The Time of the Season for Horror
Well furious film fans it’s October once again, the leaves are falling and the weather is getting a bit colder. If you’re a film geek it’s the month that enthusiasts of the horror genre will be using as an excuse to indulge in their love for those types of movies by doing weekly marathons and blogathons. Personally speaking, horror films were the earliest kinds I really got into and I always enjoy this time of year so I can revisit old favorites and hopefully discover new ones.
The very first horror film that I ever saw or remember seeing was POLTERGEIST (1982), directed by Tobe Hooper. It was about a suburban California family who are terrorized by the undead spirits of people that were buried on their land (which was originally a cemetery) hundreds of years before. The idea of that kind of otherworldly terror happening within the domestic setting (which is usually represented by safety and security) was probably what affected me the most back then. What also made it interesting was how the spirits at first seemed playful but later became brutal and deadly. The spine tingling suspense and scenes of the kids being attacked by everything from their own toys (what better than a clown?) to a tree in their yard took the regular horror tropes to a whole other level. These were new and exciting supernatural thrills that went outside the realm of the old fashioned kinds of haunted house movies that came decades earlier.
Another film that dealt with supernatural frights in the domestic setting that I hadn’t seen until around 3 or 4 years ago was THE ENTITY (1983) Directed by Sidney J. Furie. Barbara Hershey plays a single mom who is sexually attacked by an unseen spirit in her home several times before getting aid from some paranormal scientists. The violent scenes have an extremely jarring effect due to a very loud guitar riff/pounding that occurs on the score every time the invisible rapes occur. FILM GEEK NOTE: The attack sound effect (by Charles Bernstein) was later re-used by Quentin Tarantino in his World War II adventure INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to emphasize a similar kind of shocking scene albeit without the supernatural aspects.
My first horror film rental at a video store was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) Directed by Wes Craven. I still recall bringing the video tape home, pulling down the shades and putting the tape in the VCR, then seeing the opening credits of the ghoulish child murderer Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) designing his iconic knife glove. Back then it was one of the creepiest things I had seen in a movie. Although the film’s clever concept of a dead killer inhabiting the nightmares of the kids of the vigilantes who killed him made it stand apart from other slashers at the time, when I watch the movie now I have a strange reaction to it. It’s actually sort of corny to me even moreso than others that were the standard of the day. That film in particular didn’t hold up so well for me and of course the sequels got even more comedic and cartoonish. They turned the mysterious Freddy into a kind of diabolical stand up comic with sick humor which was mildly amusing but didn’t do too much good for the genre.
From around 1984 on I rented horror movies regularly and looking back, I can see alot of the attraction was because it was like a game of dare. Going to my video store and seeing if the clerk would deny me from getting the movies I picked was part of the fun. These were cult classics like FACES OF DEATH (1978), FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), PSYCHO II (1983) and SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983). Luckily, I was usually able to get almost anything I was curious about watching back then.
One of the other early horror related titles I rented on video was TERROR IN THE AISLES (1984) hosted by Halloween’s Donald Pleasance and Dressed To Kill’s Nancy Allen. It was a sort of documentary meets movie compilation that featured the most memorable scenes from a variety of thrillers and horror films with a commentary by the stars on the nature of horror and how it affects the viewer. This is where I saw my first glimpse of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) an infamous film I had heard about from some of the kids at school. I distinctly remember the scene from the movie took place in the Sawyer house, which is basically a bone and dried flesh covered hillbilly hellhole. We hear a strange animal squeaking noise after which Leatherface appears and skull thumps one of the unsuspecting kids who have entered his demented domain with a hammer. The guy’s half dead body convulses like chattering teeth and Leatherface pulls him through and slams the heavy steel door shut. That was quite shocking for me to view at the time.
A few years later when I was around 11 or 12 I finally got the film and screened it with some of my friends and it certainly was a frightening experience. The ominous opening narration by John Larroquette and the ultra grisly shot with the dug up bodies wired to the headstone melting in the hot sun let me know right away this was on a different level than other horror movies I’d seen up to then. Its effective semi-documentary aesthetic was one of the main reasons I think it had such an impact on me as a viewer. At the time I saw it, TCM was of course very scary but today I actually consider it to be a dark comedy/horror film because it is in fact very funny in certain parts.
On Saturday afternoons as a kid I would watch my local TV station’s sci fi and horror program Creature Double Feature. This was where I was introduced to giant monster movies from the USA like TARANTULA (1955), THEM! (1954) and Japanese kaiju such as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956) and MOTHRA (1961). They also showed the classic HAMMER STUDIOS films from Britain. I especially loved the DRACULA series with the great Christopher Lee. These macabre tales had a yet another kind of flavor and mood, often shot on lavish sets with what could be described as a kind of Old English warmth and familiarity (if you watched them alot). They also had very beautiful, voluptuous women who would fall victim to the Dark Prince of Bloodsuckers and become his slaves. This kind of eroticism was always a part of vampire movies going back to Bela Lugosi’s version and was yet another reason to watch them. The way the stories were set up would keep the viewer on the edge of the seat until Dracula finally appeared for usually only a few moments but Lee really delivered that fiendish and iconic persona with alot of gusto.
Some of the horror films that I discovered thanks to the advent of DVD were by directors like Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento and Mario Bava. The Italians in particular really had an operatic style and seemed to be much more into focusing on visuals and atmosphere than other countries did. The crews on these movies were extremely inventive, often making special FX with very low budgets then filming them in such way to get a maximum impact. My first Fulci film was THE BEYOND (1981) and I really knew from the opening sepia colored sequence of an ultra brutal torture scene with a man being melted by quick lime that this was something I hadn’t seen before. Fulci really took his cinema to the extreme almost to the point of absurdity, providing very gory scenes but maintaining a surrealistic, beautifully photographed quality. It was pure cinema that didn’t play by Hollywood conventions which was very refreshing to me. Now, after seeing many of Fulci’s works from a variety of genres, (such as gialli, westerns, polizios) I consider him one of the best genre auteurs of his day.
Thanks to VAL LEWTON: THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS (2007) which was a TCM documentary about the overlooked producer by Martin Scorsese, I was introduced to another era of dark, macabre films like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) and THE BODY SNATCHER (1945). One of the titles I particularly enjoyed was ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945), which starred a post-Frankenstein Boris Karloff as a Balkan War era officer who travels to a small Greek island that is overrun by a mysterious plague. I was pulled in by the ominous atmosphere of the movie more than anything and how death seemed to hang over the characters and slowly creep up on them. I have to also mention Jacques Tourner’s CAT PEOPLE (1942) which is simply one of the greatest horror films I’ve ever seen. I fell in love with actress Simone Simon when I first watched it. The film noir aesthetic used throughout the movie is so visually intriguing and the shocks are creative and make you jump out of your seat. One of the scenes that really stayed with me takes place at an indoor pool. All we hear is noises of the mysterious animal stalking around the room which is covered in darkness except for the shimmering light from the water. It’s all about the psychological effect it has on the viewer. Some of the special FX (such as the cat itself) are pretty shoddy but that still doesn’t take away from the movie’s overall impact and charm.
If there is one movie that still deeply terrifies me whenever I watch it, that would be William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973). It had such a realistic, non humorous tone, it might even be described as cold and clinical. You felt like you were seeing a young girl becoming possessed by the devil in real life as opposed to in a movie. The scenes of Regan’s head spinning around, the graphic sexual references, the manner in which we witness an innocent human being abused beyond their control is a big reason why the film hits so hard and has such resonance. It was the first of its kind and for me remains the best. One of The Exorcist rip offs that I would say does a very solid job of taking that original idea and taking it to another place is William Girdler’s ABBY (1974) starring Carol Speed. Speed plays a woman who becomes possessed by an ancient African spirit that is accidentally set free and instead of just staying in one room she turns into a roving sex crazed demon with a very unearthly voice. Although it is commonly seen as just an over the top, blaxploitation film, it really has some outstanding acting, dynamic camerawork and is a unique spin on the supernatural horror genre.
SPECIAL NOTE: In October we’ll be keeping a Horror film theme going on FC so look for more creepy reviews and articles. Meanwhile our sister site The Grindhouse Cinema Database will be posting lots of great images and links to horror reviews on their Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/grindhousedatabase). If you havent joined up yet we encourage you to check them out and enjoy their month long celebration!