Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Off Topic Tuesday: Horror Films

With Halloween still fresh in everyone’s mind (even though the stores are already setting up their Christmas decorations to honor the birth of our savior -commercialism) I thought I would discuss some of my favorite horror movies. A guilty pleasure perhaps, but I love horror movies. That being said, they don’t all actually “scare” me in the traditional way. I can identify what I consider “scary” but these are generally not the sort of thing that would give me nightmares or something like that. What is scary can be very person-specific. “Arachnophobia” scared the crap out of me way more than something like “Scream” ever could. The movie “The Bad Seed” (1956) had no blood, no sudden, startling scares to make you jump out of your chair but I found it very disturbing. I found “Child’s Play” ridiculous and stupid. A lot of people thought the Japanese “Grudge” movies were very scary, not so much with me. I thought “House” was more entertaining as far as Japanese horror movies go, and I don’t think it was even trying to be “scary” just odd, surreal and darkly funny. So, take all of this as you wish. I don’t do rankings on these things because most are very different and I don’t think one can be fairly compared to the other.

- Night of the Living Dead - A cult classic, made in black & white with a budget that could buy you lunch at Burger King, yet I still think it is one of the best. This movie broke a lot of ground, being made in 1968 when civil rights was still a fairly hot topic, this movie not only has a Black man as the main character but a Black man who beats the snot out of a White, middle class jerk and who even gets to slap a White girl -and not just any White girl, but a blonde, blue-eyed Aryan poster girl who’s downright catatonic throughout most of the movie. Has anyone not seen this? A random group of people get trapped in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania by a horde of flesh-eating zombies. The tone is good, there is a claustrophobic, “trapped” feeling that is conveyed really well as more and more zombies arrive to surround the house. Those inside have to fend off the zombies as well as trying (unsuccessfully) to get along with each other in a time of crisis. The scene with the little girl zombie at the end still stands out to me as one of the creepiest things ever on screen.

- Halloween - Another classic (and for many years the most profitable independent film ever made) this movie is usually cited as inspiring the birth of the “slasher” sub-genre. However, one of the things I like best is the near total lack of blood and gore at all. This movie is scary but not disgustingly gruesome. It is the tone that is frightening, the lighting, the direction, the background music and the slow, methodical, mysterious and relentless murderer that makes this movie great. The killer (Michael Myers) has very little background at all. He’s not really a character so much as a force, an unthinking embodiment of evil (as explained by the late, great actor Donald Pleasance as Dr. Sam Loomis). Part of what makes this movie work is that you have no idea who this psychopath is, what made him snap or why he is so determined to murder this one particular babysitter. We find out more in the sequels but none manage to match the quality of the original (a common problem in horror movies). The characters seem very real, the tension building up is clearly felt and I absolutely loved the ending. Of all the series, the original is still the best.

- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - What? You had to have seen this coming, I’m a patriot damn it! This is yet another stunning success born out of a bunch of young filmmakers, pushing the envelope with very little money and a lot of creativity. The low budget gave it a very gritty, realistic, almost documentary feel to it (which was helped by the film opening with a “this is a true story” introduction). The actors, the good, the bad and the weirdoes among them, never seem like actors. I am always annoyed by how most celebrated actors (especially these days) don’t act like real people -they “act” like actors. The actors in TCM act like real people, some are annoying, they get on your nerves, they sweat, they complain, they bicker, do odd things now & then and just seem like real people. Even the sick, twisted villains don’t act like your typical, drippingly evil villains. They act like they really are a bunch of inbred, borderline retarded hicks concerned with their own survival and totally lacking in empathy. They are evil, sure, but they come off as more of an actual family that hardship has made totally insane and even then, they don’t act like your typical Hollywood criminally insane types -menacing and maniacal but more goofy, abnormal and, again, just more real. One of the victims is in a wheelchair, which doesn’t usually happen and on top of that he’s really annoying, whereas in most movies anyone who is handicapped is always saintly and sympathetic. By the time we get to the infamous “dinner scene” you really feel like you’re going out of your mind along with the sole survivor. Again, the original is still the best.

- The Exorcist - Yes, no surprise here, I loved this one too. Another horror hit (very loosely) based on a true story, this is also one without the blood and gore one usually associates with horror movies. Certain scenes are disgusting to be sure, but not bloody and even those are used sparingly (pea soup anyone?). What makes this movie scary is the subject matter, the ‘tone’, the scenes intended to shock (I think everyone knows which those are) and the way it builds to the climax of the exorcism, the possession becoming progressively worse and worse. This was before the age of easy special-effects and that only makes it better. The makeup job was good, slowly and convincingly turning an adorable little girl into a demon, and perhaps most of all the “voice”. Everyone who has ever seen this movie will never forget that voice. This is also one horror movie in which it is important that the good guys win -which doesn’t always happen in horror movies and which I don’t always want to happen in a horror movie but in this one it is both necessary and welcome. There is plenty in it that would be hard for a religious person to take but, I maintain that it is still a very religious film at heart. You just cannot see something like that and not have to believe that there is a force of good even greater than the force of evil on display. The original is the best, the sequels were a mistake though I am possibly the only person in the world who didn’t totally dislike The Exorcist II.

- The Shining - Stephen King is pretty hit-and-miss with me but this was the perfect marriage of a Stephen King story, a great cast and Stanley Kubrick, possibly the greatest director of our time. Sometime in the 90’s I think Stephen King did a made-for-TV version that was supposed to be more in keeping with his “vision” (which was only possible because of developments in CGI that were not available in Kubrick’s time) but, take my advice, don’t waste your time. Kubrick’s is the version to see and the fact that this is such a great movie really does have more to do with the directing than it does the story. The cinematography alone would be reason enough to see this movie. The actors are all great (even “Danny” and I’m not usually big on children in movies) and you can feel Jack Nicholson slowly descending into madness. The hotel is a character by itself and Kubrick makes it have a presence and malevolence all its own. There are so many scenes that stand out in this movie; the twins (of course), the elevators, “red rum”, the discovery of the ‘novel’ and, “Here’s Johnny!”. Anyone who has ever seen this movie will remember each of those perfectly. This is not the sort of horror movie where things jump out and startle you, nor the kind that is simplistic, wrapped up in a little box with a bow on top. This movie will leave you wondering about some things but it is more satisfying as a horror movie because it lets the fear build up throughout until everyone (cast and viewers included) are permanent guests of the Overlook Hotel.

- Alien - Science-Fiction horror? Unique, but it works. This movie is scary. I don’t care who you are, this is a scary movie. One of the problems I have with the Sci-fi genre in general is that most of it seems rather pointless, but not this movie. The point is to scare you and it does. Ridley Scott has done some movies I liked (well, one or two) and a lot that I didn’t. He also said he didn’t like horror movies but he certainly made one of the great ones here. Why is it scary? Because you believe it. This is a believable spaceship with believable people, not a Star Trek shopping mall ship with people from the JC Penny catalogue. This is also not your typical alien. Aliens, even the ones that are supposed to be scary, are usually advanced, intelligent beings. Not this one, this is an animal. You don’t ever see much of it but that makes it all the better. It doesn’t look like some guy in a rubber costume, it looks like an animal, an insect, a reptile, a machine and, all-in-all, very *alien*. This is a movie where things will jump out and startle you, but it is all done in such a way that it is not like the cheap scares of bad slasher flicks. There is foreboding, drama, conflict, building tensions and diminishing hope. There is not much meaning to it, but there are scares, which may be why I don’t own this one but watch it once every blue moon when it pops up. It always delivers.

- A Nightmare on Elm Street - This series got a bad reputation, mostly because of the numerous sequels (which I admit there is no need for) but I think the original was really good. It was creative, unlike any scary movie I had ever seen before and it was creepy as all get out. The later sequels have given the franchise a reputation for being gross, absurd and goofy but the original is definitely not (absurd or goofy, it is gross in several places). Freddy is a very chilling villain, nothing like the rather comic figure he became later. I saw this movie pretty soon after it came out and though it has been a long time since I last saw it (I have it on VHS and no longer own a VCR) but many scenes still stand out, vivid in my mind from day one. The death on the ceiling scene, the corpse calling in the hallway, the first encounter with Freddy and who could ever forget watching a young Johnny Depp be eaten by his bed and spewed out or Heather getting licked by the telephone. Some of the special effects do seem dated today, but most are not lingered on long enough to really notice. It is also just a very creative and different concept. How do you deal with a villain that attacks in your dreams? I like the concept, it is pretty scary stuff and I loved the ending. One, two, Freddie’s coming for you…

- Psycho - Considering how often I’ve ripped off one of the lines from this classic horror thriller, I must include (the original) Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. This is not the sort of fright flick most today would recognize. It is more mental, it is as much a suspense thriller and mystery as it is simply a movie to frighten. Hitchcock was at his best. The shower scene, the murder on the stairs -those could have been very, very ordinary but he made them extraordinary; shocking, frightening and unforgettable. This movie also builds toward a very frightening ending (and I thought the ending more disturbing than the climax) but you don’t really notice it as it is happening because just when you think you have figured it out, you find out you were on the wrong track. Of course, that also means that it is not the sort of movie that will effect you the same way once you have already seen it, but I find it still holds up as you will notice little subtleties you missed the first time around but, knowing how it ends, makes sense. It is a classic and for a very good reason -it is one of the great ones. And, as I said, I have to pay due homage for a line I often use, referring to Mrs. Bates who, we are told, is not really a bad person, “She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Don’t you?” Yes Norman, yes I do.

That is probably enough to be getting on with for now. I do have to make mention for what are my favorite ‘group’ of horror movies and those are the Universal classic monster movies and generally all those of the old school. I absolutely love the old, original “Dracula”, “Frankenstein”, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and so on. Many still consider “Bride of Frankenstein” to be the “perfect” horror movie, and though I can’t name favorites, it is certainly one of the greatest in my book. Also movies like “The Invisible Man”, “King Kong” are still favorites of mine. They wouldn’t scare a five-year old today, but I think they are masterpieces and I could watch each of them 500 times and still find something to marvel at. The worst? Also tough to say, because even the worst have their place. The “Friday the 13th” franchise is usually my easy answer, silly stories, disgusting blood and gore and cheap scares. Crap. Yet, I own at least 2 of them as I recall. I also own the more recent stinker “My Bloody Valentine” which is about as bad as you can get but which I still enjoyed watching just because it was so much fun to make fun of. In the end, it’s all a matter of taste and, as I am a perfect example, there is no accounting for it.


  1. Alien did a number on my brain. I still have a nightmare about it occasionally. I always liked Hitchcock's movies for a scare. The Birds freaked me out the most.

  2. The Birds was a great one. That's the trouble with me and these sorts of list, I don't rank them and there's a whole lot I could include so what to mention, what to leave out? For Hitchcock though, I just had to mention "Psycho". It has been more influential than most people know.

  3. A great list. I've always maintained that the best Stephen King movies are the ones that he has had little involvement with, once he gets his hands on adapting one of his own stories, it turns to a low budget after school special. Kubrick Shining movie = timeless brilliance, King's Shining miniseries = unwatchable garbage (though it is nice to see the Stanley Hotel in it, spent a nice few weeks there years ago).

    The Exorcist is still just about the scariest thing I've seen, mostly because it just seems so real. Is it weird that the first time I ever saw that movie was in a high school theology class? I went to a Catholic high school, and the theology teacher my junior year was a C.S.C priest who really had a thing for teaching with movies, and the Exorcist seemed to be a personal favorite. He kept going back to it during the year. Watching it in segments, in class, in the middle of a bright afternoon did take some of the shock value out of it though.

  4. Alien was good, however the overt sexual imagery is what got to most people. (If you think the movie over you'll know exactly what I mean), nothing disturbs viewers more then what they think they see, and alien is a very good example of what is not said about what goes on on screen that disturbs people more.

  5. Nah, the only thing weird would be a theology teacher actually teaching that possession is real! Besides which, as I recall, there was an actual priest in the movie (one of the minor roles). As for Stephen King, I agree. Even his movies (based on his work that is) that I liked were pretty bad. Although I did really like "Cujo" (wasn't that one of his?). I thought that was a scary one.

  6. SotC, I do know what you mean -but only because I read about that angle a while back. It really never occurred to me watching the movie. There's such good 'atmosphere' in that one, where you're nervous about what's waiting around the corner. Which is another good reason to watch it only every once and a while -just so it's not *too* familiar.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...