Posted by Richard Harland Smith on June 14, 2013
When I was in high school, I hung with an older crowd. Starting with my freshman year, I palled around with seniors on the yearbook staff, which I later joined. Throughout my four-year bid, my friends were primarily juniors and seniors up until I was a senior and then even in college I favored older people, juniors and seniors and hip and cool professors and wily adjuncts. In my salad days as a starving New York City playwright, I counted among my two best friends a man in his 50s and another in his 60s, who referred to me as “this kid” even though I was in my mid 30s by then. But somehow with the passage of time I’ve become the Old Guy and my friends, in the main, tend to be a good decade younger. Though we all like a lot of the same things, we speak the same language — at least from a categorical standpoint and a preference for genre — I find we break pretty consistently in matters of taste along what I like to call the 40/50 split.
I was born in 1961; I’ll be 52 this year. My birth coincided with the death throes of the Hollywood studio system, as cinema was changing — not just in America, but all around the world. Still, I saw enough studio product as a preteen to understand their context and importance to movies, how they worked, and what was important and good about them. When I started going to the movies, the New Hollywood had not yet asserted itself. Born late as I was (or felt I was), I still feel as though I had, cinematically speaking, a classical education. I was born at a time when it was possible to see a new Hammer horror film in the cinema, bigger than life. It was also early enough in the 20th Century that you could see older stuff screened for kiddie matinees and drive-in triple bills– ten year old programmers like THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957) and THE VAMPIRE (1957) and foreign imports like CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964) — all of these, by the way, projected in green so their respective venues could claim “All Color Feature!”
From the age of 10 on, I bought Famous Monsters of Filmland at my local stationery store/newsstand and you could see regularly, on Saturday afternoons or weekend late nights, classic horror films, sometimes as double bills. Talk about an education. Every week — thanks to the acquisition by Needham, Massachusetts Channel 4 of the old “Shock Theatre” package of Universal horror films sold to television a decade earlier — I could count on back-to-back showings of DRACULA (1931), FRANKENSTEIN (1931), THE MUMMY (1932) and all their sequels, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and its sequels, TARANTULA (1955), THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956), and offbeat stuff like THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD (1934), THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (1935), THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE (1958), and CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (1959). The fact that I saw all of these movies — nearly the whole Universal horror-science fiction canon, compressed into the space of two years, amazes me now, though I took it for granted them, I ate it up. These movies, and those that followed — TWO ON A GUILLOTINE (1965), THE FROZEN DEAD (1966), ISLAND OF TERROR (1966), PICTURE MOMMY DEAD (1966), TORTURE GARDEN (1967), THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967), WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968), EYE OF THE CAT (1969), SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1969), THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1970), HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970), THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1970), LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971) and so on… up until the full carriage return of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968, though I didn’t see it until 1980 or so), THE EXORCIST (1973, saw first run, multiple times) and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974, caught in revival in 1980).
Did you have to Google “full carriage return”? If so, then this is what I’m talking about.
I turned 17 the year HALLOWEEN (1978) came out — the perfect age, really, at which to identify with its high school-aged protagonists. When FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) premiered, I was nearly 19, out of high school, camp counselor-aged. These movies were being made for me — I was the target audience, the preferred demographic. My tastes were being catered to… it seemed. And like a good horror hound, I got in line to see all the latest genre scatterings: THE SHINING (1980), THE FOG (1980), THE HOWLING (1981), AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART 2 (1981), FRIDAY THE 13TH III (1982), POLTERGEIST (1982), CREEPSHOW (1982), THE HUNGER (1983), PSYCHO II (1983), A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), FRIGHT NIGHT (1985), RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985), DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), HOUSE (1986), PSYCHO III (1986), THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, PART 2 (1986), THE LOST BOYS (1987), CREEPSHOW 2 (1987), HELLRAISER (1987) and so on. It was a veritable renaissance of horror, though the genre never went entirely out of fashion. And yet… and yet… I found, as I leapfrogged from title to title, that I really didn’t like these movies all that much.
I don’t want to make it sound as though I’m slagging on 80s horror movies — I don’t mean to be that glib or reductive of an entire decade of work. There were some great genre titles during that time; in addition to those mentioned above, STRANGE BEHAVIOR (1981), EVIL DEAD (1981), THE STEPFATHER (1986), NEAR DARK (1987), THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1987), HENRY… PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1987), EVIL DEAD II (1987), and BRAIN DAMAGE (1987) all strike me as being chancey, personal, or innovative in some way and I own precisely two of them on DVD. Hmmm… only two? Yeah, I mean, as much as I appreciate some of these films I just don’t love them, I don’t want to re-watch them, they don’t have the evocative heft to me — to me, I’m saying — of Karl Freund’s THE MUMMY (1932) or John Moxey’s CITY OF THE DEAD (HORROR HOTEL, 1960) or Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962). And a whole other category of 80s horror I just can’t abide — the franchise HALLOWEENs and FRIDAY THE 13THs and ELM STREETs and PSYCHOs that some of my friends still discuss, from which they still try to tease merit, and I’m just not buying it. As fun as FRIGHT NIGHT was to me in 1986, I just can’t accept it as canon, especially not from people who have yet to see, say, THE UNINVITED (1944) or NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (BURN, WITCH, BURN, 1962) or THE INNOCENTS (1961) more than that one time — or who will watch THE INNOCENTS and follow Pamela Franklin to AND SOON THE DARKNESS (1970) and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973) but not to OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE (1967) because it’s not, someone decided, a horror film.
It seems to me that people who were born ten years after I was, who were impressionable young children in the early to mid 80s, and for whom movies like HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH, POLTERGEIST, PSYCHO 2, and FRIGHT NIGHT represent the first generation of horror fans to have it all handed to them. When I was a kid, horror films were made by studio contractees, by hacks, journeymen, and lifers — they banged out the work as best they could without a real passion for the idiom; ten years later and horror movies were being made by horror fans who grew up wanting to make horror movies: John Landis, Joe Dante, Sam Raimi, Don Coscarelli, Tom Holland, Tobe Hooper. Horror movies in the 80s stopped being so personal and specific to character and became all about the filmmaker, stopped drawing from our shared fund of mythical and folkloric archetypes and started referring to the genre itself in an attempt to be “ultimate.” To be spectacular. To go big. There may be no better illustration of this tendency than the elevators cannoning blood in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, a movie I’ve never loved, though many of my friends (and some more than others) could not live without it. But there’s also a comfort factor. 80s horror movies were saying, in effect, it’s okay that you like what you like — which is a lovely sentiment, really — but the empowerment factor, the narcissism, became too much for me. When horror movies started saying “Know what I’m talkin’ about?” as if to say “We’re on the same page here, right?” I looked the other way.
Oh, and it only gets worse. If I was, at 25, a bit too old for FRIGHT NIGHT, I was as I neared my 30s beyond the grasp of a great many entertainments that my friends (then in their teens) would find seminal, formative, indispensable. I’ve never been able to stomach STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION or any of its spin-off series — it’s just so dull-looking to me, so cheesy yet so po-faced and self-impressed, and I can’t get beyond the fact that the cast looks like they’re wearing track suits. Ditto BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, which is an important show for many of my good friends but I can’t stand it. I don’t know if I’m speaking for anyone but myself, but if you’ve grown up with Nigel Kneale than you really can’t get very much out of Joss Whedon (as much as I admire his entrepreneurial spirit). I’ve seen probably less than ten episodes of THE X-FILES and bleh. During the 1990s I stopped watching TV almost entirely; I cut my cable in, oh, 1995 or so, around the time I became a contributor to Video Watchdog, and I subsisted on a steady diet of movies for the next several years. I realize I’m in the minority here, probably even among my age group. And again, I don’t go there today to put down 80s horror film fans… I guess what I’m really getting at is what a difference ten years can make in the establishment of an aesthetic. I’ll stop here, having alienated, I fear, about 2/3 of my Facebook friends list but also by saying that when I’m 60 I’ll be curious to check in with my 50 year-old friends to find out what they think about those darn 40 year-olds.
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