Simone’s first movies were—god help me—The Strangers and Hostel II. (I’ll come back to this later.)
Like a first kiss, or getting married, you never forget your first horror movie.
The first horror movie I can remember is The Mausoleum. It was a low budget movie about demon possession. With my background—demon possession was and is treated as a real thing—the movie terrified me. There are plenty of murders, and even a guy’s head exploding. (You can see it here.) I was eight years old.
The Hearse is my second horror movie. It’s a classic haunted house/poltergeist film, and it scared me, too, although now I find it silly.
And then there was Black Christmas. Holy God, did this movie scare me. (It still does.) The story follows a group of sorority sisters receiving obscene phone calls during the Christmas holiday. It begins like many other slasher movies, but then builds into an unbearably creepy film. I couldn’t breathe, it was so scary. It ruined me as a child. I still have nightmares about it.
I watched these on television. My parents had a second TV in the apartment above the garage and on Saturdays I would sneak up there and watch USA’s Saturday Nightmares, the best thing television has ever produced. The movies were often followed by episodes of the Hitchhiker, which I watched but never really liked.
It was here I saw The Brood, Halloween III, Motel Hell, Rawhead Rex, The Sentinel, Willard, Basket Case, Exorcist III and Slugs among forty or fifty others.
The beginning of a not-so-sentimental education.
Other people have seen more horror movies than I have, but not many. A number of countries have a tradition of horror, and one thing I love about scary movies is that different countries catalog and exploit fear in different ways. It says a lot about a people, the types of stories they tell to scare themselves. The big horror movie traditions are Japan, with their creepy, vengeful, pale-skinned avenging girls; Germany, with its roots in madness, chaos and fear; England, with its Mike Hammer studios and its perpetual collision between pagan and Christian values; Italy, with its gruesome, over the top gorefests; the U.S., which has half a dozen subgenres, including the serial killers, haunted houses, supernatural creatures and the like. And then there’s Australia, which has at its core a motto of anything for a buck. Here’s a quick summary:
Japan: Solitude is terror in the face of a vast, cosmic nothing.
Germany: Man is a vile and violent creature.
England: Christians and pagans can both kill you.
United States: What you don’t know can kill you, and what you do know can kill you, and the only chance you have for survival is chastity.
Italy: Torture and dismemberment are unavoidable; try to enjoy them.
Australia: Show me the money.
Horror works because the snake-part of our brain, where fear lives, took millions of years to evolve, whereas movies have only been here for a century or so. We cannot differentiate between reality and what we’re watching, not in the moment. It’s what gives horror films, even bad ones, their eerie power. It’s what makes the basics universal.
Of course, the real allure of horror is this: when its good, it’s a primal purge of fright and catharsis. When it’s bad, it’s hilarious. Unlike dramas, where a complex array of things need to align for quality—good actors, a good script, a good director, good editing—horror films operate in an weird, counterfactual universe, immune to these prerequisites. Bad editing is a boon, terrible acting a celebration. Some movies can be scary and still have bad acting, a weak script, and bad special effects. (Evil Dead, being a good example, and Pet Semetary, at least with the acting, being another.)
There’s a downside. I was a jittery kid, although I hid it pretty well, and I’m a bit jittery as an adult, too. I know why; it’s the fear, plain and simple, that I imprinted into my cellular memory as a child. I’m jumpy at night. I dread long corridors. I always imagine dreadful things going on behind the façade of normal families in normal houses. I always assume the worst.
When you gaze into the abyss . . .
In high school, I started watching horror movies with other people. Robert was my main partner in crime. We lived on the fringe of horror for years. Instead of doing homework, playing sports, or pursuing girls, we would rent the worst looking horror movies we could find. Doctor Gore, Trick or Treats, Pieces (!), we wandered way beyond basic decency. We sprinted past aesthetics, morality, philosophy, beauty and art. We went for the vilest shit we could find. (Within reason; neither of us liked the Faces of Death movies, although I’ve seen some of these, too.) We usually did this just the two of us, but sometimes other people would wander into our orbit. This sort of thing has become more popular, but at the time it put us on the outskirts of normal.
One night we had a double feature. Robert picked Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. I picked Confessions of a Serial Killer. We didn’t realize they were both based on real-life wacko Henry Lee Lucas, a serial killer in the 70s and 80s. Both films document a series of unrelated murders. Henry is set in a gray, watery Chicago; Confessions is set in the shadowy backroads of middle America.
We were 15 years old.
We watched Henry first. Robert’s mom decided to watch with us. If I could unwatch one movie, it would be Henry. Michael Rooker plays the ultimate sadist, a murderous asshole who commits just about every imaginable atrocity—including stabbing an obsese guy with a soldering iron—sometimes alone, sometimes partnered up with some gap-toothed redneck. It isn’t a film, it’s a knuckle punch to the gut. There’s no real plot or story; it’s just a series of beatings, assaults, and murders. The last few minutes is a montage of dead bodies. The film was and is invasive, nasty, and unforgettable. Robert gasped and gulped and laughed as we watched. His mom and I stayed quiet. I felt sick, tarnished, dirty, regretful.
The second movie is a little more subtle, but no less vile. The murderer is accompanied by some doughy fatman named Moon, who defecates on the floor in the middle of their crimes. It’s much easier to watch, but also a disturbing murder romp with no real plot or even story, and the low grade, grindcore production values amplify the movie’s sleaze.
Halfway through, Robert’s mom stood up, looked at us, and said, “You guys are fucking sick,” and promptly stomped out of the room.
We kept watching.
A year later, Robert and I rented I Spit on Your Grave.
God. Give me a time machine and I would shoot the director of this movie in the foot, or administer fifty lashes with a cat o’ nine tails, hire a script doctor and remake the movie into a musical.
Even though we had seen the cover dozens of times, the back of a half-dressed woman holding a hatchet in her right hand, we didn’t know what we were getting into. We were 17 years old.
I Spit On Your Grave has three parts. The first is a meek school teacher moving to a small house at the edge of a forest. The second part has her raped, tortured, and tormented—for over 30 teeth-grinding minutes—and then left for dead. The third section follows her revenge on her tormentors, where she hangs, disembowels and destroys the men who raped her. It’s a brutal, unsophisticated movie with no twists or turns, just a relentless display of human depravity. The experience is a bleak, humorless immersion into a savage world, offering nothing redemptive, or even interesting. It’s sort of like Henry, only worse.
I’m not proud of it, but I watched it twice.
And, revealing how depraved our world really is, some Hollywood asshole remade this movie just last year. Unbelievable.
I would list the best horror movies in no particular order, as follows:
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
A Tale of Two Sisters
Night of the Living Dead
Dawn of the Dead
Hour of the Wolf
The Lost Boys
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Evil Dead II
These are the scary movies I return to, and most of them are by consensus the best ever made. I could add Eyes Without A Face, The Haunting, The House on Haunted Hill, The Amityville Horror, The Entity, The Thing, or a movie I despise but has an undeniable diabolic power, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Many great films utilize the language of horror movies. For instance, Chinatown, It’s a Wonderful Life, Kiss Me Deadly, The Seventh Seal, and La Dolce Vita all dabble with the scares.
Lurking at the edge of most great literature—and all great movies—is some gruesome villain, heinous crime, or vicious consequence of inaction.
Finally, beyond movies, there are far more terrifying monsters in real life than on celluloid. Look at any century and you’ll find hundreds of serial killers, sadists, perverts, and stone cold killers.
We developed a taste for bad horror, too. Robert led the charge here—Jeff hated watching what he thought were a waste of time—but Tommy, Mike, Chris C., and Robert’s brother Sam often joined us. We even had a beer and B-movie bash one night, to see who could pick the worst movie. Bad movies need bad acting, strange directorial decisions, stupid stories, and wretched special effects. I will write on this later, but here are a few gems:
Head of the Family
Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things
Mardi Gras for the Devil
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
Back to Simone and her first movies.
It was a freezing December night. We were staying out at Beth’s parents. Simone was six weeks old. The house was cold, dark. I couldn’t sleep from worry. Simone awoke shivering in the cold. It was 3 in the morning. I kept hearing footsteps outside in the night.
I tucked her against my bare chest and draped a blanket over my shoulders. I didn’t want to fall asleep holding her—this is one of the many, ongoing nightmares I have, that I drop her while I’m sleeping, or she suffocates in the pillowcase, or that she’s kidnapped—so I turned on the tv. Beth’s parents have on-demand video, so I searched through the list of movies, settling on The Strangers. My reasoning was simple: how better to insure you stay awake than scare the shit out of yourself?
I watched the film while Simone slept. It’s a short movie, intense and very creepy. Still chilly and dark in the house, I watched Hostel II next. Even I felt a bit queasy watching these two films back to back while holding my newborn in my arms.
When I finally handed her off to my wife and headed bleary-eyed to the bedroom, I dreamed of endless knives hovering over my daughter’s head and heart.