Horror Movies 101: Intro and Evolution (Part 1 of 4)
From writer/director Lonnie Martin comes this very special multi-part series exploring the horror film genre. Lonnie’s the force behind the award-winning Ningen Manga Productions (www.ningenmanga.com), currently producing Women’s Studies — a shocking tale of groupthink complete with murder, terrorists, cultists and just about everything you need to keep you up at night. www.womensstudiesmovie.com
Enter freely and of your own will. If you’re wondering why we’re in an abandoned house with dead bodies strewn about, please look on your class schedule and make sure you’re in the right place.
Welcome to Horror Movies 101, where we’ll take a brief introductory look at a particularly peculiar genre of films. This class is only meant as an introduction and will not go into the depth a 200 or 300 level course would.
Many of you are taking this course as an elective, so be aware that it’s a pass/fail class, graded on the final exam. Oh, you mean you didn’t think there’d be a final? Well, you should have read the catalog better. No, no, no. It’s too late to drop the class now. All you can do is go forward and hope you do well on the final. Pass and you just may get out of here before the thing in the closet eats through its chains. Should you fail? Well, what happens to your GPA will be the least of your concerns.
First, a quick explanation as to why this class is being offered.
Not too long ago, my wife and I got together with our friends Jim and Jen for drinks and dinner. Over the course of the meal, the conversation turned to film as it often does when we get together with them. I met Jim when he cast me in his independent film a few years ago and the two of us have remained good friends since.
Now, if you start talking film with me for too long, ultimately, things are going to go to the horror dungeon. Jen, despite being well versed in film, wasn’t too knowledgeable on the horror genre. As Jim and I sat throwing ideas about these films back and forth, it was decided that some night in the future we would have a “horror night” and educate her.
My wife, when she first met me, endured a similar education. She was quite a good sport about it too, being the divine scaredy-cat she is. I was pretty methodical about what movies I showed her in what order. I tried to start off with less intense films while also giving her what I thought was a natural progression from movie to movie. I did a fair job. By the end of that glorious autumn, my wife was well versed in horror cinema and I knew I had found the woman I was going to marry. Anybody willing to sit through all those horror movies had to be in love.
In prepping for the horror movie night with Jim and Jen, I prepared a fairly long e-mail about the natural progression of the modern horror film. Though we ultimately ignored most of my suggestions, the idea of presenting a “Guide for the Beginner Horror Fan” stuck with me. Also, for a Death and Dying class I took a few years ago, I wrote a paper on death in the horror film. I felt I had the chance to further explore some of the ideas I’d found there.
There’s no way I can even begin to cover horror’s entire history, so I’ll be sticking mostly to “modern” horror movies, though finding clear definition lines for what’s “modern” and what’s not is tricky. Even by sticking mostly to the past forty years, I’ll only be taking a cursory look at things. This is just a place to start. Most of the films I’ll talk about will be from the mid-sixties or later though I’ll take a trip back in time once or twice.
If you want to explore the further origins of the genre, I highly recommend Danse Macabre by Stephen King in which he explores horror themes and history not only in film, but television, radio and books as well. Many of the ideas I’ll discuss originated in that book as well as Men, Women, and Chainsaws: A Look at Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol Glover and Legacy of Blood by Jim Harper.
So, by “modern,” I mean movies in which the storytelling conventions of current horror cinema are either apparent or their origins can be seen. Film in general went through a sweeping change in the sixties and seventies which brought realism front and center. Since that time, audiences have demanded, if not outright realism, at least an iota of plausibility in order to suspend their disbelief. This has been especially true of horror, which requires one to heft up a good helping of disbelief from the get-go anyway.
Also, there may be many that feel I’m leaving some great, classic horror movies out of my analysis. This is no doubt true, especially since leagues of novel-length books have been written on horror movies. In the interest of space I’m going to stick to movies that either a) I like or b) I feel are important to the discussion. Everybody has different tastes and mine may not be similar to yours. If you think I’m full of shit, just write this off as one guy’s opinion.
So, with all the wherefores, definitions, and excuses out of the way, let’s get started shall we?
Thomas Edison’s film company produced a film version of Frankenstein in 1910 and horror has been a staple of cinema ever since. The tradition grew through the silent era with Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera< and continued on with the Universal monster trinity of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman in the thirties. The forties saw horror falter before making a comeback in the fifties with “big bugs,” teenage monsters, and the advent of the drive-in.
Yet when we talk of what I mean by modern horror, the evolution really begins in 1960 with a hot blonde getting knifed by a transvestite in the shower. From there we see a girl go insane when the dead come to life, another get possessed by a demon, still another be terrorized by a chainsaw cannibal, until modern horror movies as we know it stand upright by coming full circle in 1979 when a babysitter gets stalked by the boogeyman.
Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween are probably the five most influential films when it comes to how horror is made and perceived in film today. All were popular and critical successes. All were independent, low budget films except The Exorcist, and even it cost much less than your average studio film of the time. All were released in the decade plus between 1968 and 1979 save Psycho. Even so, the four latter films are all influenced, if not admittedly, then subconsciously by Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is the granddaddy of the modern horror film. Its design is brilliant, starting out as mysterious thriller with Janet Leigh as Marion Crane stealing money from her employer then hitting the road. We follow her exploits as she drives through a rainstorm and gets hassled by the cops before stopping at a hotel run by perennial mama’s boy, Norman Bates, played with eerie subtlety by the late Anthony Perkins.
Shortly after, all hell breaks loose when the main character we’ve spent forty minutes following gets brutally murdered. Though grislier and scarier films were to come, Psycho’s infamous “shower scene” is still shocking in its brutality. You could spend hours discussing what’s going on in the twenty odd seconds where Norman, dressed in his mother’s Sunday dress stabs pretty Janet Leigh while she’s washing up.
First, as many critics have noted, the knife is never shown actually penetrating her skin. The mind is tricked into thinking it’s so, but watch it again and see. It’s a mastery of editing, not to mention economical from a filmmaking standpoint. Why pay for the fancy prosthetic when a quick cut gets the same and probably more effective result? The illusion of realism is the key. Nothing is left to the imagination, and Hitchcock’s triumph is that the audience believes it one hundred percent.
Secondly, it comes out of nowhere! There’s no reason to think that Norman or his crippled old mother would commit an act of violence. Sure, Norman’s got a bit of the voyeur in him, but it’s a big step from peeking at a woman in her undies to stabbing her to death in the shower. Modern viewers of course know the shower scene is coming. Hell, people who’ve never seen the movie know it’s there, but even the knowledge of it doesn’t lessen the impact. Hitchcock makes us all reluctant voyeurs, horrified by what we’re seeing, but unable to look away. There are other frightening moments in Psycho, most notably at the end, but none have near the effect on the viewer.
Thirdly, and most important to our discussion, is how the shower scene in Psycho is relentless in it’s depiction of the “bad death.” Critics (probably conservative in their thinking) may point fingers at Hitchcock and call the violence of the scene over the top and unnecessary, but I disagree. The violence is what makes it so compelling to watch. It taps into a fear so primal and so instinctive, we all share it: Being killed by an unknown force for seemingly no reason. We spend the rest of the movie wondering what type of individual (or monster) would commit such an act.
To say all modern horror films owe their genesis to Psycho is of course ludicrous. Still, Hitchcock’s influence can be seen in many of them, especially those in the slasher sub-genre that we’ll discuss in Part 2. Psycho is most notable for blurring the borders of how far a director could go to scare an audience. For better or for worse, because of Hitchcock, directors would begin to explore the land far beyond those borders.
In many ways, Night of the Living Dead is really where many of the trends we see in the modern horror film begin. Shot in 16mm, George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie film looks like a surreal documentary, or perhaps more fittingly for these times, a reality TV show. A plot description even reads like a TV Guide blurb for The Real World: Hell. Six people are trapped in a farmhouse surrounded by flesh eating zombies.
Romero didn’t invent the zombie archetype though many like to say he did. Before Night of the Living Dead, zombies had been a staple of horror cinema. (Frankenstein’s Monster, if you think about it, is kind of a zombie.) What he did was make the idea of the dead rising from grave seem like a distinct possibility by giving it a scientific origin (radiation from a satellite) instead of a supernatural one. More importantly, he presents the reaction to it in a realistic manner.
The characters in Night of the Living Dead are superbly written and well acted. There are no good guys or bad guys, just varied reactions to an insane situation by different personalities. The heroine goes batty in the first fifteen minutes of the movie and remains that way throughout. The individuals trapped in the house are from different racial and economic backgrounds and only work together because fate forces them to. The tension between characters illustrates the need to control a smaller situation when we can’t control the larger one. The characters’ own hubris dooms them as much as the zombies.
Another aspect of the film that adds to the realism is Romero’s use of radio and TV news footage within the movie. By utilizing a media aspect, Romero creates an atmosphere of national panic. The zombie invasion is everywhere, not just around this rural farmhouse but also across the nation and possibly the world. The characters get as much information as we would get in a similar situation from the places we would get it: TV and radio.
Finally, there’s the gore factor. In this film we’re witness to zombies chomping bugs, munching on human flesh and fighting over intestines. We also see a rotting, half eaten corpse, a man impaling a zombie’s head with a tire iron, and a young girl hacking up her mother with a garden trowel. In many ways, it’s just the shower scene in Psycho taken to the next level, but by not cutting away from these events, Romero forces us to cross borders we may not wish to.
A film whose gruesome elements are secondary to a frightening ideology is The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin. The gross elements which include a priest getting green vomit spewed all over his face by a girl who earlier was masturbating with a crucifix are trumped by the awe of how such a horrible thing could happen to such a nice young girl. When Regan MacNeil, as portrayed by Linda Blair, starts acting very strangely, her mother ,played by the excellent Ellen Burstyn, concludes, after a litany of scientific tests, that her daughter is possessed by something that just might be the devil and calls in a priest (actor Jason Miller as Father Kerras) having a crisis of faith to perform an exorcism.
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King says the fear elicited by The Exorcist was a reaction to the youth explosion of the late 1960s and early 1970s. (The film was released in 1973.) Indeed, Regan goes from being a pretty and sweet girl to an expletive spitting, monstrous hellion. (My personal favorite is when she tells Kerras, “Your mother sucks cock in hell!” mere days after his mother has died.)
The Exorcist pokes fun at the old parental standby when a child’s personality changes and they start questioning authority. The parent may think, “Is it drugs? Sex? Demon possession?” The build-up to Regan’s complete freak out supports the idea of a parent’s misunderstanding of teenage rebellion. She’s seen playing with a Ouija board while scary sounds start coming from the attic.
Also, and perhaps more importantly, Regan’s parents are recently divorced and her father forgets her birthday. This upsets her greatly and her more violent personality changes follow. I’m not implying that Regan fakes a demon possession, but to any parent of a teenager who sees the film, Regan’s behavior probably got them thinking of their own child’s unruliness and gift for manipulation.
The Exorcist also plays out on a religious level. Ask even the most mildly religious person their opinion of the scariest movie, and if their personality is the type that watches such things, they’ll often answer The Exorcist. For in this movie, we hope God is around, but evil’s existence is hard, cold reality. “God is there,” the movie implies, “but so is the devil.” In the end, it’s the doubting Kerras who cures Regan by giving his own life in what’s not an act of faith, but one of despair.
Despair of a different sort reigns supreme in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie released a year after The Exorcist. Even more so than Night of the Living Dead, it has the feel and look of a documentary, especially with a prologue narration implying the events of the film are true. (They’re not, no matter what claims of “inspired by a true story” the remake advertised. The true story being referenced to is the exploits of serial killer Ed Gein, also the template that inspired Robert Bloch to write Psycho.) Five teenagers, one of them disabled, run across a family of cannibals on a visit to a family homestead in Texas where, one by one, they’re massacred by the chainsaw wielding Leatherface.
Not very heady stuff (unless you count the head cheese) to be sure, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is infamous for its visceral horror, which is ironic because the film isn’t nearly as gory as it’s reputed to be. Not that it’s something you’d bring the whole family to see either. The bad parts are pretty bad. Yet The Texas Chainsaw Massacre could have been nothing more than crass exploitation of the worst kind, but Hooper uses both restraint and excessiveness to create something that dare I say is more elegant.
Again, we never see much of the film’s terrible events occurring yet we know that they are. A girl is impaled on a butcher’s hook and then (still alive!) shoved into a refrigerator, yet hardly a drop of blood is seen. Another character is killed with a hammer before being dragged into a kitchen, but his death is shot from a distance, making our vision and minds figure out what’s happening. Later, when the cannibal family dinner is about to be served to the final survivor, played with a horrifying realism by Marilyn Burns, we know exactly what’s on the menu without ever being told.
Near the end of the film is where Hooper’s eye lingers. We get close-ups of Burns’ frantic, tearful eyeballs. She screams and weeps and begs for her life, offering her body to the family if they’ll let her go. For what seems like forever, Burns is repeatedly hit over the head by a weak old man with a hammer. You keep thinking things can’t get any worse, and yet somehow they do. Her final plight with her leg injured and Leatherface in manic pursuit looks as if shot by a bystander in the distance. It’s gut-wrenching tension and the movie ends not with evil defeated, but mere survival.
A word here about remakes: As a general rule, I’m opposed to them. The remakes of both Psycho and Night of the Living Dead are just awful. However the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre bears viewing only after watching the original. The remake is actually better written than the original, offering up back-story of the cannibal family and having a smoother narrative flow. The downside is the cinematography, which is more stylized. It makes the film lose the documentary feel that makes the original such a compelling exercise in fear.
In John Carpenter’s Halloween (1979), we come all the way back around to the deranged killer and everyday setting of Psycho only this time incorporating the realism of Night of the Living Dead, the inward evil themes of The Exorcist and the visceral “leering eye” and multiple victims of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Carpenter’s gift is simplicity. As a storyteller, he gives just enough information to give a situation some gravity. As a filmmaker, he lets mood and atmosphere tease us into a paranoid cat and mouse game with the killer and his victims.
What really makes Halloween a classic is the lighting and cinematography. The opening scene is presented in one long shot from the killer’s point of view. The audience is alternately put in the killer’s shoes then the victim’s. Much of the fear is generated not only by an unknown “jump” scare, but also by having knowledge of the killer that the victim doesn’t have. Halloween also features both tracking and stationary long shots for scary effect on many occasions, most notably when the killer is stalking a young boy in a schoolyard, and later in the film when one of the babysitters is locked out of the house while the killer calmly crosses the road toward her.
The plot again is simple. Halloween is about a group of babysitters being stalked by an escaped lunatic. Fifteen years before, Michael Myers killed his sister on Halloween night for what seems like no reason. His psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, played by the late, great Donald Pleasance, “spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up” because he “realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil.”
The idea of an amorphous, unknown evil from beyond inhabiting a person is taken to the next level here. It gives the seemingly pointless killings reason because we feel something deeper is at work in Michael Myers. The blank, white, emotionless mask he wears illustrates this. We never really see the face beneath the mask because the man beneath doesn’t matter. Michael Myers is long dead if he ever even existed. This is something else.
By combining this inside evil with the realistic setting and moody voyeuristic camerawork, Halloween takes on an almost mythical quality, which is summed up at the movie’s end. After Loomis shoots Michael Myers out a window, he looks to see the killer’s body gone. “It was the boogeyman,” the surviving babysitter says. “Yes,” Loomis confirms. “As a matter of fact it was.”
We’ll discuss the more thematic aspects of Halloween in part 2 as I tackle the “slasher” sub-genre of which Carpenter’s film is considered the first.