I think one can safely assert that Bryce Wilson knows quite a lot. Too much, one might even venture. Really, an inappropriate amount.
- ILLUSTRATIONS BY MAEVA CONSIDINE
I might even go so far as to claim that, when it comes to film, television, and literature, New Times’ own “Blast from the Past” film columnist is one of the most frightfully informed people I know. He’s also one of the most colorful writers, his style vacillating between serious, objective analysis and the hilarious, caps-heavy rantings of the impassioned film geek. Wilson’s reviews are sophisticated, placing a subject firmly within its cultural, political, and artistic zeitgeist with all the thoroughness and loving care of a museum curator. At the same time, though, you get the feeling that Wilson isn’t above yelling expletives at the screen. And in no genre, of course, is this impulse stronger than horror. (“Don’t go into that forest alone, dumbass! Don’t open that door! Get the f@!k out of there!”)
So when Wilson, who currently lives in Austin, Texas, wrote to let us know he’d penned an entire anthology on the subject of American horror in its many incarnations—film, television, comics, video games, short stories, and novels—we knew it was going to be pretty epic.
Wilson’s lofty aim, as he establishes in the book’s prologue, is to pick up where Danse Macabre—Stephen King’s 1981 exploration of the horror genre—left off. The self-published work, which bears the ballsy title Son of Danse Macabre, focuses particularly on the 30 years after King’s book was published. Horror as a genre has evolved greatly in the span between 1981 and 2011, Wilson shows us. Video games, television, and comic book series, media that were rather insignificant to the genre in 1981, have significantly expanded, bring their own new advantages and challenges. While these media continue to flourish, Wilson notes, horror in radio, a topic King devoted an entire chapter to in Danse Macabre, has basically disappeared.
Son of Danse Macabre doesn’t start its journey in 1981, of course. Art is greatly dependent upon context, and this includes the fine art of scaring people to death. So, after briefly introducing himself in the first chapter, Wilson starts us off with an examination of what horror really is, cleverly weaving in the highlights of the genre over the past century as examples. In doing so, he achieves the dual goals of defining horror while giving an overview of its evolution across the decades. Neat.
The persistent yet indirect anxiety of economic hardship felt in the ’30s, Wilson points out, correlated to an increased appetite for horror, for some monster to come and embody our intangible fears. Conversely, the very tangible threat brought on in the next decade by World War II correlated to an overall decline in both the quality and quantity of horror films.
“When our anxieties are free-floating, without a target, that is when horror truly takes hold,” he concludes.
- ILLUSTRATION BY MAEVA CONSIDINE
Wilson works his way up to the horror of the present day, providing his own philosophical commentary along the way. The horror of the ’50s, he continues, introduced the juvenile delinquent, though the endings of stories in this era were typically denoted by a banding together of the older and younger generations to fight off some menace to society. In the ’60s, horror truly blossomed, the societal upheaval of the decade epitomized by such genuinely frightening, bleak, and taboo-smashing works as Psycho and Night of the Living Dead. The trend would continue throughout the ’70s. It’s not until we get to the ’80s, where King left off, that Son of Danse Macabre really begins.
Like any great work of horror, SODM is patient and thorough. Before we even get to explore the modern American horror film, we are treated not only to a brief history of horror in cinema, but also to a particularly lucid reading of the literature that acted as the blueprint for all modern incarnations of the genre. The writings of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelly, H.P Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, and King himself are examined on multiple levels: their sense of pacing, point of view, their morals, their varying explanations of supernatural events (Is it science? Is it God?), and, perhaps most importantly, their approach to evil (Is it the product of some outside force, or does it live within the protagonists all along?). These writers established the framework within which modern audiences, knowingly or otherwise, experience horror today. And the pivotal works of modern horror as Wilson defines them will be frequently discussed in terms of the deviations from or similarities to their forebears.
Once the historical groundwork has been laid, we’re free to explore newer territory, such as the so-called “splatterpunk” and “slasher” films of the ’80s. And it’s here we notice that, though clearly a lifelong horror fan, Wilson remains refreshingly honest in assessing even his favorite writers and directors, never letting his own reverence get in the way. He positively lacerates certain passages from Lovecraft and Matheson, humorously noting that a “hallmark of a Lovecraft story is an ending in which the protagonist writes of his oncoming doom as it approaches him instead of fleeing into the night. … Lovecraft’s monsters must be an awfully patient bunch.” Yet in the end, he concludes, “these piles of flawed stories do not detract from Lovecraft’s works of greatness one whit. If anything, they act as the dull metal casing for a rare gemstone, only heightening their magnificence.”
He’s unafraid to point out inconsistencies or weak plot points in works that are widely regarded as classics, and frequently shows the merits of works that were artistic successes, yet commercial flops. Wilson satisfyingly explains disconnects between a work and its audience. Sometimes the audience simply isn’t ready for the work, he notes, while at other times the work is prevented from being truly great by (even if only slightly) misunderstanding what truly moves its audience.
A major problem with Scream, Wilson writes, is that its opening is too powerful, too chilling, for the rest of the film to live up to: “Ironically it is exactly because the film briefly touches greatness that it can’t help but feel mediocre … a film cannot touch true horror and then blithely shake it off. Its taint is present for the rest of the film.”
The other problem, he notes, is that—in an era of “free floating malice, boredom, and torment that spawned the Columbine killers”—the motives of the murderers are too distinct. “Nothing drains horror of its potency quicker than an explanation,” he concludes.
Though it largely uses King’s book as a template, Son of Danse Macabre is unique and compelling in its own right. It’s as comprehensive as a college textbook, if far more engrossing; bristling with irreverent, honest, and often funny observation. (On Keanu Reaves’ performance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “when faced with the sight of Dracula feeding an infant to his vampire bride [Reaves] gives an expression that does not communicate terror, revulsion and existential distress so much as it does a severe harshing of his mellow.”)
Wilson is an expert at explaining a work culturally, psychologically, and historically. And every attempt to unravel the machinations of a horror film or novel, he shows us, is in actuality a quest to uncover the universal roots of human fear.
But horror gets even more weirdly psychological than that. Showing exactly why a work horrifies doesn’t explain why some people love to be horrified. It’s a question Wilson acknowledges but doesn’t answer outright. Instead, we derive from his individual assessments our own broader thoughts about the genre’s appeal. My own strange conclusion, upon finishing Son of Danse Macabre, was that horror may serve as a macabre kind of comfort: a way to watch the subtle, nameless anxiety that accosts many of us every day given form and amplified. The genre’s grotesque images of pain and death give us a renewed appreciation for happiness and love and life, so that as we close the book or leave the theater, we feel like lucky survivors.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A brief history of cinematic horror
Ah, October. The leaves are turning (somewhere), The Cramps are in my car, gory films are cheap and plentiful, and I can get every conceivable thing in pumpkin flavor.
Truly, this is the most wonderful time of the year. And if you’re like most, you’re probably celebrating the season by putting on a few horror films. Which brings us to this little article.
First off, let’s be clear about what this article is not. These are not necessarily what I would consider the best 10 horror films, or even my 10 favorite horror films. What this is is a primer.
You see, horror is like jazz: You have to have an ear for it. And while there’s nothing wrong with turning on a film for some fun mayhem—fun mayhem indeed being among the pleasures offered by the genre—there’s more to horror than that, and to discover the deeper, darker undercurrents at play in a particular film, you have to listen for them.
That’s the purpose of this primer: to develop your ear. Think of it as the cinematic equivalent of receiving The Birth of the Cool and The Best of Art Pepper. This list is not the be-all, end-all of horror. Just the opposite: This just the foundation.
So, without further ado …
The first horror film ever made is Thomas Edison’s version of Frankenstein in 1910. The earliest to show up in articles such as these is normally the famous German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But that particular film, despite its still arresting imagery, can be a tough watch for modern day audience members, considering its herky-jerky pacing and cop-out ending. For my money, if you really want to explore horror cinema’s roots, you can do no better than FW Munrau’s Nosferatu from two years later, which, unlike the somewhat stilted Caligari, unfolds with the predatory grace of a fairy tale. Telling the basic story of Dracula, Munrau’s is a film of nightmarish decay, centered on Max Schreck’s performance of the count as an unforgettably corrupted creature that will drive the image of the romantic vampire from your mind quicker than Schreck can drain a sleeping victim. This is expressionism at its best. The very film itself seems twisted out of shape by the darkness of its central character.
• Where to go from here: Silent cinema has plenty of rewards for the would-be horror buff. Go back to Caligari, father to so much; Dreyer’s surreal Vampyr; and Munrau’s own unforgettable Faust. On the American side of the pond, spare some time for the Lon Chaney films; the most famous, of course, are his versions of The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But his career rewards exploration, with his odder, more pulp-inspired tales making for a hell of a watch.
Also, be sure not to neglect Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu. While markedly slower than Munrau’s, it is an interesting demonstration of Herzog’s voodoo of location (it’s shot on the same locations as Munrau’s film) and features a performance by Klaus Kinski in the central role that nearly matches the legendary Schreck.
The Bride of Frankenstein
The ’30s were one of the most popular eras of horror in American history, dominated by the Universal horror films, which defined horror for multiple generations. The best of these is The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by the great James Whale, which combines an unparalleled command of gothic horror with a subversively camp sense of humor, making it one of the rare handful of films to be just as funny as it is scary (and though the modern viewer might come to the film a bit jaded, Karloff’s committed performance assures that fear will never leave this film entirely).
The film follows Dr. Frankenstein as he’s blackmailed into continuing his experiments resurrecting the dead, first by the devious (and pretty durn gay) Dr. Pretorius and then by his increasingly irate original creation. The film features the best of Karloff’s three turns as the monster, as well as the most ambitious design and smartest script of the Universal films. And of course there is The Bride herself, one of the most iconic designs in horror (though she only shows up in the final reel). Careful with this one, it’ll sneak up on you.
• Where to go from here: In between Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, director James Whale made the fantastic The Old Dark House, which I can confidently say is one of the most batshit lunatic films ever made, presaging The Bride of Frankenstein’s blend of camp humor and queasy creepiness. Get your cold potatoes and gin ready. Of course there are the other classics of the Universal School: Dracula, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, and the original Frankenstein. But the Universal catalogue is deep, and though there are some duds in there, it rewards exploration into its more esoteric corners, especially Dracula’s Daughter, whose distinct DC subtext puts it far ahead of its time, and the little-seen Son of Frankenstein, which features Karloff’s last performance as the creature, as well as what may be the best performance Bela Lugosi ever gave.
Those looking for something a little less stagy would do well to seek out Tod Browning’s pre-code masterpiece Freaks. Though, be warned, that film still has teeth. Another pre-code classic, whose subtext is more ballsy than most modern day horror films, is The Island of the Lost Souls (recently restored by Criterion), which managed to inspire as much music as movies. Say it with me: “Are we not men?”
I Walked With a Zombie
The ’40s were a somewhat fallow time for horror. The Universal films grew increasingly cheaper and cheesier until they descended into out-and-out parody. And in the meantime, the real world produced more than enough horrors to keep people occupied. The only real new voice in the decade was Val Lewton, who made a series of films for RKO. These films were poverty-row cheapies, which were written from the title down, designed to fill movie houses with product for the undiscerning. And since no one was paying attention, Lewton was allowed to craft some of the most disturbing films of the decade, which presage noir with their carnivorous shadows and characters assaulted as much from forces within as without.
The films are so much of one piece that it’s difficult to single out just one. But as introductions go, it would be tough to do better than I Walked With a Zombie, a kind of horror film version of Jane Eyre that has some of the most unforgettable sequences to be found in a horror film. There’s a walk through the cane fields that just … brrr.
• Where to go from here: The other eight Val Lewton films are just lined up for you there, waiting. They’re all great, but start with the ones that he made with French director Jacques Tourneur (I Walked With a Zombie is one of them) and work your way out.
Night of the Living Dead
While Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is usually given credit for modernizing the horror film, Night of the Living Dead is really the one that completed the transformation. Eschewing the baroque style that dominated horror in the ’50s and ’60s, Night of the Living Dead presented itself in stark newsreel black and white. And while the films of the era insisted that everything was more or less going to turn out all right, Night of the Living Dead was of the opinion that there was a big horde of chaos and upheaval besieging America, and sooner or later it was going to break in and eat you raw. Beyond the bleakness of its message and the starkness of its violence and style, what really made Night of the Living Dead groundbreaking was that it was unabashedly about the world its first viewers were living in. Few horror films go that far.
• Where to go from here: Go back to Psycho to see where the push began, and make sure you stop and sample Robert Wise’s The Haunting, arguably the last great film of the classical style.
Also take some time for Romero’s other films, the cult classic Dawn of the Dead, still the greatest zombie film ever made; the claustrophobic, nasty Day of the Dead; as well as the underrated latter-day Land of the Dead. But don’t forget his non zombie films; Romero made some of the most on-target social horror films of the ’70s, including the relentlessly de-glammed vampire film Martin, the proto-feminist horror film Season of the Witch, and the countercultural nightmare The Crazies. Also worth watching is his and Stephen King’s tribute to the EC Comics of old Creepshow and his bizarre labor of love, the Arthurian Motorcycle Gang film (you read that right) Knightriders.
Just make sure you skip his last two zombie films, the mediocre Survival of the Dead and the appallingly bad Diary of the Dead.
Though Dario Argento has spent the back half of his career attempting to destroy as much of his reputation as possible, even this late avalanche of dreck can’t disguise the brilliance of the films he made in the first 15 years of his career.
Unfolding with the relentless momentum of a nightmare, Suspiria follows an American ballerina who arrives at an exclusive European ballet school and walks right into the middle of a particularly nasty Grimm fairy tale. Things happen in the school; telling exactly what would be giving it away. Suffice to say the surreal visuals—with their brilliant flashes of color, unexplained intrusions by the supernatural, and ingenious set design, along with Argento’s trademark sadistic violence—create the truly off-balanced feeling of being trapped in a vision you can’t get out of. It’s among the most beautiful horror films ever made, which makes it all the more distressing.
• Where to go from here: Argento makes up the holy trinity of Italian horror (one of the richest branches in the world) along with directors Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. They neatly bookend Argento, with Bava’s films tending more toward the surreal and—for lack of a better word—gentler style, and Fulci taking things to sleazy heights that would give even Argento pause (though neither were much for narrative coherence, a pretty common trait in Italian horror).
Not that Americans can’t do surreal horror. The Messiah of Evil is a lost classic of the genre, a truly disturbing off-kilter work. And though I am not among its fans, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a film beloved by far too many people who know their shit for me to dismiss it entirely.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
This is perhaps the greatest horror film ever made, and the result of pure alchemy. The product of shooting conditions that were so horrendous they literally drove the cast and crew to madness, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a dangerous film to make, and it feels like a dangerous film to watch. It indeed feels like something you shouldn’t be watching, less like something you bought on a DVD and more like something you came across in the attic of your creepy, recently deceased uncle. It’s also a masterpiece, as relentless and terrifying a horror film as ever made.
• Where to go from here: Tobe Hooper’s directorial career post-Chainsaw was pretty disappointing. Some of his films—like Funhouse and Eaten Alive—have their defenders. I am not among them. He did, however, direct a sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that’s better than its reputation suggests. Rather than try at the impossible task of replicating the original (a goal other sequels and remakes have proven to be unattainable), Hooper turned The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 into a nightmare comedy that’s damn near surreal, centered on a performance by Dennis Hopper that’s one of the most beautifully gonzo things caught on film. It’s a blast.
Evil Dead 2
Speaking of one of the most beautifully gonzo things ever caught on film, Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead is still very much worth watching, held together by pure cinematic ingenuity and genre love. But the sequel rockets things up a notch or 10, with Raimi—one of the most innovative visual directors ever to get behind a viewfinder—morphing his original into a relentless cartoon, with Bruce Campbell at the center bouncing off the walls like a much abused, gore-soaked Bugs Bunny.
To say that Evil Dead 2 is one of the most brutally paced films ever made doesn’t really touch it. To say that it is a film in which a man engages in a life-or-death struggle with his own severed hand, and is driven to near madness by a cackling deer head and a desk lamp with Popeye’s giggle, only hints at where it goes.
• Where to go from here: Round off the trilogy with the nastier Evil Dead, and the goofier Army of Darkness. Neither hit the same giddy heights, but both are fun. Then branch out into the works of the Raimi’s fellow ’80s splatterpunks—most notably Peter Jackson, whom you may have heard of, and his magnum opus, Dead Alive. Also see Dan O’Bannon’s punk horror film Return of the Living Dead, and Raimi’s latter-career horror film Drag Me to Hell.
Friday the 13th Part 2
The exact opposite of their unfettered cousins the splatterpunk films, the slashers that dominated the ’80s are roughly as form-bound as Noh drama. There were about 16,000 of these pumped out in the ’80s. They’re the Big Mac of horror cinema—disastrous as a diet, undeniably satisfying as an indulgence.
Friday the 13th Part 2 might be the best of them (though, granted, this is “smartest man in Turlock” territory), a film that, unlike its clumsy forbear, acts as a relentless goods-delivery system, bringing everything one associates with the subgenre—cheap scares, rampant nudity and gore, and more moments of proud bad taste than the average John Waters film—all in a scant 80 minutes, and throws in some effective gothic horror to boot. And as a bonus, it actually features the creature that made the series infamous (though he is, at this point, sans hockey mask).
The thing about the slasher films when compared to modern horror, particularly the dour remakes of said films that the aughts peddled, is the—and I know this will come off as weird—sense of innocence these films had. If you were to cut out the murder scenes, these basically become films about a group of friends coming together and having a good time (albeit with the cast growing mysteriously smaller as the film goes on). They could pass for one of The Meatballs rip-offs that competed with the slasher films for their teenage dollars. By contrast, most horror films of today focus on a group of fairly hateful people coming together for a bad time, even before the killers show up. Arguably, this is more in line with the tone a film about a bunch of young people being murdered should have. But if Marc Nispel is making dour hateful films out of a sense of moral seriousness, I’ll eat this newspaper.
• Where to go from here: The Friday the 13th films succumbed to the laws of diminishing returns fairly quickly, with the notable exception of Friday the 13th Part 3D , one of my favorite terrible movies, and Part 5, which is one of the sleaziest films of this rather notably sleazy subgenre. To those looking for further study, I would suggest the beautifully over-the-top The Burning, which, like Friday the 13th Part 2, manages to cram just about everything one thinks of when one thinks of slasher films into one movie. Including Jason Alexander being stabbed to death with shears.
The Blair Witch Project
Though the relentless parade of substandard found-footage movies that have followed in its wake have tarnished its legacy, The Blair Witch Project remains one of the most disturbing horror films ever made. It’s desperate, sad, and terrible, like being stuck inside a mind that is unwell. No matter how iconic stretches of it become, no matter how many times they are seen, the power of its final act and its “cattle on the way up the chute to the slaughter house” vibe never fails to make even this jaded horror fan downright queasy.
• Where to go from here: Of course, The Blair Witch Project didn’t really start the found-footage movement. That credit must go to Cannibal Holocaust, a film I cannot endorse, given that it is perhaps the single most unsavory movie ever made. It is a film so graphic that the director was arrested and forced to produce his cast in open court to prove that he had not simply murdered them out in the jungle. And when you watch it, this fact no longer comes as a surprise. Consider yourself warned.
Cabin in the Woods
The last decade’s worth of horror films seem to have taken as their principal thematic concern the fact that they are horror films. Horror, always a pretty insular genre, is in danger of becoming downright inbred. And for every self-referential work like Trick ‘R Treat, Tucker and Dale Versus Evil, and Shaun of the Dead that bothers to come up with a unique perspective and a clever, entertaining script, there are a dozen that use such lazy self referential tones to disguise the fact that they don’t have any ideas of their own.
Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods acts as the event horizon for this movement—the moment when the snake not only bit its own tail, but ended up clamping down on the back of its own neck. It’s a celebration of the beloved iconography of the genre as well as a challenge to break some long overdue new ground. It’s a loving slap to the face. And it’s a ton of fun to boot.
• Where to go from here: I could talk about the contemporaries and antecedents of Cabin in the Woods, but that would be beside the point (okay, just one: Joe Dante). By this point, you should have a firm enough grounding to take up the film’s challenge on your own. There’s plenty to discover in the past, but I remain confident in the genre’s future as well. Horror is a genre that relentlessly copies innovation, but it rewards it, too. There’s always plenty to find. So go find it.
New Times contributor Bryce Wilson’s film geek credentials include a B.A. in film production from CSU Northridge and a formative stint at SLO’s legendary Insomniac Video. Contact him via Arts Editor Anna Weltner at email@example.com.