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Ol’ Hallows’ Eve comes but once a year – when masked murders and ghouls alike team and vie for the screams of the weak. No medium captures and evokes such emotions better than film, and with a century-long legacy to salute (or slap, in some cases) one night cannot contain what has become known, simply, as the scary movie. Welcome to Five Days of Halloween: Day One – An Ode to Horror Classics.
There is so much to be said about the roots of Hollywood horror that one could spend an entire (wonderful) month exploring the genre. From the first true explorations in silent cinema such as the gothic masterpiece Beauty and the Beast to the twisted nightmare that was The Cabinet of Dr Caligari to Nosferatu to Frankenstein to Psycho, there are countless efforts that are as influential as they are lasting in their potency.
You can literally trace a line in many cases from the genre groundbreakers up to modern efforts, see inspiration gleaned, twists and tweaks applied and everything from homages, spoofs and simple rip-offs. It’s a confined class of film and each subgenre has its grandfather. Universal was in charge of the classic monster properties, Hitchcock the psychological thriller, Romero the walking dead, Carpenter the modern slasher and so on and so on.
I often lose sleep over the forthcoming generations brought up on found footage and jump scare-laden schlock. Many of them will not have any interest in venturing beyond aughties-era horror and have no idea what originators are being bastardized. They find the classics limp and dull – too little blood and no ditsy, well-endowed teen running screaming through the rain. Films that hinge on atmosphere, those that were astonishingly economical for the times, and efforts that rely on actual technical craft and performances to convey terror (and a sense of twisted fun) are in danger of being relegated to the thing of relics, fit only for viewing in film class.
For true fans of horror and cinema in particular, those that know the truth about the greatness of these films, it’s infinitely fun to analyze, poke, and prod and most of all, find the true reason they remain so great to this day. And thusly a question presents itself: what makes these widely heralded horror classics so great even now? It can’t just be the wishful thinking of old fogies that nothing great was made since the 1980s nor the pretentious cinema-seekers who claim allegiance to classic fare just to stand out and seem distinguished. There is something special about the old era.
Horror films that hold up today boast three key elements and when holding them up against some modern efforts, it’s easily to see why so many fail at what they set out to do. As was the way with so much of old Hollywood, filmmakers relied on characters and building protagonists we could root foot for, not only for stock chainsaw fodder. Even when the acting slips or scenes come off as dated it doesn’t matter. We don’t want so see them sliced and diced regardless of their tacky '70s wardrobe.
The other is the inherent sense of fun these features carry, especially in the great genre blenders such as Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Horror today is often way too self-serious and morose, mistaking extended scenes of torture as substantive cinema and a clichéd pothead enough comic relief to carry the entire running length.
For example, look at the original Halloween and Rob Zombie’s remake. Athough I actually found the update more solid than most critics, what was entirely absent was the giddy tension that Carpenter brought to the table. Bleakness has its place but it is not the be all to end all approach to horror.
The final thing lost among most purveyors of scary movies is the necessary sense of atmosphere and how it directly corresponds to the amount of tension that can be generated. The immense sets or impressive on-location filming days of The Shining are mostly an archaic technique with lavish and spooky constructions replaced with “boo” moments and gore. Horror movies today are either done on the cheap or packed with big-name actors and rarely fall in between and rarely work because of it.
As much as I can whine and pine and often leave the theater disappointed by modern horror offerings, the best of the genre isn’t going anywhere and isn’t any further away than a DVD or the click of a mouse. Things are what they are and I’ll take the solid flicks that do pop up every year, even if it’s an infuriatingly low percentage of the pack.
Be sure to check back in tomorrow for Day Two: Fright Flicks for Fanatics.