For all of my talk of “rambling” about horror movies, I’ve done very little of that since I started this site a little over a week ago. Well, my friends (and people who accidentally clicked here), that’s all about to change! STRAP IN!
I’m going to kick off my ramblings with a few movies that have a special place in my heart. I have very specific, positive (in a horror fan way) memories of each of these movies.
When I first saw The Haunting it freaked me out. It is objectively fucking genius of course, but for some reason the conditions when I watched it were perfect for eliciting terror. A dark, claustrophobic starter apartment. A gloomy night. A scared movie buddy to hold tight during the most intense parts. Perfect. Sure, now the old dark house, is a horror cliche. But this is the pinnacle of the sub-genre. Focusing on an emotionally immature/possibly unstable character and leaving the audience to wonder whether the things she experiences are real or not works on our paranoia! We feel her confusion on a gut level, due largely to Wise’s amazingly clever camera work and unsettling sound design (borrowed/honored much later by Raimi). The viewer is forced to focus on what the characters focus on. This is especially upsetting since the creepiest moments focus on noises on the other sides of walls and doors. Something is trying to get in the bedroom! Who hasn’t had this nightmare? This is the movie I go to when the horror-averse or horror dabblers ask me what the scariest movie I’ve ever seen is. That’s right, a 1963 PG movie from the guy who made West Side Story had me so shook up, I had a nyctophobia relapse.
Day of the Dead. This is my favorite Romero movie. I love Dawn and Night too. But Dawn runs too long and is a bit clumsy with the heavy-handed social commentary (before you work yourself up into too big a frenzy, remember, “I love Dawn” prefaced that statement). And Night… Shit. Night is pretty awesome now that I think about it. Oh well. I’m sticking with Day. In Day, we revisit the old Romero standards that work so well in his zombie masterpieces (you know which I’m talking about) – isolation coupled with claustrophobia. If I knew anything about psychology, I would talk about how this plays on our deepest human fears of abandonment and our own mortality. But I don’t. So I’ll just say that it does a great job of getting under my skin! Day gives us an identifiable threat (zombies, duh), not a hidden one as in The Haunting. And the threat is legion and only wants one thing – to feed upon living flesh. That’s scary shit right there. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have so many zombie movies, right? On top of that, the survivors are not getting along very well. The movie starts with the bleak realization that they are the only people for miles and miles. Possibly the only people anywhere. Social norms and civilities are breaking down among the characters and there is a distinct imbalance of power. The brains vs the brawn. Time is running out and there’s no way to escape the inevitable. Alliances are formed and battles are fought and the zombies turn out to be just a battlefield hazard for these people as they fight each other. Until the end, when it becomes clear that everything they’ve done, whether for good or otherwise, has been futile. Futility, bleakness, hopelessness – these are really terrifying. The human drive to survive is strong but the viewer is left thinking that the characters would be better off killing themselves. That’s just good storytelling. “So, where’s the nostalgia, Danger?!” When I was about 10, I caught the briefest glimpse of Miguel’s suicide by zombie on cable. Holy shit that is hardcore! I made a promise to myself to find that movie and see it as soon as I could figure out how to sneak it by my parents.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is another one that I saw a piece of as an impressionable kid. Specifically, I saw the “Yeah? Well, fuck you too!” scene and I fell in love. I asked other kids if they knew what it was (I wasn’t about to admit to an adult that I’d seen it. I might have gotten grounded from the TV or something!) I described it to my cousins in the dark in hushed, reverent tones. They ate it up. It wasn’t until years later when I saw it as a teen that I found out the title and what the hell it was even about. It’s a perfect movie. The sense of dread throughout. The paranoia of not knowing who might be “one of those things”. The isolation of the setting and the claustrophobia of the interiors (my jams!). Awesome monster effects. The soundtrack. It’s just SO GOOD! And the blood test scene – the anxiety of that scene is what horror is about – eliciting a “negative” emotional response (fear) in a viewer who is in no real danger.
The Evil Dead 2. This one is a little embarrassing. Not because I am embarrassed to like it. Not at all. It kicks fucking ass. In fact, if you don’t like it, you should be embarrassed. And I’m not including it here because it’s super scary. In fact, I think we can all agree that the 1st Evil Dead is creepier, but this one does have some creepy shit AND it’s fucking funny. This is a great example of horror-comedy done right. And a good example of Raimi borrowing/stealing/homaging heavily from The Haunting. (Remember? From before?) This movie has a special place in my heart because I got pretty obsessed with it in high school (that’s the embarrassing part). I watched it approximately 1million times. I even did a regrettably bully-ish thing because of this movie that I still think about to this day. It was the last week of school in my honors anatomy and physiology class and our teacher told us to bring in movies so we could vote on which one we wanted to watch. I stood right up and menacingly told every one of those nerds that they were NOT bringing in a movie. I was bringing the movie. One candidate meant we would be watching The Evil Dead 2 for sure! Did it work? Yes and no. None of those nerds had the nerve to defy me but teach vetoed it. We ended up watching a PBS special on schizophrenia from the school library.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I admit I’m a fanatic for this particular film. I also admit that taken at face value, it’s not the best horror movie ever. But I am swayed by achievement. And this movie (and Leatherface) became a horror icon despite the odds being stacked against it. It was shot on 16mm using very slow stock to try to eliminate some of the grain that would be visible when it was blown up to 35mm. That means they had to light the shit out of every scene but still shoot high contrast “horror” scenes. And they shot the movie hoping to get A FUCKING PG RATING! The final product has very little blood/gore. But if you ask people who’ve seen it, they will remember it as a bloody gorefest. That is awesome. Recalling more horrific imagery than there actually was in a film means that the balance of what was given, and what was left to the imagination was spot on. (This phenomenon seems to work for the ear cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs too.) The list goes on. Despite these challenges, Hooper made a movie that did well on the drive-in and exploitation circuits, has become a cult favorite, and brought the world one of the most recognizable “faces” in horror – Leatherface. I’m sure most of that success is due to right place, right players, right time, but it’s still pretty inspiring. So, how is it special to me? There was a time in my life when I thought I wanted to make feature films. I’m not traveling down that particular road at this time, but TCSM was one of those I-could-do-this! movies. (Obviously, not “this” specifically. But my own low-budget, brutal face-kick of a film maybe.) The banquet scene in particular is inspiring. 20 solid minutes of screaming peppered with extreme closeups, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in a film before, family squabbles, sausages, and Leatherface in a wig and makeup. That scene just leaves the viewer exhausted and needing a shower. It’s beautiful.
OK. That’s enough for now. I might revisit this theme at another time when I’m feeling nostalgic again. In the meantime, what movies are special to you? Write your answers on an 8.5×11 piece of college ruled notebook paper and cherish them forever.