Saturday, October 6, 2012

31 Days of Horror Films

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

An old family legend tells the story of a 3-year old me permitted to watch the horror movie Terror Train. Apparently I was left traumatized for quite some time, reverting to the use of a night light for several more years and a security blanket until age 12. Of course I have no memory of the film from that age and there are no lasting emotional scars such as I can detect. As a child growing up I enjoyed my fair share of horror movies. I can't say I was particularly drawn to them. More than other people, I suppose, but I've met other film buffs in my life who are passionate about horror films and know a lot more than I do.


What is it about horror films that draw us in? The genre has existed nearly as long as the movies themselves. And just when we think the genre is dead, it is suddenly revived by a new generation of young directors trying new techniques or tapping into a different area of fear in our brains. It's hard to imagine audiences being frightened by silent classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and The Phantom of the Opera. Even early talking pictures such as Dracula, Frankenstein and the later Universal Studios monster movies fail today to offer much in the way of thrills. The 1950s saw a shift away from traditional monster movies toward science fiction horror and the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them and The Thing from Another World.

Alfred Hitchcock directed what many people regard as the first slasher film, Psycho, but it would still be two decades before that sub-genre became the standard for horror films. In between, the genre itself had to gain some respectability, which it did with box office successes like Rosemary's Baby in 1968 and The Exorcist in 1973. The latter being one of the most terrifying films I've ever seen. The Exorcist was more than just a financial success. It was also prestigious, earning a nomination for the Best Picture Oscar. Ridley Scott's Alien also brought a high level of critical acclaim to the genre by combining horror and science fiction with the traditional monster movie. Alien remains one of the great examples of a terrifying thriller. It would still take almost two more decades after the success of and awards for The Exorcist before a horror film, Silence of the Lambs, won the Best Picture Oscar.

The lunatic and sometimes nihilistic horror films of the 70s such as Wes Craven's Last House on the Left or Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre began to push the limits of good taste and what audiences were willing to put up with. Then John Carpenter made the game changer Halloween, after which every low-budget film producer wanted to make a film following his model. So a series of copycats followed, all of them featuring an unseen (until late in the film) killer, often wearing a mask. The Friday the 13th series is a direct response to Halloween. Then A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984 was a new twist on the slasher film as Wes Craven gave his killer some personality and witty things to say.

The genre began to grow tired into the late 80s, with nothing more than lame sequels to series of fading popularity. All that changed in 1996 when Wes Craven directed Scream and completely re-energized the slasher film. That's just about where my horror journey ends. I wasn't crazy about The Blair Witch Project, which was responsible for the endless stream of "found footage" films we're treated to these days. I'm more turned on now by psychological terror and films that build quietly. I was a big admirer of The Sixth Sense and The Others. But most horror films today are sequels to Paranormal Activity, torture porn like the Saw franchise and remakes of classics - A Nightmare on Elm StreetHalloween, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have all been remade.

For this month of October leading up to Halloween I will present reviews of the horror films that had some impact on my youth. Of course I had no memory of Terror Train, but I grew up on Friday the 13th. Every film in that series used to scare me probably until Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday which I saw at about age 14 and had grown out of being scared by movies. In my viewing for this series, I discovered that I had never actually seen Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter. I also used to love Freddy Krueger and his series. One of my earliest movie theater experiences, at least for horror films, was seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child with my older sister. I had already seen all the other films. Halloween also used to cause me some anguish and then I discovered in adulthood how excellent the first film truly is.

I never saw the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre until college, when my local arts cinema had a screening of it. That was terrifying. And I recall seeing bits and pieces of the sequel as a kid. Scattered throughout my memory are other lesser known horror films, most of which are downright awful, but in the interest of being thorough, I've given them a look to post fresh reviews. There was Hell Night which I saw so young that the only recollection I had of the film was of a victim having his head twisted around. Similarly, Madman only left me with a memory of a boy calling out for Madman Marz to come and get him (and all the others around the campfire) after hearing a boogeyman tale about a crazy farmer in the woods. I always had fleeting memories of Amityville Horror and its sequel, Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, Bad Dreams, Witchboard, April Fool's Day and My Bloody Valentine.

That last one comes with a remarkable story. I saw that film in sixth grade when my teacher allowed some of us to watch the film in class! Can you imagine a teacher today allowing students (11 year old students!!) to watch a slasher film with blood and killing and gore and death in school? And this was a female teacher. She was soft-spoken and seemed so proper. What a bizarre decision. Well, thank you Mrs. Hall for contributing to my movie education.

I remember Child's Play pretty vividly. I also remember not finding it all that scary even at age 11 or 12 when I saw it. I specifically remember watching it with a friend with his little brother present. We had to laugh through all the scary murder scenes to pretend like it was a joke. Why did my friend's mother allow her 6 year old to watch a horror movie with us? I tried watching Child's Play for this series. I turned it off halfway through mainly because it just wasn't really adhering to any of the horror or slasher conventions. It was a thriller. Because you know from the beginning who the killer is and that it's just a man who has transplanted his soul to a creepy looking doll, there's no mystery. Without mystery, there's no unknown. Without an unknown there is no fear. It wasn't worth my time. I used to read Stephen King novels when I was a kid. The books never really scared me, but the film versions of Pet SemataryIt, The Shining and Salem's Lot scared the shit out of me. I could probably do a month of film adaptation of Stephen King novels. Time permitting, I will include the two that left the biggest impression on me as a kid. Poltergeist probably had a big impact on me because the boy in the film was about my age. I used to really worry that the tree outside my bedroom window was going to reach in and grab me.

I didn't come to The Evil Dead until college, but when I did I loved it. The first one is mildly scary, but the sequels are designed as comedies. I mentioned Scream with its post-modern take on the horror genre and all its self-referential irony (another unfortunate trend that was started), but in the 80s Student Bodies was already making fun of the conventions of the slasher film. The film is designed as slapstick more than anything else while Scream manages to call attention to the conventions of horror films, while employing them to frightening effect.

As a film historian, my knowledge is lacking, particularly in this area. Thankfully Fandor had a wonderful and in depth primer on horror films earlier this year. If you're at all interested in the genre, it's worth a read.

So please enjoy my reviews of horror films from 1973 through 1996 (I might include the post-1996 entries in the Friday the 13th series just for a sense of completion) that have affected my life since that day when my sister allowed her toddler little brother to be traumatized by Jamie Lee Curtis being chased around a train by a maniac in a mask. I recently tested Halloween masks on my own two year old son. He found them terrifying. No Terror Train for him this year unfortunately.

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