Horror Movies

As far as films go, while my highest respect and appreciation goes to classic character-driven and literary/thematic dramas like The Godfather, Chinatown and Easy Rider, I have an unabashed gleeful relish for horror films. Like heavy metal, horror films are fantastic visions of all the anti-social elements that lie restrained by civilization and polite society. The genre is often thought to be somewhat adolescent – perhaps those with little intimations of their own mortality can most easily consume violence and bloody death as entertainment. I for one certainly don’t enjoy the torture porn horror films of the 00s and beyond, but this may be more about aesthetics and plot structuring that an adult revulsion towards such grim topics. For all that, I do definitely love a great horror film (if, again as with heavy metal, my patience for modern forms has rather evaporated) and feel a great affection for them. Here then are some favourites and some anecdotes pertaining to them.

Nightmare on Elm Street I

This was about the first horror film I ever saw, and by jeezus it scared the life out of me. I actually remember seeing a trailer for it some time beforehand, maybe when I was 9 or 10 years old, and when I saw that bit when Johnny Depp gets sucked into his bed and vomited out… I had to run out the house. Then I felt worried that the ground would open up and do the same to me. Yikes! So of course, this meant that I had to see that film! And that truly was “watching-behind-the-sofa” viewing. It was my first real introduction to the delicious frisson of fear and terror of the quality horror film. It hasn’t really aged: the scary scary bits are still bloody effective. The first death is monstrously gruesome, the sight of Tina sliding down the school hallway in a bodybag is still deeply unsettling (the whole Nancy-at-school scene is one of the best in the film), the sight of the millipede coming out her mouth is gut-churning, the death of Glen (a youthful Johnny Depp) truly revoltingly sickening

NOES (or as we then called it, Freddy I) now strikes me as one of the newest additions to the classic horror pantheon (demonicon?) of zombie, werewolf, vampire and Frankenstein. Freddy Kruger has moved from the nightmare figure of the first film to the pop-culture anti-hero of Freddy vs Jason and a million spinoffs and tie-ins. As a symbol of nightmares, Kruger’s ferocity and demonic countenance symbolises the darkest side of humanity and our sleep-induced vulnerability to it. This is rich with metaphorical possibilities and resonances, just as the werewolf, zombie and vampire are. This is not to say you should go and have a wank over the critical/theoretical possibilities, but simply to note that such characters are those with the most staying power because film-makers can do so much with them. It was depressing that the remake of Nightmare on Elm Street was a sterile witless waste, but just as Frankenstein and other horror characters have fallow periods, I believe Freddy Kruger will be rejuvenated, to keep terrifying the crap out of people 🙂

Evil Dead

What I love about Evil Dead is its sheer unapologetic gleeful attack. There’s nothing tasteful or artistic about it. It is full-on raging horror from the off. This does mean that things like characterisation and setting get neglected – its hard to distinguish between the three women at the start, for example, as their personalities are not established, and neither is their relationships. (The two men do get a bit of attention though, with Scotty an impulsive jackass and Ash the sensible leader; while Bruce Campbell has that chin). But such flaws gets forgotten about quickly enough once the horror attack gets going. It’s vile, grotesque, brutal… and kinda fun. The tree-rape is (to say the least) imaginative, while the zombie make-up and behaviour more vivid, putrescent and active than the shuffling undead seen in George Romero’s films. (The card-shuffling scene still occasionally inspires me to quote from it whenever I see people playing solitaire). All of this makes Evil Dead a visceral attack on the viewer, which while raw and flawed, bristles with malevolent energy.

The Exorcist

This was the first horror film to genuinely terrify me. So much of the reviews of horror films and novels seem to me to be utter hyperbole – I mean, go read the back of any Stephen King book for preposterous overkill. Until then, horror films had certainly provided many scary and shocking moments, but until The Exorcist, only books like IT and The Omen had really deeply scared me. But man, oh man, The Exorcist truly deeply terrified me. I first saw it in the cinema, having that day moved into a flat where the rest of my flatmates would be arriving the next week. I met with some friends, smoked a couple of joints, then went to the cinema. We were late (as stoners tend to be) and the only seats left were right down the front. So the film totally assaulted my eyeballs, and then I had to suffer the unease of being in a new, empty flat when I went home. You know when you really have to pluck up the courage to go to the toilet? Yeah.

Many people have analyses quite what makes The Exorcist probably the scariest film ever: the body horror, the special effects, the religion vs science, the calling of the unknown, the subliminal images. For me what remains terrifying is the sense of an unknown, unconquerable power of malice and malevolence. This vibe is of course straight out of HP Lovecraft, but to see this being played out on a sweet and innocent little girl is enormously disturbing. It is difficult to dispel feelings that there is a greater power out there, somewhere; but it is an alarming thought to consider that it may well be evil and spiteful. The subplot of the priest and his mother is also particularly affecting, bringing up feelings of guilt and remorse and parental neglect, which most of us I would imagine are prone to. Similarly, the juxtaposition of faith and science, and the film’s examination of the limits of knowledge, can show up how little we know and what little control we have. The Exorcist is a deeply disturbing acknowledgement of the powerlessness and ineffectiveness of humanity.

American Werewolf in London

This is sometimes called a “comedy horror” and while there are funny bits (the decaying Jack picking up a Mickey Mouse figure and saying “Hi, David!” has cracked me up for more than twenty five years), the premise and plot structure of the film are horror. As a film, it’s very concisely plotted (note how David’s nightmares, for example, provide dramatic incidents in what would otherwise be a dull period in hospital, and how he remains unconscious for three weeks – just time to him to get going before the next full moon) and the characters sharply drawn – the dour sceptical Chief Inspector, the brassy (and contrast-providing) nurse, the harassed Indian orderly, and the three tramps, are all wonderful vignettes. It’s probably best not to think about the distance from north Yorkshire to London and how long it would take Doctor Hersh to drive there, though. Also notable aspects include the precise snapshot of a grimy and unappealing mid-1980s London (from the pricey local supermarkets to the punk-infested subway), the superlative soundtrack (from Creedence Clearwater to Van Morrison), and (of course) the remarkable special effects (by Rick Baker). If there’s a more visceral transformation in cinema, I haven’t seen it.

What I find most affecting about American Werewolf, though, is how believable it all is. Ignore the plot holes about distance etc, and consider the character reactions to events, and they really are entirely believable. There’s none of the common but annoyingly absurd heroics of horror films, where the protagonist just has to find out what dread things are going on in the basement. When the werewolf first attacks the hitch-hikers, David’s entirely human first response is to run away. David’s reaction as his appalling predicament unfolds (as I think actor David Naughton has said) run through the stages of shock – first disbelief, then anger, then pleading, then acceptance. Alex’s behaviour too is similarly comprehensible, in trying to help what she sees as a man afflicted by a great trauma (although the level of their mutual passion, if necessary for the plot, does seem somewhat unlikely).

American Werewolf then is a rare case of a believable modern day (okay, modernish) horror film, updating the classic werewolf fable. It’s funny, sad, convincing, and at just the right times, really fucking scary.

Thriller

Okay, this is a music video. But the funny/sad/weird thing is, Thriller scared the living shit out of me for longer than all other horrors combined. I don’t quite remember the exact incident, but seeing it when young scared and scarred me, so that I developed a large phobia about both video and song. I literally could not even hear the song without panicking and having to run out of earshot. This lasted until I was in my early twenties! At which point I became fed up of crapping myself every Halloween or 80s night, and started to wean myself into being able to stand it. I started by watching the video on mute, then with the sound barely audible, then progressively higher and higher. I would grip the chair with white-knuckled nervous anxiety, but in time the fear and panic dissipated. I now consider both video and song to be fantastic. But sometimes… the shadow of that panic and fear still crosses my mind!

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4 thoughts on “Horror Movies

  1. I love all of these picks, Mike. This is another vice we share!
    Romero deserves a nod too – although my favourite of his is one called The Crazies – not a zombie film, but zombie-ish: an accidental release of a bio-warfare agent turns the residents of a small town homicidal/suicidal, and when the army moves in to try to contain things it only makes matters worse (there’s a Vietnam allegory going on). I saw this on TV when I was very young, and some of violence I found more disturbing than anything I’ve ever seen – probably because of its believability, and the familiarity of the setting (it opens with a farmer calmly murdering his family in the middle of the night, and later has the local priest torching himself in the middle of the street).
    Nearly 20 years later, as an adult, I was almost as disturbed by a little-known (soon forgotten?) Wes Craven film called The People Under The Stairs. It was kind of set up as a would-be comedic adventure of a sassy 12-year-old burglar stumbling into a nasty situation and having to rely on his wits to escape. But the situation was increasingly nightmarish (and appallingly believable): a perverse couple who kidnapped multiple children and imprisoned, tortured, and mutilated them to try to mould them into ideal sons and daughters.
    Hitchcock’s The Birds scared the bejayzus out me when I was kid too – much more than Psycho (great film, but somehow not – to me – actually scary).
    The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is memorably inventive in its gothic nastiness, and really pushing that line where you know it’s a black comedy but it’s so nasty you feel embarrassed about laughing.
    Poltergeist (also directed by TCM’s Tobe Hooper) gets a bit overblown at the end, but the development of the first half – starting out as a jolly comedy of suburban discomfiture but getting steadily creepier and creepier – is genius.
    In the campy fun category I love the Dr Phibes films, but even more Theatre of Blood, an early ’70s Vincent Price vehicle in which he plays an embittered old thespian who wreaks revenge on the critics he feels have ruined his career utilising murder methods found in Shakespeare’s plays.
    And The Wicker Man is a great atmospheric piece, building towards a marvellous (should have seen it coming, but we didn’t) twist ending.
    And I thought everyone should have stopped making zombie films after Shaun of the Dead, which is both a very funny send-up of the genre and yet also manages to be genuinely affecting.

  2. A shout-out also to Peter Jackson, who at the outset of his career created two of the most exuberantly over-the-top comedy horror films of all time (apart from the Evil Dead series, anyway), Bad Taste and Dead-Alive (aka Braindead). My other Scots pal, Bruce the Bookseller, is also a huge fan of these near-forgotten early masterpieces. When Jackson achieved his prodigious success with the opening Lord of the Rings film, Bruce’s response was, “I hope they’ll give him USD150 million to make a zombie film now!” Alas, it has not yet come to pass.

    Jackson’s The Frighteners has some memorable moments, too, though perhaps a bit of a misfire overall: the ghostly serial killer is just too darned scary and unpleasant for what is supposed to be a comedy.

    • Some excellent nominations there! “Blair Witch” is terrific, the early Jackson films far from nearly-forgotten in my circle, “Texas Chainsaw” so damn nasty, “The Wicker Man” one of the best damn films ever. Horror has such a rich canon, and as I was saying about Freddy Kruger, can reinvent itself almost infinitely. And unlike sci-fi, I think, earlier films with crappier special effects retain their power because of the psychological effects they draw upon/produce. (In the good films, at least).

      Should also shout out Dario Argento, whose “Demons” films and “Suspira” are wonderfully over-the-top.

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