With summer sadly behind us and Movember (sic – the annual festivity of growing a mustache in November) still a month away, we are left in October with some time to waste and some puns to make. For the audiophiles it is Rocktober, Star Trek fans will honor their favorite Vulcan in Spocktober and for seafood enthusiasts it is presumably Octotober. But the movie-types celebrate Schlocktober, the month in which we indulge ourselves in horror films to prepare for the day at the end of the month where the women of the United States squeeze their curves into as little textile as possible.
As genres go, horror is a rather peculiar one. It has its own cult following, for one, which is almost unheard of for such a broad classification of film. You never hear someone calling themselves a Musical aficionado, or a Drama fan, but being a Horror geek is considered entirely normal. It’s also a genre that is impossible to define. After all, when movie characters break out in song and dance out of nothing, we are quite sure that it’s not a Western we’re watching, but a film can be bloody, frightening or even downright unpleasant without being horror per se. For an example, see Antichrist (or rather: don’t, since it will rape your soul).
But if anything, Horror is a supremely cinematic genre. It was born on the page, of course, but the great horror novels are much more lyrical than even the most restrained of their cinematic brethren. Perhaps this is so because a film creates the illusion of a certain kind of reality as soon as living, breathing, people walk onto the screen, an illusion which a competent director can then use to play us like puppets on a string. Books also have this ability, but generally require multiple sessions to complete and are therefor generally less self-contained. Great horror in fiction is probably most often found in graphic novels or short stories, and for anyone who wants to chill their guts to ice I recommend the fantastic I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream.
Although I will discuss some interesting horror films here (both classics and films you might not have seen – spoiler warning), I have to admit that my knowledge of the genre is quite limited. I have never really grasped the appeal of watching a movie for the sole purpose of being frightened. Which is not to say that this is an essential property of the genre; indeed, a well-made piece of horror can reveal quite a lot about human nature.
Carl Jung proposed a theory on what scares us that has always intrigued me. He stated that the most frightening things in the world come from the area in between how we think we are (the persona) and how we really are (the collective unconsciousness), a place Jung dubbed “the Shadow”. It’s the place where we store that which we don’t like to admit to ourselves. Looked at through this lens, we can deduct some pretty elemental things about why the great horror films scare us as much as they do.
Take, for instance, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The basic premise of the movie is that three people, a couple and their child, are stuck in a hotel for the winter and all start seeing strange things. While in most movies this would simply mean ghosts, it is entirely possible that each of them simply starts losing his mind because of the isolation or, in the case of Jack Nicholson’s character Jack, alcohol.
It has often been noted that whenever Jack sees or talks to anyone who shouldn’t really be there, a mirror is present. Could he be talking to his own reflection? What lurks in The Shadow here is our assumption that the world our eyes and ears tell us about is the world as it really is. But The Shining can only really be understood if the characters are hallucinating in some form. We now mostly assume it’s Jack who is going down the drain, but the original ending of the movie suggested something even more drastic. Just before the film was released, however, a little snippet of the ending was removed. It featured rescue workers coming for the wife and the child. They then tell her the body was not found. How could it not be found? It was right there in plain view. Did the body dissolve? Or was it never at the Outlook hotel at all?
Something even more drastic happens in The Thing, a movie not quite as layered but twice as effective. The basic premise of the second half of the movie is that an extraterrestrial being lurks around a desolated South Pole station and infects its crew members. When one of them is infected, the alien quickly take over your entire body, cell for cell. You still look the same, but now you’re playing for the bad guys. In effect, everyone can be the villain.
The thing from the Shadow, that which we normally assume about ourselves, is trust. It’s a strange situation the non-infected find themselves in: the people they used to spend all of their days with now might want to kill them, and there’s no distinguishing between who does and who doesn’t. No-one can trust anyone based on old alliances. And since this (understandably) puts everyone on edge, tensions rise quicker than the temperature goes down.
This slow descent into madness is drawn out even more excruciatingly in David Cronenberg’s masterpiece The Fly, about a scientist who builds a teleportation machine but gets his DNA accidentally mixed with that of a fly during a test run. He slowly becomes a grotesque appearance, half man and half insect. The film is often seen as a metaphor for the decay of an AIDS victim, a disease that was high in the public consciousness at the time after several celebrities had died off it. But the metaphor works no matter the disease, and it’s one of the few films that is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying. The part of the Shadow that Cronenberg has always used in his horror films is the integrity of our own bodies. On a more philosophical level, what he attacks is the assumption that our minds have control over our matter, or that the rational human has any control over savage nature.
Few movies feature the Shadow as prominently as Hitchcock’s classic Psycho, although this only becomes clear at the end. We assume Mommy Bates to be a normal villain for almost the entirety of its running time, but during the insanely tense finale it turns out that the mother is just Norman Bates in drag. We then learn that when his mother passed away, the gentle and agreeable Norman internalized her toxic influence over him in his own Shadow. His persona, the slightly awkward keeper of a roadside motel, is in a constant struggle with his Shadow over dominance. At some points they can even be heard arguing. It is this that makes the final shot so immensely scary, even more so than the famous shower scene.
But my vote for most distressing film of all time goes to The Exorcist. The plot is quite simple: a little girl starts acting freakishly, turns out to be possessed, and a local priest is called upon to expel the demons. The strange thing about that film is that it’s almost completely devoid of dark corners, eerie music or moving furniture. It doesn’t need easy scares to be utterly, soul-crushingly distressing. When I finished watching the film, and this is no exaggeration, I lay motionless in my chair for more than half an hour, unable to do anything. Music slid off me like water, and not even my then-girlfriend (who I watched the film with) could appeal to me. I don’t think I have ever felt as powerless, or as alone.
The part of my Shadow that caused the movie to distress me so much was my view of human kind as being more or less in control of the world around us. But what The Exorcist made perfectly clear to me, for that half hour at least, was that we are all pathetically feeble creatures, left to ponder our own insignificance while being tossed about by forces our minds are too stumped to even gaze at. I am not and have never been part of any religion, but at that moment I was completely sure of one thing: there is such a thing as pure evil.
But, there is a good chance that you have already seen all of these films. So if you want to scare the bejeezus out of your loved ones this Schlocktober in new and original ways, you might want to dig a little deeper. As said: I am no expert on this topic, and though the following movies are definitely underseen, they are far from obscure for the true horror buffs. So, in the immortal words of Tom Ketchum on the gallows: Let her rip!
The most important thing you have to know about Triangle is that you have to know absolutely nothing about it. Not if you want to enjoy it to the fullest. It’s a very slow-burning, atmospheric piece of psychological fright, in which exposition is dealt out slowly and carefully. The movie is so easy to spoil that even the poster gives away half the plot. But make no mistake: it might be slow, but it’s still scary as hell.
Although it also fits the description of “movies whose plot fits on a matchbook” Peter Jackson’s breathrough film is about the complete opposite of the previous entry in every other way. Braindead is an exercise in pushing buttons: every time you think the film cannot possibly become any more revolting, it does so in the most sickly imaginative way possible. What saves it from becoming just a gore-fest is a consistently light and humorous tone, making it more like some kind of sick in-joke than anything else. Not, as might be evident, for the weak of stomach.
Of all Tim Burton’s gothic fantasies, this is probably the most unloved. But seen on its own, it’s a pretty nifty piece of work: atmospheric enough to be creepy, yet theatrical and over-the-top enough to never become truly frightening. It’s without a doubt Burton’s goriest film, but although the blood is copious, it is not constant and Burton is good enough a filmmaker to deal it out in exactly the right places. Definitely worth a look.
Although it is many ways a retread of Frankensteins basic premise (scientist creates a monster, monster turns on its creator), Splice differs from that classic in a few vitally important ways. The subtext is completely opposite, for one, attributing the eventual breaking loose of its monster not to man trying to imitate God but to the general public reacting so vehemently to the work of scientists that they can’t do their work properly. Also, while the scientist in all the Frankenstein movies are men who want to create, Splice mostly revolves around more maternal instincts to nurture the creature once it is born. More importantly, though, Splice completely abandons the camp sensibility of the Frankenstein films for a genuinely frightful atmosphere, some wicked body horror and just about the best monster effects in recent memory.
Well, that should be enough to draw you through the month. If you have any questions: write them down on the skin of a goat that was slaughtered at midnight, bind it to a vulture and set it on fire. An answer will reach you as soon as possible
With Gruesome Greetings,
Count Von Maxula
P.S. As a bonus, I included some fitting pieces of music.