Saturday, 14 April 2007
Saturday the 14th issue
There's a brief shock moment at the beginning of Disturbia that startled me into muttering "What the fuck." It didn't last long. Disturbia is a mostly lifeless, rather xenophobic teen thriller. But the bit caught me off guard because I rarely anticipate those "Oh my God!" moments at horror movies.
It may be that it's a genre I'm well accustomed to. Being unsettled by something is just a question of your emotional involvement with what's going on. For instance, a person could get too involved with the storyline of Pretty Woman to manage to watch it to the end. When I was very young, I couldn't finish an episode of Canadian TV's Mr. Dressup wherein the puppet Casey breaks a pair of Mr. Dressup's glasses, and tries to hide them from him. I was worried that when Mr. Dressup found out he would beat the shit out of that puppet. But that wasn't the innocent show trying to scare me; it was my imagination working on overdrive.
With horror, the frightening impact is more often something that hits me in retrospect, when an event of my life causes me to compare it to an event in a movie.
Just last Wednesday morning, a girl I sort of know messaged me on a friend-networking site to make sure I was still alive. Apparently, she'd just had a dream where I was dead. I assured her that I was unable to walk through my walls, but I then spent all day feeling like I was in a Final Destination movie. I was driving extra carefully, and keeping my eyes open for potential catastrophes.
For this extra special Day After Friday the 13th issue of Blip on the Radar, I'm reflecting on the movies that in some way frightened me as I was watching them. From time to time, I get asked what the scariest movies ever are, and my answer is always the same, "I'm a grown man!"
And so several of my answers are children's movies. When you're a kid, everything has the chance to be scary because you don't know anything yet. Movies used to take advantage of this. Kiddie flicks today (outside of George Miller's stuff) are less sadistic than they were 20 years. They're not the formative experiences they used to be, and that's a notable loss.
Movies that freaked me out to some degree, in the order in which I saw them:
Return to Oz (1985)
My introduction to horror was, like a lot of filmbuffs my age, through Spielberg movies. There's a horror element in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Gremlins , which I saw theatrically at the age of 5 (something that horrified my mom, who thought she was taking me to another movie like ET, more than it bothered me) that had built me a taste for this stuff. Certain Disney cartoons used to have this effect as well. But Return to OZ is a whole new level of childhood trauma.
Walter Murch's box office bomb enraged Siskel and Ebert so much that they dedicated the bulk of an episode to warning families away from it. Their main complaint: Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) never smiles. That Return to Oz has reached cult status today is testament to just how uncompromisingly it treats childhood disappointment and cruelty. How can you watch an Oz movie directed by the editor of Apocalypse Now that begins with Dorothy getting shock treatment, and just toss it aside as junk? Return to Oz is messed up! Arched-back freaks called Wheelers hunt the heroine. Princess Mombie (Jean Marsh) has a hallway full of replacement heads that scream at Dorothy to give away her location. Of course, this L. Frank Baum partial-adaptation has its happiness and "value of friendship" stuff as well. But the Yellow-Brick Road is surrounded by fire and brimstone.
Garfield in Disguise (aka Garfield's Halloween Adventure) (1985)
Yes, it's in fact a TV special. As a kid who knew how to program a VCR, I awoke before sunset to see the new Garfield special. 2 things: 1) Garfield was enormously cool among grade-school kids in the 1980s. 2) Horror-themed programming is for some reason scarier if you watch it before everyone wakes up rather than once everyone's gone to bed. This thing is fine most of the way through. Garfield theorizes that Halloween is the greatest of all holidays because it's celebrated with candy rather than fireworks. He and Odie go trick-or-treating. Then, in the last third, it turns into a remake of John Carpenter's The Fog, replete with zombified ghost pirates. There's even an old man who sits in a chair. Old people still frighten me a little.
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
My parents used to go grocery shopping on Friday nights, and I'd usually tag along. My incentive was that the grocery store (Sobey's Food Warehouse in Bedford) had a video rental outlet in it. While my parents bought food, I would look at the back of VHS covers of horror movies (some of which were pretty fucked up) and think, "If I ever watched this movie, it would probably kill me." Nothing too crazy went on on the Friday the 13th covers, but the summer camp premise, and the menace of Jason, began appealing to me. Also, they were released by Paramount, who I'd convinced myself could do no wrong since they released the Indiana Jones films and the first R-rated movie I ever saw Beverly Hills Cop. Additionally, I was Jason for Halloween when I was 8 years old.
One night, I was excited to notice in the TV paper that the fourth Friday the 13th was airing. Again, I set the VCR and woke up very early the next morning to watch it before my parents got up. I can't say I was too scared by the film, just that it was a big deal to me at the time. It wasn't as crazy as I'd imagined a real horror movie would be, but it wasn't lame either (at least not until I watched it again in high school.) This Friday the 13th is notable as it featured not only Crispin Glover but Corey Feldman, BEFORE he was cool. Feldman sticks a machete into Jason's eye at the end. But final chapters don't stay down for long. In one of the cheesiest series recoveries ever, part 5 was called A New Beginning.
The Fly (1986)
By far the ickiest movie I saw in the first 10 years of my life. Even with my brother yelling, "Stupid flies!!," every 10 minutes. it didn't really lose its nasty appeal. The power of David Cronenberg's remake is that it uses s simple sci fi premise (a man turning into an insect) to get inside the uncomfortable realization of disease and decomposition--that as humans, we're not just gonna grow up, get big and win marathons. We'll eventually start to decompose. Also, a baboon gets turned inside out at the start. And what is Cronenberg's problem, anyway?
I rented this in the summer between ninth and tenth grade as I was becoming a fairly obsessive fan of Brian De Palma. Carrie never had much prior interest to me, so it was a revelation to discover that it's the director's masterpiece. It's the film's capacity to play as realistic melodrama that made its eventual horror element knock me on my ass. By engaging our sympathies first, it's actually emotionally upsetting when the movie goes to hell. The final 20 minutes are the most relentlessly intense stretch of genre filmmaking I know. Carrie has the greatest shock scene of all time, and is the best teen movie, period. I saw it theatrically a couple years later at a midnight Halloween show, and it was amazing hearing the entire audience gasp collectively. Those are horror movie-going moments that are too rare.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
A friend lent me the DVD of this with the warning that the ending is fucked up. As I began watching the film, I thought, "If the ending is what I think it is that's the most obvious twist ever." I only knew the half of it.
Sleepaway Camp is a cheap Friday the 13th ripoff most of the way. Except it's more laughable, because the kids have the most gratuitously vulgar dialect in slasherdom, the shorts are just too short, and in one scene a man's moustache is clearly made of duct tape. Then the ending happens, and it's ridiculous, but somehow so disturbing that the image burns itself onto your retinas and you spend the next two hours online reading if anyone else was as affected by it as you were. I've had some disagreements over whether the movie is best watched in company or alone. I say alone, maybe cuz that's how I watched it when it first hit me, but both have their virtues.
Dario Argento's last great movie is also his most merciless. Opera is based around the rumour that the stage opera of MacBeth is cursed, as killings plague the production. The film is Argento's heavy metal music video of suffering--it would almost be too sadistic to endure if it weren't so beautifully stylized. But though Opera is often muddled in its storytelling (what Argento movie isn't?) and the amazing Sound of Music ending is the most frequent point of debate among the director's fans, it's also a literate examination of a horror filmmaker's position as a madman, and the viewer's role as a sadist. It's the darkest place Argento has ever tread, and the experience bothered him enough that he briefly went to Italy in filmmaking-exile immediately afterward.