Co-written and directed by George Lucas, Lucasfilm’s first production American Graffiti (1973) is known to audiences as a colorful, funny, coming-of-age story infused with vibrant automobiles and energetic rock-n-roll music. It’s perhaps too easy to forget, however, that in the midst of this raucous comedy is a dark, eerie moment of suspense.
Having driven outside of their small town to find a romantic spot, teens Debbie (Candy Clark) and Terry (Charles Martin Smith) are left stranded when their car is stolen. Forced to walk through the countryside in the middle of the night, the ever-talkative Debbie shares tales of the infamous “Goat Killer,” a supposed gruesome murderer who is the stuff of nefarious legend for local teens. A nervous Terry, however, is in no mood to discuss the topic under their present circumstances.
In contrast to the rest of the movie, the scene is devoid of music. Instead, an ominous sound effect tone slowly builds in intensity as Debbie and Terry run for the bushes after hearing a mysterious noise. Convinced the Goat Killer is nearby, the pair hide away as the ominous tone grows louder, almost sounding like a beating heart, and punctuated with distant sounds of a goat’s calling. Is a teen car flick about to become a teen thriller? It’s all tongue-in-cheek, of course, as they’re soon met by their friend Steve (Ron Howard), who had also been left stranded out in the country.
This scene, as much as any other, defines Lucasfilm’s historical relationship to cinematic horror techniques. The company hasn’t fully embraced the genre in a feature film, but has certainly borrowed elements of its style, even trying horror-esque stories in television and games. Over the years, these have been applied in obvious and not-so-obvious ways.