The end of October is drawing near, which means this awful year of 2020 will be over (depending on when you’re reading this) in less than 70 days. 2020 changed several of my movie habits, causing me to pursue many films and genres I hadn’t fully explored previously. It’s no surprise that I continued watching stacks and stacks of film noir, but I also focused on westerns and horror. I’ll eventually write a separate essay on westerns, but today, I’d like to begin with a personal look at horror movies.
I'd been working on this post for several days when I discovered that I'm not the only one making an exploration into horror. My friend Vanessa recently wrote a wonderful post on embracing horror movies, one I hope you'll check out. I think I come at horror from a slightly different angle, but I believe both of us (and perhaps others) learned a lot this month about horror and ourselves.
I should say that I’ve encountered several people (online and in person) who think I’m a horror guy, but I’m really not. That’s not false humility; it’s fact. I confess that I don’t know all that much about horror (which may become evident as you read through this article). Before this year, I'd have had a very difficult time putting together a list of my Top 20 favorite horror films. Up until now, I would tell you that very few horror films speak to me and that even fewer hold much of a re-watchability factor.
To give you an idea of my tastes in horror, here are a few of my all-time favorites in chronological order:
The Mummy (1932)
The Old Dark House (1932)
The Black Cat (1934)
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
The Innocents (1961)
The Haunting (1963)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The Thing (1982)
Basket Case (1982)
From Beyond (1986)
I know, this is a very telling list: six films from the 1930s, just two from the ‘40s, and three each from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. My newest film is from 1986, 34 years ago. Nothing since then? Really? I’m comfortable rewatching all of these films (and I own them all). There’s something about all 17 of these films that makes me want to experience them again and again. I can’t say that for most of the horror movies I’ve seen, and I wanted to find out why.
Recognizing that there are so many horror fanatics out there, I began wondering why I’m not one of them, so during October, I decided to watch as many horror films as possible from many eras and subgenres. I hoped to learn more about the genre and about myself. So I limited myself mostly to movies that were available to stream from the services I already use (Amazon, Netflix, Criterion, Kanopy), but I also ordered a few on Blu-ray. Here’s what I discovered:
Of the 20 horror movies I saw this month, five were rewatches: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Basket Case (1982), and The Thing (1982). Let’s see if I can find any common threads in these films.
Obviously three titles were directed by John Carpenter: Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing. Let’s break down those films first. While all of these are considered horror films, they also belong to different subgenres. I saw these in the order they were released and will consider them in that order.
Halloween was probably not my first slasher film, but it was the most effective and memorable. Part of what makes the film work for me is the opening with young Michael Myers being very nasty to his sister. Maybe there's something about children not being sweet and adorable all the time. (If you don't already know it, I taught middle school for 13 years, so there's that.) Then there’s the “good girl” Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) who probably wants to have fun, like her friends, but is burdened with responsibility and a certain amount of respectability she wants to maintain. Without getting too personal, my parents divorced when I was about Laurie’s age, so I often felt the desire to prove myself “good” and respectable, thinking I was the problem in our family. In short, I could identify with Laurie. She’s also smart and attractive (not that I was necessarily either of those things), and doesn’t deserve what’s happening to her. (Does she?) The scenes with the killer are terrifying, and even though the ending may seem like a cop-out to first-time viewers, it worked for me. And the terror goes on after the credits have rolled. Add to that John Carpenter’s simple but very effective music, and I was hooked. And the film still works for me. Again, it spoke to me on a personal level.
It took me years to come around to The Fog, a movie I was initially bored with when I first saw it. I was probably getting popcorn during the opening and missed John Houseman’s wonderful campfire story that begins the film, which puts you in the perfect frame of mind for what follows (unless you’re a dope and missed it like I did). For that reason, I didn’t revel in the atmosphere and found the movie slow-moving at the time. Yet when I revisited the film a couple of years ago, I was kicking myself for not appreciating it back in 1980. Not only is The Fog a terrific ghost story, its atmosphere is spell-binding. There’s depth in the historical and religious aspects of the film that were totally lost on me as an 18-year-old, things that resonate with me much more now. The past matters. As Faulkner said, it’s not even past.
The Thing is a superb science fiction/horror film, the only one I can think of that rivals Alien (1979), but those films are different enough from one another that comparisons are mostly pointless. (And I could easily have placed Alien on my list.) Everything about The Thing works for me, the cast, the pacing, the Ennio Morricone score, the special effects, and the entire “What the hell is going on here?” vibe that runs throughout the picture and never lets up. And that ending… The Thing forces you to question everything and everyone you see, not only in the film, but also in real life. What if what we see from people is an act, a sham, a con? Can anyone really be trusted? What about ideas and concepts? Can we trust those either? What if the people and institutions we once believed in have transformed into something…. well, alien? I could explore this further, but you get the picture: The Thing touches on trust, survival and paranoia. It’s brilliant.
So just with these three John Carpenter-directed films, we have a slasher, a ghost story, and a sf horror tale. Yet each of these resonate with me personally for different reasons. Why do I revisit them? For assurance? A belief that I have these feelings and fears under control? Or something else?
I’ll have more films and thoughts to share with you in the coming days. Please feel free to share your thoughts below. Thanks for reading, and please stay tuned.
Photos: ScreenRant, Dave’s Film Blog, Looper