Scary movie stuff

October 31, 2012

It is with some reluctance that I admit I’m not much of a horror fan — I didn’t care for the clinical precision of the original Halloween, I missed the sense of fun some aficionados say permeated the Freddie and Jason flicks. Wes Craven may be a genius, but I don’t have any use for his kind of movies. Sorry, I wish I loved ’em.

Part of this disinclination to embrace mainstream horror might be traced to my childhood, to the influence of a TV horror movie host named Larry Vincent. That was his stage name. His real name was Jerry Vance and I knew him as “Seymour, the Master of the Macabre, Epitome of Evil, The Most Sinister Man to Crawl the Face of the Earth.”

Seymour was the host of Fright Night, which occupied the time slot just ahead of the test pattern on early Sunday morning on Los Angeles’ KHJ-TV, Channel 9. Seymour specialized in showing really bad horror movies like Attack of the Mushroom Peopleand Monster From the Surf and supplying — in spots — the sort of ironic commentary that the Mystery Science 3000 guys would later transform into high art.

I’m sure I missed a lot of what Seymour was talking about; though I was only 11 years old, I was already aware that this was the kind of television show that could probably be better enjoyed through chemistry. Except for Cal Worthington Dodge, the only sponsor Seymour seemed to have was the Pizza Man. Way before the advent of the Scary Movie and Scream franchises, I viewed horror films as a comedy genre and I was disappointed whenever they weren’t as risible as, say, the first Phantasm film.

I understand the reason horror endures. Our first stories were horror tales — St. George and the Dragon, Beowulf, Hansel and Gretel. Because the world is a dangerous place, and there is much we can’t control, we manufacture scary stories to empower ourselves. In the end, scary movies make us feel good.

Yet no horror movie will scare you if you decide you don’t want to be scared.

Movies are by their very nature resistible; just as you don’t have to buy a ticket to any given film, you don’t have to make yourself available to any given film’s advances. There’s always an escape hatch, a well-lighted exit sign the moviegoer can escape through if he wishes.

While a movie might startle you with pop-out ghosts and ringing phones or shock you with escalated levels of gore and violence, the key to a genuinely scary movie is the voluntary enlistment of the audience in the cause. We have to want to be scared.

All this is a long way of getting to the point that while the play may indeed be the thing, there are many other incalculable factors that contribute to the quality of each movie-watching experience. We are complicated creatures who bring all sorts of goodies to the theater with us. Most Americans who rent bizarre Euroslashers don’t really expect to be scared by them; they’re indulging their connoisseurs’ taste for the esoteric. When it comes right down to it, a genuinely scary movie is a fairly rare event.

Most of the time, I’m not scared by something that happens in a movie theater.

Night of the Living Dead was an exception, Wait Until Dark made me jump, and Ken Russell’s The Devils unnerved me, but I wasn’t really scared by Jaws or The Shining or any of the usual suspects. The trashier — and I mean that in the best sense of the word — scream operas like Halloween or Friday the 13th never laid a glove on me. This certainly was due to a certain reluctance I have to giving myself over to a film too cheaply.

My first brush with deep frightening was Rosemary’s Baby, though I can’t remember exactly what it was about the film that disturbed me in 1968. I doubt my nine-year-old self was equipped to understand much of Roman Polanski’s subtle gothic masterpiece (I’ve seen it since) but I do remember a sense of vague unease that hung around for days after seeing the movie. A year later, when I saw The Green Slime, I was already advanced enough to take pride at my ability to laugh at the monsters.

There was no laughing at The Exorcist. I saw it a few weeks after it opened, probably in February 1974. I wasn’t a movie critic then, but I had evolved into a fairly sophisticated watcher of movies. And what was terrifying about the movie was the pervasive atmosphere of tension and dread director William Friedkin was able to sustain. It builds slowly, almost subconsciously, through the funereal pacing of the first hour of the three-part structure. What’s really scary about the movie is the way Friedkin manipulates our mood, punctuating this oppressive tone with torrents of graphic language and grisly atrocities inflicted upon Linda Blair’s preteen Reagan MacNeil.

I wouldn’t dispute the conventional wisdom that The Exorcist is the “scariest” movie ever, though I suspect that many of the young people who see the movie for the first time might not experience it the same way those of us who saw it in the ’70s experienced it. After all, The Exorcist changed the way horror films were made, and the intervening 30 years have inoculated us against what were then concussion scenes.

Since The Exorcist, I’ve not encountered too many movies that met my standards for authentic scariness.

One that did creep me out, however, was Spoorloos, a 1988 Dutch-French production also known as The Vanishing. Five years later, director George Sluzier remade the film for Hollywood, with Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock in key roles. That version — with a Hollywood ending — hardly made a dent in my consciousness, but the understated original, with its unknown (to me, at least) cast and its low-tech, documentary-style textures, is a haunting, spooky movie that will freeze your heart.

If you let it, that is.

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