The Dumbest Genre: A Discussion of Horror Films from a Guy Who Doesn't Like Horror
by Rusty W. Spell

Horror Appreciation 101: An Introduction

I don't especially like horror movies.  I was always afraid that I'd be scared of them when I was a child, so I didn't watch them then.  When I finally got around to watching when I was older, they turned out to be not that frightening.  This is probably why I don't like horror.  I don't have that childhood connection.  I'm not talking about nostalgia.  I'm talking about how horror, if it works, works on some sort of lower brain level and how a child-like brain seems necessary in order to truly enjoy (and be scared) by these kinds of movies.  When you watch and enjoy horror as an adult, your child-brain kicks in to some degree and allows you to have similar sensations of fear and joy.

I'm willing to admit that the above theory is stupid.

Regardless, as it is now, not only do I not find horror movies not particularly scary, but they seldom make any sense to me.  The ghost/monster logic is off, there is a lack of control or rules, there are things simply unexplained, everything becomes supernatural for no reason, or any other amount of crazy stuff that seems to happen only for the sake of making people jump or having something look cool and creepy on the screen.

And yet, I still watch horror movies from time to time.  Usually I am disappointed and ask myself why I'm watching something I know I don't like.  If I enjoy them, it's often in some kind of "forced" way, where I teach my brain (and body) how it should behave: "Don't think too much, pretend this is real, talk to the screen, look behind you as if something is there…"  All the things that should be happening, according to the filmmaker's intention.

So I find myself having an academic interest in horror that has nothing to do with any sort of love or respect for the genre.  Of course, I have no love or respect for stupid romantic comedies either, but I’m not watching those for any reason or forcing myself to watch them on the proper level, so horror movies must have something going for them that makes me interested.  At any rate, I want to talk (in a fairly unorganized and unfocused way) about a handful of horror movies today, on Halloween, that I find interesting in some way, even if I am interested precisely in their uninteresting-ness.  I'm organizing the discussion by sections, which really should have been a series of different articles so that I could have given them more attention and so that you wouldn't have to read something this long at once, but I didn't.  Kill me.

Labels Are Scary: What Isn't Horror?

I'm using a limited definition of horror for the sake of this writing.  If I had to distinguish between what I call horror and what I don't, I'd say that the key word for what constitutes horror is the word spooky.  Spielberg's movies Duel, Jaws, and Jurassic Park can be scary (the chumming scene from Jaws is often noted on "scariest moment" lists and I remember the electric fence scene from Jurassic Park making my heart beat like crazy when I first saw it), but they're not spookyDeliverance is like this too.  It's scarier and more tense than a lot of more traditional horror movies, but it ain't spooky.

Alien and its sequels are often on horror lists as well, but something about the sci-fi setting makes it feel unlike horror for me, though I'll certainly discuss some sci-fi movies eventually.  Films like Silence of the Lambs or Dead Calm are movies that I'd call thrillers, though the former certainly has some form of spookiness.  Then there's comedy-horror like Ghostbusters, House, or Shawn of the Dead or children's horror like Gremlins.  Those three movies had moments that are just as scary (and maybe spooky) as anything else, but they're just too funny.  I don't know what I'd call weird stuff like 28 Days Later or Communion.

I don't pretend to be clear on the distinctions here, mostly because it doesn't matter.  I'm just going by feel.  I will point out that I'm a big fan of all the movies I listed above.

My Personal Horror: David Lynch

There are three David Lynch movies that are really scary to me, though they're often not considered horror movies.  They are Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire.  David Lynch is the director closest to my heart, who speaks to my emotions (almost all of them) most directly, so it's no wonder that he also scares me the most.

When I first saw Eraserhead, I was pretty scared through most of it.  The soundtrack by itself is scary: industrial noises mixed with wind and screams and circus music.  And then the images: an alien baby who eventually spews out mashed potato innards, a menstruating chicken, a maniacally-grinning dad, a woman with balled-up plastic cheeks, worms and sperms flying everywhere, a creepy man with a screwed-up face…  The last several minutes of the movie cut back and forth between scary things (including blankness) and Jack Nance's face, and you don't know what you'll see or hear with the next cut.

The fear of the unknown cut is taken to even greater heights with Inland Empire.  At least with Eraserhead, there are certain image rules at play.  You knew that what you saw would fit into that world.  With Inland Empire, because of the experimental nature of the film (being shot and crafted ad-lib style with handheld cameras), almost anything went (though it certainly maintained a certain style).  So even though you start with a fairly standard Hollywood mystery, eventually you've got a guy using a creepy high-pitched devil voice, Laura Dern running to the camera screaming, and of course her freaky face distortion near the end.  But even besides these heightened shocker moments, most of the movie (once it really gets going) just keeps you (or me, at least) tense and a little sweaty.  Perhaps for others it doesn't have this effect, but -- for me -- it is like watching a recording of one of your feverish nightmares.

Mulholland Drive isn't as consistently scary, but it certainly has its moments (the grandparents' return at the end being one of them).  And it has one moment that, for me, is the scariest moment ever put on film.  This is the scene at a diner where one character is talking to another, telling him that he dreamed he saw a scary dirty man behind a wall and how he hopes he never sees that man outside of a dream.  Just that statement alone is scary to me.  Then the two men go to the wall that the man was dreaming about, to check it out.  As an audience member, I expected the typical thing where he looks behind the wall, the music builds, and… nothing is there after all.  But no!  The scary man is there, just like in the dream, but in real life!  How fucking dare you, David Lynch!  I can't think of too much that is more scary than that concept.  In the theater, I lost my breath for a few seconds when that happened.  When the man on the screen fainted, I felt like I might too.  When I watched it a second time on DVD, I thought that the shock of the first time wouldn't repeat itself, but it was potentially worse.  So the next time I watched the movie, I put my head down during this scene and didn't watch it.  (I still got sweaty, just listening to the music and dialogue.)  I'll probably never bring myself to watch that scene again.

There's also that screaming BOB scene from Fire Walk With Me that always gets me.

 The Monster Mash: Universal Horror

As part of my academic interest in horror movies, I decided to watch all of the Universal Studios monster pictures.  I probably should have just stuck with the first or most famous of the movies about Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Wolf-Man, but instead I watched all the crappy sequels too.  So I'll talk about them here so you can know which ones to watch and which ones to skip if you haven't seen them.

The first is Tod Browning's Dracula.  I should start by saying that Bram Stoker's novel Dracula is kind of a stupid story, and it's funny that so many people want to do that version of the vampire story.  Nosferatu did it too, changing the names.  Coppola was so interested in it that he called his version Bram Stoker's Dracula.  The concept of the vampire is an excellent one, of course, but the idea of some old count who moves to England while these goofy characters flitter around writing letters to each other isn't the best use of the character.  The only person who stands out is Van Helsing (which is why it was a shame that his movie was such a disaster).  However, given that I think the story is kind of dumb and dull, I think Browning's version is the best, probably because it was based on the play version more than the novel.  And, of course, because of Bela Legosi (second prize going to the guy who played Renfield).

Certainly you should watch Dracula whether you are a horror fan or not.  (You should be in an even bigger hurry to watch Tod Browning's next horror movie, Freaks, if you haven't.  It's truly creepy.)  You can also throw in the Spanish version if you like, which some say is superior, though I disagree.  Should you watch the sequels?  Dracula's Daughter has some interesting dialogue and Lesbian overtones, but it also put me to sleep (in fairness, I was sleepy).  Son of Dracula is completely pointless, with Lon Chaney, Jr. playing Alucard (spell it backward).  More on Lon Chaney, Jr. later.  Suffice it to say he ain't no Bela.

Next up: Frankenstein.  The director, James Whale, is something close to genius, but unfortunately he hadn't hit his stride yet when he made this movie (thought it's not bad and Karloff is great as the monster).  The main reason for watching the first Frankenstein is so that you can watch the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein.  It's a delight.  It's not scary or anything; it's just a fantastic movie that's powered by imagination, and it's probably the best of the Universal Horror films.  Son of Frankenstein is okay and is better than you'd expect from a sequel (and is a prerequisite for seeing Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein).  So the first three are worth seeing.  But The Ghost of Frankenstein is just stupid, with Lon Chaney, Jr. playing the monster.  (More hints that I don't like Lon Chaney, Jr.)

The next monster on our list is the title character of The Mummy.  The first one has an odd dignity to it, with Karloff playing the mummy who is sort of a bandaged Egyptian version of Dracula.  The Mummy's Hand isn't really a sequel, since it's a different mummy character.  The first was more of a love story, but this one is more of a goofy (in a fun way) comedy-horror.  These are the two to watch.  Avoid The Mummy's Tomb.  Ten minutes of it are clips from The Mummy's Hand, and several other minutes are just edits from Frankenstein (the entire movie only being an hour long).  The entire thing was thrown together just to have another horror picture.  The Mummy's Ghost is the sequel to it, and I barely remember anything about it.

Ah, The Invisible Man.  This is another James Whale movie and it is a close second to Bride of Frankenstein for the best Universal Horror.  It has the same kind of imagination and glee, and it's certainly the funniest of these, with Claude Rains giving the best performance you could imagine from someone who's invisible.  The effects are great, too.  The Invisible Man Returns is about as original as the title implies, however.  The Invisible Woman isn't really a sequel, since it's a different character and has different "rules," and this one is played for comedy and sex (nylons walking around the room, etc.).  The Invisible Agent has an anti-Nazi twist and the addition of Peter Lorre, so it's worth seeing.  The Invisible Man's Revenge isn't a true sequel, either, and it's not much worth seeing.

Universal made an unconnected movie called Werewolf of London (which was derivative of the Dracula and Frankenstein movies, but still entertaining), but the franchise really began with The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney, Jr.  Here's my deal with Chaney.  He's a lumbering dolt and, as a result, his characters are lumbering dolts.  It doesn't help that, in this movie, he's a peeping-tom who attempts to steal women from men they are engaged to marry while stupidly and proudly carrying around a cane that everyone suspects is a murder weapon.  There's nothing to like about his Larry Talbot character and -- when he turns into a wolf -- you just want to find a silver bullet and put everyone out of their miseries.  Still, the movie was pretty good (mostly because of Claude Rains playing his father) and worth seeing.

But this wasn't the end of these characters!  Universal began making "package" movies, giving us more monsters at once for our money.  The first was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man which was a huge mess in so many ways that I'm not going to bother listing them.  Next came House of Frankenstein which threw Dracula into the mix and was a little bit better than the previous, followed by House of Dracula, another big mess.

At this point, there was nowhere to go but comedy.  So Universal released Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.  These were pretty much like the package pictures, with multiple monsters appearing, but they were more Bud and Lou movies than horror films.

The final creature of the Universal Horror cycle is first seen in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (and its two sequels, Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us), but I haven't seen any of those yet because it took me forever to watch all of the above.  After I do, the next series for me is the Hammer Horror cycle.

Horror, But Not Horrible: The Best of the Genre

There are some movies I'm going to discuss eventually that transcend horror, but right now I'm going to talk about movies that are of the genre, but are the best of its kind.

Tobe Hooper has at least a couple: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist.  Like most horror movies, it took me a while to watch Texas Chainsaw.  It was all I heard about when I was a kid, and it came out a year before I was born, so it was being discussed for a while (or maybe they were talking about the sequels, none of which I've seen).  It was certainly gruesome, but I was surprised at how smart it was, right down to the hissy fit that Leatherface throws at the end.

Poltergeist is one of my favorite horror movies, though it's also one of those that doesn't make much sense.  It begins with a good premise: that poltergeists are "noisy ghosts" that are attracted to the light that Carol Anne is putting out.  But then we get Indian burial ground stuff and houses that implode and effects for effects sake (seemingly) and it just falls in on itself.  But if you ignore the crap that doesn't make sense, this one's really fun.  It also might as well be a Steven Spielberg movie, which means he has some more horror under his belt and that the movie has lots of his Spielbergian magic.

Wes Craven has made some of the best horror movies and some of the most average.  The Hills Have Eyes is the earliest I've seen.  It's similar to Texas Chainsaw in its story of the dysfunctional family, and it has a similar intelligence.  The Serpent and the Rainbow is probably his most underrated.  Scream is my favorite.  He and Kevin Williamson (who has done absolutely nothing else good) did a good job in ironicifying the genre and revamping it while still keeping it scary (for teens anyway).  It's a satire of the slasher genre that does more than simply points out that the genre is stupid: it actually shows the genre how to do it right.  Of course, it blew it when it made the two sequels which were as average as anything else out there.  It also inspired lots of mediocrity.  More on this later (including Craven's own average films).

Gotta mention Sam Raimi.  The Evil Dead is one of the best things there is.  Unlike lots of horror movies which have only subtext or undertones of violent sexuality, this one comes right out and spells it out for you, from a tree raping a woman to a woman's neck "coming" blood on Bruce Campbell's face.  Things got even more kinetic and crazy (and funny) with Evil Dead 2.  I have problems with Army of Darkness (mostly that it's more of a goofy medieval warrior tribute to Ray Harryhausen than a horror movie or true sequel), but I like it for what it is.

I've only seen one Dario Argento movie so far and that's Suspiria.  I'd almost say that this one transcends the genre, but it falls into enough of the dumb traps that it seems to fit well enough among some of these others.  The best thing about the movie is the scary music by Goblin, and the second best thing is the sets and colors.

A film that doesn't get a lot of attention that should is Slumber Party Massacre.  It's a perfect slasher movie.  Where other slasher movies feel the need to make the killer supernatural or mysterious or have some weird motive, this one's just some dude named Russ Thorn who has a drill.  That's all you need, folks!  If other slasher movies were more simple, I might like them better.  More on this later.

Two others I'll quickly mention that I like: Misery and 1408.

Suspension of Disbelief and Everything Else: Popular But Problematic

This section will sum up the biggest problems I have with horror.  It will also help cement, I hope, the theory that a child-brain is needed for enjoying this genre.  Every movie asks us to suspend some amount of disbelief, but lots of these ask us to just watch, ignore our brains, and enjoy the cool deaths or whatever.  Most of these I don't like; some I sort of do.

Let's start with a movie that somehow tricks people into thinking it's genius: Carrie.  You tell me what's going on.  Carrie's an unpopular girl, her mom's an insane religious type, there's a slow-motion (supposed to be sexy?) shower scene of skinny teenager Sissy Spacek, some typical teen clique stuff for most of the movie, and then finally there's the bucket of blood followed by some telekinetic powers followed by Carrie's house imploding (why?).  The end of the movie shows some insignificant character having a dream where Carrie's hand grabs her from the grave (why?).  I don't know what this is supposed to add up to or how it makes any sense at all.  I admit that it's kind of fun to watch, the split screens are cool, Spacek and Piper Laurie play it all nice and weird, but… what am I missing?  Like Brian De Palma's other overrated movie, Scarface, this one is beyond me.  Maybe it's to do with that other genre that I don't particularly get or care about: the high school social hierarchy movie.

The Ring is another highly-regarded film that seems to be the definition of stupid.  (I haven't seen the original.  Maybe it's good, maybe not.)  You watch a videotape that makes your phone ring and then you die?  Something about a ghost in a well haunting the videotape somehow?  It's like two or three separate ideas were thrown in without any rhyme or reason.  The only good thing about it was that you got to see a horse fall off the side of a ferry boat.  I did see the sequel (from the director of the original) and it sucked possibly worse.

Then there are a handful of franchises that begin when even the first ones weren't that great or didn't make sense.  Children of the Corn is a good example.  The first movie sounded cool: kids with creepy Biblical names like Malichi kill every adult in town and worship something called He Who Walks Behind the Rows (though now I know that these sorts of capitalizations point to He Who Has No Imagination So Has To Speak of Things in General and Cryptic Terms).  But damned if it made any sense after that.  From what I remember, it had something to do with aliens.  Apparently there were six sequels, so apparently people love it.  When asked why, the answer is usually something like "that kid was creepy."

Halloween is seen as the granddaddy of all slasher films, so let's knock it down a peg.  First, I do like a lot about it.  I think the theme is one of the best horror themes ever, the mask is kind of nice, Jamie Lee Curtis does a good job, and the Mike Meyers cam works well enough, and some parts are kinda creepy.  But instead of just making Mike Meyers an escape lunatic who wants to kill his sister, we've got Dr. Loomis going around the whole movie screaming, "You don't know who he is!"  You're right!  Tell us!  If he's some kind of incarnation of the Devil or something, it might help to explain how he keeps coming back to life.  This would have been a great movie if it had been more like Slumber Party Massacre, but it wants to be "deeper" or something and isn't equipped with enough brainpower to give us that depth.  I haven't seen any of the six sequels, but apparently they don’t even have the cool stuff of the first.  Oh, and the title "Grandaddy of All Slasher Films" isn't a good thing.  It's kind of like saying "Grandaddy of a Bunch of Mediocre Grandchildren Who Waste Everyone's Time."

Friday the 13th is a movie I don't have too much of a problem with by itself.  For the first hour or more, it looks like the cameraman is murdering people (thanks to POV shots).  As the trailer points out (counting murders, up to the number thirteen), this is a simple body count movie and it's fun to watch in spite of, or because of, its goofy acting and lack of anything but murder.  Then we learn that the cameraman is actually a crazed mother who murders camp counselors because, in the 1950s, the counselors (making out or otherwise screwing around) left her little boy Jason unattended and let him drown in the lake.  It's a good premise, a good unexpected murderer (a middle-aged mother), and it even gives real reasons why a serial killer would want to murder teenagers, especially those who are having sex.

The only problem with Friday the 13th is what came after it.  Some of the problem was potentially brought about by the ending: the dream that the survivor (or "final girl" to use the correct horror terminology) was attacked by a bloated, dead Jason who rose up from the lake and her insistence that he's still there.  As a viewer of the first movie only, we can attribute this to a dream and the trauma of what she's been through.  We're not really expected to believe he actually rose from the dead and attacked her.  It's just a scary image, and (unlike the ending of Carrie) it makes sense.  So far, so good.

But then come the sequels (a whopping ten so far).  According to part two, Jason is alive!  I haven't seen the sequels yet and I probably won't, because they sound like they get increasingly more ridiculous.  Jason gets killed at least three times in the first three sequels.  Then there are copycat murders, with a guy posing as Jason (which at least makes sense).  Then Jason is resurrected at least times by "explained" events (a lightning rod, a telekinetic person, and an electrical cable); later, they don't bother with the explanations.  Jason eventually leaves camp to visit New York City, Hell, and the future.  In the latest installment, he gets to fight Freddy Krueger.  Wow!

The other problem, of course, is that the Jason movies inspired movies that were just as dumb (or more dumb) and set the standard for what was acceptable in terms of logic and story.  Like A Nightmare on Elm Street.  The first movie is a lot more smart than Friday the 13th and a lot more imaginative.  Wes Craven isn't an idiot.  The premise of a character who can kill you in your dreams is a great one, and it taps into some real fears, equates sleep with death in an interesting way, and makes you scared of something that your body requires you to do.  The killings are creative (more than just a jump-scare and a knife through the hear or whatever) and often appropriate to the character that's being killed.

But it does just make its logic up as it goes, the real reason for Freddy's various incarnations having more to do with demand for sequels rather than any real story.  The fact that the monster lives in the dream world seems to allow for a more "who cares?" approach to the story, even in the first one, using the nature of dreams an excuse for the anything that goes.  But anything shouldn't go.  There should be established rules.  This is why I'm not a horror fan, because I can now mentally hear horror fans (or just regular movie fans) saying to me, "It's only a movie.  It's just entertainment.  Have fun," or whatever.  Again, I do like this character more than others, and I even liked the two sequels I saw.  Part three had a cool fantasy quality to it and Wes Craven's New Nightmare was almost too clever for its own good.  And Craven eventually criticized himself with Scream.

Child's Play is an interesting example of the slasher sequels because, even though the first movie wasn't that great, the sequels didn't take themselves as seriously and, as a result, could be taken more seriously.  They didn't get good, from what I can tell (I've only seen bits), but they seem more aware of their own stupidity and throw in people like Jennifer Tilly and John Waters to help sell the silliness.

What about The Howling, The Omen, or Phantasm?  One relies too much on a knowledge of werewolf movie trivia, one is kinda typical and boring, and one is pretty cool though also stupid.  There.

Cavalcade of Average: The Knock-Offs and Remakes

Even though I have problems with the movies in the last segment, they at least were original in some way.  The ones I'm going to talk about (briefly) now are just average versions of others.

I have mixed feelings about Critters.  I'm tempted to say that it's just a bad version of Gremlins, but I also remember it having some funny stuff and I know that it was actually written before Gremlins came out.  Also, it's been a while.  So I'll let it go for now.  But it does a decent job of standing in for these kinds of dumb movies that were made in the 80s.

In the 90s, thanks to Scream redefining the genre as ironic and slick, there were a handful of average knock-offs like I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Craft (not that it was so bad), Urban Legend, and Final Destination.  Beyond this, and into the 00s, there are so many (the ones listed are the "good" ones) that I won't even bother to make even a short list.  I'll say one: The Messengers.  Do you even remember what that one is?  Exactly.

In this decade, the new trend is to remake good stuff from the 70s.  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Dawn of the Dead, and Halloween are among them.  It seems like the only thing that makes these stand out is that they're more gory and they say "fuck" more.  I don't mind the concept of remakes.  John Carpenter's The Thing was a remake, and it was great.  Hitchcock remade his own films.  I certainly don't think that remakes "ruin" the original (as I've heard many illogically argue).  But they do seem pointless.  I haven't seen The Omen; maybe it's okay, but then again I didn't care for the first one.

I'd also throw in House of 1,000 Corpses as a remake or homage.  Just as he did when later remaking Halloween, Rob Zombie used his child-brain memory (paired with the fact that he still has a child brain anyway) to make this movie, recalling from his childhood what he enjoyed about those 70s movies.  Apparently what he liked was guts, bad acting, and a sloppy lack of aesthetics.  There is a level of intelligence working in the original Texas Chainsaw and Halloween that he's simply missing when he has a go at them.  There's also a lack of originality.  Even when Zombie adds material to the Mike Meyers story, he just does the whole psychological problems as a child thing, which is not only overdone but done stupidly.  He's like the asshole who likes The Sopranos because he likes watching people getting "whacked."  Or the dickhead who liked the first few seasons of South Park because Kenny got killed every show.  This is why it takes someone truly original like Edgar Wright to re-imagine the genre into something like Shawn of the Dead.  Rob Zombie and these others simply don't have that.

 That Good Idea They Had That One Time: The Blair Witch Project

I'm going to single out The Blair Witch Project.  I don't pretend that it's one of a kind (apparently Cannibal Holocaust and The Last Broadcast take a similar approach), but it certainly is rare.  It's not "scary as hell" or "the scariest movie since The Exorcist" or anything else the ads said at the time.  In fact, it's not scary at all.  But it's interesting.  It was very weird for me to sit in the movie theater (which I actually did for this one) and see videotape on the screen.  Not even videotape that had ended up looking filmy (as is the current trend with digital), but something that looked just like the stuff I'd been shooting with my cam-corder.

The documentary feel didn't do that much for me (other than being an interesting approach) as it did for other people, apparently making morons think that it was real.  (Apparently morons don't pay attention to movie credits.)  But the ad-lib nature of the film did, and the feeling that this was some elaborate spook house in the woods where the filmmakers created the surprises while the participants pretended to be scared.  It was like a complicated grown-up version of playing pretend (scary pretend) and it worked.

I'm surprised more haven't done something similar.  The money did save a lot on production costs, but it also required certain skills that went beyond a scripted film, and this is hard to do.  Maybe Christopher Guest could do a horror one day with his ensemble.

Transcending the Genre: Not Just Excellent for Horror, But Excellent for Anything

There are some movies, which happen to be horror, that transcend the low trappings of the genre, rising to the ranks of excellence when compared to movies at large, not just lowly horror shows.

Alfred Hitchcock is the earliest example, in this list, of someone who has made these transcendent films.  Psycho is still pretty amazing.  I'm sure it was even more so for its original audience.  You're watching some typical but interesting story about a woman who's run off with some money, she checks into a hotel, and the next thing you know you're getting some psycho-sexual Freudian craziness happening.  If it's scary (it isn't to me), then it's not because of stabbings or the mother's skeleton or whatever: it's scary because it's smart, and smartly directed.  For proof of the fact that Hitchcock tapped into some secret, look at the 1998 shot-for-shot remake and see how flat that falls.

Hitchcock just about equaled this high level with The BirdsPsycho has more of an artistic quality (due in part to its black and white and lack of The Birds' messy blue screen shots), but The Birds is more poignant and grim.  Where the first is about some insane guy and is more isolated, the second is about something that can get to us all: death and the end of the world itself.

George A. Romero is someone who actually uses sequels to good effect.  His first zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, was (like The Birds) an apocalyptic masterpiece, a scary version of a Kafka novel, but where it's not an unseen authority vs. individuals, but the worst of ourselves vs. the even-worse part of ourselves.  Dawn of the Dead (my favorite) doesn't simply re-hash the zombie scenario of the first, but shifts gears almost entirely, making it more of an action movie and satire of consumer culture.  Day of the Dead shifts tones again and is about (as I wrote in my review of the movie) "science vs. violence vs. instinct vs. god."  Romero has by now excuse enough to make just another good ol' zombie movie if he wants, but when he creates Land of the Dead, you see that he -- once again -- has something new to say.  This is the only one I saw in the theater, so it's the only one I saw when it first came out, and I could enjoy it on a different level because I could spot exact social and political references that he was making with the movie.  I'm sure it will be viewed with different eyes once everyone forgets who George W. Bush was (and here's hoping that we can).  Unfortunately, I've only seen Romero's zombie movies so far.  For all I know, everything else he makes is stupid.

Andy Warhol's director Paul Morrissey, unlike Hitchcock and Romero, is not a horror director at all, which is probably how he was able to create two movies that are in my top fifty list of my favorites of all time: Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula.  In his previous films like Flesh, Trash, and Heat, Morrissey made fun of the "loser culture" of the 60s (druggies, prostitutes, slackers, transvestites, etc.) and he's sort of doing the same in this one, commenting on the passing away of old values that are replaced by silly ways of living.  So the monsters are the good guys, though he certainly shows their problems.  A conservative in the true sense of the word and hilarious guy, though in a way that you don't recognize at first, especially since his films are filled with decadence.  The plots of the two movies, though partly based on older stories, are unique and they make a perfect kind of sense.

What about Rosemary's Baby?  Does it qualify?  Let's say yes for now, though it's been a while.  I know I have fond memories of a roomful of well-to-dos hailing Satan.

The Wicker Man is known as "the Citizen Kane of horror films."  Who knows what this means exactly, but it sounds about right.  All I know is that, in addition to being a horror movie, it's also a good detective story, a comment on religion, and a musical!  The ending truly is horrific, and Edward Woodward's screams ("Oh, God!  Oh, Jesus Christ!") are pretty powerful.  (The 2006 remake by Neil LaBute wasn't too bad either.)

One could argue that Stanley Kubrick made almost nothing but horror films, from Dr. Strangelove to 2001 to A Clockwork Orange to Full Metal Jacket to Eyes Wide Shut.  But he only made one that truly fits in the genre, and that was The Shining.  I first saw this in high school and it was the only movie at that time that scared me.  Me and my drumline pals got together to watch it and some of us sat actually hugging onto each other lots of the time for comfort.  Scariest bits?  The twins, the open mouths, and the teddy bear blowjob.  The movie doesn't scare me as much now, which again proves that horror movies are ideal when you're younger--though I was much older than the age I'm really talking about--and when you're watching them with a group of folks who have hyped themselves up to be scared, which we had.  In other horror movies, however, when the horror is gone, the thrill is gone.  Not so for this one.  Once I got past the scares, some of the other elements bloomed a bit more fully for me.

Finally, the perfect horror movie: The Exorcist.  Other than The Shining and David Lynch movies (which are in a class all their own, so they don't qualify for this last section), this is the only movie that's actually scared me.  I avoided it for a long time, then finally watched it by myself (in the daytime) and kind of cringed and squirmed around a lot.  The organization of the movie was such that you'd cringe for several minutes, then take long sighs during the calm scenes, then cringe some more, then sigh, and so on.  Expand and contract.  It was like a horror heart pump.

I've only seen The Exorcist once.  I imagine it wouldn't have the same effect a second time, but then again I've said that before.  The parts that got to me the most were the parts that seemed the most realistic.  The un-realistic or simply gory stuff (the pea soup, the head spinning, the floating, and lots of the other crap it's known for) was okay, but more dumb and typical.  The more "normal" stuff, like Regan stabbing a crucifix into her vagina or simple tauntings, had more of an effect.

I say it's a perfect horror movie because it certainly transcends the genre it's in by being of high quality, it's supernatural and spooky (which moves it beyond just a thriller or murder movie), it makes sense (more or less anyway), it taps into deep fears and comments on more than just itself, and it's actually scary!

I haven't bothered with the sequels.  I’m sure they're just as average as anything else.  But that's how it goes in the stupid, stupid world of horror.  Happy Halloween!

Copyright 31 Oct 2007 We Like Media.
You may email Rusty W. Spell.