Ah, horror films. Scary movies. Fright flicks.
Call them what you will, they have always been around, and they’re here to stay. Some of the earliest known films were horror films. Le Manoir du Diable, The Manor of the Devil, was one of Georges Méliès first movies. (Méliès, a Frenchman, was one of the innovators of motion pictures in the late 1890s). In 1898, the Japanese turned out their first horror flicks, Bake Jizo and Shinin no Sosei. Hell, even Edison’s first picture in 1910 was an adaptation of Frankenstein. Many directors get their start in horror; even Spielberg’s first big hit, Jaws, was a horror movie (don’t kid yourself, it was).
Why the popularity? I’ve pondered that for years. Not from an outside perspective, mind you; the bread and butter of my entertainment life is horror movies. Ever since I first saw The Thing (the original, Howard Hawks, James Arness version) one night close to Halloween sometime in the early 70s, I’ve been hooked. It scared the living shit out of me, as I recall; nightmares, head under the covers, the whole nine yards…but the next time I saw a scary movie was coming on, I felt compelled to watch it, even if I had to sneak down the hall and watch from behind the couch because the parents were tired of my whining all night. Count Yorga. The Car. Orca. All those wonderful golden oldies that made the rounds through late-night TV back in those days…
I’m flying off on a tangent…I’ll try to minimize that. I’m sure we’ll find time to get into how great the stuff on television was back then.
So anyways, I’m writing this as somewhat of a half-assed blog on one of my biggest passions, but mainly as an open invitation to discuss my love of the genre of horror movies, and seek out other opinions and perspectives as to what it is about them that I, and WE, find so irresistible. I think it’s interesting to plumb the depths of just what it is that makes horror films or “scary movies” so popular. Several big names have chimed in their take on that question, and I’m going to add my two cents, and invite you all to do the same, just because we can, and because I feel that people like us, Fellow Fans, might just be able to offer some more insight into that realm of wonder. Don’t, however, think of it as a limited subject; I want this to be a discussion that can be about any kind of horror-related topic. That, in and of itself, will contribute opinions and information as to why we all love the genre as much as we do.
From the get-go, I’ll get the ball rolling by throwing out some of my thoughts as to genre boundaries. Let’s start by making some important distinctions. Horror movies is a generic term that (in many cases unfairly) 90% of all films that deal with situations of fear or loathing get lumped into. That’s not to say that there isn’t such a thing as a “pure” horror movie, but there are several variations that all too often are overlooked by mainstream nose-thumbers.
A purely horror film is one that seeks to touch on that nerve in you that makes you want to look away; in essence, it’s trying to disgust you. It’s gory, bloody, visceral. There are guts and brains and body parts flying around like flakes in a snow globe. It shows you the horrific things that can be done to a human body so you’ll imagine it, put yourself in that place, throwing a visual at you to inspire the dread. It’s not typically a self-destructive approach (although in some cases perhaps it is…films with little or no real story or poor direction that just use over-the-top gore to get an audience shoot themselves in the foot…House of the Dead, anyone?), in fact, often times the true measure of a director or a screenwriter is their ability to make a gory film interesting, to elevate it above a blood and guts exploitation piece (many of which, horror movies indeed, are great in their own right!). Examples include the Evil Dead films, Dead Alive, Audition, some of the Saw franchise, Hellraiser, many of Romero’s films (dare I even include Cannibal Holocaust? Arguable, but I’d argue it)…and many, many others. Add in to horror films the above mentioned pure exploitation flicks; movies like Hell of the Living Dead, Zombi, Pieces, any of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s works, Re-Animator…the list goes on; the early 80’s saw a rush of this category, with countless movies like the Friday the 13th series, The Burning, My Bloody Valentine and Happy Birthday To Me filling the multiplexes. This particular time period is a conundrum…I don’t really know if it’s fair to call the slashers of the 80s pure exploitation, but there’s certainly enough of it there to keep them firmly in this category.
Authors Note: Before you splatterjocks and gore-hounds start composing your hate mail, please keep in mind that I’m not in ANY way saying that such films don’t have their place; indeed, I myself LOVE many of these films, both good AND bad, and so bad they’re good! (Pieces is one of my all-time FAVES, and God knows, it’s got its problems.) Hell, I’m likely considered a gore-hound by most standards myself; I’m just drawing lines around the differences in the types of scary movies…
…which brings me to terror in film. Stephen King describes terror as the “finest emotion”…it’s that deep-seated primal dread when you know something is amiss; something is about to go completely off the rails and wreak havoc, but you typically can’t see it; eyeballs aren’t flying at you, entrails aren’t schlopping on the floor like dropped ice cream…however, you might hear it, you may see signs of its passing, but you haven’t seen it yet. The 1963 film The Haunting is a masterful demonstration of this…such classics as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are also good examples. Other films of this nature include Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Psycho…even Halloween and The Exorcist, again among countless others. No, I don’t need my head examined: these more modern films do not have expository blood and guts…in fact, beyond the pea soup that Linda Blair blows onto Jason Miller and some assorted gooey loogies and the swirling chocolate syrup we see going down the drain in cabin one of the Bates Motel, these flicks are essentially gore-less (Now before you all start screaming, sure…the crucifix masturbation scene in The Exorcist is disturbing as all hell, and we see some blood there, but it’s still not explicit, nor is it over-the-top. We don’t see it spraying across the room like a fire hose and mussing Ellen Burstyn’s hair as we would in most modern films. Those aside, there’s scarcely any gore to speak of in any of the aforementioned flicks). One could even include Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre in this vein; people believe they saw a lot of blood and entrails flying in that 1974 masterwork, but really, honestly, they didn’t (Seriously. Watch it again). What makes TCM (and the other terror films, those mentioned and unmentioned) effective is their ability to creep into the mind of the audience. They make us feel something is terribly wrong; the rest is in your head. These types of films usually have a greater appeal to mainstream audiences and critics, thus the recent successes of films such as The Conjuring and the Paranormal Activity films (although I find the latter movies more repetitive and less interesting as we go, but I digress).
I’ll finish off this opening barrage of prattling philosophy by saying that there are always shades of gray; films that kind of bridge between these two extremes. As all of us fans know, there’s a certain something about scary movies that often makes them difficult to pigeonhole into a category; the original Alien could fit easily into either of these groups, yet somehow it exists in both at the same time. This could also be said of Unrest and Pontypool…a little dread, a little gore…but they coexist beautifully, and uncategorically. It could also be said that many franchises often start as one category and move to the other, a la Halloween or TCM.
It is my hope that this will serve as a kind of open dialogue; an exchange of ideas, that both I and you, Fellow Fan, can take something away from. We can talk about why scare flicks are popular; you can tell me your favorites, we can debate classics vs. remakes, whatever. I promise to be respectful as long as YOU are;) Out of the gate, I make no claim to always be right, nor that my opinions are etched in stone; time spent at conventions and outside of movie theaters has shown me that our little subculture is a rich one, and I genuinely want to hear what you all have to say.
I’ll have more ramblings and observations as we move along. Until then, watch the skies!
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