I have a confession to make. In the last month, I have watched, for the first time ever:
- Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Dawn of the Dead (1978)
- Halloween (1978)
- Friday the 13th (1980)
- An American Werewolf in London (1981)
- The Evil Dead (1981)
- The Thing (1982)
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
- Fright Night (1985)
- The Fly (1986)
- Evil Dead II (1987)
- Child’s Play (1988)
- Braindead [Dead Alive, in the US] (1992)
- Scream (1996)
- Death Proof (2007)
- [REC] (2007)
- Pontypool (2008)
- The House of the Devil (2009)
- Housebound (2014)
These are not the first Horror films I have ever seen, but you’d be correct to point out that some of these are among the most influential ever made. So how is it that a self-proclaimed movie buff and entertainment blogger got to his early 30’s without ever having seen Evil Dead II? I could blame an acquaintance, who showed me Army of Darkness first with no context. I could blame overprotective parents and a religious upbringing, but let’s be real here – I didn’t think I would like horror films. I thought the majority of the genre examples, especially the campier ones, were for people who were explicitly avoiding thoughtful or well made movies. As one friend (and horror junkie) told me “I like good movies… but I usually just wanna watch stuff I don’t have to think too much about.”
That’s fair. Different people get different things from cinema, and while I love ravenously digesting every aspect of the art form, I know not everyone cares to. That’s not to say those people aren’t thoughtful. Maybe their enlightenment just comes from nature or music or sports.
I used to be of the opinion that if a story didn’t take itself seriously, it wasn’t worth the time of day. Weird, because I’ve also typically disregarded as “pretentious” films that take themselves too seriously. I suppose I just had a very specific comfort zone, and typical opinions about “low” and “high” art. I remember being really upset by how silly The Fifth Element was, considering what a “serious” film could have done with the same budget. It took me a long time to come around to appreciating that movie for what it was – a brilliantly weird comedy – rather than what I wanted it to be – the next Star Wars. (The drought of good adventure films in the 90’s didn’t help.)
It’s been a long, circuitous road to stretch the boundaries of my appreciation. It might have begun with the undeniably brilliant Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, and followed by my realization that this was the finest celebration of a genre he loved that he could muster. After years of warming to horror – slowly seeing the full genius behind film’s like Rear Window, Alien, Silence of the Lambs, and more recent examples like The VVitch, I finally realized my journey needed a rocket boost, and decided to cannonball the classics.
My Verdict: I was wrong about horror, and boy, was I wrong about camp.
Campy horror films may be the purest distillation of storytelling I’ve ever seen. Drama threatens their protagonists with a lack of self-actualization. Romance threatens the loss of their “one true love.” Action threatens a world run by hoodlums. Sci-fi threatens the annihilation of the known galaxy. Horror skips all that pretense with a motherfucking zombie that’s about to eat your motherfucking face!!
No messing around. No time to think. It’s fight or flight. There’s nothing more immediate or visceral. I used to think that the surest sign of good storytelling was that a writer could cover up the bones of the same old tropes with a unique skin. All stories are, after all, essentially the same.
I’ve since come to realize something quite startling. “Covering up” storytelling bones is only really necessary when the story isn’t that interesting. And it really isn’t “covering up” at all. It’s realizing that the audience needs a reason to keep investing emotionally and then gives them one. It takes surprisingly few storytelling tricks to get an audience invested in their on-screen surrogate not being eaten alive. This is why the horror genre has historically gotten by on such small budgets, with such simplistic scripts, and with such little talent on screen. If the writer can follow the most basic beats to build tension, and the director can follow it up with a solid pace and an iconic visual hook, you have yourself a sure-fire horror classic.
This is how Halloween manages to be engaging, even iconic, despite being pretty awful in every other respect. With the exception of Jamie Lee Curtis being generally likable, what does the film have going for it? Michael Meyers’ motivations make no sense, (even by crazypants standards), but he looks disturbing as hell in that mask. His repetitive piano cue has a way of getting under your skin, and the slow burn of murders leading up to his confrontation with Chief Virgin Babysitter feels like watching a train wreck in slo-motion. How can you look away?
To use a tired comparison, horror films are like pizza. Even cheap pizza is still pretty alright. This does require all the basic ingredients to be in place though. Actual dough, sauce, and cheese are as vital as proper pacing, a legitimate threat, and a protagonist who’s likable enough that you don’t want to see them brutally eviscerated. Beyond this, the quality of the ingredients only improves the experience. I was far more invested in The Thing than Halloween. Aside from pitch perfect pacing, I found it much easier to invest in a monster whose motivation was survival, and a crew of protagonists whose weakness is that they’re humans, not idiots.
The great thing about this simple, effective recipe, is that it leaves plenty of room for experimentation. Throw some comedy in there (The Evil Dead II), a metaphor for social strife (Night of the Living Dead), a poignant message about consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), or a heartfelt drama about the difficulties of single motherhood (The Babadook). Suddenly art film experimentation and highbrow themes are working their way into low art, creating movies that can be enjoyed on a surprising number of levels.
Most fascinating is how well horror still works in the midst of self-parody. The genre already relies on a tenuous balance along the suspension of disbelief. The more absurdly violent, the more likely the audience is to check-out emotionally. Some films, like Braindead and Evil Dead II, amp this up so incredibly, it’s obvious they want you to enjoy the absurdity as an amused voyeur. This isn’t just limited to geysers of guts, but also in a tongue-in-cheek plot structure. Others, like Scream, take joy in blatantly pointing out the genre conventions. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and it’s proof of the strength of not just the genre, but of storytelling in general. Hit the right notes, and keep the audience entertained, and you can pull them right back to the proper emotions, no matter how silly the surrounding material is.
Before there were films or literature, there was story. For whatever reason, human beings are innately fascinated by conflict, rising action, and resolution. It helps us process our own fears. It helps us put ourselves in the shoes of others. It helps us understand our place in the world. And I’ll be damned if we don’t find it exciting, regardless of how silly it can be, or how cheap the thrills are. The horror genre is proof that even a story boiled down to its essentials can still engage us. Campfires are, after all, useful for more than warmth and light.