Before the first images appear, the music sets the mood. Frantic staccato notes, shrill brass and dark synthesizer drones build as the anticipation becomes unbearable. When we watch a horror film, we dare to fear. The process can be an individual or group experience, one that allows us to view our morality through stylized excess of blood and brutality.
I first discovered the joy of shared terror years ago. It must have been around 1995 when my two younger brothers, a friend and I gathered in our basement to watch John Carpenter’s Halloween, primed to desensitize our adolescent minds. As vivid as any film memory, that iconic Michael Myers mask – shapeless and chalk white – paralyzed us, quelling any ruckus in us pre-teen boys.
It was not a movie with a message, but one tailored purely to scare – and on that level, it worked.
With its slasher protocol for butcher knives, silent stalkers, fatuous females and fleeting glimpses of nudity, it is safe to say that we broke our horror cherry that very day. And though Halloween’s ability to startle me has come to pass, the recollection of its communal after-school viewing held reverence, as it was our induction to young manhood – or so we thought.
Fast-forward eight years, and I’m back in a basement, this time a friend’s. Congregated with high school compadres, I unveil a VHS tape of Cannibal Holocaust, miraculously imported from the United States. Though its video sleeve was suspect, declaring the film “banned in 50 countries,” the contraband cassette nevertheless proved legitimate – subjecting us to the likes of flesh eating, disembowelments and animal cruelty. Not unlike that of the characters of Superbad, our talk was belligerent, big and brass – yet when it came time to stomach the infamous ‘turtle decapitation’, many of my pals ducked behind the security of a blanket. It was only our friend Ben who withstood the punishment, not only taking it but also pointing and laughing at its nightmarish absurdity. He always was the craziest of the group.
Nevertheless, the basic criterion by which horror movies should be judged lays right there. The good one’s affect us.
Sure, other aspects may be substantial – the archetypes, the symbolism, the subtext – but if the horror movie does not viscerally grab you or quietly disturb, then it hasn’t succeeded. Of course, for every Halloween or Cannibal Holocaust there’s an Offerings or Make Them Die Slowly – bargain basement rip-offs that are so bad, they’re good.
Truth be told, the ‘70s and ‘80s were the golden era of horror cinema. Where else could you enjoy the Italian explosion of zombie and cannibal exports, a sub-genre that marketed graphically gory accounts of primitive South Americans and walking corpses devouring humans? If you’re interested in an outrageous meeting of the two, I recommend Dr. Butcher, M.D. from 1981. It was a personal favourite of mine as a kid.
The same can be said for the enduring imagery of slashers and summer camps of the 1980s surge. At one point in our youth, my friends and I were so obsessed with the Friday the 13th franchise we started making our own.
Entitled the ‘Melon’ series, we employed the acting talents of my two brothers (aged 6 and 8 at the time), as well as ourselves. Shot over summer break, fake blood was concocted and spread, with no hesitation in smearing it over someone’s face to achieve just the right grizzled look. If anything, those found memories set forth an interest in filmmaking that has never left me.
Perverse beings that we are, we enjoy being scared. Keep in mind, it doesn’t take gore and guts to create affecting moments. Sometimes the most indelible scares come from raw images that speak more with a gesture than a knife thrust into one’s chest.
Forget the torture porn of today; it doesn’t hold a candle to the passion and bravado of the films made three decades ago. Ultimately, what proves most valuable about those are that they work in opposite of serious genres – not leading adolescents into maturity, but allowing adults to revert back to youth.