My Personal Journey Through Horror, Part II
If you read my previous post on my journey through horror movies, you’ll know that I focused on why I gravitate toward several early John Carpenter titles. Today I’d like to share several of the other films I watched (or rewatched) in October, trying to discover some patterns in what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what struck me on a personal level.
In addition to the Carpenter films, I also watched these movies in October:
The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Deathdream (aka Dead of Night, 1974)
Basket Case (1982) rewatch
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) rewatch
Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010)
Death Line (aka Raw Meat, 1972)
Black Christmas (aka Silent Night, Evil Night, 1974)
Alice Sweet Alice (1976)
The Tomb of Legeia (1964)
The Woman in Black (1989)
Carnival of Souls (1962)
As much as I love the “essentials” of the Universal Monsters movies (the original versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon), their sequels have so far been disappointing. Although I absolutely love The Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter, first-time watches of other series films such as The Mummy’s Hand (1940), Son of Frankenstein (1939), and The Invisible Man Returns (1940) were at least a level or two lower in quality than their originals. That’s to be expected; they’re sequels, and Universal was trying to make the most of those properties while tickets were selling.
Son of Frankenstein was the best of this bunch, due largely to the presence of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. I had to keep reminding myself of what I normally tell my in-person and virtual movie discussion groups: Place yourself in the minds of audiences at the time of the films’ release. My expectations should be different for these films than they are for later pictures. I appreciate the fact that these filmmakers had to come up with ways to make these properties fresh and interesting, and while they each contained enjoyable moments, I soon determined that I didn’t want to watch too many of these Universal Monster films in October. I’ll rewatch them at some point, but the rewatchability factor here is not high.
I also watched two Vincent Price films, 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death (which I actually watched in late September) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Both are loose adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories, both are American International pictures, and both are directed by Roger Corman. After watching The Masque of the Red Death, which may be the strangest of the Corman/Price films, anything would’ve been a let-down, but The Tomb of Ligeia was also enjoyable. It’s impressive what Corman was able to accomplish with these films, especially in creating such atmospheric stories. And, of course, Price is the icing on the cake.
Once again, we have to remember the times in which these were made. In the early-to-mid-1960s, many horror films were still in black-and-white. I believe all of the Corman/Poe films are not only in color, but in glorious color, based on tales (or variations of tales) from Poe, a writer most guys (and probably girls, too) in school with me enjoyed reading (and still do). The blood and violence (while very tame today), combined with the jump-scares and atmospheric sets, made these films a big draw, not only then, but also now. I enjoyed both, but as with the Universal Monsters films, I had to adjust my expectations. Still, I realized I shouldn’t watch too many of these in a row. Like the Universal pictures, these Vincent Price films were fun, but didn’t force me to examine myself or my fears very much.
Clearly I’m not a horror historian, but it seems the 1970s opened wider the doors many horror filmmakers began knocking on in the 1960s. The earliest of these ‘70s titles, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), offers many rewards, especially for a low-budget picture with no stars. The psychological element of Jessica (Zohra Lampert) being released from a mental ward and starting a new life with her husband (Barton Heyman) and friend (Kevin O’Connor) is compelling and engaging.
The lack of stars provides a sense of realism, as does the on-location shooting in Middlesex County, Connecticut, and the (most likely) non-actor townspeople. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death requires its audience to wonder (1) if Jessica is really crazy, and (2) what we would do in her same situation. Remember, she’s just been released from an institution, but can she trust anyone? The leisurely pacing and a minimum of effects make the film not only rewatchable, but also one you will keep thinking about.
Let’s linger in the ‘70s a bit longer, focusing on two films directed by Bob Clark, Deathdream and Black Christmas, both from 1974. (Yes, this is the same Bob Clark who gave us Porky’s, A Christmas Story, and one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes films, Murder by Decree.)
In the opening of Deathdream, we see U.S. soldier Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) being shot by the enemy and falling to the ground dying as his mother’s words “Andy, you’ll come back. You’ve got to. You promised,” resonate in his thoughts. Skip to Andy’s parents Charles and Christine Brooks (John Marley and Lynn Carlin), who receive a telegram informing them that Andy was killed in combat. Yet soon afterward, Andy comes walking through the front door. Although the family is delighted that the telegram was erroneous, something is odd about Andy.
Deathdream is not only a commentary on war, death, and the plight of returning Vietnam veterans, it’s also a very effective horror film that takes its time, delivering palpable dread and fear. You see this theme of having your dead loved one returned to you repeated in later films such as Pet Sematary (1989) and practically every zombie movie ever made. But it’s not only servicemen and servicewomen returning home as different people that creates terror. It happens with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients as well. Having had a loved one suffer through dementia, I can tell you, it’s terrifying and devastating, showing you that the people you love have turned into someone else, someone you no longer understand. Deathdream captures that feeling of helplessness and horror in an unforgettable way.
And although Clark’s Black Christmas is more of a traditional slasher film (before films were probably labeled as such), it is disturbing in a different way than Deathdream. The premise of Black Christmas is simple: the residents of a sorority house are being harassed on the telephone, then killed one by one during Christmas break. You can find a multitude of things wrong with the movie (mainly that most of the women playing the sorority girls are far too old), but Clark keeps us guessing right up until the end. Although that ending isn’t totally satisfying, it leaves viewers with the sense that some horrors - on the screen and in life - never get neatly wrapped up. A good cast (Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon, Andrea Martin) makes this a creepily effective horror movie.
Death Line (aka Raw Meat, which might be a more accurate title) has problems in finding a balance in tone (with too much attempted comedy for me) and suffers from uneven performances, but is an immensely unnerving movie. I briefly reviewed the film as part of my Letterboxd Watchlist series. Death Line also includes a silent seven-minute scene that few filmmakers would be bold enough to show.
Alice Sweet Alice (1976) shows filmmakers who have some real issues with Catholicism (Its original title was Communion), the emotional neglect of children, and the breakdown of the family. When nine-year-old Karen (Brooke Shields, in her first movie) is murdered during her First Communion, the prime suspect is her jealous twelve-year-old sister Alice (Paula Sheppard), but that’s just one of the plot points going on in this picture. The film is probably too long with too many story threads, yet Alice Sweet Alice is often chilling, balancing horror and suspense. As you might imagine if you’ve seen the film, the Catholic church (I’m a Christian, but not Catholic) went through the roof over this picture, which led to several edited versions of the film through the years. (Most DVDs and Blu-rays now feature the full 108-minute version.) Regardless of your faith (or lack thereof), Alice Sweet Alice examines some uncomfortable territory.
My favorite and possibly the most disturbing film I saw from the ‘70s in October was Frightmare (1974), my first experience with director Pete Walker. The picture has been called the UK’s answer to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and that may be a fair comparison. Jackie (Deborah Fairfax) believes her parents Edmund (Rupert Davies) and Dorothy Yates (Sheila Keith) may have been released from an insane asylum and declared safe a bit too early. That’s all I want to tell you about the plot. The film is unnerving and, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, delivers an ending you’re probably not expecting, one that may keep you up at night. Frightmare calls into question several beliefs audiences had firmly embraced in the early-to-mid-1970s, becoming something of a game-changer for the horror genre.
These ‘70s movies get a grip on you, burrowing under your skin, making you face not only the frights and horrors of the movie on a surface level, but also stirring up higher-concept anxieties and fears. Monsters and jump-scares are one thing, but deep, primal nightmares are another, things that don’t necessarily go away once the credits have concluded.
Do I want to revisit such films? Maybe. I don’t believe there are any ‘70s movies from this list that I absolutely would not revisit. There’s something in each of them to think about beyond the surface scares. For the most part, these are movies you can talk about with other people, not simply about how cool the scares are, but also concepts containing depth and potentially lingering importance.
Which brings me to at least one early conclusion: Horror movies are how many people deal with the real horrors of life, not only people who are truly evil, or those who commit terrible, violent acts against others for no reason, but also sickness, mental illness, incurable diseases, losing your facilities, fears of judgment, being abandoned, unloved, scorned, ridiculed. I do believe these films can help at least some of us who watch them in dealing with our issues and fears. If it’s not facing our fears, at least it’s a first step toward doing so.
That’s all for this time. Next, I’ll conclude with some thoughts on more current horror movies. Thanks for reading.
Photos: Britannica, IMDb, Cinebloggery, Media Life Crisis, Letterboxd, Bloody Good Horror, Taste of Cinema, Mondo Digital, Dread Central