Halloween is one of the most fun and unique holidays, and probably the only one that has an entire genre of film associated with it (no, I don’t count Christmas movies). The horror film exists on the fringe of cinema, and with a few exceptions (Psycho, Nosferatu) horror films do not invite widespread critical acclaim. Because I don’t particularly enjoy being scared, I’ve never been extremely interested in the horror genre. So when October rolled around this year, I figured I’d change that by tackling some of the most acclaimed horror classics, and at the end of the month, write about my findings.
I soon ran into a problem: since I was exploring only horror classics, I found that the films had more or less lost their scare value (with the exception of certain parts of Suspiria). However, I realized that this could be a blessing in disguise. With the actual scariness removed, I could examine whether these movies were seriously good movies, or “merely” scary. After all, horror movies are still movies, and really great ones should still be able to engage a viewer through other means besides shock.
The first thing I realized is that there’s nothing more important to a horror film than atmosphere. Even without real scares, a good atmosphere can draw viewers in and give them an unsettling feeling even when nothing outwardly scary is happening. Take one of my favorite films that I watched this October, Dario Argento’s Suspiria. In many ways, Suspiria is not a well-made movie- the plot makes little sense, a lot of the acting is bad, and the blood is so fake it’s laughable- but Argento uses old-school Technicolor to absolutely flood the screen with garish reds, blues, and greens, creating an extremely unique atmosphere. It would be self-indulgent if it wasn’t so creepy.
On the other hand, Tobe Hooper’s influential The Texas Chain Saw Massacre creates a great environment, but has no idea what to do with it. There is a room in the house in which Leatherface and the rest of the demented serial killer family live which is filled with bones: hanging from the wall, dangling from the ceiling, and littering the floor. But Hooper doesn’t bother using the room to set a mood, spending only enough time in it to give you an initial shock before the poor teenager who stumbles on it is murdered. Throughout the movie, Hooper doesn’t bother with suspense or atmosphere, preferring to throw all his horror in your face until you’re sick to death of screaming and maniacal laughter.The effect winds up being that if you’re not scared, the movie’s worthless.
But at the end of the day, horror is just like any other genre, and to be a truly great film it must have some kind of purpose, some idea behind it. This is where many solid horror films fall short of real greatness. They have style, they have solid acting, good pacing, and everything else a good movie has, but are not able to make the jump from good to great, because there is no point other than to scare you. John Carpenter’s The Thing, for instance, is a very engaging and enjoyable movie. Regardless, I couldn’t help feeling at the end that if Carpenter had taken more time to explore the characters and their individual reactions to the situation (in which an alien which can take the form of humans is roaming around their Antarctic research station), I could have been a lot more enthusiastic.
This is why I would cite my all-time favorite horror films as Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935) and The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). Neither of them scared me, but both are masterful in evoking the strange and unnatural, and both create unlikely empathy in the audience. Dr. Frankenstein’s lab in Bride is a brilliant atmosphere, and the montage of the machines whirring into action to create the Bride is one of the most thrilling climaxes in all of horror. The Exorcist gives an unforgettable opening scene, where Father Merrin discovers the demonic statue in Iraq, and an equally unforgettable climax, where the two priests face off against the devil himself in a child’s bedroom. But most of all, both these films have soul; Bride is mostly concerned with following the monster as he struggles to combat his all-encompassing loneliness, and The Exorcist is as much about Father Karras dealing with his crisis of faith as it is about the devil inhabiting the body of a 12-year-old. In the long run, the level of scariness that a movie can produce doesn’t matter too much. The real test of a horror movie’s merit is to watch it years later, and find out whether it holds up as a movie, and not just a horror movie.