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FEAR OF FRIGHT NIGHT

What's to enjoy about scary films?


We are now in the midst of another cycle of shock films, loosely categorized by film historians as the horror genre but I'll just call 'em Scary Movies, since these film historians tend to quarrel and quibble about what exactly is a horror film.  I say "cycle" because these films come in bunches, about every twenty years or so, and are extremely popular.  The current crop (typified by Scream, Scream 2, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Disturbing Behavior, the current Halloween: H20 and soon to be continued with I Still Know What You Did Last Summer), have one thing in common: they're not "monster movies" like Frankenstein or The Fly or any of the creepy horror films that were popular in the fifties.

The Scary Movie of the nineties relies more on psychological terror than the obvious makeup-enhanced movies of that more innocent era.  It deals with ordinary people in ordinary situations who come across a deviant like Mike Myers.   The suspense in H20 is more on account of the audience's expectations and the throbbing, spooky music than from any obvious monster.  Mike Myers comes with a lot of baggage, and it's all hidden beneath that very ordinary white Halloween mask.  The effect is much more chilling than Godzilla could ever hope to be.

Why is this Scary cycle surfacing again now?  On the surface, things are fairly stable in modern-day society.  Crime statistics are down, the economy is whistling along and Charles Manson is tucked away neatly in prison with no hope of escape.  So why do we flock to movies that scare the gizzards out of us?  Because it gives us pleasure.  When there are no real things to be scared of, we go to the movies to shake things up.  In a weird way, it's therapeutic.

To illustrate this point, I call forth a reference in a seminal book by an author I used to know who taught me a lot about the genre, Carlos Clarens.  On the frontispiece of his Illustrated History of the Horror Films, Carlos quotes sociologist Roland Penrose from his work, Violence in Contemporary Art: "The bogey of violence is particularly horrifying and intolerable to us when we meet it in cold blood.  The arts, however, avoid its brutal impact by their appeal to the emotions, they warm us to its presence, turning terror into enjoyment and cruelty into compassion.  We participate in the act of violence without suffering its evil consequences.  Art, in fact, allows us, as in certain rituals, to satisfy our Olympian yearning to stimulate the forces of nature. Its nonviolent power has a therapeutic and catalytic influence."

So, watching Scary Movies in the relative safety of a theater with hundreds of other people around us will not turn us into raving, bloodthirsty lunatics.  On the contrary, it's a cheap alternative to seeing a shrink.  For the same reason we pay money and wait in long lines to ride the striekiest roller coaster, we go to the movies to get our hair lifted.  Steve Miner, who directed H20, says it this way: "My favorite scary film of all time was Psycho, which I could not sit through. I never saw the whole movie until I was an adult.  Halloween I found reminiscent in spirit of that kind of movie: unrelentingly scary and suspenseful and atmospheric.  I think people like to be scared because they can go to the edge without really being there."

Kevin Williamson, the Dawson's Creek director who wrote the screenplay of H20 as well as that of Scream, credits Halloween for what he is today. "Halloween is and always has been my favorite film of all time," he says.  "It wasn't just a movie, it was an experience. ... The audience participation factor was one of the most incredible parts of the movie. The way the audience jumped and screamed at the characters on screen got my blood pumping.  It was this effect in Halloween that made me realize that I wanted to be a filmmaker.

Okay, what about that "every twenty years" theory?  It's no coincidence that the current Halloween is subtitled H20, since the original Halloween was released in 1978.  That one put its director, John Carpenter, on the map and kicked off the career of Jamie Lee Curtis as well (it was her first feature film).  H20 has among its co-stars Jamie Lee's mom, Janet Leigh, who was the star victim of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, released 18 years before Halloween in 1960 (and soon to be redone in a faithful translation by Gus Van Sant).  Carpenter's stated purpose in conceiving Halloween was that he wanted to create a picture that would play like a full-length version of the shower scene in Psycho.

Go back roughly twenty years from Psycho and you have the beginning of another Scary cycle in the early forties.  A series of films produced by Val Lewton has a lot in common with what the Scary cycle of the nineties is going for - psychological horror with no monsters or creatures in sight.  The great director Jacques Tourneur did more with camera angles, lighting and sound to chill the audience's bones with his masterpieces the original Cat People and his follow-up I Walked With a Zombie.  I command you to go out and rent these right now so you can see what I mean.

The first of these twenty-year cycles, just to round out my argument, goes back to Germany in the twenties.  You won't be able to rent Paul Weggener's Student of Prague or his series of films about the Golem, a vengeful Jewish monster who haunted Czechoslovakia.  But there is also The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, the original vampire story (with Max Schreck as the Vampire).  And rounding out the cycle is The Hands of Orlac, with Caligari's Conrad Veidt, about a concert pianist who has the hands of a murderer grafted on after he loses his in an accident.   The fright genre moved  (along with a number of German filmmakers escaping the Nazis) to America for its next cycle, and it is also no great coincidence that another one of these German exports, Peter Lorre, made his American film debut in 1935 in a remake of Orlac called Mad Love, another one that you must rent or seek out on cable TV.

Which is all to say that what comes around goes around in the world of roller coasters and Scary Movies.  Now that I have given you a quick sense of its history, it's a good time to grab a ride.

Written By Noe Gold @ Entertainment Asylum