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Film Fear and

Drop Dead Scary: It knows what frightens us.

Everyone agrees that the aim of horror films is to scare people, but it's a rare thing to find films that are actually scary, at least to semi-mature adults.  We generally go to horror films like any other kind of movie, for the thrills they impart, or the fun of watching a visual spectacle we can't normally get in everyday life.  Older horror films are revered for their aesthetic content long after their ability to frighten audiences has waned.

People watching this year's breakout chiller, The Blair Witch Project, report actually becoming frightened, scared, screaming in the theater and returning home rattled, checking over their shoulders for unseen threats.  The crazy pleasure of this kind of experience is almost unique to the horror film - one of the few kinds of entertainment where people actually want to be frightened.  You know you are at this kind of show when the audience settles in with a particular unease - those who can't wait and those perhaps dragged along by more eager viewers.  Often, as the lights go down, some joker will scream or give a creepy chortle.  Just as comedies are best watched with a crowd primed to laugh, the experience of a horror film seen under optimum circumstances can be an experience fondly remembered.

Call it the creeps, the jitters, or whatever, the feeling one gets in these circumstances is a weird involuntary impulse to act, to move, to flee - a primitive flight reflex, they say.  Some people avert or cover their eyes.  I personally don't do that, a choice derived from having my mom shove her hand in front of my face for a beheading scene in Inn of the Sixth Happiness when I was six.  For days afterward I imagined the goriest head-chopping imaginable.  The film cut away, of course, so all my well-intentioned mom did was implant in her darling boy a morbid desire to see more.

Everyone remembers being frightened at the movies when a child, and to some degree these experiences don't count.  Kids are so impressionable, so susceptible to suggestion that it makes me furious when I go to some gruesome film or another and small kids are in attendance, as when I saw fathers bringing preschoolers to the sadistic RoboCop 2.  As a kid, all kinds of visual things frightened me, just as a sensitive kid's first exposure to scenes about cute dogs dying or whatever can produce an exaggerated reaction.  Lots of films gave me the creeps, and I wanted more.  I say these things don't count because I was thoroughly rattled by movies that adults were probably laughing at, like Atomic Submarine.  Eager for more, I snuck out to see Caltiki, the Immortal Monster.  Coming home, I was petrified to find horrible brown stains in my right hand.  I thought I was dying, another victim of the flesh-eating Mexican blob, until mother determined that the stain was from clutching a handful of loose change in my sweating palm for ninety minutes. 1

Everybody has these tales.  The quality or actual fright potential of the film is irrelevant.  My sons love 2001 and 2010, but once were freaked beyond comforting at the sight of the embryonic, transparent Star Child.  It was hilarious - little David, told that the baby with the glowing eyes was coming up again, would retreat to the next room with the video box until it passed, only to scream when he saw the little bugger with the glowing eyes printed on the package itself!

About the last film that really got me as a child was The Birds.  Alone, I felt my life in danger and watched the film as if Rod Taylor's actions would determine if I ever saw home again.  I walked out a changed kid, unconsicously planning strategies against all kinds of unnatural threats.

But as an adult the experience only repeated itself a few times.  Almost all horror films, and especially gore movies, never did it for me; a Fulci film can have its qualities but my curiosity for gore was vanquished at a Herschel Gordon Lewis double bill.  Eager to find out what all the fuss was about, I got halfway through The Gore-Gore Girls, only to leave disgusted.  I know it's a personal taste thing, but that was a 'group experience' that revolted me - an audience full of vocal types trying to out-deSade one another with creepy laughs of approval at each absurd act of cruel dismemberment and torture.  I don't think films induce violence per se but I derived nothing from being in a hall full of potential serial killers - nurturing a taste for that stuff makes it acceptable & ultimately do-able, in my thinking.  Enough of my personal taste.

Just about the only films that got that 'flight reflex' going in my stomach were Night of the Living Dead, Jaws, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Each I saw not knowing what to expect, and in each case the creeps were brought on by expert direction.  Night was at a midnight show in 1970, Jaws was with a normal crowd, and Texas was at a screening where Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were trying to interest Steven Spielberg in doing a film with Tobe Hooper ( I guess they succeeded).  In Night, I think I was carried along with the crowd.  We were well-primed that the THING we were going to see would be the most horrifying experience imaginable.  Jaws was sheer storytelling skill.  I marvelled at how frightening such a wholesome film could be.  It was a big glossy adventure movie at heart, not some berserko zombie concept; the shark seemed real and ready to bite me because I identified so completely with Roy Scheider's predicament.  Texas Massacre was unique in that it was sort of like being a child again.  I saw it essentially by myself but in a room full of powerful filmmakers.  The intimidation of my surroundings must have made me especially susceptible to the movie's superior sense of dread.

What about The Exorcist?  Didn't do a thing for me, also probably a circumstantial thing.  I had been an usher at the National Theater in Westwood where the film premiered late in 1973.  I quit the week before to concentrate on my student film work, but had been present for half a year of visits from the Warner publicity men, who actually conferred with the National's theater manager over the campaigns.  These guys were brilliant and I saw spread out on the theater carpet dozens of different concepts for posters, etc., and heard their shrewd reasonings as to why some were kept and others rejected.  I also heard them talk about planting news stories exaggerating claims that the movie's set was haunted.  The best memory was of running into the theater after hearing very LOUD Bernard Herrmann - style music while sweeping popcorn - they were testing a 'teaser' which consisted of a minute or so of flashing, morphing shock images of skull-like faces, set to truly frightening music in the 'Sisters' mold, only even more frenzied.  The promo was never used, and I never checked to see if it was an extra on the laser or DVD.  When the film came out, I was mad at the papers for callously insinuating that Fearless Vampire Killers actor Jack MacGowran's death was demon-related.  When I saw the overrated, insensitive, mechanical and condescending Exorcist I resisted all but the strongest jolts.  Anybody can show vomit onscreen and get a reaction.  Sure, you'll get jitters if simple things like X-rays are introduced with deafening noises.  When Father Damian crashed out the window carrying the Demon with him in a noble suicide, I didn't buy it.  My mind just saw it as an inferior rip-off of the conclusion of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein!  Cool scene.  The Wolfman takes Dracula with him on a fatal leap from a castle window, if you recall.

These things are subjective.  I love to be manipulated, it seems, but if I intellectually revolt against the kind of manipulation I'm getting, well, it doesn't work for me.  So don't come down on me for dissing The Exorcist, that's just my opinion.  I'll save my full venom for that wretched film for some later date...

So, when a couple of hours of handheld video in the woods freak you out, when you realize that you are drawn to see Blair Witch because you expect it to make your skin crawl, when you're physically feeling as if you're not in a movie theater, but experiencing some kind of frightening reality, well enjoy it!  Blair Witch is an amazingly clever movie built from the concept up by people who worked hard and understand that which scares ya.  They did a bang-up job of it.  Their achievement is more unrepeatable than most - I'm sure that an announcement for a sequel is coming at any time but it seems hopeless to expect audiences to have the same reaction to the concept a second time.  It's not a gimmick film, but it is a one-off idea that depended upon excellent premarketing.  They really got audiences to think they would see something beyond cinema, something bloodcurdlingly real.

This is precisely the lesson Full Moon Films doesn't seem to have understood.  They just finished post-producing a movie meant to 'cash in' on the Blair Witch craze.  Their plan? Send some actors into a 'haunted' house with video cameras for a couple of nights, expecting them to come out with amazing footage.  Not only did they not understand that nobody wants to see a Blair knockoff (even Roger Corman would be able to figure that out), but reading any newspaper should have revealed that the makers of Blair worked very hard setting up their story and cueing their actors with make-believe motivations and plot complications.  What Full Moon got, of course, were boring hours of film of people with nothing to react to ...

This is similar to the fate that befell The Beatles in 1967 when they set out to make Magical Mystery Tour with a busload of amusing people, expecting some kind of 'magical happening' to spontaneously occur along their merry way.  After a few frustrating days of non-magic, the film had to be augmented with fake happenings and organized scripting in a hurry - marching bands and walrus suits were ordered on a rush basis.  That's a story in itself.

Last word is that Full Moon's project is sitting there, filmed, cut, with nowhere to go!


1. Curiously enough, Riccardo Freda's Caltiki begins with a missing expedition, whose demise is unknown except for a roll of film discovered in a 16mm camera they left behind them.  The rescue party develops the film and screens it, only to find in the shaky, hand-held footage that some unseen THING emerged from a pool of water in a Mexican temple.  Their panic can only be guessed at, as the film ends with a few seconds of silent chaos, blurring as the cameraman drops his camera.  There was a chilling sense of horror-verite when I saw Caltiki in 1961, and Blair Witch reminded me of it.  Not only that, but dependable Gary Teetzel reminded me that Caltiki was purportedly inspired by The Quatermass Xperiment, which also has the film recovered from a monitor camera in a spaceship provide a chilling record of what happened to two missing astronauts.  Investigators view the film after the fact, just as in Caltiki!  Thanks, Gary.

Text © Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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