It’s October and Halloween may traditionally be a time we indulge in the macabre and otherworldly, this may take the form of watching ‘Horror’ movies. So, for this blog, I wish to discuss a few films and talk about the horror genre.
The horror film has its roots going back right to the early days of cinema at the beginning of the 20th century. Some films go back further, but in my opinion, it was the early European films ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1920), ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) and ‘Haxan’ (1922) which not only put horror on the map but revealed the power and potential of cinema as an institution for years to come.
Horror has been an ever-expanding genre and has depicted visions of everything from hell to marauding zombie apocalypses. It isn’t afraid to be smart. Films of the genre have explored anxieties surrounding the human body, or the dark recesses of our sub conscious & teenage anxiety explored in film by American film-maker Wes Craven in films like ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Scream’.
Great Horror Films
There are literally too many great horror film writers and creators, but I’ll mention ground-breaking American film-maker John Carpenter whose film ‘Halloween’ laid down the ground work for generations of film-makers and film-fans to view cinema as capable of defining a generation. 1978’s ‘Halloween’, in my opinion, opened the doors to horror cinema being capable of aestheticizing its subject matter in the eyes of a mainstream audience. Where would the so called ‘Scream Queen’ be without Halloween’s tough yet vulnerable babysitter Laurie Strode? This is carried through to present day with a new ‘Halloween’ release due out this month, which has had direct involvement with John Carpenter: he’s provided the score.
I’ve picked a few mainstream movies and a couple of independent films, because I think it’s important to speak up for independent movies especially when they are so good.
Cinema means different things to different people, and I offer only my interpretation and unique perspective. We all perceive things differently and see what we want to see in any given subject, or shy away from what we don’t want. That’s is human nature.
Horror cinema despite being synonymous with death, if nothing more, makes you feel grateful to be alive, whilst it explores the nature of human vulnerability in what is an unforgiving world on and off the screen.
Strip away all the effects, masks, and costumes and you’re left with a genre that represents death as a human anxiety—the nature of which was within the origins of horror from its inception to present day.
After an excellent foray into horror in the spine-tingling psychological horror ‘Paper house’, director Bernard Rose turned to a work from writer Clive Barker—’The Forbidden’ (this source would be re-interpreted dramatically). The resulting film would become 1992’s ‘Candyman’; a mainstay in classic horror and a bench mark 90’s movie.
‘Candyman’ tells the story of Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), a painter during the 1800’s in Chicago. He is commissioned to paint a portrait of a wealthy land-owners daughter whom he falls in love with and she becomes pregnant in secret.
However, once the landowner finds out she’s had a child out of wed-lock with his daughter, Daniel is brutally assaulted by thugs, smeared in honey, and stung to death by bees from a nearby apiary.
He returns to present day Cabrini-Green from beyond the grave, not just to haunt the site of his death but to keep his legend alive by killing anyone who doubts his existence.
Candyman… Candyman… Candyman… Candyman…
Director Bernard Rose injects this story with tough social commentary (Candyman himself is literally filling a void via psychological reinforcement (fear) at the notorious Cabrini Green housing complex since other systems have failed). Whilst incorporating a nod to the urban legend ‘Bloody Mary’ (you turn off the light and say the name 5 times whilst looking at a mirror).
It’s this venture into the world of urban legends that highlights ‘Candyman’. Its hook-handed antagonist is only empowered by people’s own belief or fear of him. Taken out of the context of the film, this philosophy can be applied to aspects of our daily lives. We read about the frightening stories in the news, but should we be driven to fear or anxiety over them?
Learn from horror cinema, embrace it, and see what parallels between the fiction and the reality you may find. As the two are closer than you think.
I quiet like these 1980’s grind-house cinema throw-back movies which have become popular in recent years. Titles include ‘Wolf-Cop’ and ‘We Are Still Here’.
These films are effective, like so many of their type in 80’s, because they don’t overstep the confines of their budgets, and more-often-than-not this allows film-makers to really put their imaginations to use, and as a result, the films capture something in the process that may not have been intended on the page.
1980’s inspired ‘Terrifier’ is one such movie. Don’t be put off by the unimaginative and ungrammatical title. The film is a traditional grind-house slasher with a dark comic tone, if not a little mean spirited in places. The story is straightforward, two women (Tara: Jenna Kendall & Victoria: Samantha Scaffidi) fall prey to a what appears to be a man in a black and white clown costume, and the horrors of the night start to unfold from there on in.
The film is raw & uncompromising with a darkly comic undercurrent with tongue-in-cheek parody. The film takes advantage of its subterranean & moody neon-lit environments, and, of course, its admirable use of practical effects which though distasteful are a parody in and of themselves.
The villain of Terrifier, like most horror movie antagonists,’ is devoid of any redeeming features—zilch, not even a nuance, which gives the film a politically incorrect backbone which I admired.
Fender Bender (2016)
Another 80’s throw-back, ‘Fender Bender’, which takes its name from a minor car collision, follows the story a young woman, Hilary (Makenzie Vega). After a minor car accident with an unknown adult male, is subsequently terrorised by a masked assailant at home whilst her parents are away.
‘Fender Bender’ is a solid independent horror film and a respectable effort all round. The film is evocative of early John Carpenter films and has a bleak edge to it. Actress Makenzie Vega is particularly strong here, evoking classic scream queens whilst bringing a naturalistic and emotive quality to the role: such quality acting isn’t a hallmark of this type of film.
It doesn’t step anywhere it doesn’t need to and keeps things tight and claustrophobic with slow burning tension.
The score—industrial rock meets John Carpenter—is fantastic and is provided by Night Runner.
Both Fender Bender & Terrifier are effective 1980’s infused horror gems.
Director Mike Flanagan knows how to craft cinema on a small budget—a remarkable skill & something that benefits the industry and viewers alike. There are so many expensive movies that can’t craft tension or atmosphere; subsequently, they tank at the box office and disappoint audiences.
‘Hush’…is a prime example of the craft this director and his team are capable of. Hollywood has caught notice and Mike Flanagan is set to direct, write, and produce an adaptation of Stephen King novel ‘Doctor Sleep’ (a sequel to The Shining).
The movie centres around deaf novelist Maddie Young (Kate Siegel), who lives in an isolated property in the woods. One night when she’s struggling for inspiration, a masked killer (John Gallagher Jr) appears outside her home and subjects her to a night of terror.
The ambiguous killer in the film wears a plain white mask which is evocative of the ‘faceless embodiment of evil’. Horror cinema often gets this right in films like ‘Halloween’ (white plain mask) and the ghost-face mask in Wes Craven’s ‘Scream’ (based on the painting ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch).
A ‘calling card’ of any talented film-maker is the ability to create tension: ‘Hush’ remains tense from start to finish.
As noted by many film critics and Stephen King himself, the film is evocative of the tidy 1967 suspense film ‘Wait Until Dark’ but with a darker, modern edge.
It manages to stay true to traditional horror movie law, whilst feeling fresh by adding a few modern twists; the film notably incorporates the use of iPhone and messenger.
The ambiguous antagonist in ‘Hush’ is cold, cruel, and methodical, but he’s also clumsy and over confident. Has he met his match with Maddie? Watch to find out.
The Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)
An unusual gothic horror film which is drenched in ambiguity. The films end credits suggest the film was inspired by real documented accounts and folklore, and these have they’ve clearly been put through the blender in this film.
It chronicles a dysfunctional Puritan family living on a farm on the outskirts of large forest. One day the family’s daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing peek-boo with newborn baby brother Samuel, when in the blink of her eyelids he vanishes, apparently taken off into the woods by possibly a Witch.
Hysteria and ambiguity follow as the family breaks down over who or what took Samuel and why.
So elegantly constructed you forget you’re watching a horror film, but nonetheless frightening.
The film appears to make the viewer question what really happened to Samuel and asks audiences if we may interpret the family’s consequent behaviour as evil and in effect responsible for possibly validating what may or may not have occurred in the woods, or who or what is responsible for taking Samuel.
It appears there is more at play in this god-fearing home than anything supposedly lurking in woods.
The film itself stands completely alone in its genre both thematically, structurally, and narratively. It incorporates an effective use of sound & imagery resulting in a handsome visual aesthetic, as well as an effective use of natural lighting capturing that all too rare tangible sense of the outdoors woodland setting.
Overall, an unusual, offbeat, yet beautifully realised folk-lore horror film.
The Witch will be shown on Halloween 9 p.m. on Film-Four.
2017’s I.T was light years better than I thought it would. Writer Stephen King and cinema have had an unnecessarily bumpy ride over the past three decades and this lowered my expectations greatly.
Argentine film director Andy Muschetti has accomplished quite a feat here, and he benefits from a decent screenplay which gets the best out of its young cast, which includes Stranger Things – Finn Wolfhard and Sophia Lillis, who work well together and have on-screen chemistry.
The story, based on one of writer Stephen King’s most enduring works of the same name, tells the story of a group of seven misfit youths who come face to face with an ancient embodiment of evil that takes the form of a clown – Pennywise.
The film wisely let’s Pennywise dwell in the background whilst focusing on the narrative surrounding the youth. This is important because this ‘coming of age’ tale hinges on its characters overcoming they’re personal demons and this malevolent shape shifting entity acts as a catalyst for them to confront not just the evil entity but these personal issues as well: a sort of symbolic psychological reinforcement in many ways.
Pennywise to Eddie: Time to float
In terms of horror cinema, too much of I.T leads to an unbalanced narrative. Pennywise becomes a ‘horror film’ plot device, and it’s important to use these devices sparingly or save them until the end creating cinematic momentum (all best film-directors do this).
As far as writer Stephen King is concerned, I.T perfectly combines the most human of stories with a frightening horror creation, and if you can do that, you not only understand horror —you respect it.
The scene where the evil entity’s sewer-based lair is revealed includes the missing children suspended in mid-air; I found this scene very disturbing and effective.
A sequel to I.T will follow next year featuring actress Jessica Chastain in the role of an adult Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis). I’m hoping the film succeeds, in providing a smooth and believable transition of these characters into adulthood, whilst meeting the same quality as this surprising 2017’s creation too.
The Haunting (1963)
It takes a great many talents to make a film, but all the creative pieces of the puzzle are only as good as the hand that ultimately guides them into place. Director Robert Wise was one such guiding hand, and he directed this flawless 1963 masterpiece based on the ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson.
A true auteur, Robert Wise was known directing the equally masterful ‘West Side Story’ and an array of classic films spanning almost five decades: he was a hugely influential figure in the Hollywood and a true one off.
‘The Haunting’ begins with a paranormal investigator, Dr John Markway (Richard Johnson), and his investigation into possible supernatural activity at Hill House—former residence of the bitter Hugh Crane, whose wives died in strange circumstances.
Accompanying him are psychic Theodora (Claire Bloom) and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) as well as, heir to Hill House, Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn). As the story progresses, the dark and disturbing secrets of Hill House are revealed.
Standing the test of time
Easily the best film on this list and amongst the greatest horror films ever made, ‘The Haunting’ has truly stood the test of time. It hasn’t aged a day in terms of its aesthetics and craft as well as its effective use of tension and atmosphere.
Everything is balanced: from the set design to the excellent performances and script; the film doesn’t rely on any excess nor is there anything explicit in the film.
Modern horror cinema feels the need for excess in terms of violence, and it’s just not scary at all.
Director Robert Wise builds up the dramatic tension with expert precision, leading to a truly intense final 20 minutes that just doesn’t let up—the nature of this is missing in today’s horror cinema.
Overall, an ageless, expertly made, tense, perfectly acted, milestone of the last 100 years of cinema.
IT Follows (2016)
‘It Follows’ feels like it belongs in director John Carpenter’s filmography; so many of his distinct flourishes are present here—both deliberate and accidental. Some of the influences from other horror film-makers can become inescapable in many ways.
As the title suggests is about a nameless/faceless entity which begins to follow high school student Jay Height (Maika Monroe) after a creepy situation unfolds with her boyfriend, and not before long the entity is following not just Jay but her friends as well.
‘It Follows’ is an exercise in atmosphere and tension. The film uses the American landscape and suburban urban environment to create a tense and claustrophobic feeling of isolation and danger, which is helped by an ominous 1980’s infused electronic score.
The nature of the entity in ‘It Follows’ is rooted in something tangible and this makes it scarier.
Sleepless Nights guaranteed
The film really picks up in the latter half and in typical John Carpenter fashion, the protagonists appear isolated or unnoticed by the world around them…as they are relentlessly followed by an invisible force which can take the form of people it has had contact with.
Horror film fans enjoy new interpretations of themes taken from classic horror movies, and ‘It Follows’ stay’s refreshingly true to the old, whilst bringing us something new to give us sleepless nights.
Do horror films still have the power to evoke fear?
If they do or can, they’ve got to recognise the seismic shift in what people are afraid of these days. The most effective horror films, in terms of the fear factor, connect with contemporary fears and anxieties.
Good film-makers bypass the nature of ‘contemporary fears’ by crafting ‘tension’ and atmosphere, but how often is this done nowadays?
Has horror cinema been reinvented in the last decade or so?
I don’t think so. We’ve seen some memorable horror movies in recent years, but film-makers are still borrowing or being influenced by the film-makers that preceded them.
Is there anything wrong with that?
Absolutely not, but I yearn for something ground-breaking, like what John Carpenter achieved with ‘Halloween’ in 1978 and what Wes Craven brought to ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Scream’ during the late 1990’s— they were reinventions of the genre and effective ones.
Is the portrayal of women in the horror genre questionable?
Contrary to popular belief, horror cinema has long had a history of utilising strong female characters. The legacy this genre promotes stays true to strong female protagonists (Ellen Ripley – ‘Alien’ and Laurie Strode ‘Halloween’) who are nevertheless created, though not always, in a male orchestrated paradigm.
Most viewers (not critics) are smart enough to see the ‘parody’ in some of the depictions present in some more contentious representations, and I believe these films have merit as a result.
Halloween is a good period to embrace the otherworldly and arcane in a fun and healthy way and indulge in treats.
It’s also commonplace to watch horror movies at Halloween, so look no further!