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Horror is everywhere (4)

Over the past couple years, I’ve written repeatedly about how “horror is everywhere”: how horror iconography slips across genre boundaries, turning up in surprising places; how savvy filmmakers employ traditional horror imagery—vampires, witches, ghosts, etc.—even in “straight” dramas, often to shocking effect. So now here are five more films, all plucked from the TSPDT “1,000 Greatest Films” list, and their scariest moments…

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

I’m certainly not the first to point out that Frank Capra’s “beloved Christmas classic” is also one of the darkest films to emerge from 1940s Hollywood, tearing as it does into American ideals like family and the free market with severe emotional precision. But the darkness extends beyond the film’s sociopolitical implications: when Clarence lets George experience the world if he had never been born, it’s visually coded as an actual horror movie—an anti-ghost story, if you will. George investigates his and Mary’s would-be house, but nobody lives there; in this reality, it’s an unlit, decrepit building with graffiti and broken windows. And it’s haunted, sure enough, by George and his now-false memories of his wife and children. Capra uses cobwebs and shadows right out of Gothic horror to give George the ultimate “Be careful what you wish for.”

Easy Rider (1969)

Long before he became an avatar of cackling grotesquerie in The Shining and Batman, Jack Nicholson was on the other side of horror, as a victim of redneck violence in Dennis Hopper’s hippie picaresque. Although smoking pot and riding motorcycles may sound like fun, a cloud of southern “good ol’ boy” bigotry hangs over the film. When free spirits Billy (Hopper), Wyatt (Peter Fonda), and George (Nicholson) stop off for lunch in a small Louisiana town, their mildly rebellious looks and behavior stir up rage and jealousy in the local men, leading to a late-night ambush on the hippies’ campsite and George’s death by beating. This bloody turn of events directly anticipates a whole wave of horror movies (DeliveranceThe Hills Have Eyes, Pumpkinhead) wherein rural folk assault unwanted outsiders. (See “Getting Even,” the third chapter of Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws for more on this “city vs. country” strain of horror.)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Really, what isn’t scary in Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian classic? In its futuristic England, no amount of locked doors can keep out psychopathic thugs, whose ranks include the protagonist, Alex. The film follows two different home invasion subplots, one of which segues into a rape-revenge narrative, while the other ends abruptly when Alex cracks the homeowner’s skull with a penis statue. The only reasons, I’d say, that A Clockwork Orange isn’t categorized as pure horror are 1) because of its sci-fi setting and 2) because it’s from the POV of the monster. And what a monster! Malcolm McDowell’s performance stretches the definition of “human” as he gibbers, lies, and beats his way through adolescence. Just listen to his low, chuckling delivery of the closing line, “I was cured all right.” Absolutely spine-chilling.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Watch the last 10-15 minutes of Coppola’s war epic without sound or context. Then tell me it doesn’t look like the kinkiest, most homoerotic art-horror movie ever made. A soldier, wearing little more than sweat, fog, and shadow, breaks into a temple and—symbolically cross-cut with the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo—stabs an older man to death. By now, they’re both possessed by “the jungle” (i.e. by the film’s still-colonialist conception of the Southeast Asian wilderness) and far from the pseudo-civilization of the American military. That soldier, Martin Sheen’s Willard, has refashioned himself as something more like the primordial Creature from the Black Lagoon than a war hero. And the coup de grâce he delivers is edited to feel more like an orgasm than an assassination. “The horror, the horror,” indeed.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Quentin Tarantino routinely makes visual nods to obscure horror movies—see the references to Dario Argento and Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell in the first Kill Bill, for example—but when Pulp Fiction‘s “Gold Watch” chapter (my favorite of the bunch) descends into Maynard’s basement, its horror is more than just an allusion. It becomes a short, sharp recapitulation of that same “city vs. country” horror found in Easy Rider (or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), as a pair of Angelenos are bound and gagged by a coven of pro-Confederate hick rapists. Butch and Marsellus get their grisly revenge, of course, but they can’t unsee what they’ve seen: that L.A.’s horrors go so much deeper than the criminal underworld they’re used to.

This lesson applies equally well to moviegoers, too: you may think you know what genre you’re in, but horror could be lurking just around the corner.

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Horror is everywhere (3)

By Andreas

Since The Mike, of the truly excellent genre film blog From Midnight With Love was on vacation, I volunteered to help keep FMWL (and its June theme of ’80s horror) going in the meantime. To that end, I wrote a continuation of my “Horror is everywhere” series from Pussy Goes Grrr, delving into the scary side of five ’80s movies that aren’t technically horror: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The King of Comedy, Blood Simple, Ran, and Blue Velvet (the last of which I also addressed over at The Film Experience). Head on over to FMWL to read “Horror is everywhere (3)”!

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Horror is everywhere (2)

Jumping off from last week’s post about horror’s influence across genres, national boundaries, and levels of respectability, I’m going to look at a very specific subset of horror-related images. If you saw my special announcement last night, you’ll know that I have a personal interest in the connection between femininity and monstrosity. And that’s just what I’ve got for you! Culled from the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? list of the 1,000 most critically acclaimed films, here are female monsters in established classics from around the globe…

Rashomon (1950) – TSPDT ranking: #18

OK, so maybe the medium from Rashomon isn’t technically a “monster,” but this is still a terrifying moment. In order to extract testimony from a dead samurai, the court interviews a medium channeling his spirit, and his voice emanates from her like Mercedes McCambridge speaking through Linda Blair. The way she writhes and contorts just compounds the creepiness. As you’ll see later in this list, 1950s jidai-geki (samurai movies) are often informed by medieval Japanese mythology; witches and ghosts frequently intrude on secular affairs. And, although it was inspired by Shakespeare’s very scary Macbeth, similar horror motifs also show up in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957).

Sunset Blvd. (1950) – TSPDT ranking: #31

Besides being easily one of the greatest films ever made, Billy Wilder’s bitter paean to tinseltown is also a brilliant genre hybrid, mixing black comedy, film noir, and horror. All three are visible in the image above, as faded movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) sinks deeper into delusion. By the end of the film, her tics and grandiose gestures have consumed her, and she looks grotesquely vampiric as she gazes into that mirror – teeth bared, nostrils flared, and face tilted upward. Swanson’s makeup exaggerates her facial features, turning her visage into a monstrous mask, and she completes the transformation with her unhinged, incomparable performance. Earlier in the film, Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) remarks, “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.” Norma is the monster; Hollywood’s publicity machine (aided by Erich von Stroheim as Max, the servant/ex-lover) is Dr. Frankenstein.

(For the “Sunset Blvd. as horror” argument, it’s worth remembering that the film contains a monkey in a casket.)

Persona (1966) – TSPDT ranking: #42

Let me put it this way: in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Elisabet (Liv Ullmanm) is a fucking vampire. OK, maybe she doesn’t literally suck the blood of her nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), but she’s still an emotional vampire. She listens to Alma pour her heart out about past affairs, insecurities, etc., and says absolutely nothing, pretty much draining her of identity. With such an ambiguous, atmospheric movie, it’s hard to put it all into concrete terms, but believe me: she’s a vampire. During this scene, she sneaks into Alma’s room while she’s sleeping and they have a very weird, sensual, late-night interlude together. It’s never clear exactly what Elisabet’s doing, but in his own artful way, Bergman is definitely borrowing from the visual language of horror movies. He may have only made one or two “real” horror movies in his career, but the genre was always lurking right under the surface of his austere, spiritual experiments.

Ugetsu Monogatari – TSPDT ranking: #47

To be blunt about it, Kenji Mizoguchi’s lyrical masterpiece is one long ghost story, complete with a twist ending (and emotional sucker punch) that anticipated The Sixth Sense by half a century. Like Rashomon and Onibaba, it takes place against a backdrop of warfare and its collateral damage in medieval Japan. Here, an ambitious potter forgets his wife and son when he’s entranced by a beautiful noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo, the wife from Rashomon). Granted, she’s a conniving, undead femme fatale with her fair share of ulterior motives, but Kyo also imbues her with a slightly tragic, pathetic quality. Also, note how the Buddhist prayers scrawled on the potter’s body would be repeated a decade later in the Citizen Kane of Japanese horror movies, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964).

The Wizard of Oz (1939) – TSPDT ranking: #66

This is perhaps the classic example of kindertrauma-inflicting nightmare fuel. Every little kid is told about Dorothy and Toto and the Emerald City, and how they’re going to love this fun, cute movie… and then this green-faced harridan lunges out of a cloud of smoke, and the little kids start wetting themselves. This isn’t the worst of it, either; just wait till later on, when she’s flinging balls of flame and ordering around an army of flying monkeys. Margaret Hamilton is perfectly cast as the pointy-nosed old lady everybody loves to hate. She’s just so evil – and garish, and histrionic, and anti-fun – and she wields black magic to enforce her dictatorial reign over Oz. She’s many a child’s first worst nightmare.

Vampires, ghosts, and witches are all over the place, in Hollywood classics and art film masterpieces. I’ll be back with more “Horror is everywhere” next week!

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Horror is everywhere (1)

Since so much of the critical discourse around horror tends to describe it as a “ghetto genre,” stuck in the gutter of low budgets and low culture, it’s easy to imagine it as walled off from the rest of film. But, well, that’s just not the case – and the sooner we realize it, the happier we’ll be. Because the fact is, as I say in the title of this post: horror is everywhere. It’s not just in ’50s B-movies and ’70s slashers and monster rampages and gore. It’s all over the place in mainstream Hollywood cinema. It’s in austere art films. Only a thin, imaginary line separates the worlds of Herk Harvey, Lars von Trier, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Ingmar Bergman.

In order to demonstrate this point, I’ve gone through the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? aggregated list of the 1,000 highest-ranked films of all time, and picked out ones that show the influence of the horror genre. Because horror isn’t just a hidden, perverse bastard genre. It’s an impulse whose tentacles reach into all eras and regions. Horror touches all artists whether they like it or not. So here are some critically acclaimed films that deserve to be located within the tradition of horror.

Citizen Kane (1941) – TSPDT ranking: #1

Who do you think dwells in that far-off, menacing mansion? Maybe Dr. Frankenstein? Mr. Sardonicus? No, that’s Xanadu, the final home of the title character in Citizen Kane. In the film’s opening sequence, Welles invokes haunted house iconography, moving us closer and closer to Xanadu through a series of eerie dissolves; Bernard Herrmann’s creepy score accentuates the feeling. Welles was no stranger to scaring people (remember, he’d punk’d the nation with The War of the Worlds just 3 years earlier), and he knew how to make Kane seem distant and foreboding: introduce him with a dash of Gothic horror. Kane’s rigid, Karloffian outburst after Susan leaves him later in the film just drives the point home.

Vertigo (1958) – TSPDT ranking: #2

Like Welles, Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to horror. He flirted with the genre throughout his career, producing movies that were terrifying and mysterious, but still better categorized as “suspense” or “thrillers.” Still, he made one of the earliest serial killer movies (The Lodger), and helped establish the slasher and killer animal subgenres with Psycho and The Birds. In Vertigo, often considered his masterpiece, he even dabbled with the supernatural through a red herring reincarnation story. Sure, Madeleine/Judy turns out to be a total fake, but the film still contains moments of potent psychological horror – like the wonderful dream sequence pictured above, which is easily one of my favorite cinematic nightmares.

The Rules of the Game (1939) – TSPDT ranking: #3

I’m not trying to suggest that Renoir’s playful, lusty tragicomedy is secretly a horror movie. But I just really love Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, and I love Renoir’s very theatrical take on it. This macabre little dance routine is performed by members of the nobility for the benefit of their friends, and also for us, the audience. In a movie where trivialities and misguided passions lead to serious consequences, it only makes sense that skeletons and ghosts should be reduced to characters in a brief entertainment.

The Third Man (1949) – TSPDT ranking: #30

Postwar Vienna is a scary place. At least, that’s the lesson learned by hack writer Holly Martins after he pays the city a visit. In addition to dealing with international politics, canted angles, and the maybe dead, maybe evil Harry Lime, Martins and his not-quite-girlfriend Anna have to evade this creepy little Austrian kid who’s accusing them of murder. Throughout the film (which is one of my favorites ever), director Carol Reed pours on the expressionism, to the point that you’re not sure whether Holly and Anna are coming or going. The war-damaged state of the city’s streets and buildings doesn’t help. Combine this disorientation with a demon child right out an Austrian version of The Omen, and you’ve reached the point where noir meets horror.

The Conversation (1974) – TSPDT ranking: #166

Most of Francis Ford Coppola’s least-recognized masterpiece sits in “lonely paranoid thriller” territory, very much in line with the ’70s work of others like Scorsese, Pakula, and Polanski. But toward the end, as Gene Hackman’s surveillance expert Harry Caul realizes the complexity of the conspiratorial web he’s trapped in, the movie has some hallucinatory moments of real horror. Caul glances around an empty hotel room where he suspects a murder has been committed, then innocuously flushes the toilet… and out pours blood in a Shining-style deluge. We’ve also got Robert Duvall’s bloody handprint smeared on a window.

Initially, The Conversation‘s iciness and formal refinement may seem light-years away from the off-the-cuff gruesomeness of something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But really, to paraphrase Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat, they’re “sisters under the mink.” Or, to put it in more prosaic terms, they’re “surprisingly similar after you disregard artificial notions of high and low culture.” Whether you love or hate horror movies, it’s time to set aside these false distinctions, break through the self-imposed barriers, and realize that all of cinema is interconnected. And to hammer that point home, I’ll have more “Horror is everywhere” for you each week throughout October.

Pleasant nightmares, all!

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