Horror in Store, Part 2: The Art of Terror

The best horrors seem to imitate the fragile, visceral quality of your worst nightmares, some of which were spawned in your youth; transcending reality and making us feel like no other genre does. And ‘the scary place’ plays into that fear brilliantly.

Film Critic Mark Kermode

The place that Kermode refers to here can come in a variety of guises, be it a strange building, a foreign country or even another planet. In Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining (1983), the foreboding Overlook Hotel provides the nightmare setting for Jack Torrance’s descent into madness. In Ari Aster’s latest horror Midsommar (2019), a picturesque commune in Central Sweden forms the backdrop for a group of young Americans’ doomed summer vacation. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) begins ominously with the crew of a spaceship visiting a far-off rocky moon with some very weird egg-thingys in a large and creepily sculpted cavern.

A scary place can also be enhanced through atmosphere – lighting, sounds and/or imagery. A straight-forward example is Tobe Hopper’s Poltergeist (1982): a story about a middle class American family whose home is invaded by sinister spirits intent on wreaking havoc and driving them out of there. While we are initially entreated to a vision of idyllic and comfortable American suburbia, a malevolent nightmare slowly unfolds and their house is literally turned upside down. Another example is David Lynch’s debut feature Eraserhead (1977): a difficult-to-describe (…or digest) experimental horror film. Lynch envisions a deeply unsettling industrial-scape where everybody’s actions are odd beyond recognition. Whereas the film is not overtly scary, its uneasy setting and grotesque imagery has the power to greatly disturb the viewer – epitomised by an artificial chicken on a dinner plate that spurts blood.

Indeed, modern horror has relied a lot on blood (interestingly in Eraserhead, the effect is not diminished by the fact that it is in black and white). Gratuitous amounts of blood and gore never reach the desired effect for me, it just puts me off. But there are innovative uses of bloody imagery that makes a lasting impact. Brandon Cronenberg’s recently released Possessor, like his father’s films before him, uses blood (or more specifically, body horror) as a plot device: the main character is an assassin whose consciousness is blended with the target host via a brain implant. The imagery is often graphic, but the content, touching on themes of mass surveillance and free will, is quite sophisticated and engaging. Like father, like son, the baton of conscience-driven horror has been successfully passed down the line it seems!

Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.

David Cronenberg

In tandem with Stephen King and Clive Barker in fiction, David Cronenberg essentially formulated the ingredients for the successful modern horror film – one that is hard to look at but even harder to look away from. Along with squeamishly gory detail, he often aligns his narratives to everyday realism. There is a sense of place that is often familiar to audiences. The horror played out in Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979) or Dead Ringers (1988), for example, take place in doctors’ surgeries or the back rooms of psychologists’ clinics. Many of his films are admirably made (The Fly, for instance, being a masterpiece of mental breakdown), but there is no doubt he has taken it too far at times. Films such as Crash (1996), which blends sexual perversion with extreme images of car crashes, or A History of Violence (2005), which seems to advocate sexual assault in marriage, not only leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but also makes you worry for the creator’s own mental state.

The perverse has always played a strong role in horror films. And those boundaries have always been pushed since the Hays Code was abandoned by Hollywood in the late 1960s. After the success of his British psychological treatise, Repulsion in 1965, Roman Polanski brought a European Arthouse sensibility to the U.S., first with the comic horror The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), and then, most successfully, with Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Here was a horror film that dealt with, among other things, the Catholic Church’s perverse hold on female liberty and human reproduction. Along with The Exorcist, it is the most effective horror film from the 20th Century, and Polanski triumphs without ever beholding to violence or gore. The superior performances from Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes and Ruth Gordon resonates against a constant feeling of paranoia and dread, and the Gothic-styled New York apartment (large doors, high roofs) holds in a frightful atmosphere that often leaves the viewer floored. It is a most watchable horror film, despite centring on a deeply unsettling plotline.

Rosemary’s Baby led to a lot of horrors about the occult in the intervening years, but none was quite as implicit or impactful as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist from 1973. Centring on a similarly supernatural, religious theme, Friedkin’s hallmark masterpiece (adapted from a novel by William Peter Blatty) was more graphic in its expressions of horror. It was also more sympathetic to the Catholic Church. For the time, it was probably one of the most graphic mainstream films that had ever been committed to celluloid and this led to much controversy. But it was not long before other horror films (such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) went further beyond the bounds of acceptable tastes, leaving The Exorcist to be remembered for its high production values and its important reflections on faith. In short, it had a message to give and that message was meaningful.

Which is not the same that can be said for Dario Argento’s films. If anything, meaning in Argento’s so-called Giallo horrors of the 1970s and 1980s is so fleeting that you may as well make it up yourself. But the thing I find about his films, not unlike Cronenberg’s, is that there is a certain, lush aesthetic to admire there. Giallo means yellow in Italian and refers to the yellow covers of popular Italian paperback novels that frequently dealt in the detective or thriller genre. Argento and others picked these stories up and made films out of them emphasising on elements of horror and eroticism. Without Giallo, modern slasher films such as those procured by John Carpenter and Wes Craven, would not have been made. But whereas these Hollywood films are brash and predictable, Argento’s Italian-based features are subtle and almost always avant garde in approach. His greatest triumphs are The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977) and Tenebrae (1982). There is an adherence to striking visuals (defined by bright colours), rich and expensive set designs and the use of piercing electronic scores (Claudio Simonetti and his band Goblin being most memorable).

Horror is like a serpent; always shedding its skin, always changing. And it will always come back. It can’t be hidden away like the guilty secrets we try to keep in our subconscious.

Dario Argento

The scary place that comes from your worst nightmares, and the things that make you ‘go jump in the night’ have been capitalised on by film-makers for a long time now. Looking at the highest grossing horror films at the worldwide box office (It (2017) recently making it to the number one spot), it seems that horror is a lucrative genre. But it takes a bit of class to actually get the tone right. On the negative side, horror films can lead down very divisive paths. For example, Pier Paolo Pasolini was shot dead not long after he released his most controversial Marquis de Sade adaptation, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). And Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (2009) was clearly made for only one reason – to outrage. But on the positive side, horror films can demonstrate how imaginations can flourish. They can also make us question our interactions with the actual world. For example, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) expertly juxtaposes the real horrors of the Spanish Civil War with a young girl’s journey through a terrifying fantasy world – we are asked to contemplate what is worse: the bodily torture of our fellow humans due to political differences, or a non-existing creature with eyeballs implanted into the palm of his hands?! Likewise, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) supplants the notion that grief and depression is a real-life nightmare that can be treated in the same way that terrifying monsters under your bed can….you learn to live with them.

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TypeCharacteristicsFilms
Body HorrorBlood and Gore; ‘Mad Scientists’The Brood (1979), The Thing (1982), Society (1989)
ComedyParody; AbsurdityYoung Frankenstein (1974), The Witches (1990), What We Do In The Shadows (2014)
CrimeSerial Killers; Heightened Sense of MenacePsycho (1960),Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
ExperimentalInnovative Special Effects; Unreliable NarrativeEraserhead (1977), Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), Antichrist (2009)
FolkCults; Human SacrificesThe Wicker Man (1973), Kill List (2011); Midsommar (2019).
Found FootageAmateur Camerawork; Background ThreatThe Last Broadcast (1998), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007)
GialloMurder Mystery; StylishThe Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Suspiria (1977), Tenebrae (1982),
GothicMacabre Tone; Period SettingSleepy Hollow (1999), The Others (2001), Let The Right One In (2008)
LovecraftianWeirdness; Cosmic DreadThe Evil Dead (1981), Re-Animator (1985), Color Out of Space (2019)
MonstersAbominable Creations; Survival HuntingTremors (1990), The Host (2006), A Quiet Place (2018)
NaturalUnexpected Animal Behaviour; Mass PanicThe Birds (1963), Jaws (1975), Cujo (1983)
PsychologicalErratic Human Behaviour; Disintegrating Mental StateDon’t Look Now (1973), The Shining (1980), The Babadook (2014)
Science FictionDangerous Extra-terrestrial Creatures; The UnknownAlien (1979), Event Horizon (1997), Annihilation (2018)
SlasherTeen Angst; Stalking PresenceHalloween (1978), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996)
SupernaturalEvil Spirits; PossessionsThe Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), Ring (1998)
TortureGratuitous Violence; DisempowermentThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Audition (1999)
VampiresSexual Overtones; Existential FeelingsThe Lost Boys (1987), Near Dark (1987), Interview with the Vampire (1994)
WarInhumane Brutality; Post-Traumatic StressApocalypse Now (1979), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Under The Shadow (2016)
WerewolvesAnthropomorphism; Toxic MasculinityAn American Werewolf in London (1981), The Company of Wolves (1984), Dog Soldiers (2002)
ZombiesVisceral Gore; Post-ApocalypticNight of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), 28 Days Later (2002)
Sub-genres of Horror in Film

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