Cut & Print: Horror Backstab
Happy Halloween, movie fans. I decided to take a column to think once again about horror films that have left a powerful mark on me from a young age. I saw these films when I was very young, and they stand even today as my favorite horror films. I have to say that I’m not a big horror fan, so when a horror film affects me, then I realize that there is something about that film that must be truly working, that the people making said film have used all the tricks of cinema, as well as all the tools of the trade, to create something that is powerful enough to leave a lasting, if unsettling, impression. So while I might not be the biggest horror fan of all, I realize that might be the genre wherein the most talent has to put into it in order for a film to really work.
I have listed below three of my favorite horror films. I don’t want to say they are the best horror films ever made, but they left an impression on me. There’s still something about each of these films that has stayed with me since I saw them as a child, and the worlds portrayed therein still feels real to me somehow. The artifice provided by these entries has never quite left me, even though my memory of much of the specifics of these films is rather vague.
I decided not to watch these films again in order to write these short capsule reviews, instead allowing my memory and whatever impressions the films left in my mind to paint a picture that could, in fact, be slightly inaccurate.
An American Werewolf in London (1981): I was way to young to watch this film, but it was before I was ten. This film is, without a doubt, the scariest film I have ever seen, and most of that fear was from the atmosphere of it. It was unsettling in ways I had never experienced before or since. I remember the two young men hiking in the woods at night, and stumbling across a strange tavern in a village, and it had a lot of creepy locals. This introduced me to how scary it can be just to be in a strange place where you don’t understand what the locals are as they are, that there are stories that you can’t understand if you are just passing through. Did our heroes just want directions? I can’t remember. But I remember them noticing a pentagram on the wall of the tavern; I’ll never forget that. I remember them being told to stay on the path when they proceed, and it was a slightly finny moment when they start walking again and being distracted: there’s that moment when they realize that the path is nowhere in sight (“oops”) I remember there was the werewolf attack around here, and one man dies and the other gets werewolf blood on him. I don’t remember if that’s exactly what happened, but I do remember how serious this film was about werewolves. A lot of modern films haven’t been able to get them right in light of what was accomplished here.
This film was most notable for the amazing werewolf transformation, it revolutionized makeup and special effects. It has to be seen to be believed, and it looks a lot more tangible and gritty than what CGI could achieve. I remember there was a somewhat comical subplot where our hero is visited occasionally by images of his dead friend, who looks more mangled and ugly on each encounter. But it was the final act, where the werewolf was in the London subways on the loose that still make me feel unsettled. I remember a shot looking down an escalator and you see the wolf approach from below. I can’t express in words how the atmosphere of scenes like that make me feel. After almost 35 years, this film is powerful a horror film as you can find.
Silver Bullet (1985): I remember this film mainly because I watched it with a friend during one of those sleepovers that kids have, and me and my buddy scared each other more as the film progressed. I remember the film itself being a respectable slow-burn: It spends a lot of time allowing us to get to know the characters, like the young boy who’s our hero and is confined to a wheelchair, to his uncle (played by Gary Busey, who I remember being in it without looking him up, because Busey is among the most unforgettable character actors of all time). I remember the strong bond between these two that developed slowly through the film, and I remember caring about them. We also got to know some of the townspeople. I never forget my buddy and coming to the scene where we learn as the viewer – before the hero does – who the werewolf is, thanks to one awesome camera pan. When two kids react with such unsettling excitement at a film’s twist you know the movie’s working, and you know that it got us to care what happens.
Busey really played an uncle to the hero that felt real. These weren’t characters to me, they were more than that. I loved the scene where they have to actually create that silver bullet they would need to shoot the werewolf. It all sounds cliche describing it, but the film-making was just so effective.
At least, it was to me as a kid.
Hellraiser (1987): I actually spotted this on Hulu some months ago and started watching it, but only got a few scenes in before I was called away. That short reintroduction was enough, however, to bring back the entire film for me, this nightmarish journey into the magi of the occult that I saw in grade school. While people remember Pinhead and the Cenobites as these horrific beings from another dimension that can be summoned with a mysterious magic box (I think what scared me the most about the cenobites was the dangling chains – with hooks – that were always nearby as they moved around) but the main story was actually a bit more chilling than any of these special effects: a woman lures men into her home with the promise of a sexual liaison. he’d brutally kill these men so that their flesh and blood could reform her dead husband from years past. I think that’s the story.
The music, the air of magic, and the overall atmosphere – they certainly made it all feel unsettling, but the woman’s demeanor as she committed these acts was perhaps more horrific than Pinhead himself. Make no mistake, though, Pinhead was awesome. My first job was working at a video store, and I got to take home a standee of Pinhead holding that magic puzzle box. He just looked awesome.
I remember that standee quite well, and read over the cast list at the bottom quite a bit. The first name listed was Andrew Robinson. He was one of the great character actors in the business as well, and, for me, became more important than just a character actor (sorry, Mr. Busey) as he went on to play Garek on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, one of the greatest television characters ever.
So there you have it. /I guess these films might serve as my recommendations for a Halloween watch. Trick or treat.