Posted by Greg Ferrara on September 26, 2012
And so we arrive at another celebration of horror as we approach October. It’s the only month that gets a genre all to itself as Sci-Fi September and Musical May have never really caught on despite my repeated attempts. I even did a kind of November Noir once but that didn’t really work either. The reason? No holiday associated with the genre. You see, sadly, there is no celebration of musicals annually in which kids all across the nation dress up as The Nicholas Brothers, Gene Kelly or Eleanor Powell, tap their way to your door and ask for treats. There should be, of course, but there isn’t. Nor is there a holiday for westerns, spy thrillers or war films. In fact, they all get lumped into Halloween, really. Want to dress up like a cowboy? Halloween. Monster? Halloween. Accountant? Halloween. I guess that last one you could do any day but you wouldn’t get candy unless you bought it yourself. So October’s for horror and every year, once autumn blusters in, I examine what it is about horror that I like so much.
I usually end up writing about horror movies in October but rarely touch on them for the rest of the year, unlike a certain Morlock we all know (hint: it’s Richard), who writes about horror most of the time. Richard has a devotion to and a deeply held passion for the genre that is enviable. I was honored when he graciously included me in the Horror Dads group that discusses horror movies on these pages even though, I believe, I am easily the least knowledgeable horror dad when it comes to horror. But what I lack in encyclopedic knowledge, I make up for in good looks. Oh sorry, no, I meant, I make up for in enthusiasm. And I am enthusiastic about horror, it’s just that I don’t care so much for the stories as the atmosphere, how it feels.
There are different things I go for with different movies and almost all of them have to do with how they make me feel. I wrote a whole post here once on how the look of desolation is often enough to sell me on a movie (here’s the link for all those desperate to read it again) but really, it goes far beyond that. This weekend, for instance, I saw a movie with a friend (Bill Ryan of The Kind of Face You Hate) and we briefly discussed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and how the ending has such a great feel to it. The ending is a brief montage played out behind a soundtrack of La Mer which ends with Gary Oldman’s George Smiley taking his seat in the winner’s circle. Now, there are those who prefer the miniseries, others prefer the movie and others prefer the book. But whichever you prefer, the movie version has an incredible feel to it and not just the ending. The whole look of the film has the sounds and styles of the seventies have such an authentic feel to them I can’t help but be transported to another point in my life. Meanwhile, the odd, stream of consciousness editing style that drifts the viewer in and out of scenes rather than abruptly cutting from one to the other had me kind of mesmerized when I watched it. For the telling of the story, I prefer the miniseries but for the feel of the story, I prefer the movie.
Which brings me around to horror. When I said earlier that I like how it feels it’s very much in the same vein as my feelings towards Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That is, a horror movie that I can claim as a favorite almost always has a lot more to do with a look and feel than actual technical or cinematic merits. I’ve mentioned one movie online enough times in my career to rival King Kong but I’ll trumpet it again: Carnival of Souls isn’t about Kubrickian perfection, it’s about a feeling. I don’t watch it and think, “I can’t believe this didn’t win a slew of Oscars!” It’s about a feeling I get – every time – when I see that damn Saltair Pavilion in the distance and hear that low-level organ chord playing, the one that plays repeatedly throughout the movie. It’s the way the pavilion feels when star Candace Hilligoss walks around it and, speaking of Kubrickian, that super slide mat comes sliding down from nowhere, years ball the tennis ball from nowhere caught Danny’s attention in The Shining.
And, honestly, I’m amazed at how many big budget horror movies never have that feel. In fact, horror movies made on the cheap almost always have a better feel to me than horror movies done big, The Shining being a notable exception. For the most part, I find the Universal, Hammer and AIP horror movies far more appealing than the Poltergeists, What Lies Beneath and Rings of the world. It’s not that I don’t like those, I do (except for What Lies Beneath which I personally found abysmal), it’s that they don’t have the same feel that the lower rent projects have. The reason is, partly, because all those stories take place in modern settings where technology plays a role and the feel that I like usually comes from the kind of heavy atmosphere only a low-budget movie can deliver.
It happened again last night. I was trying to get some work done with writing and, as luck would have it, my lovely wife, Laura, decided she wanted to watch The Haunted Palace, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. So she puts it on and I stand in the doorway and think I’ll watch the opening credits and leave. I watch the shots of a spider building its web and then catching a butterfly as the credits progress. Now it’s time to leave except that I don’t. Because now the movie opens and I keep watching because the shots of the town and the heavy fog won’t let me leave! And there’s Elisha Cook, Jr doing that whole “Elisha Cook, Jr” thing with his face and, well, about fifteen minutes in I finally forced myself away because I had to get stuff done, but I didn’t want to. (And may I just say, as a quick aside, that producing a good feel for atmosphere is a true talent and Roger Corman had that talent with all of his gothic horror films of the sixties. Corman was a lot more talented behind the camera than a lot of people give him credit for.)
Most Hammer movies of the fifties and sixties have the same effect on me. And the Universal movies of the thirties and forties. And the Tourneur movies Cat People and Night of the Demon. And so many other movies that understood that atmosphere is as important, if not more so, than story when it comes to horror. It’s why Brides of Dracula is one of my favorite horror movies of all time and easily my favorite Hammer, though Dracula (aka, Horror of Dracula) and The Curse of Frankenstein are close. I don’t like Brides of Dracula because it has an airtight plot and operates on pure logic. It doesn’t and there isn’t any logic, period. I like it because it has atmosphere and does it well, extremely well.
It’s the reason that I don’t care for horror movies that have a lot of special effects and lots of brutal killings. I like horror movies where the fog is heavy and the air is thick with dread. And that’s why I’ll be concentrating on a few lower budget horror movies this October that didn’t bank on stars or plot but instead put their money behind the look and the feel. Plot-wise, they don’t always make a lot of sense but I’ll take a vague sense of dread over an airtight resolution of all loose ends any October of the year. Anything else would be a horror.
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