I don’t want to know how the ghoul plague started… I just want to hear Johnny and Barbara bicker in the car on their three-hour car ride to the Pennsylvania sticks. Russell Streiner and Judith O’Dea are great – Streiner is the perfect stinker older brother and Barbara the seeming doormat who lets slip with the occasional zinger (“You’re ignorant!”). At each other’s throats the whole way, this pair seems eligible for the Worst Siblings of the Year Award until a monster grabs Barbara and Johnny, without hesitating, comes to her rescue. That Johnny fails to save his sister and actually dies in the process hardly matters – he’s pulling a Sally Hardesty and giving his all for the cause. I’ve long been struck by the similarity of the beginning of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to the end of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), which climaxes with a brother and sister being attacked by a grotesquely lurching man in a dark suit while navigating a darkened patch of woods. As in NIGHT, the brother in MOCKINGBIRD suffers for his altruism (albeit with a busted arm rather than a stilled heart) but all that was hopeful in the third act of the one film becomes hopeless and despairing in the opening reel of the other. Yet again, there’s that Hansel and Gretel vibe to Johnny and Barbara in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD but in this variation they are the breadcrumbs.
10. The Monster and the Bride, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
I’m obviously going out on a limb here but I’m thinking maybe Elsa Lanchester’s Bride screams at the end of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and rejects the love of Boris Karloff’s monster because she understands on some essential level that they are not mates but rather brother and sister. They do have the same father in Henry Frankenstein and, as Ygor maintains in THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942), a shared mother in the lightning that got both their hearts beating. I haven’t done any research to see if this notion has been laid down before but it seems so obvious to me now that I have to believe someone has broached it. “We belong dead,” the monster bemoans before pulling the lever on the whole mishegoss… and maybe now we really know why.
Dedicated to the memory of Cheryl Ann Smith
November 2, 1955 – October 19, 1984
With love, too seldom expressed and too long withheld
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