Scare me. Frighten me. Make me sick with fear.
Those are the thoughts that race through me as I sit down to watch a horror film. I can’t help it. I must dare the horror film; after all, it’s daring me.
Can you spit in the eye of the reaper before he runs you through?
I’ve got you right where I want you. I’m going to show you things that exist only in your worst nightmares. Just wait until I show you what I have and, just remember, nothing that I show you is beyond the realm of possibility.
That’s probably why the horror film scares us. Even in films that breach into the supernatural, there’s something inside that relentlessly repeats in a cold, hissing voice, “This could happen… this could happen… this could happen… to you!”
When I watch a science fiction film, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Blade Runner, no matter how magnificent the production values, I never think to myself, “This could happen.”
I never think I could be running in front of a speeding car like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon.
I’ll never leap over the heads of angry vipers while hunting the Ark of the Covenant.
I’ll never hear Renee Zellweger tell me “You had me at ‘Hello’.”
I’ll never even tell Margaret Dumont that I can see her leaning over a hot stove, but I can’t see the stove.
But the victim of Michael Myers in his Shatner mask, or my mouth sewn to the ass of a Japanese man as part of a hideous experiment, or even my head being wrenched 360 degrees due to being possessed by the devil?
Oh yeah. You bet. That could happen.
The horror tale is the most visceral of all forms of communication. It exists not to lighten the world with beauty or love. It doesn’t pat us on the back or put a dollar in our pocket. It doesn’t wish us well, long life or happy days. The scary story doesn’t reassure us that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that tomorrow is another day, or that all’s well that ends well. In the realm of horror, God may be in His Heaven, but that hardly matters because we’re in seriously deep shit down here on Earth.
Most other art forms use violence, suspense, fear and death to make a point about life and the human condition. Horror is a bit different: it uses violence, suspense, fear and death to remind you that, no matter what happens, you are ultimately fucked. It strikes at the common bond that we all share: our time on Earth is short and there’s no guarantee that our passing will be easy. Life after life, soul after soul, body after body has fallen to the monster, the killer, the ghost, the blood-sucker, the wild animal and the thing from another world.
You’re going to die. That’s the deal you made when you were born, so get used to the idea. You can banish the thoughts from your mind for quite a while (that’s what life is for, after all), but one day you won’t open your eyes and that’s that.
Big or small, good or evil, important or negligible, famous or forgotten, that’s what’s going to happen and it really sucks, doesn’t it?
But before I turn this entire introduction into a turgid tub of depression let me give voice to the most horrible of all truths: scary stories are fun!
We the Twisted of the United States of Insanity, in order to form a more horrific union, do solemnly swear that we love this shit. I can’t speak for others; I can’t watch through the eyes of other horror fans or feel the emotions that zip through their veins. Maybe some of them do genuinely get off on the pain and torture that flashes in front of their eyes during the average horror film, but as for me, all I can think of is the human stories happening in front of me. The greatest of all horror films are the ones that remind us that real people in real homes get hit with the I-Can’t-Believe-This-Is-Happening hammer from time to time. Believers in the Devil might count The Exorcist as their ultimate nightmare, while those who are afraid of finding themselves off the beaten track might shy away from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If things that go bump in the night make your heart leap into your throat, Paranormal Activities might enthrall you, or the mysteries of the afterlife might lead you towards Poltergiest or The Others. And then there is the most common of horrors, that of being at the mercy of those who simply want to watch the world explode. Tears can not stop them, pleading can not halt the hand that swings the cleaver, and so films like Halloween, The Devil’s Rejects, and The Strangers exist.
You can watch it played out right in front of you, all for the price of a DVD (popcorn extra).
Like no other genre, the audience appreciation for horror films ebbs and flows. Some genres have all year-round appeal, others bank on certain seasons and still others (I’m mostly thinking of musicals) have all but disappeared in the modern era. If the short history of cinema has taught us anything, it has taught us that the taste for the scary movie tends to grow and shrink with the times. The silent era gave us our first glimpse of cinematic horror with Nosferatu and The Phantom of The Opera, the thirties gave us the Universal monsters, the fifties allowed the nuclear threat to inch its way into our nightmares with big bug movies while Hammer was gearing up to sell America back its own monstrosities, the sixties went cheapie with Vincent Price and AIP ripping off anything that Edgar Allan Poe put his name to, the seventies went hog-wild with a new-found freedom from the production code and an audience starved for new frights, the eighties gave us splatter and the new century set the scene for reality horror, international scares and torture porn.
What a Hell of a ride it’s been.
And while each and every day of the year is perfect for watching a good horror film, there are no better days for checking into the macabre motel than those marvelous thirty-one days in the month of October, the days that eventually lead us to Halloween.
Ah October, when orange leaves blow across the streets, when the chill in the air sends delicious bumps across unguarded skin, and normal people start decorating their homes to look like haunted houses. This is the time of year when the horror expert (henceforth known as “The Ghoul”) breaks out of the cocoon of his year-long sleep and slinks towards the DVD player to see what old scares might still get a rise out of him from that great old assembly known as “The Horror Movie Collection.”
Like the comedy, which aims to get a quick emotional reaction out of its audience (a laugh), the horror film goes for the most immediate reaction (a gasp, a scream or just a quickly beating heart). They play to the most basic or our instincts, the unknown and our fear of it. But fear of the unknown doesn’t guarentee that every movie fitted into the horror genre will scare its target audience. A film which paints its walls with blood can easily leave an audience yawning, top-dollar CGI spooks will garner giggles and a myriad of nubile beauties will meet their makers with an axe through their lovely faces with nary a gulp from even the most timid of viewers if the film has not engaged its audience.
Some years ago, I happened to take in a show at a local theater (I was invited by a young lady who was in the show, whom I subsequently completely failed to get into bed with me, but that’s a different kind of horror story). The theater was unique amongst its neighbors because it was a type of resurrection of the old Grand Guingol theater of centuries ago where decapitations and dismemberments seemingly took place live before the audience’s eyes (a fictionized taste of this can be spied during the Parisian sequences in Neil Jordan’s Interview With The Vampire). This particular theater was carving a niche for itself by taking the mickey out of a few theater classics (such as Romeo And Juliet) and placing them within a horror-themed context (such as a zombie infestation), an idea that would later see fruition in the cult publishing realm (the rewriting of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to include zombies, for example). On this particular evening, the program was to feature a simpler show: a series of vignettes featuring the creeping dead.
The show started off well with nearly the entire cast piled on the floor, made up as zombies. Very slowly, there was movement and a low groan. Little by little, the cast of zombies hoisted themselves to their feet, using each other for support as the groans got louder and hungrier. At that moment, an apparently still-living actress walked on stage and screamed as she looked to her left and found herself about to be pounced upon by flesh-eaters. The living dead targeted her and lunged forward. She ran off stage but the dead were right on her heels and the off-stage screams told us that she hadn’t gotten far. Not an intelligible word had been uttered: only groans and the shriek told the story. I settled back and prepared myself for whatever was to come next.
Unfortunately, what came next was one hundred minutes of more of the same. Lights up, three minutes of a zombie threatening another character, groan, scream, lights down. To liven things up, sometimes they’d leave the lights off, blast a thunderclap over the P.A. system and one of the actors would scream. The audience would then jump, honestly startled (well, the first time anyway) and the show would continue. Actors who had been made-up as zombies in an earlier bit walked on looking normal, only to be chased, captured and bitten by a creeper. If the lights went out for more than five seconds, we all prepared ourselves for the blood-curdling scream that was meant to wake us up.
Although I can not speak for everyone in that theater, I can safely say that, for many of us, it was an empty experience. The whole evening was based on the notion that certain things (zombies, being chased and attacked, screams in the dark, death) are scary and, if we just keep hitting that button over and over again, an evening of abject terror is assured. But without the ingredients of such age-old mainstays as character and story, the imagination is never truly engaged.
Let’s try an experiment: picture, if you will, your favorite scare scene in your favorite horror film. Maybe it’s the shower scene in Psycho, the chest-burster scene in Alien, the puking scene in The Exorcist or even the first torture sequence in Hostel. Think about everything that came before that scene, everything that led up to it. Think about the characters involved and what they went through to get to that point. In Alien, think about the huge skeleton on the derelict ship with its ribcage blown open, Kane (John Hurt) with the hugger-creature on his face, Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) warning to the rest of the crew about letting the creature on board, and especially how relieved the crew is that Kane seems to be alright and their good-natured banter as they have one more meal before going back to their sleep compartments. And then Kane coughs up a bit of his lunch and the whole situation changes.
Now imagine, instead of all that buildup, you sat down and watched the chest-burster scene unfold in front of you and then, for the next ninety minutes, you watched variations of that scene happen again and again. Suppose the crew of the Nostromo numbered seventy instead of seven and you got to watch an alien burst of out of every member’s chest, from the captain down to the janitor.
Seriously now, how long would you continue watching that film?
For the next thirty-one days, this blog will take a gander at films that have earned their right to be called “macabre”. This is not a must-abide list of films that needs to be watched in order to enjoy the Halloween season: I make no guarentees. This is not even a list of the scariest films ever made: some of them hale from earlier ages and do not have much scare power for modern audiences. Instead, what you’re being offered is a gimmick, an excuse for a lover of horror films to pick some of his favorites and explain what makes them stand out amongst the rest. It is an attempt to remind the reader of the films of yesteryear that may have lain neglected, to celebrate our favorite frights, and hopefully point a finger towards lesser-known films that deserve to be watched and cowered from. This list of films for the Halloween season is not definitive, but it is worth delving into. These films have the power to make you think about the life you lead between the breaths you take; they can make you clutch your girlfriend tighter or lament the empty couch on which you sit. Some of them might even give you pause to turn off the light as you lay down for another night, knowing that waking the next morning is the greatest thing you can hope for.
There is, of course, no such thing as a perfect Halloween: the chainsaw is made of plastic, the blood is catsup, and just when you’re setting down to watch a good horror film, the mood will be ruined by some prepubescent ghoulies in paper masks shouting “Trick or Treat.” But then things settle down… the doorbell stops ringing… and while one more child walks down the wrong alleyway on Halloween night or another takes a bite of the apple with the secreted razorblade, we settle down in the living room to watch a few films to set the hairs on the backs of our necks a-tingling.
We must… you see… it’s all part of the dare…
And when the credits roll, the true fan of the horror film can stand up, stretch his/her back, and privately celebrate the glorious feeling of being alive: neither Frankenstein’s monster nor Edward Hyde has caught us yet; the sun has risen and Dracula’s corpse has turned into dust. We can enjoy yet another day above ground… until we can’t.
In certain films, the thrill of a good story that digs deep into the nether regions of the human psyche, whether it scared people in the silent era or puts patrons on the edge of their seats in the twenty-first century, cannot be equaled. That is what this series of blog-posts are about: the great horror films and why they scare us.
We’ll stick to one a night and hope that our hair doesn’t turn completely snow-white by the time All Souls Day rolls around. Oh, and for those of you aren’t sure if you want to go any further on this journey with me, let me say one thing that might separate the men from the boys.
Are they gone? Good, the rest of us can settle in and take a gander at some fantastic films that have endeavored to scare the living bejezus out of us all for the past hundred years.
[Come back for the first film of the series tomorrow…]