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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: Horror genre offers scary, not-so-scary films

by Philip Martin | October 31, 2021 at 2:42 a.m.
Stefania Casini in “Suspiria”

Invariably, people ask me about horror movies.

I'm not enthusiastic about them the way some critics are. I like most of Alfred Hitchcock's suspense films well enough, but I'm not the sort of writer who wants to spend 10,000 words on Dario Argento's "Suspiria" (1977) or Korean director Ji-woon Kim's masterpiece of family dysfunction "A Tale of Two Sisters" (2003) — to mention two films I admire but can't love.

I am impressed by all of David Gordon Green's work, but "Halloween Kills" is not at the top of my must-see list. (Though I know I'll see it eventually.)

Part of this disinclination to embrace mainstream horror might be traced to my childhood, to the influence of a TV horror movie host named Larry Vincent. His real name was Jerry Vance; I knew him as "Seymour, the Master of the Macabre, Epitome of Evil, The Most Sinister Man to Crawl the Face of the Earth."

Seymour was the host of "Fright Night," which occupied the time slot just ahead of the test pattern on early Sunday morning on Los Angeles' KHJ-TV, Channel 9. Seymour specialized in showing really bad horror movies like "Attack of the Mushroom People" and "Monster From the Surf" and supplying — in spots — the sort of ironic commentary that the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" guys would later transform into high art.

I'm sure I missed a lot of what Seymour was talking about; though I was only 11 years old, I was already aware that this was the kind of television show that could probably be better enjoyed through chemistry.

Except for Cal Worthington Dodge, the only sponsor Seymour seemed to have was the Pizza Man. So before the advent of the Blumhouse films, I viewed horror films primarily as a comedy genre. I was disappointed whenever they weren't as risible as, say, Don Coscarelli's first "Phantasm" film (1979).

I believe I get them, the same way I get roller coasters and zip lines, and can enjoy them on occasion. While I tend to be bored by vampires and ghosts and symbol-freighted zombies, I love good psychological thrillers like Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now" (1973) or Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter" (2011). By the time John Carpenter's "Halloween" appeared in 1978, I had figured out that supernatural slasher films were not my favorite kind of movies.

Still, I understand why horror endures. Our first stories were horror tales — St. George and the Dragon, Beowulf, Hansel and Gretel. Because the world is a dangerous place and there is much we can't control, we manufacture scary stories to empower ourselves. In the end, scary movies make us feel good by provoking the emotions of fear in a safe context.

There's nothing wrong with that. The way to enjoy a movie is to surrender to it, to accept its internal logic and invest in what is essentially a play of lights and noise. When people talk about the escape the movies offer, they're talking about their willingness to shed the consequential problems of the real world for a couple of hours of stakeless fantasy. It feels good not to think about your deadlines or the tax implications of investing in cryptocurrency while you're watching a guy in a mask chase 30-year-old teenagers with a chain saw.

I appreciate the technical accomplishments of horror movies, but I'm not scared by them (and I bet a lot of horror fans are like me; they wouldn't hoot at a beheading if they perceived it as a beheading — they laugh because they recognize it as a more or less accomplished illusion). I don't think much of gore for gore's sake, for torture porn or for whatever "The Human Centipede" (2009) is.

Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby”
Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby”


When it comes right down to it, a genuinely scary movie is a fairly rare event.

My first brush with a deeply frightening film was "Rosemary's Baby," although I can't remember exactly what it was about it that disturbed me in 1968. I doubt my 9-year-old self was equipped to understand much of Roman Polanski's subtle Gothic masterpiece (I've seen it since) but I remember a sense of vague unease that hung around for days after seeing the movie.

A year later, when I saw "The Green Slime," I was already advanced enough to take pride in my ability to laugh at the monsters.

But there was no laughing at "The Exorcist." I saw it a few weeks after it premiered, probably in February 1974. I wasn't a movie critic then, but I had evolved into a fairly sophisticated watcher of movies. And it did scare me.

I don't believe, however, that "The Exorcist" succeeded in disrupting my sleep habits because of its special effects or shock shots; what was terrifying about the movie was the pervasive atmosphere of tension and dread that director William Friedkin was able to sustain. It builds slowly, almost subconsciously, through the funereal pacing of the first hour of the three-part structure.

What's really scary is the way Friedkin manipulates our mood, punctuating this oppressive tone with torrents of graphic language and grisly atrocities inflicted upon Linda Blair's preteen Regan MacNeil.

I wouldn't dispute the conventional wisdom that "The Exorcist" is the scariest movie of all time, though many of the young people who see it for the first time might not experience it the same way those of us who saw it in the '70s experienced it.

After all, "The Exorcist" changed the way horror films were made, and the intervening 47 years have inoculated us against what were then received as shockingly graphic scenes.

I didn't see "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) until I was in college, which was probably a good thing. There was something about black-and-white cinematography that disturbed my preteen self; I remember episodes of television shows "The Twilight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" that caused me nightmares.

Terence Young's "Wait Until Dark" (1967) made me jump, and Ken Russell's "The Devils" (1971) deeply unnerved me, but I wasn't really scared by "Jaws" (1975) or "The Shining" (1980) or any of the usual suspects.

The trashier — and I mean that in the best sense of the word — scream operas like "Friday the 13th" never laid a glove on me. This was due to a certain movie-smart reluctance I have to giving myself over to a film too cheaply. Since "The Exorcist," I've not encountered too many movies that met my standards for authentic scariness.

One that did creep me out, however, was "Spoorloos," a 1988 Dutch-French production also known as "The Vanishing." Five years later, director George Sluizer remade the film for Hollywood, with Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock in key roles. That version — with a Hollywood ending — hardly made a dent in my consciousness, but the understated original, with its unknown (to me) cast and low-tech documentary-style textures, is a haunting, spooky movie that will freeze your heart.

In recent years, Ari Aster's "Midsommar" (2019) and "Hereditary" (2018) stand out as fine examples of the genre. "Midsommar" in particular harks back to the folk horror of Robin Hardy's 1973 cult classic "The Wicker Man" (which, fantastically enough, was originally released in the U.S. as the B picture on a double bill with Roeg's "Don't Look Now").

Jennifer Kent's "The Babadook" (2014), David Robert Mitchell's "It Follows" (2014), Robert Eggers' "The Witch" (2015) and Jordan Peele's "Get Out" (2017) and "Us" (2019) are among the best films of any kind made this decade.

Max Von Sydow and Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”
Max Von Sydow and Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”


We are complicated creatures who bring all sorts of goodies to the theater with us — lots of us don't go to horror movies to be scared so much as we go to make fun of the conventions of horror movies, an ironic gesture enshrined in the "Scream" series and mocked by "Scary Movie," that carries through even the most brutal 21st-century examples. (The "Saw" series is full of bitter irony.) Most Americans who rent bizarre Euroslashers don't really expect to be scared by them; they're indulging their connoisseurs' taste for the esoteric.

This is the way I enjoyed a lot of David Cronenberg's body horror films such as "Videodrome" (1983), "The Fly" (1986), "Dead Ringers" (1988), "Crash" (1996) and "Spider" (2002). I was deeply interested in them, but not viscerally engaged. I genuinely enjoyed them while maintaining a critical distance, which some people might see as missing the entire point.

I didn't receive Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006) as a horror film; it's less scary than sad, beautifully realized, poignant and moving in a way that transcends all genres.

I'm more frightened by the real-estate scenario that plays out in Ira Sachs' "Love Is Strange" (2014) than any monster movie. Documentaries like Josh Fox's "Gasland" (2010), Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing" (2012), Eric Steel's "The Bridge" (2006) and any number of nonfiction climate disaster films ought to scare us.

But all movies are by their very nature resistible; just as you don't have to buy a ticket to any given film, you don't have to make yourself available to any given film's advances. There's always an escape hatch, a well-lighted exit sign the moviegoer can pass under if he wishes.

While a movie might startle you with pop-out ghosts and ringing phones or shock you with escalated levels of gore and violence, the key to a genuinely scary movie is the voluntary enlistment of the audience in the cause. We have to want to be scared.

Maybe I don't want to be. Or maybe I find enough in real life to scare me.



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