Welcome to Horrorland! Is it safe to come out?
With Halloween fresh in my memory, and being my favorite time of year to watch television, we’re going to discuss horror movies somewhat after the fact. Almost every cable channel had some sort of Monsterfest. TV Land was doing a Munsters marathon. Hell, the wife and I sat down the other night in front of AMC to watch an old Val Lewton chiller, “I Walked With a Zombie.” As I watched the Lewton film, which is more atmospheric than scary, I perceived an arc in horror films.
“Once you decide to titillate instead of illuminate … you create a climate of expectation that requires a higher and higher level of intensity.”
Bill Moyers, quoted above, was talking about journalism, but his point can be easily applied to the discussion I want to have with you today on the state of modern horror films.
Vault seldom delves into the horror genre because horror, like comedy, is rarely done right. Go ahead and name a handful of comedies or creep-outs that spring to mind and then think about that list. How often is a comedy predicated on one gag? (“Click,” anyone?) How often does a horror film take you half way there? Comedy and horror are, by their nature, uneven adventures. I am reminded of the Taoist proverb that an over-sharp blade dulls quickly. Complete comedic films like “A Fish Called Wanda” or “O Brother Where Art Thou,” or effective horror films like “Repulsion” come along only once in a while.
Sometimes a marriage of the genres, such as “American Werewolf in London,” can provide a sterling balance. Great horror films are rare. Great ideas for horror films seem easier to come by than to execute.
This “arc” I was thinking about the other night was inspired by looking at two ends of the horror rainbow. On the one hand was the old Lewton film and on the other were Rob Zombie’s more recent films, “The House of 1,000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects.” And I began plotting horror films along this arc, wondering along with David Byrne, “Well, how did I get here?”
The later films are disgusting. This is not to say that they don’t exercise some good horror chops. They do. And “Rejects,” the sequel to “Corpses,” registered a 6.5 Vault Rating, just missing the grisly cut. The problem is that “The Devil’s Rejects” is the second most depraved film I’ve ever seen.
Depraved: adjective. morally bad; corrupt; perverted. Or, if you are a local musician, it would mean being without Mark Prave, but that is a future “Rusty Gun Revival” music column.
Lewton’s films of the 40s, like “Cat People” and “The Body Snatcher,” rank as classy classics and there seems to have been a few steps along the path to the current day that one might consider a devolution of the form. Part of our slippery slope is that horror films can be made cheaply and often without any art at all. Walking through the local video stop the other day, I saw scores of dreadful B-movie teen slice-n-dice.
After Lewton came the 50s sci-fi horror and creature features by animation pioneers like Ray Harryhausen. These films were sometimes campy (“Attack of the 50 Foot Woman”) and sometimes surprisingly effective (“The Incredible Shrinking Man”) but almost always fun and sometimes even thoughtful. Horror often requires humor to offset and highlight tension and to give pace. Fun is a central element to a good horror film.
But George Romero came along in 1968 and changed the rules forever with “Night of the Living Dead,” a low-budget zombie shocker that was heavy on creep out moments of gore and dread. Romero crossed some lines by including brief nudity and ugly scenes of cannibalism.
The jolt we got from “Night of the Living Dead” was that touch of titillation that Moyers spoke of. Romero’s stark black and white movie took itself seriously. Hammer horror films spilled lots of ketchup, but with Christopher Lee as Dracula leading a harem of buxom succubi, we just couldn’t take offense. In the most famous murder in screen history, that of Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” a savagery was conveyed but not shown.
It is the casual idea of this writer that “Night of the Living Dead,” which still has undeniable power, placed cinema at the top of the visceral slide and gave us a good shove. I would also argue that Romero’s sequels over the following 20 years, “Dawn of the Dead” in 1978 and “Day of the Dead” in 1985, ushered us down the slide and splat into the mud at the bottom. By the release of “Day,” the superior “Halloween” (1978), the lesser “Friday the 13th” (1980) and the worse “Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) had all been released. The modern horror die was cast and this trio of serial killers are still haunting us today.
This is not to say horror is dead, only that a disproportional amount of it really sucks. The best pure horror films work in a psychological sense from both an internal perspective and from the external standpoint of the audience. The worst don’t even register as horror films but rather as horror-porn. The commonwealth’s exhibits 1 and 1a, “The Devil’s Rejects” and “The House of 1,000 Corpses,” are entered into evidence.
In the latter case, the viewer pulls away as Otis Driftwood cross hatches titillation with mutilation as a sick feeling takes the place of the suspense that better films deliver. We have truly landed in the mud. Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who probably rates higher on the Craven-Hitchcock scale for twistedness, is a more effective evil than the Driftwood character because, A) he’s played by Anthony Hopkins, and B) because the audience has supplied their own idea of what Lecter stands for.
Lecter lives on the slow, upward climb to the top of the roller coaster. There is tension, apprehension as something really wild is unfolding just out of sight. It is the NOT knowing that counts. Driftwood lives on the visceral down-slope where there is only stimulus. We are in an age when stimulus alone is being proffered as horror. This no longer works.
As Moyers intoned at the outset, we are in a position were we require higher and higher levels of intensity to get off and, as Rob Zombie has found, there’s no place left to go. When you chop up the 15 millionth teenager one becomes numb to it.
Real horror still abounds. Check the timeline below if you doubt me. But the best modern horror seems to exist when an idea is examined and found troubling. Films that allow the audience to provide their own details are the ones that work the best.
Night of the Hunter – 1955 – Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton directed this groundbreaking film about an ex-con (Robert Mitchum) who insinuates himself into a family hoping to find hidden money from a bank robbery. The tightly controlled climax follows Mitchum as he pursues his step-children, who hold the secret, through one terrifying night.
Psycho – 1960 – Alfred Hitchcock
Another psychological thriller where a thief on the lamb runs aground of a mentally disturbed hotel operator (Anthony Hopkins).
Carnival of Souls – 1962 – Herk Harvey
Disturbing film about a woman who survives a car accident but is troubled by a mysterious figure as she tries to pick up the pieces of her life.
The Birds – 1963 – Alfred Hitchcock
A love story that only the master of suspense could tell. Nature’s wrath inexplicably unfurls as birds begin attacking people in a small coastal town until a broken family is made whole again.
Repulsion – 1965 – Roman Polanski
One of the most unsettling films I’ve ever seen examines the concept of feminine beauty. When a worldly sister goes away for the weekend, her sexually repressed sister is left alone and descends into madness. A masterful film that gets inside the viewer’s head by deftly blurring the lines between the objective and subjective camera.
Night of the Living Dead – 1968 – George Romaro
Landmark horror on a shoestring, Romero’s stark tale of a group of people isolated inside a rural farmhouse while the dead walk the night in hunger, seeking to feast on their flesh, is a true classic and still holds its power today. Invented zombies as we know them today and set watermarks for graphic use of gore.
Rosemary’s Baby – 1968 – Roman Polanski
An overlooked gem in the satanic cult / satan spawn branch of horror, a young couple (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) moves into a new apartment and are surrounded by odd neighbors. When Mia unexpectedly gets pregnant she becomes a pawn in a much larger plot. Set the table for many movies to come, like “The Exorcist” and “The Omen.”
The Exorcist – 1973 – William Friedkin
A troubled priest (Max von Sydow) sees a means of redemption in helping a psychologically damaged teen (Linda Blair). A true great of the horror genre.
Jaws – 1975 – Steven Spielberg
Don’t go in the water. Director Steven Spielberg created some of the best popcorn moments in cinema history by unleashing a great white shark on a coastal vacation town.
Carrie – 1976 – Brian De Palma
Introducing Stephen King, teen angst and religious repression make for a deadly combination when Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) realizes her telekinetic powers.
Suspiria – 1977 – Dario Argento
A newcomer to a ballet school realizes that the school is actually being run by a coven of witches. Atmospheric and creepy.
Halloween – 1978 – John Carpenter
Perhaps the first true “slasher” film, we are introduced to an unstoppable force of evil in Michael Myers. The asylum has lost its most dangerous inmate and he’s headed home to settle some family issues. Jump starts the career of the red-hot scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis. Ch-ch-ch! Ah-ah-ah!
Dawn of the Dead – 1978 – George Romero
The second in Romero’s zombie trilogy finds people holed up in (of all places) the Monroeville Mall while zombies shamble through the concourses. “Dawn” departs from “Night of the Living Dead” by insinuating social commentary, a rarity in the form.
Alien – 1979 – Ridley Scott
An examination of motherhood from a very different perspective, Sigourney Weaver travels to a distant planet and discovers the title creatures. Drawn almost entirely from the themes of techno-artist H.R. Geiger, this film increased the artist’s renown and created a style used heavily in the Matrix movies.
The Shining – 1980 – Stanley Kubrick
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!” Kubrick examines the goings on at a remote manse where Jack (Nicholson) Torrence intends to write a novel. Stephen King cements his reputation as the generation’s preeminent horror writer in a story made even better on screen.
Friday the 13th – 1980 – Sean S. Cunningham
Years after camp counselors were killed, Camp Crystal Lake re-opens, unleashing a grisly set of teen murders. The film picked up where “Halloween” left off in terms of slasher films, but was much more graphic, and thus, wildly successful.
An American Werewolf in London – 1981 – John Landis
From the director of “Aminal House,” two American tourists hiking the English countryside are attacked by a werewolf. One dies and another is wounded but is beginning to have wolfish tendencies when his deceased friend appears to him in an attempt to get him to kill himself. Horror suffused with a great idea and perfect pitch humor.
The Evil Dead – 1981 – Sam Raimi
Five friends travel to a remote cabin in the woods where they unwittingly release demonic spirits. Raimi’s creative film showed a flashy camera style and wit that was to be seen in many of his future projects.
A Nightmare on Elm Street – 1984 – Wes Craven
Whatever you do, don’t go to sleep! In the dreams of his victims, a spectral child murderer stalks the children of those who killed him. Introduced the burned face and stiletto-fingered Freddy Kreuger.
Re-Animator – 1985 – Stuart Gordon
Really off-beat cult type sci-fi horror based on an H.P. Lovecraft (His stories make for the most interesting movies.) tale about medical students who become involved in bizarre experiments revolving around the re-animation of dead tissue. Clever, inventive black humor with a certain “eeewwwwww” factor, it is sure to make you uneasy.
Day of the Dead – 1985 – George Romero
The third in master Romero’s trilogy has the living dead evolving and beginning to think. Meanwhile, in a real role reversal, a group of military officers and scientists have been driven underground into a secure bunker while zombies rome the earth above.
The Silence of the Lambs – 1991 – Jonathan Demme
One of the great horror films. Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) portrays an FBI attempting with the aid of a brilliant inmate, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to find and save a missing woman from a psychopath. “It puts the lotion in the basket.”
Bram Stoker’s Dracula – 1992 – Francis Ford Coppola
Maybe the best treatment of the original vampire story ever, featuring Coppola’s striking images and camera work. This version takes on a lyric power that befits the vampire myth. A beautifully done film that looks striking even on repeat viewings.
Interview With The Vampire – 1994 – Neil Jordan
Using Ann Rice’s modern updating of the vampire novel and starring Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Kirsten Dunst (She could nibble my neck any time, undead or not.), Steven Rea, Christian Slater and Antonio Banderas this is the most intimate film portrayal in the sub-genre. Brings new nuance to an old form with dazzling form.
The Blair Witch Project – 1999 – Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez
Low budget horror that made it big with the help of word of mouth and internet buzz, this movie owes much to “Night of the Living Dead.” A film that doesn’t know its not for real, it is the story of three film students who disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, MD in October 1994. Three years later, their footage was found. Really original concept and execution, a must for horror fans.
The Sixth Sense – 1999 – M. Night Shyamalan
Elegant shocker starring Bruce Willis as psychologist Malcolm Crowe and Haley (“I see dead people.”) Joel Osment as a boy who suffers terrifying visions. This film worked so well that audiences everywhere gasped at its conclusion. Shyamalan took the novel approach, as he does with all his films, to make a moral statement in the unusual context of the horror genre.
Frailty – 2001 – Bill Paxton
Included here because it was one of the more unexpected gifts of the last five years in the horror scene. It is the story of a devout single man who believes he’s receiving instructions from God to seek out and destroy demons. The truly chilling part is the way the drama plays out between his younger sons, one who is obedient and one who questions his father. Moral of the story: Beware of the guy who claims to be acting on instructions from the almighty. Original film. Great story.
The Others – 2001 – Alejandro Amenabar
Amenabar is a beautiful filmmaker who carries off the best ghost story I can remember. Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) and her photosensitive children live in a darkened old house that they come to believe is haunted by “others.” Novel, like all great horror, and elegant.
28 Days Later – 2002 – Danny Boyle
Really great modernization of the zombie film, “28 Days Later” made certain technical strides in shooting almost completely in a digital format. Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma in a deserted hospital and finds that the London he once knew has, in four weeks, gone to hell in a hand-basket. Awesome zombie effects bring a new wrinkle to a tired form. Look for intelligent sequels of this one.
The Village – 2004 – M. Night Shyamalan
As we have said, Shyamalan’s great strength is the moral messages he hides inside otherwise unlikely films. Here the real horror is not the thing that lurks in the woods outside the isolated village but the religious extremism that percolates within. Less a monster movie than a parable, if one thinks about the way this story is constructed, it still delivers a cold chill.
Well, that’s about it for this year’s version of the graveyard shift here in the vault. Before we depart, dear reader, there’s an interesting horror film event being planned for the weekend of Nov. 17-19 by After Dark Films. The “After Dark Horrorfest” features “8 films to die for” that will screen at select markets around the country and it looks like it could be a lot of fun. Currently, the list of theaters in Pennsylvania is fairly short and will require some driving, so it might be nice if one of our local theaters investigates. You can get more information at on their Web site and check out locations, times, trailers and thumbnails of these eight previously unreleased creep shows.
Hey! You’re welcome. And so are your comments. You can drop us a line at email@example.com and we’ll print your picks and pans in the regular vault mail. And until Rob Zombie stops making horror-porn… Enjoy!