The Morbid Imagination

Academy Awards Tribute to Horror

Posted in Movies on March 7th, 2010 by admin

My response? Underwhelmed.

Actually, the more I think about the more I am disappointed. Why?

♦ Introduced by two Twilight actors. Way to demonstrate that you really don’t get it.

♦ It’s just a bunch of clips picked out by some 20 somethings with a fairly obvious knowledge of horror and little sense of history. Michael Myers appeared about six times, Universal horror got about 5 seconds. Leprechaun? Really? Leprechaun?

♦ There were no horror movies made outside the US? Hammer films never existed? No Christopher Lee, no Peter Cushing?

♦ They go to all the trouble of giving Roger Corman an Oscar and they didn’t include even one clip from the Poe movies? No Vincent Price? Chuckie gets a couple appearances, though.

♦ Apparently, the golden age of horror was the 1980s, according to the Academy. Did I mention they spotlighted Leprechaun?

Just confirms my previous point: the Academy has not been kind to horror. Disappointing and patronizing.

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Casting the Runes

Posted in Literature, Movies on February 25th, 2010 by admin

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While watching Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2009) a smile of recognition crept across my face. Here was another fine adaptation of M.R. James’ classic tale of terror “Casting the Runes.”

James’ short story is not credited, but the plot elements are there: a powerful occultist is offended and lays a curse on their tormentor, unseen forces begin to torment the victim, then demonic forces threaten them directly, and finally the victim come to realize that the only way they can escape destruction is to transfer the curse back to its originator by passing the object used to create the curse.

M. R. James was one of the finest authors of Victorian ghost stories. Generally, his stories revolved around a scholar doing research in a remote village or ancient cathedral leading to the uncovering and unleashing of some dark force of evil. The best moments in James’ fiction are small moments of suggested horrors, such as this example from “Casting the Runes”:

“At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr Farrer said it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered and what it must have meant to the children doesn’t bear thinking of.”

The power of suggestion was splendidly carried forward in the most noted adaption of James’ “Casting the Runes:” Night of the Demon (1957), directed by Jacques Tourneur. Night of the Demon is a masterful example of the use of lighting, sound, editing, and smart screenwriting to build suspense and generate a mood of horror. This isn’t surprising, since Tourneur had previously directed some of Val Lewton’s subtle horror masterpieces (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man). Famously, the producers inserted model shots of a demon after shooting was completed, which Tourneur and others thought ruined the subtle effects originally intended. I am not convinced of this, except in a few moments featuring clumsy special effects. I think the power of the key scenes, as originally shot, still carry the weight of the film.

Raimi pays tribute to Night of the Demon by setting his final scene in a railway station and at some points in Drag Me to Hell he actually relies on suggestion rather than gore or pyrotechnics. But it would expecting too much from the genius behind The Evil Dead (1981) to not feature projectile eyeballs or explosions of maggots. Drag Me to Hell delivers good scary fun, but remains in the general modern mainstream of effects laden shock fests.

The full text of “Casting the Runes” may be read here:

http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~fadey/castrunes2.html

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Universal Horror in the 21st Century

Posted in Movies on February 13th, 2010 by admin

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With the launch of The Wolfman (2010), Universal Studios has finally returned to its roots as the premier outlet for big budget horror, and for monster movies in particular.

The Wolfman is first of all, a damn fine werewolf movie. There are no shaggy, hunky werewolves and they don’t sparkle. It doesn’t stray far from the original, it’s no reboot or re-imagining, it’s something rare: a respectful and vital remake. It expands on the 1941 classic without changing into something altogether different. And it is drenched in dark gothic beauty.

The Wolfman almost makes up for the hyperactive turd that was Van Helsing (2004). Almost. What would redeem Universal from that travesty is a slew of smart and loving remakes drawn from their library of monster classics; movies very much in the vein of The Wolfman. Sadly, there is little evidence that Universal has the foresight to see the potential in a modern, well-made monster franchise. I suspect they are waiting to read the box-office returns of The Wolfman.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon remake, which has been stuck in development hell for decades,  is currently in pre-production, maybe. There have been numerous directors attached to this project for years and currently some nobody named Carl Rinsch is slated to helm it. That is not reassuring. God save us if Stephen Sommers gets his hands on this property. Hopefully he will tied up with G.I. Joe 2: Rise of T.U.R.D. for a while.

Supposedly, the mammoth success of Avatar (2009) is going to lead to a slew of movies in 3D. Wouldn’t it be ironic if that tide finally got The Creature off the shelf and into theaters?

The Creature from the Black Lagoon is the property that makes the most sense, of course, as a remake. But what about the other beloved Universal properties? Here’s what I think might work:

♦ The Werewolf of London. This has always been a personal favorite of mine. I like the minimalist make up, the scientific angle, and Henry Hull’s sympathetic performance. (Better than Lon Chaney, Jr. IMHO) The Wolfman has already covered a lot of the same territory, but I think that this would be an interesting property for an imaginative twist in the right hands. David Cronenberg?

♦ The Bride of Frankenstein. One of the things that has weighed down most of the recent re-imaginings of the Frankenstein story is the whole monster creation storyline. Superhero movies have the same problem: you have to spend half the movie introducing the character and explaining why they are the way they are. A remake of The Bride would eliminate that problem; you could start the movie with a fully imagined, Karloffian, bad-ass Frankenstein monster. The plot could center around the monster’s efforts to track down Dr. Frankenstein and force him to make a bride. I could even see it as an R-rated gore fest, perfect for someone like Rob Zombie.

♦ Frankenstein vs. the Wolfman. Why not? Half the matchup is in the can already; this could be the follow-up to my Bride re-imagining. Marvel is doing it with The Avengers, creating a franchise of multiple characters feeding into one big budget orgy of genre spectacle.

♦ Dracula’s Daughter. This was one of Universal’s smartest and most sexually subversive offerings. Like the Bride re-imagining, this angle would free filmakers from having the burden of dealing with the whole Dracula mythology and would present an opportunity for an, adult, intelligent take on vampirism. Post-feminist? Lesbian?

I’m sure that none of these ideas will go anywhere; instead Universal will green-light The Mummy 4 or Van Helsing 2: The Teen Age Years. Meanwhile I will savor at least one movie that made me nostalgic for the magic that once was Universal.

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A Song About James Ensor

Posted in Art on February 3rd, 2010 by admin

Thanks to my son for finding this video of They Might Be Giants singing about James Ensor. What an amazing bunch of guys! They make nerds seem so cool.

Meet James Ensor – They Might Be Giants

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31 Days of Oscar

Posted in Movies on January 31st, 2010 by admin

Oscar has not been kind to horror.

Despite the fact that many classic horror films are now regarded as some of the most important movies in cinema history, Oscar has tended to overlook the genre. Silence of the Lambs (1991) is the notable example, winning 5, including Best Picture. The Exorcist (1973) won 2, and was nominated for 8 more, including Best Picture; The Omen (1976) was nominated for 2 music Oscars (including Best Song????) and won one; Psycho (1960) received 4 nominations, no wins; Rosemary’s Baby (1968) won one for Ruth Gordon, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) won 3, all technical awards; and Alien (1979) won 1 for special efffects.

I’m sure I overlooked a few, but you get the idea.

Here is a list of movies shut out of Oscar contention: Freaks, Peeping Tom, Repulsion, The Innocents, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Les Diaboliques, Night of the Living Dead, The Thing (both versions), Dawn of the Dead (the original) and The Shining. Many of these films have been selected for preservation by the National Film Board.

Turner Classic Movies is again running its annual 31 Days of Oscar, showing round the clock Oscar winning and nominated movies. It’s a great chance for anyone who is a movie buff to fill in the blanks in their movie appreciation or to get deeper understanding of movie history.

This year, there are only a sprinkling of horror movies on the schedule. Here they all are (all times Eastern):

Feb. 4, 8:00 pm: The Uninvited (1940)
Feb. 8, 11:30 am: The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
Feb. 8, 5:00 am: Poltergeist (1982)
Feb. 13, 8:00 am: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
Feb. 26, 3:00 am: Seconds (1966)
March 3, 10:15 pm: Alien (1979)

And that’s it. A little disappointing, but that’s more the fault of the Academy rather than TCM. Most of the list should be familiar to horror fans, but maybe not Seconds or The Uninvited. Save them on your DVR or catch them live if you can, both are very good movies.

James Ensor

Posted in Art on January 16th, 2010 by admin

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Like many other artists of the macabre, James Ensor was a misfit toy: he spent most of his days living above the curio shop owned by his parents in Ostend, Belgium. After his parents prevented him from marrying in the mid 1880s, his art turned from darkly shaded to bizarre and morbid.

His life was hardly limited to madness and reculusion, however. He was well regarded by contemporaries – especially the Expressionists, was regularly exhibited, and received a number of honors from his home country late in life. Here again, a dark visionary found a welcoming home amongst the Expressionists and the turn of the Century European Avant Garde.

One of the things that distinguishes Ensor’s work is his use of satire and direct criticism, usually directed towards the contemporary Art establishment. Demons Tormenting Me (above) hints at paranoia, as the artist stands before his tombstone, pulled at from all sides by grotesque spirits. Other works are more direct, such as Doctrinaire Nourishment (not shown) which depict authority figures crapping directly onto the masses.

One of Ensor’s better known works is Scandalized Masks (below). Ensor’s family shop sold carnival masks and he incorporated them frequently into his works. Here you have traditional Punch and Judy images transformed into a dark tableau with overtones of alcoholism and domestic abuse.

Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man (bottom) combines two of Ensor’s favorites: skeletons and masks. Two skeletal hags stand over the desiccated form of a clown, with a crowd of leering, masked intruders pressing into the room.

Ensor was an influence on Alfred Kubin, Paul Klee, and others, and was an important innovator at an important time in art history. He didn’t do it with pretty pictures of marigolds or abstract canvases of bright colors; he made his mark with a cramped view of a world populated with grotesque masks and grinning revenants.

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The Innocents

Posted in Literature, Movies on January 10th, 2010 by admin

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Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” is perhaps the greatest novel of the supernatural in the English language. Or maybe it isn’t. And that’s what makes it a great piece of literature.

In the “Turn of the Screw” a young, inexperienced governess is hired by a dissolute English nobleman to care for his orphaned niece and nephew. When she arrives at his country estate and meets the children she comes to realize that the previous governess and the handyman were carrying on a scandalous sexual liaison. Both died under tragic circumstances and it appears the children had been directly affected by the whole affair. The governess begins to see shadowy figures haunting the estate, reacts hysterically, and the story escalates to a tragic end.

The power of “The Turn of the Screw” is that it is never really clear whether the governess is actually seeing the ghosts of the doomed pair or whether she is suffering from some form of sexual hysteria. Thus, it is either a great supernatural tale or it is a great tale of psychological horror. I think it is both and is indisputably the greatest novel of horror ever written. (OK, well, the greatest one I have read)

The most notable film adaptation of James’ masterpiece is The Innocents (1961), masterfully directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr as the governess. The film was beautifully photographed by Freddie Francis and uses shadows, camera effects, and suggestion to create an atmosphere of dread and horror. Kerr is especially good, as are the two young actors playing the niece and nephew.

The one flaw of the movie is that, unlike the source material, it comes down firmly on one side of the ghosts/no ghosts proposition. It doesn’t spoil the film, but it does waste the primary power of the novel.

One of the interesting facts I ran across during research for this post is that the actress who plays the niece Flora with such creepy assurance went on to star in several notable horror movies. A few years after The Innocents, she appeared in the excellent The Nanny (1965), starring Betty Davis. And she had one of the leading roles as an adult in the well made Haunting of Hell House (1972). In Hell House, she had a memorable scene where she invites a ghost into her bed and allows him to make love to her, awaking to find a rotting corpse on top of her (implied, not shown). She also starred in lesser efforts like Food of the Gods (1976) and Satan’s School for Girls (1973).

Despite it’s Freudian leanings, The Innocents remains one of best ghost story movies ever filmed.

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Jack Arnold Honored

Posted in Movies on December 31st, 2009 by admin

On Tuesday, the Library of Congress announced its annual list of films added to the National Film Registry. The Incredible Shrinking Man was among the 25 films honored; I recently spotlighted this film and the other classic sci-fi films directed by Jack Arnold.

Every year the National Film Registry chooses 25 films which are culturally, historically, or aesthetic significant to be preserved for all time. The list is usually a diverse selection, mixing in the obscure with the acclaimed with the mundane. Previous genre movies selected include: Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Dracula, The Thing from Another World, and Halloween.

As I stated in my previous post, because his films captured the underlying unease of his age, Arnold was an important artist. Glad to see the government agrees with me.

The Artists of Caligari

Posted in Art, Movies on December 9th, 2009 by admin

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In my previous post I noted that the artist Alfred Kubin had initially been the choice to design the look of the pioneering Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) but instead three other men wound up concieving the distorted sets that were so influential. Those men were Hermann Warm, Walter Rohrig, and Walter Reimann.

Hermann Warm is credited as the Art Director on Caligari. Warm also went on to work with Carl Dreyer on Vampyr (1932), a film which is notable for its dreamy, washed out horror sensibility. Warm also worked on such seminal dark Weimar films as Fritz Lang’s The Spiders (1919) and Henrik Galeen’s The Student of Prague (1926). Walter Rohrig had his own distinguished contributions in films such as F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926). According to Lotte Eisner in The Haunted Screen, it was Reimann who actually suggested to the group that they model the film’s look along Expressionist lines.

All three men were affiliated with the Berlin Sturm group which helped to define Expressionism, as much as it was ever defined. While there is some dispute about whether the motivation for the producers was art or commerce, there is no doubt that Caligari’s look was directly influenced by the German avant garde and was executed by men who had ties to the leading lights of the day.

In The Haunted Screen, Lotte speculates that “Kubin’s Caligari would certainly have full of Goyaesque visions, and the German silent film would have had the gloomy hallucinatory atmosphere which is unmistakably its own without being sidetracked into the snares of abstractism.” I agree, but I also can appreciate Caligari as the twisted expression of dark dream imagery that it became.

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Alfred Kubin

Posted in Art on November 18th, 2009 by admin

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According to Siegfried Kracauer in “Caligari to Hitler” the artist Alfred Kubin was the original choice to provide the highly stylized backdrops for the seminal film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Other artists were ultimately utilized, but it’s fascinating to contemplate how his macabre and surrealistic imagination could have affected the film.

Kubin, aside from being an important artist, was an illustrator and author. He wrote one phantasmagoric novel, The Other Side, and was best known as a prolific illustrator of the works of Poe, Dostoyevsky, and E.T.A Hoffmann. But he was also closely affiliated with the Munich avant-garde of the early 1900s and was a member of the important Phalanx and Blaue Reiter groups.  All this despite living a significant portion of his adult like as a near recluse.

Because of his associations with turn of the century German art circles, Kubin is often considered a noteworthy expressionist. It’s reassuring to know that at least one artist who focused largely on fantastic or horrific imagery has survived posterity and was even very well regarded during his lifetime. It may be that expressionism was the only art movement where the morbid and dark-minded were at home.

The Pond (above) is typical of the pen and wash renderings that he was best known for. Wassergeist (below) is one of Kubin’s oil works; it’s a shame he did so few works in this medium since his dark tints and rough brushwork are so reminiscent of the later works of Goya. Epidemia (bottom) falls within Kubin’s catalog of proto-surrealist works.

There is a good collection of Kubin’s works at: http://www.all-art.org/symbolism/kubin1.html

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Jack Arnold

Posted in Movies on November 11th, 2009 by admin

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Jack Arnold, a self-professed fan of science fiction, brought a dark sensibility to some of the best horror-tinged sci-fi movies of the 1950s.

Arnold directed several outright classics, such as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and several minor classics: Tarantula (1955) and The Space Children (1958). While he collaborated with several different screenwriters in these efforts, including the estimable Richard Matheson, the consistency of these efforts make it clear that their intelligence and noirish qualities owed a great deal to Arnold.

Arnold’s best movies were awash with somber pyschological undertones. Monsters, mutants, and aliens all seemed to reflect some underlying unease. The Creature from the Black Lagoon plays out against a backdrop of complex sexual tension. It Came from Outer Space feeds off Cold War paranoia. The Incredible Shrinking Man is more about the helpless terror of a man losing a grip on everything in his life than giant spiders or mysterious radioactive clouds.

The overlooked gem, The Space Children, exemplifies Arnold’s touch. Like many of his other movies, it’s set in an isolated, remote locale, a secret rocket test site where scientists are ensconced with their families. Their children are neglected, abused, and just plain ignored, and one day they find a pulsing alien brain living in a cave by the sea. The alien convinces the children that the rocket being built on the base is a threat to the Earth’s survival, but when the kids fail to convince their parents to stop, the alien begins taking over their minds to take direct action.

With the theme of children struggling to make adults come to grips with potential armegeddon, The Space Children is reminiscent of Invaders from Mars (1953), but what distinguishes it from its predecessor is the notion that it’s the adults who are the villains, not the aliens. Arnold manages to combine both childhood alienation and the dangers of science deployed in the pursuit of paranoia.

Arnold never did much of distinction after The Space Children, going on to a prolific career as director of TV shows like Gilligan’s Island and the Brady Bunch. I believe that it was his love of the genre that made his sci-fi classics of the 1950s the best of the lot, and once he moved on (and the country’s tastes moved on) in the 1960s he never had any projects worthy of his intelligence and dark sensibility. In that way, Jack Arnold was a man very much of his time.

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Joshua Hoffine

Posted in Art on October 27th, 2009 by admin

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I came across Joshua Hoffine’s portfolio recently and was bowled over. Here is a photographer/artist focusing on horror subject matter, explicitly, and doing so with a defined sensibility that is based on something more than shock or exploitation.

Hoffine states: “I believe that the horror story is ultimately concerned with the imminence and randomness of death, and the implication that there is no certainty to existence.” To make his point, Hoffine stages encounters with a variety of horror movie standards: knife wielding killers, the undead, evil clowns, etc. Often, the foreground figures confronting deadly evil are children, heightening the vulnerability of the situation.

In addition to understanding the foundation of real horror, Hoffine also chooses to present his tableaux in bright colors and daylight or artificial lighting, creating a cinematic effect. Cindy Sherman made the same artistic choice in her Sex series 20 years ago, citing Mario Bava and Dario Argento as influences. As much as I love the gothic sensibility, I also firmly believe that some of the most disturbing horrors can happen amidst bright sunlight, framed by natural beauty.

You can see more of Hoffine’s portfolio at his website: http://www.joshuahoffine.com/

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Let the Right One In

Posted in Movies on October 22nd, 2009 by admin

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Let the Right One In (2008) is everything Twilight (2008) isn’t.

Like Twilight, Let the Right One In is based on a hugely popular book. It’s the tale of a sensitive, withdrawn 12 year old, Oskar, who strikes up a friendship with his new neighbor, Eli, a strange child who only comes out after dark. Eli lives with Hakan, a middle aged man who spends his  evenings hanging people from trees and slitting their throats in order to obtain blood for his charge. Oskar’s life alternates between being bullied during the day to being ignored at night. Eventually he discovers Eli’s secret, but he chooses to overlook his/her condition in order to maintain his growing love for him/her. (Eli’s exact gender is deliberately vague in the movie but more defined in the book)

Where Twilight is a shallow, emotionally ridiculous teen romance fantasy, Let the Right One In is a beautifully romantic movie, portraying the growing mutually dependent relationship between Oskar and Eli with intelligence. This relationship is the center of the movie and nearly all the events of the plot unfold in response to it. 

It is also a great vampire movie, returning to the time tested depiction of vampirism as a curse and a source of death and horror. As I’ve pointed out previously, you can’t even label Twilight a horror movie since it’s vampires are so lame and laughable.

Let the Right One In unfolds slowly but that doesn’t mean it is lacking in suspense. And while is doesn’t spare the bloody details of Eli’s and Hakan’s work, it doesn’t linger on them, either. Its cold and snowy Scandinavian setting is a perfect backdrop for the chilling bloodletting, perhaps the best landscape for a vampire story I’ve ever seen.

I really loved Let the Right One In, so much that I am struggling with whether it replaces Blood for Dracula as my favorite vampire movie. There’s no contender with Twilight for worst vampire movie ever, but New Moon is looming on the horizon.

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Greatest Horror Movie Ever

Posted in Movies on September 26th, 2009 by admin

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It may seem somewhat out of sync with this blog’s promotion of quieter, more refined horror movies, but I do believe that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is the greatest horror movie of all time.

In my previous post, I spotlighted several contenders for Greatest Horror Movie, stating that they were perfectly rendered portraits of alienness and inhuman evil. TCM transcends them in that regard, and in intensity. In fact, I think TCM is the most intense movie ever made, with dread preying on the viewer’s nerves from the very first frames and no real letup in stress until the final shot.

TCM delivers a straightforward message: the world is a brutal place, with murderous, awful forces lurking just around the corner waiting for innocents to stray into its web. The same thesis underlies every clumsily made slasher movie, but the difference here is in intent and execution. TCM is not seeking to merely thrill or titillate, it aims to bludgeon the viewer and disconnect their ties to the reassuring promise of normal movie conventions.

What separatesTCM and the slasher movies that followed (including the lame remake) is the difference between a normal roller coaster ride and one where the people in the car in front of you are decapitated and dismembered and you are showered with their blood.

The key sequence in TCM begins when two of the teenagers find a normal looking farmhouse off the road and decide to see if they can find a phone. This includes the famous low angle shot of Teri McMinn walking languidly up to the front door. Moments later, she is hanging from a meathook. That follows the stunning ambush murder of her boyfriend by Leatherface. All aspects of normalcy vanish in those minutes and the rest of the film is a blur of horror and suspense.

It’s clear that director Tobe Hooper intended the farmhouse and its evil inhabitants to stand in for early 1970s America and the disintegrating family. Inside a facade of normalcy lies madness, evil and rot. The cannibal family mirrors the stock family of TV sitcoms: the weak and ineffective Dad, the troublemaking son, and a transvestite hulk wearing a human skin mask standing in for Mom. It’s “Mom” who punishes and chases out the interloping young girl in confusing suggestions of predatory sex and oedipal violence.

Hooper’s documentary style, along with the shockingly realistic, yet discreet violence, unsettles the viewer in ways that the typical slickly produced modern horror film does not. It is Hooper’s unwillingness to soften the impact of the violence and madness in TCM that elevates it above so many other films in the genre. Hooper’s genius is to spare the bloody details of the victim’s deaths without shortchanging their brutal impact.

Like Psycho or Repulsion, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a film with roots in exploitation that transcends shock value with artistry, honesty, and a willingness to assault the viewer’s normal assumptions. All great horror films remove the safety net from the audience at some point; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does that from beginning to end. True horror is not redemptive, it is damaging, and it is the damage done to the viewer that no other film has matched since.

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Greatest Horror Movies, Runners-Up

Posted in Movies on September 23rd, 2009 by admin

In my last post, I made the case that Roman Polanksi’s Repulsion (1965) merited consideration as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. What other films should be on that list?

How about the film that inspired Repulsion, along with dozens of other movies in the early 1960s? Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was a box office smash and a cultural milestone. It didn’t invent the psycho killer movie (that might have been Hitchcock’s own film The Lodger) but it cemented it as a distinct genre and laid down some of the rules. (Killer driven by childhood trauma, hidden identity, shower scenes, etc…) It’s fair to say that, without Psycho, there would have been no Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), or Repulsion.

What makes Psycho such a great horror film? I think that it is the collision of the seamy, everyday small evils of flawed humans with murderous, inhumanly insane evil. It’s not that Marion Crane deserves her awful fate but that her own very human weaknesses and desires lands her in a place where real evil awaits. Psycho gets us to identify with Marion, feel ashamed for sharing voyeuristicthrills with her killer, experience horror at the final revelation, all at the same time. Brilliant.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is also a psycho killer film, but one turned inside out. While following the pursuit of one killer we meet one that is ten times worse, but safely incarcerated. Instead of a familiar, linear string of spectacular murders, we are drawn in to the interplay between the insecure young FBI agent and the deadly, brilliant Hannibal Lecter. In fact, only three people die during the course of the movie, one of them the killer Jamie Gumb at the hands of Agent Starling.

What makes The Silence of the Lambs a great horror movie? For me, it is the slow buildup of the character of Hannibal Lecter. We hear all kinds of anecdotes about how terrible and dangerous he is, but his scenes with Agent Starling render him almost likable. Then he escapes and in the course of doing so, confirms every fear that he is not only dangerous but utterly inhuman and evil. He is the bogeyman, and the lamer, lesser bogeyman is brought to justice but he escapes.

My final runner-up for greatest horror movie is Freaks (1932). Directed by Tod Browning, Freaks remains the most unexpected mainstream film release ever. In the successful horror movie cycle that began a year early with Browning’s Dracula, Freaks was greenlit without much apprehension. Imagine the shock that studio executives experienced when Browning delivered a film where physically repellent mutants were the sympathetic figures and “normal” humans were the monsters.

What makes Freaks a great horror movie? It’s the fact that after making us comfortable with the freaks, Browning turns things around in the last act and makes them figures of horror wrenched up from our ids. The final effect is disorienting, leaving us questioning the nature of humanity.

I have narrowed the list of what I consider the greatest horror movies down to these four and my final choice based on the fact that I consider all of them perfect films that could not have been improved in any way. There are other films like Frankenstein (1931), Night of the Living Dead (1968), or Peeping Tom (1960) which are great horror films, but which in some way or another just miss the cut.

Also, what these five movies all share is that they render alienness and inhumanity in ways that burrow deep into our subconcious and make the threat they pose more than just existential. We might not only die, these films say, but we may die at the hands of something that comes out of the darkness in our own souls and minds. 

Next post: The Greatest Horror Movie Ever.

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