A quest to make sense of it all. Or a sense to make a quest of it all.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In which I geek out. Even more so than usual.

When you're young (as in, high school-to-college young), horror movies are where it's at. Everyone likes them. It seems perhaps particularly among my generation, wherein irony is everything, we love horror. Especially if it's "so bad, it's good". The gorier, the more outlandish, the more ridiculous, the better. (See Evil Dead 2 for an example of an oft-referenced and beloved movie that is actually a very funny movie. See the 2010 Night Of the Demons remake for an example of trying too hard to nail that sweet spot that is the apex where grotesque and funny meet. There are hundreds of other examples of this. That's just the first one that came to mind.) Anyway, at some point, the charm seems to wear off for most people. Being a horror fan becomes less "heck yes!" and more "um, sometimes" and you have to scramble to explain that you're not down with torture porn (Wolf Creek, Hostel, the Saw franchise). You still have a fondness for the old favorites. ED2, The Exorcist, The Changeling, The Omen, Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, maybe the original Last House on the Left. Maybe the The Uninvited (1942) and The Haunting (1963), if you're someone I would probably like.

For some of us, the charm doesn't wear off. And we probably liked the first Saw or two.

My own love affair with horror films began with The Haunting, Robert Wise's brilliant treatment of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. My mother and I watched it when I was probably about 9 or so. I had seen horror movies before (mainly 80's gorecoms like Troll and Ghoulies, which have their own place and are totally enjoyable) but never before had one actually frightened me. This movie was effective on so many levels. The eerie, dreamlike score. The quiet build of tension until you can almost feel the characters' panic. The use of lighting, camera angles, and disconcerting sounds to parallel Eleanor's back-and-forth flirtation with madness. 48 years after its release, it's still effective. I got lucky in viewing it so young. One movie, and I was hooked on the scary. I've been on a search for that cinematic high ever since. I've found it a few times.

Along the way, I've been exposed to a lot of terrible movies, a great deal of mediocre movies, and a handful of great movies. I've explored gore (anything D'Argento), the aforementioned torture porn (the first and second Saw aren't bad, ya'll, and seriously, Funny Games is pretty good), ghosts (see: Japan), aliens (Alien, The Fourth Kind), demons (see: America), mutant animals (Night of the Lepus!), mutant bugs (Mothra!) mutant humans (The Hills Have Eyes, Freaks, ...ok, and Deliverance), psychological thrillers (Seven, M, Silence of the Lambs), slasher favorites (Halloween, Friday the 13th), and the newer in-betweens (Jeepers Creepers, The Haunting of Molly Hartley...this non-genre usually produces very forgettable movies. No offense to Justin Long...rawr. Of course, I have a soft spot for him because he co-starred in Drag Me To Hell, which is one of the best movies to come out in years and is helmed by a remembering-his-roots Sam Raimi.)

This isn't a post about the history of horror....because that can't be done in a post. That's an entire book, and one I may even write someday, just to add to the many that are already out there. This is a post about unabashedly loving horror, well past the age that most of my peers have pretty much lost interest. Automatically scanning the new-release shelves (or screen, since we're usually renting from Netflix or Redbox these days) for the new scary movies. That nudge your subconscious gives you when the previews are over and the screen goes black for a second, and This Is It. It's starting. This could be the scariest one you've ever seen.

Usually, it's a far cry from the scariest you've ever seen. But sometimes, you get surprised. That's what happened to me when I went to see Insidious, the latest haunted house movie. Some of its tricks were expected, some were not. A few of the effects were hokey. A couple completely unhinged me. It's probably the best new haunted house movie to come out in a long time. (The haunted house subgenre is my personal favorite, and as it's a frequent theme of the stories I write, I feel it's my duty to read/view all I can within the field.)

I'm going to be straight here: it's a very narrow field to play on. There are only so many ways to work things-that-go-bump, and most of them are pretty tired. It's entirely in the delivery. You can't just make something super weird and expect it to scare. You have to present a comfortable reality, a believable normality, to contrast the weirdness with, and if you do that well enough, something as slight as a whisper can be terrifying because it offends. It's not supposed to happen. That's not supposed to be there. There's a great sense of wrongness in well-executed horror, and I think that's why it's such a favorite form of escapism. There are plenty of people who say, "Oh, I hate scary movies, why would anyone want to scare themselves?". They just like a different kind of escapism. (They usually like romcoms with insipid dialogue and semi-hysteric, materialistic women who trip over things a lot and the dashing, rich men who inexplicably fall for these dingbats, but to each their own. You like your dingbats wooed, I like mine skewered. To-may-to, to-mah-to.)To that, I answer: because it makes our own lives that much simpler when we walk out into the sunlight, when we flip on the light, when we switch over to the Weather channel. We may be struggling to make ends meet. We may be going through a divorce, or desperately wanting but unable to switch jobs, wanting to finish school. We may be cripplingly lonely, or slowly wading through the viscous bog of this-isn't-what-I-wanted boredom. Ok. At least there's not a maniac hiding behind the couch with a machete. There isn't a demon suspended from the ceiling, waiting for the right moment to jump into our bodies and make us beat ourselves up or kill people or Riverdance or whatever's most horrifying to us. We aren't going to open the fridge and have a swarm of mutant bats fly, shrieking, out into the kitchen to devour us with their (serrated?) teeth.

Well, probably not.

We can be reasonably sure that those things probably aren't going to happen. But if a movie can make you believe a reality close enough to your own: the smarter than the flock high school girl, the single mom barely hanging on, the overwhelmed young dad, the pretty happy family, the unhappy family...if you can feel the characters, it's got you. If you can put yourself in their shoes, you'll find yourself scared when that first bump-in-the-night starts to bump. When you feel the goosebumps, the knot in your stomach. That's the illusion at its best.

And if you're still thinking about it later, if it's really disturbed and permeated your evening, well, that's the magic.


Foz the Hook said...

Trilogy of Terror with the incomparable Karen Black. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073820/

sarah saint said...

Oh, that Karen Black.