When I was talking with some friends a while back about how much my wife and I enjoyed Insidious (probably one of the first genuinely well-made horror films in ages), I started thinking about how they’re almost sure to greenlight a sequel any day now (still waiting on that) for some studio to run into the ground like James Wan and Leigh Whannel’s previous collaboration, the Saw series.
Saw got dumber and shittier as it went on, probably due to the fact that by fourth film or so the plot was incomprehensibly stupid. What’s the point of all this again? And Jigsaw had how many apprentices now? By the end of the series, I was expecting him to have solved the financial crisis by employing the majority of Americans to set moronic traps for each other.
But the thing that’s easy to forget is that the first Saw movie was actually a pretty damn good movie. It wasn’t unique by any means. It owes a lot to Dario Argento and his fellow Italian Giallo filmmakers, but that’s not the point. The point is, Wan and Whannel paid attention. They actually put forth an effort to make a film that wasn’t a remake or a sequel or a cheap knockoff. They showed their hand as far as influences go, but fuck, so does Quentin Tarantino. Hell, even Saw II and Saw III weren’t bad.
So maybe that’s the secret to making a horror film that’s not ball-crushingly idiotic. Maybe it just takes some faith in horror audiences and to not be a cynical prick about putting out films in a consistently critically panned genre. And when you look at some of these other franchises that started out with a bang, you can just see that cash-out mindset start to creep in with each successive entry in the series.
Let’s see more original horror. Let’s see directors and writers and producers give a fuck about the audience. Sure, it’s harder than taking the horse back to the well over and over, but… actually, I guess I can’t think of an argument that would make sense to a Hollywood producer. The Transformers trilogy has proved to me that they don’t really care about making good movies anymore or anything.
Beat the horse until it’s dead and then wait for someone to ride a new one in, I guess. Carry on, you budget sheet moguls. Shit. Let’s get to the list already.
6. Friday the 13th
Quick, how many people did Jason Vorhees kill in this movie? Give up? Zero. Not a single one, because he wasn’t the killer– it was his mother. Yeah, that’s a cheap question, but you get the point. People think Friday the 13th and all that comes to mind is the huge, machete-wielding, hockey mask-wearing mountain of a dude from the third film onward. But that wasn’t the original film at all.
It was a hodge-podge of the slasher films that came before, but at least it used the best parts. It used the dark, isolated atmosphere of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the rarely-seen killer and musical motifs of Halloween, the gore and sexuality of exploitation films like Last House on the Left, and the twist ending of the Hitchcock-era of horror movies like Psycho. Then, it put them all in a big blender and out came a nice, self-contained story that wasn’t (completely) ridiculous and loaded down with pointless nonsense. It was a thriller, plain and simple, and it worked.
Before Michael Myers had a dumb origin story (the druid thing, not the mom being a stripper thing) and was apparently immortal, he was simply The Shape. In fact, in the original Halloween, Laurie Strode isn’t Michael’s sister. It’s never brought up until the sequel (which wasn’t even on the table until the first one did so well). Now think about what that means for Michael’s intentions. He’s stalking this girl, killing her friends, and chasing her all around her neighborhood… for no reason. He’s just gorilla-shit crazy and she happens to be the first person he lays eyes on. Consider how all the urban legends of the 70s, 80s, and 90s (before Snopes was around to debunk them) primarily centered on deranged drug addicts and other criminals committing pointless crimes, just for the thrill or because Satan told them to or something. This film is the natural extension of that cultural fear.
Another aspect of the film that I think gets frequently overlooked is that this is Laurie’s neighborhood. Her own hometown. And she’s not safe there, even with people who know her only a short distance away. The 70s were the point at which safety at home became a huge social issue– a trend that continues on into today. Again, the film really captures what freaked us out during that time period (and on into today… Minus, you know, terrorism and stuff).
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Believe it or not, there was a time when Freddy Krueger wasn’t a ridiculous cartoon character who killed people with video games. In the first film in the series, he wasn’t even Freddy, except in the little sing-song rhyme. He was Fred Krueger and he was actually pretty scary, being a child murderer and all. Later films gloss over that whole thing, instead turning him into a general boogeyman type who farts around and makes dumb jokes because he feels like it or something.
This film, too, picks up on the aspect of horror in a suburban environment– that idea that security comes with picket white fences. But another, lesser-acknowledged concept that it plays with is that sleep is safety. When you’re a kid and you’re scared of the dark, you know that all you have to do is finally fall asleep and, assuming you don’t wake back up, you’ll be fine until morning. Anything that happens while you’re asleep is just your imagination. The original Nightmare on Elm Street took that and turned it on its head, though. The inevitability of sleep wasn’t a safety blanket to look forward to, but something to avoid and put off as long as possible, even fighting your own body to do so. (And that’s not even getting into the drug metaphors of popping pills to stay awake and unhinged behavior the characters seem to be going through.)
Most people solely associate the Hellraiser series with Pinhead who, like other horror icons before him, ended up just becoming a bland monster. If you watch the original, though, you’ll notice that Pinhead and his demon cohorts aren’t really just out to kill people. In fact, they really only seem interested in taking particularly morally corrupt people to Hell, and they leave everyone else more or less alone. Human beings are the only ones who commit any sort of murder in the film. The demons are basically just there to pick up the pieces, like oddly dressed janitors.
And if Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street are about horror in suburbia, then Hellraiser is horror for the upper-class. Think about it. The reason Uncle Frank ends up a gooey puddle in the family attic is because he sought out hedonism and excess. He spent his money traveling the world and adventuring, things a poor man could never indulge in. Even the puzzle box itself is presented as an expensive antique. Julia is a bored, rich housewife who engages in affairs with her husband’s brother. The demons themselves are all about mixing pleasure with pain, but it’s not solely sadomasochistic. It’s about the inhumanity that can be found just under the surface of the lives of the elite and the unavoidable punishment that results from it. It’s like a Biblical-based morality play, except it has a bum that turns into a dragon for some reason.
2. The Exorcist
This one may not even count because I don’t think many people even remember the other films in the series, but the hell with it. The first Exorcist film remains one of best horror films of all time. There was no Pazuzu stuff, Regan wasn’t psychic or whatever. It was just a little girl and the freaking Devil.
But it’s more than that, too. It’s about the child of divorced parents, raised by a nanny while her mother cavorts around with fellow actors. It’s about doctors who are unable, with all the medical science available to them, come up with a diagnosis that isn’t “holy shit, demons!” The only thing able to save her? Good old religion. In a lot of ways, The Exorcist really presents a very old-fashioned, practically Conservative idea of a horror story. The broken family unit, science unable to find the answers, Jesus saves the day. It’s like a Tea Party wishlist. It’s hard not to make the movie sound cynical in today’s political climate, but I think the reason why it works is because of our cultural fear that maybe, no matter how much we progress, there are still some problems that we just can’t solve. Not without dipping into the old ways we thought we, as a society, had left behind (those of us who aren’t Michele Bachmann, anyway).
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
While pop culture turned Leatherface and his family into something truly absurd, the fact still stands that the original film brought something to the table that people just hadn’t seen before– a horror film that was truly horrific. The atmosphere of the film is just north of nightmarish, and the whole thing is so bleak and gritty it’s like a buzzard fucking a tumbleweed.
And there are tons of arguments about how it’s a reflection of Vietnam or that it’s anti-capitalist (because Leatherface’s family lost their jobs at the slaughterhouse thanks to technological advance), but the most compelling thing, in my opinion, is that it was the first film in American cinema to present the idea that there are some things in this natural world that we just totally can’t comprehend or fight back against because it’s so beyond our scope of recognition. For example, Al Qaeda presumably has some logic behind what they’ve done, but it’s so far outside of our experiences that we can’t even begin to comprehend it. It’s just some insane, blind anger that turns into evil. It has no real redeeming quality, it just is, and there’s little we can do to confront it. And that’s scary as hell.