A few days ago I started my very first Hooptober challenge.
But before I discuss that, let’s just say that I’ve had a contentious experience with horror cinema. Short version: I want to enjoy it more than I do, and I’m hoping Hooptober will help.
I wrote three related articles last year exploring my feelings about horror films. Part I explores why I believe I’m not a bigger horror fan than I am.
In Part II I examine patterns in the horror films I enjoy as well as what moves me on a personal level. I also touch on the rewatchability factor of horror movies.
Finally, Part III zeros in on the past 20 years of horror cinema and why I think I generally don’t connect with modern horror, giving examples of films that work and don’t work for me.
So I decided to try Hooptober (or Hooptober 8.0, since this is the eighth year of the challenge). You can actually get a jump on the challenge by starting on September 15, which I did, since Noir City DC is going to take up several days of October viewing. So far I have watched five films in Hooptober 8.0, two of which I liked but wasn’t wowed by, two that I will probably soon forget, and one I’m still thinking about. Maybe in examining just these five films, I can learn a few things about these movies and something about myself and my relationship with horror.
The Beyond, the first of Hooptober 8.0’s four movies from 1981, is my second Lucio Fulci film (having watched Zombie a few years ago). For those who aren’t familiar with the movie, it begins with an artist in 1927 Louisiana painting a picture in his hotel room. It’s a picture the locals believe celebrates black magic, so they go after the artist and put a stop to his shenanigans. Jump to the present, when a woman named Liza (Catriona MacColl, here as Katherine MacColl) wants to buy, refurbish, and reopen the hotel, but is warned by a strange blind woman not to do so. All sorts of hell break loose (since the hotel is built on the site of one of the seven gates of hell), and mayhem ensues.
But this is good, effective mayhem, done with practical pre-CGI effects. Fulci creates a great atmosphere with hints of surrealism and fantastical touches, all of which work for me. It’s like a fever dream, which works well for this story. The horrific moments last longer than I thought they would, but rather than being grossed out, I was fascinated by how well the effects from 1981 held up. Good story, adequate acting, good effects = a satisfying movie.
Yet the film doesn’t feel the need to explain everything, which I like, at least in this film. In a few moments, I’ll talk about another film that also doesn’t attempt to explain everything, yet was less satisfying. But for now, let’s talk vampires:
Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974) is a tale of two professional vampire hunters, Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) and his hunchback assistant Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater). These guys discover a village terrorized by a vampire, but this isn’t your typical vampire. The unique (at least to me) premise of the film is this: What if vampires are looking for something other than blood? Kronos is also a swashbuckler, which is surprising, delightful, and effective. The scene in a tavern with Kronos being challenged by three local thugs is great fun, reminding me of similar scenes from Westerns. I enjoyed the fact that Captain Kronos does something different with the vampire story and will revisit this one without hesitation.
Here’s the first from my “movie from the year you were born” category, The Premature Burial (1962), in which Victorian era aristocrat Guy Carrell (Ray Milland) is crippled by the fear of being buried alive, just like his father. Guy suffers from catalepsy and just knows he’s going to wake up in a pine box under several feet of earth. The film’s atmosphere is good, and director Roger Corman always knows how to make great-looking pictures on the cheap, but the one-note premise wears thin quickly. Milland is 55 here, and I kept thinking that a younger man’s fear of death would’ve been perhaps more unlikely, therefore more horrific. The movie’s nightmare sequence looks good, but is almost comedic as we watch Guy’s carefully-laid plans fall apart. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see this one again.
Black Box (2020), an Amazon Prime original, is my first of three “Films with BIPOC as Directors or Leads.” I was very excited about this one, a film with a director (Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr.) and actors I was mostly unfamiliar with. Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) loses both his wife and his memory in a car accident. After experiencing great confusion, he decides to undergo an experimental treatment from a neurologist (Phylicia Rashad), but those sessions begin to make Nolan doubt his own identity.
I like the premise of the film, and the actors are compelling, but Black Box provides an example of one of the problems I often have with horror films: showing the same scene(s) over and over, scenes that basically do the same thing. I suppose such repetition is meant to generate tension, or reveal something about character, or serve for the audience to convince the protagonist (as if we could) to “Do something different this time!”
A type of repetition also happens in The Beyond, but it isn’t the same basic scene over and over. Each of those moments provides something a bit different, and the audience knows this, but wonders “How will this one be different?” If we see a series of characters dying in each episode, we want to see how they’ll be different. Here, in Black Box, we see Nolan going through different experimental treatments, many of which repeat themselves with little or no development or variation. Nolan does gain some eventual understanding, but most of his revelations are related to him from outside the experience, usually articulated by another character. While I’m sure Osei-Kuffour wasn’t trying to make a “message” film, so many important themes could’ve been touched on more than they were. Black Box was enjoyable, but also disappointing.
This brings me to In the Mouth of Madness (1994), which will be my movie from the 1990s. I have embraced most of the John Carpenter movies I’ve seen (13 so far) and have a high regard for his storytelling, visual sense, vision, and more. In the Mouth of Madness finds insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of bestselling horror writer Sutter Cane, whose novels appear to have fans literally losing their minds, committing strange and dangerous acts.
Clearly inspired by the work of H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, the film looks fantastic. Perhaps too fantastic. I wanted the film to be messier, grittier, and yes, even darker. The premise is superb, but it’s a premise I wish Carpenter had explored more. The film seems to always be in a hurry when I wanted it to slow down and take its time, building anxiety and unease instead of forcing it. Some of this stems from the fact that the film has so many different moving parts, scenes, and characters, none of which we really get to know very well. It’s like vacationing in a large city and only having a few hours to see it all.
I mentioned that The Beyond doesn’t attempt to explain everything, nor does it need to. But In the Mouth of Madness explains even less, yet presents so many events and concepts that invite explanation: What convinces Trent to take the case? How did Cane get started with his writing? Does Hobb’s End really exist? What’s the significance of all the nightmare images? Why a frame story? There are many more.
Maybe it wasn’t his purpose, but it seems that Carpenter failed to fully examine and explore something that Black Box addressed on a different level: What is reality? How does the work of a writer like Sutter Cane capture the consciousness of his readers? Why do we read (or watch) horror stories/(films)? When does fandom go too far?
All of this makes me ask some questions of horror and of myself, such as:
What are we looking for in horror?
I want to learn something about myself, I want to be challenged, and I want to experience something more than jump scares. I want a film that’s unsettling more than it is scary. I want a film I’m going to think about the next day, and maybe the day after that. But sometimes I just want something fun.
What is satisfying about horror, and when is it unsatisfying?
Again, I want to be challenged, but also to be rewarded as a viewer. It’s satisfying when horror asks difficult questions, questions you seek to find the answers to, perhaps learning about your own fears and desires. But even the familiar, if it’s done well, can be satisfying. Yet familiar doesn’t have to be routine.
Those are just two of the questions I’ve been asking myself during this first week of Hooptober 8.0. Maybe you have some answers for me. I’d love to hear your thoughts and your own experiences with horror. Thanks for reading, and Happy Hooptober.