Happy Haunting: A Brief Guide to Horror Movies

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Movie Reviews,   From Issue 670   By: Gina Myers

23rd October, 2008     0

October means many things.  In the Tri-Cities, the leaves changing colors can mean weekend road trips up north and late night bonfires.  Or it can mean tuning in Sunday after Sunday to watch with hope-then-disappointment the team in blue and silver.  As early as Labor Day weekend, Halloween candy and costumes begin to creep into the aisles of drug stores and grocery stores, and by October pumpkins and ghoulish figures completely take over.  For me, October means shorter days and cooler nights.  And these longer, cooler nights create the perfect setting to indulge in a guilty pleasure of mine: watching horror movies.    

Horror movies have been around since the dawn of the movie industry.  When I think about early horror films, the images that come to mind are silent and flicker in black and white.  I see Lon Chaney, Sr., pulling back his mask to reveal his hideous face in the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera.  Then there's 1922's Nosferatu  which features the vampire Count Orlok in his blood-thirsty quest.  The early films usually featured characters from literature.  It wasn't until after World War II that the majority of horror films had shifted away from classic lit characters towards something a little closer to home.

An innovator of this movement and a master of the suspense thriller, Alfred Hitchcock was a leading producer and director of horror whose career spanned from the late 1920s through the 1970s.  The blood and guts of contemporary horror movies are absent in Hitchcock's work; the viewer is often left to his or her own imagination, which can be a far scarier place.  Classic movies include Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rear Window, and The Thirty-Nine Steps.  Instead of evil stemming from the supernatural or the fringes of society, it came from someone nearby—perhaps a neighbor, or even a family member.  While being clever and suspenseful, Hitchcock also successfully incorporated humor into much of his work.  Films like The Truth About Henry and his half hour television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents also broke ground in the field of dark comedies.

The horror of Hitchcock blends well into film noir, a popular Cold War genre.  Again, there are no scary monsters—no werewolves or vampires, no Frankenstein's monster.  The evil is pervasive and emanates from mankind itself.  People live in a world where they cannot trust their neighbors.  Classic noir films include The Third Man and The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves coming soon to a theatre near you!).  David Lynch's films are often considered neo-noir: Blue Velvet and Lost Highway are two great examples.  Both movies avoid easy resolution.  Even if the bad guy is caught, there is a sense that evil is still in the world and will always be there, lurking just below the surface in major cities and white picket-fenced suburbs, waiting for the day an ear is discovered in a field and it can once again rise above the surface and cause havoc.

Since then, horror movies draw inspiration from anywhere and everywhere—whether the evil stems from the supernatural, outer space, a creepy guy in a hockey mask, zombies, or Satan's offspring.  I remember being five or six years old when I saw my first horror film.  I stayed up at my grandma's with my brother and cousin and watched The Amityville Horror on late night tv.  For years the image that lasted was of James Brolin pulling bricks out of his wall in the basement to reveal a porthole to hell.  I recently re-watched this film and was surprised by how well it held up.  The effects may be cheap—two lights flash in the dark for the eyes of an evil spirit—but the suspense builds as you watch Brolin's character slowly descend into madness.  In 2005 Hollywood remade this movie, but I recommend the original version, which is a good rule of thumb for horror movies.  It is popular to remake older horror films, but it is worth tracking down the originals.  I'm not quite sure what it is, but the 1970s setting adds another layer of creepiness to The Amityville Horror.

Houses can make you crazy.  Either they are possessed, or they are built on a sacred burial ground, or their isolation can send you into madness.  Those are lessons I've learned from The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist (remake currently in production), and one of my all-time favorites, 1980's The Shining (remade for tv in 1997).  Like The Amityville Horror, there is an ax-wielding father figure, only here it is portrayed brilliantly by Jack Nicholson.  Directed by Stanley Kubrick, this movie is full of memorable images that are parodied time and time again whether on The Simpsons or in Verizon Wireless commercials. 

As demonstrated by the eerie Gradey twins in The Shining, as well as Danny talking to his finger, children can be creepy too.  Their naiveté or innocence allows them to communicate with spirits, or they can become possessed like in The Exorcist, or they can be just plain evil like Rhoda in The Bad Seed and Damien in The Omen.  The 1976 version of The Omen has become a classic.  After a series of disturbing events, Damien's father, played by Gregory Peck, searches for the truth about his son and discovers Damien is the son of Satan and needs to be destroyed.  However, this task isn't so easy and the movie concludes with Damien's parents' double funeral and a sinister smile on the little boy's face.  1968's Rosemary's Baby is another take on the spawn of Satan tale.

Many horror movies can be placed alongside art films, like Dario Argento's Suspiria or any of the visually stunning "Hammer Horrors" by the United Kingdom's Hammer Film Productions.  However, horror films are probably best known today as low-grade slasher flicks, gore and torture fests, or as campy spoofs like the Scary Movie series.  In addition to the desire to be frightened, horror movies can also be appealing for their kitsch factor.  Watching bad horror movies with a group of friends or in the theatre can be terribly entertaining as people try to help the clueless victims, shouting, "No, don't go that way!" at the screen.  The bad plots, bad acting, and bad effects are all laughable, and from the safety of your seat, you can explain how smarter you'd react if you were in the same situation as the damsel in distress.  Or you can laugh at the ridiculousness of cult classics like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and The Blob. 

With Halloween nearing, it is a great time to indulge in a horror flick and there are any number of subgenres and titles to choose from.  However, since Election Day is right around the corner, it may be a good time to re-visit Homecoming from HBO's Masters of Horror series, a movie in which the dead rise from the grave on Election Day 2004 to vote George W. Bush out of office.  Ah yes, if only it had been so.


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