The air is cold and someone has hopefully awoken Green Day by now, which of course means that the Internet has positively exploded with fall fever. October has become a bit of a pastime in itself, a reason to change Twitter handles to something Halloween-themed (if you’re wondering, Bogert became Boggart), to get caught up in the so-called “skeleton wars,” and in my case to try in vain to experience that ostensibly strongest of negative affect: fear.
I say in vain because to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever actually been scared by a piece of fiction. Well, not since I was a kid, when my father ill-advisedly quipped, “Oh look, it’s your mom’s favorite movie” and a not-quite-old-enough-to-get-sarcasm me was scarred nigh indefinitely by an ad for Child’s Play.
Chucky notwithstanding, I’ve gotten a little tired of not being scared. So very frequently, I see horror films and novels plastered with promises — often by people I’m wont to trust — that this story will terrify me, that it will raise the hair on the back of my neck, that it will render useless the off position of my light switch at night. And so very frequently, I experience nothing of the sort. To wit: I watched The Exorcist alone in the basement with the lights out, and subsequently slept like a baby.
So this month, in the spirit of the season, I’ve turned myself towards the task of watching a lot of horror, in the hopes that something will live up to the hype and actually unsettle me. I figured if I’m going to watch so many movies I may as well at least also briefly mention my thoughts on them, and so this is the first of what will be four or five posts encapsulating my experience. Stay tuned to see if anything actually scares me.
Also, while I have grown to dislike the idea of rating for quality, I figured I’d toss in an appraisal of enjoyment, a la the Goodreads system. So: 1/5 Didn’t like it, 2/5 Meh, 3/5 Liked it, 4/5 Really liked it, 5/5 Loved it.
The Shining, 1980 (2/5). This is probably a competent flick (Kubrick is known for meticulous film craft, after all), but it is an absolutely awful adaptation of the book. Stephen King’s Overlook is actually pretty creepy. Metaphoric (but all too real) wasp nests and a sinister game of Red Light, Green Light with the hotel’s hedge menagerie are among my favorite things in the novel, but neither made it into the movie. I also think that real fear depends on a degree of subtlety that Jack is really lacking in this film; he pretty much starts off the film as an edgy and unstable-seeming man, which makes his descent into madness too telegraphed and not very tragic.
Funny Games, 1997 (3/5). I’m told the 2007 remake is incredibly faithful to the original, to the point where seeing one is as good as seeing the other. I hadn’t seen either, though a friend (upon seeing I was watching this) told me it’s her favorite in the genre. I can half understand that: this story of a well-to-do family’s nightmare of a home invasion is gripping and meticulously designed. The hopelessness it depicts is uncomfortably nonchalant, and everything that happens feels both inevitable and completely unnecessary. I’m still not sure how I feel about the movie’s approach to audience awareness — it’s either genius or it completely undermines the film, no real room for middle ground — but the movie has permanently changed the way I view the game Hot or Cold, so that’s something.
Rosemary’s Baby, 1968 (3/5). I’m sure this film was scary when it released, but fifty years of social progress render it positively maddening now. It’s fair to say that a great deal of what poor Rosemary goes through in this film would be avoided in a society where her husband did not have such control over her life, and you don’t need to be a critical scholar to understand that this woman is as much the victim of patriarchy as she is of Satan. Indeed, the film’s most frightening moment for me is where it touches upon the one thing that legitimately scares me as a thinking person: the very real power society has to label a sane person as insane, and the subsequent stripping of autonomy (and futility of protest) once one’s mind has been labeled unsound.
It Follows, 2014 (4/5). This movie was making many waves last year as an ostensibly revolutionary take on the genre. I won’t call it scary (though many will), but I do think the filmmakers have hit upon a nicely unsettling idea with the situation plaguing our protagonists. The dauntless pursuit slowly exhausting these unfortunate young people also begins to wear on the viewer — we’re seeking the same kind of escape that the characters are, and the more hopeless they become the more upset we’re wont to be as well. I was disappointed in the movie’s lowbrow moments, though I will say I was impressed by the fact that a movie based on hot coeds with (basically) evil STIs features so little in the way of titillation. It Follows didn’t scare me, but it was at least a good movie, and that’s more than I can often say about this genre.
The Omen, 1976 (4/5). I don’t usually want to slap the priests in movies, but I definitely wanted to slap this one. The guy shows up to warn the ambassador that his son is actually the antichrist, but he does it in the most cryptic and overdramatic way, more or less guaranteeing that he will not be listened to. And so in the back of my mind I spent the movie wondering how much could have been avoided if only he had not spoken in doomsday poetry but had chosen to use regular words and a tempered demeanor. This frustration was usurped by my inability to understand why you would not outright fire your governess if you discovered she was keeping an attack dog in your child’s room even after you explicitly demanded she remove it. That all said, The Omen is really less a horror movie than a supernatural mystery film with a horror veneer. If you can put off wondering how an ambassador has so much free time to go adventuring across southern Europe without so much as a word to any government official, it’s actually pretty fun. Also: much better use of child on tricycle than The Shining.
The Silence of the Lambs, 1991 (5/5). This is one of those movies that has reached nearly mythic status in the American consciousness (kind of like The Shining, come to think of it), but probably for the wrong reasons. I watched this film because I was watching horror films, but I don’t even think this classifies as horror. True, there are some pretty awful moments in the movie, but I have seen much worse in casual episodes of CSI and Criminal Minds. Strip away the shock value, however, and this is still a pretty riveting tale of two incredibly smart people in a bloody intellectual tango. Hopkins is the Joker if the Joker were a genius, and Foster plays both Harley Quinn and Batman, drawn to, repulsed by, but ultimately reliant on the evil on the other side of the glass.
I still have quite a few movies to go on this little self-scaring journey, including some of the grislier entries I’ve heretofore avoided (Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Saw, Final Destination, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are on the list). I’m still thinking that the horror genre’s titans are rooted less in terror than in disgust, but I guess we’ll see.