I don’t watch scary movies. I am a sensitive, delicate flower who was scarred for life at a slumber party by back-to-back viewings of ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and ‘Final Destination’ when I was thirteen, having no real experience with the genre then or since. I’ve seen the odd “horror” film here and there (mostly funny, over-the-top fare like ‘Evil Dead 2’ and ‘Cabin in the Woods’) but have generally resisted the experience of being scared and grossed out.
I’d like to say I’ve grown up since then. That I’ve fortified my constitution, and realized that movies can’t hurt me. But mostly I’ve discovered that many classics of the genre aren’t really so haunting and gory as I’d thought (granted, I’ve only ventured into the fairly safe territory of a few great films, none of which are noted for gut-churning realism). I’ll never be the kind of person who can brush off a torture scene or who will seek out imaginative ways to be traumatized – my dreams are already too terrifying as they are. Yet I am thrilled to have a whole vault of films I’d locked away spring open and reveal themselves as I adventure into a personal unknown this year, just in time for my favorite holiday.
I’ve only just dipped a toe into the deep pool that is the horror genre, which is itself a catch-all for films as diverse as slashers and science fiction thrillers, so there is still quite a lot for me to see. Offer your recommendations for my continuing education in the comments!
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
I’ve avoided Polanski films for more reasons than those described above, but like it or not his impact on cinema is unavoidable. I’ll dispense with a preoccupation with his unique position in history for the sake of brevity and focus on his American debut picture.
Rosemary’s Baby is remarkable to me in its construction of a very natural and wholly believable base reality within which the uncanny and strange make their slow arrival. The standout performances by Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon are supremely enjoyable; Farrow’s awkward pregnant scamper and Gordon’s effortless and idiosyncratic motormouth are memorably brilliant. The dream/hallucinatory sequences are as faithful to the surreal subconscious as the mise-en-scène is to a plausible reality.
At the heart of the best parts of Rosemary’s Baby is the haunting depiction of marriage and pregnancy in a world where a woman’s body is not her own. The film is based on the book by Ira Levin, who also wrote The Stepford Wives, now a common pejorative to indicate a woman whose self has been completely subsumed by her husband and society. The startling realization of Rosemary’s Baby is that, amid a coven of witches, an obstetrician in the pocket of a cult, and even Satan himself, the most terrifying character is Rosemary’s husband, whose primary control of his wife’s body and even presumed marital rape are treated with nonchalant understatement. The patriarchal stranglehold on the primally feminine experience of pregnancy is linked with the hypocrisy and failures of religion as Catholicism is invoked throughout the film and paralleled by the Church of Satan. In one strange moment, Rosemary’s friends are trying to persuade her that her pain and suffering isn’t acceptable, and could be a warning sign for her pregnancy, when Rosemary exclaims “I won’t have an abortion!” Along with the women on screen, I was struck by the leap Catholic-raised Rosemary had made from her friends’ concern for her health and well-being to a supposed pressure to abort, a leap still being made and encouraged in the conversation around bodily autonomy.
Films of the late sixties and early seventies often make me pine for cinema’s more patient days, when significant time was taken to develop character and build toward a rising action. A strength of this era’s horror offerings appears to be the gradual pace that allows small misgivings and unexplained events to mount unbearably until a climactic encounter and acceptance of the truth. Rosemary’s Baby succeeds exceptionally in marking out Rosemary’s halting, two-steps-forward-one-step-back progress as her friendship with the eccentric couple next door gives way to suspicion and dread.
This slow approach has its drawbacks, however, when the writing leads one so directly to its conclusions without sowing much doubt along the way. Some of the film’s heightening surprises for Rosemary are no surprise at all, and the final act so blunts its mystery that it’s kind of a letdown to have everything ultimately spelled out in black and white. The audience is never persuaded to trust anyone as Rosemary does, and so at times I felt frustratingly ahead of the film and wishing for more complication. Rosemary’s constant verbalizations of her inner monologue also feel unnecessary, and grate against the naturalistic style that’s been so firmly established.
The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin and adapted from his own novel by William Peter Blatty, is another film I found unexpectedly restrained, and, like Rosemary’s Baby, well-paced and naturalistically drawn. It plays on expectations from the beginning and subverts them, acknowledging the genre in a masterfully subtle way as the camera rests on a doorknob, a mirror, an attic door, as a character moves through a dark house, none of them producing a shock but reflecting our predisposition for tension. Later on, out of nowhere, nearly-subliminal images of a demonic face will flash past with no fanfare or explanation. The Exorcist is a masterful lesson in storytelling – it doles out information from unexpected angles and in dynamically brief segments, concealing as much as it reveals, leaving the viewer always wanting more.
The film’s mechanically-derived special effects are legend, and hold up exceedingly well after forty years of innovation, but I hesitate to praise them given Friedkin’s notorious disregard for his actors’ safety. (Both Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair suffered severe back injuries; Friedkin slapped another actor across the face to elicit a more authentic performance; the bedroom set was literally refrigerated to temperatures below freezing while Blair shivered in a nightgown.) It’s very hard to separate this film from the circumstances under which it was shot. The mental and physical strain placed on the cast and crew (often deliberately by Friedkin) turns my stomach, especially given one of them was a thirteen-year-old girl. One of the unfortunate (and ironic) effects of an abusive director, beyond the damage he does to his collaborators, is that his behavior undermines the authenticity he strives for. The next time I watch The Exorcist I will undoubtedly perceive the actors’ own suffering instead of their characters’; I’ll be unable to marvel at their performances despite their talents and effort.
It’s interesting to pit The Exorcist‘s faith in the salvation of the Church (and the men who embody it) against Rosemary’s Baby‘s undercurrent of distrust in religion. It’s easy to read The Exorcist as a morality tale in which the pubescent girl and her single mother are terrorized by the daughter’s descent into a horrific sexuality (masturbating with a cross, spewing bodily liquids, using explicit language, etc.) and their rescue by the ultimate patriarch – a man of God who, when the quotation of Scripture is not enough, lays hands on the girl to beat the demon out of her. And given the author’s propensity to sue his alma mater for inviting a speaker who supports birth control coverage, it’s not a stretch to view some of his characterizations of gender with suspicion.
Yet in its opening scenes, I found this film undeniably sympathetic toward working-mother Chris and her daughter Regan. Despite a popular inclination to view the possession of her daughter as a punishment of the “new woman” of the 70s, Chris isn’t introduced to the audience as a woman struggling to make it on her own. She’s presented as capable, loving and positive, and Regan seems to be a happy child whose only disappointments stem from a thoughtless father who fails to call her on her birthday. Perhaps the film’s degradation of Chris – her loss of power and agency as her life narrows to a single, consuming duty in caring for Regan – can even be read as a second-wave feminist nightmare; all of women’s gains are erased when something goes wrong in the home.
That doesn’t feel quite right, either. Whether the film is intentionally making a statement about male-centered authority or allowing subconscious perceptions to work through its story, it relegates the women to bystanders of their own trauma, while the men are either victims of the monstrous feminine or sacrificial heroes who return the world to order (and girls to little girls).
Speaking of the fearful power of girls getting their menses… Brian De Palma’s Carrie has been lauded for its style, its (certain) performances, and its gleefully horrific climax that nearly convinces the audience to root for the slaughter of a high school full of teenagers. Yet I found little in Carrie truly compelling, aside from Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek’s captivatingly strange mother and daughter, and the mesmerizingly slow lead up to the explosive montage of Carrie’s revenge. Has everyone who loves this film blocked out all the awful scenes with Carrie’s schoolmates and that insufferable teacher who slaps her students? What is with all the slapping? The totally unbelievable quality of the girls’ behavior and dialogue? Girls in high school, prancing around naked in the locker room laughing and play-fighting and not a one of them intent on getting dressed as fast as possible?
The word that often gets applied to so-bad-it’s-good fare like Carrie is “camp,” and while true camp isn’t really intentional, intentionally campy films can at least succeed in harmony with a director’s vision, while unintentional humor undermines “serious” films (to their directors’ dismay). I can see the brilliance in well-executed intentional camp, but oblivious camp, while the more sublime, does not a great film make. De Palma has responded to the charge that Carrie is camp by saying “No, I don’t think it’s camp at all. It keeps very seriously within the realm of its own world. It has a very adolescent reality and it’s very true to it.” All the kids think I’m funny and I don’t want to be, Mama!
And I suppose I could see how the film sets up a bizarro-world context for its events, where everyone’s behavior is filtered through an adolescent girl’s point of view and given a nightmarish magnification. But whose point of view is it when the camera lingers on a weirdly erotic Carrie in the high school shower? Or the long pan across the schoolgirls’ legs as they do their calisthenic punishment? De Palma has also said “There’s something very photogenic, very cinematic about the way women move in movies and interact with each other.” As well as “Yeah, I like to photograph women, I like to work with women. I like to hang out with women. I like the way they look. I like to dress them up. I like to dress them down… Somebody… said the history of movies is men photographing women, which is very true I think.” And also “I’m very, very comfortable in groups of women…I’m used to groups of women and the way that they kind of play with each other. So it’s something I’m very comfortable with, and I find kind of fun and original.”
Well how very generous of him to think women are such novel objects that he feels so comfortable to surround himself with.
But back to Carrie. Whereas the prior films on this list took pains to establish a believable reality, nearly everything in this film seems constructed to alienate or titillate. De Palma’s weird obsession with split focus ruins every scene it appears in. And if the director never intended his film to be knee-slapping hilarious, I don’t know what he’s doing with that first Travolta scene (life just rocks for this guy!) Spacek’s virtuosic performance single-handedly muscles the narrative through to its satisfying conclusion. And I will give de Palma this: it is a supremely satisfying conclusion, over-the-top in all the right ways, and impressively choreographed and shot. And yes, you want those kids to burrrrrnnnnn. This is a fun movie, even if it isn’t an altogether great one.
The Shining (1980)
Uncanny. Confounding. Both claustrophobic and expansive. The Shining strands the viewer in a labyrinth in which the details keep shifting, and where the inevitable, telegraphed story belies a deep well of possible meanings. Just watch the 2012 documentary Room 237 for evidence that Kubrick flooded his film with enough specifics and trickery to drown a whole hotel full of film students.
I struggle to say what hasn’t already been said about The Shining. At first it seemed suspiciously direct: a man once went mad and murdered his family in this hotel, and it’s going to happen again. The unrelenting soundtrack whined in my ears, and the characters seemed… off. They’re not quite real. They’re always performing.
Then the maze-like submersion began to work on me. I felt the film delivering me to strange turns in the path, even though I’d expected to get there. Just when I felt a little detached from the never-sympathetic Jack and his passive wife Wendy, Jack’s anger would flare up into a truly frightening (and real) image of abuse. The glamour of a gold ballroom would lead to a surreal red bathroom, where men clean unsightly messes off their jackets, and the potentially larger contexts of this story began to emerge from the twisting hallways of the narrative. I got the feeling that a lot was happening beneath and above the straightforward events playing out in a kind of slow motion.
The most overt layer of imagery infused in The Shining is the multitude of references to Native Americans and their slaughter at the hands of white colonialism (we’re even flat-out told the Overlook Hotel was built on an Indian burial ground). In addition to Jack’s embodiment of American genocide, Room 237 presents arguments that variously claim the film is preoccupied with the Holocaust, Minotaurs, Freudian applications of the hotel’s geography, intending to be watched backward as well as forward, and strangest of all, Kubrick’s involvement in faking the footage of the moon landing. Stranger still, The Shining is just puzzling enough to allow each of these arguments some element of plausibility.
I was struck by how the entire film can be read as a parable of domestic violence – how the isolation and terror of it could feel exactly like being snowed in with a monster, whose alcoholism and anger crescendo into what seems like supernatural possession. When Jack lectures Wendy on morality and responsibility it’s a script straight from the abuser’s handbook, and the invocation of repetition and continuity – that Jack has “always been the caretaker here” – conjures up thoughts about cycles of violence in a domestic context.
Kubrick is maddeningly daring us to sort it out, to find our way to the center of the maze. We think back over our experience, wondering what it meant. I think this is the greatest device of the film, as it parallels The Shining‘s focus on history – whether we can escape the past. One of the film’s most beautiful ideas is embedded in the climactic scene in the labyrinth; to escape, we must retrace our steps, and confront where we’ve been. The act of forgetting, of overlooking what’s in front (and behind) us is pervasive in The Shining, and it never comes to good.
For someone with very little experience with the horror genre, I deeply appreciated Scream‘s wry commentary on it. Wes Craven’s light-hearted romp through horror’s awkward clichés is smart and slick, initiating a whole wave of postmodern “horror with a wink” flicks in the late nineties, not many of which were able to capture the lightning in a bottle that was Scream‘s originality and flair.
By not only sending up tropes of slasher films but also endowing his characters with knowledge and self-awareness, Kevin Williamson’s script (originally titled “Scary Movie”) turns the hapless and unassuming victim construct on its head. Constant references to films like Halloween and Craven’s own Nightmare on Elm Street pile up like the killer’s victims as Scream both mocks and celebrates its predecessors. This reaches a magnificent apex with Jamie Kennedy’s character, who spells out a list of rules in scary movies, which the film acknowledges and then joyfully disobeys.
Some of the power of Scream‘s ironic cleverness deflates in the last act, however, as the film’s own plot is sorted out, though the way it does so is still entertaining and surprising. Its irreverent mix of humor and gore, melodrama and thrills reinvigorated a genre that had gone stale with endless sequels and direct-to-video formula features in the 1980s. It doesn’t have same timeless quality of the classics above – this film is very much “of a moment” – but its impact on films to follow, and its subversive sense of fun, make it a valuable contribution to its form.