A governess in a country mansion, hiding behind a curtain as she plays hide-and-seek with her young charges, looks up to see a demonic face looming outside the window before her, then inexorably drawing away. A woman doing laps after hours in the pool of an abandoned gym thinks she hears something, and treads water, waiting, holding her breath, as she watches charged, mercurial shadows shift in the lighted dome above her. A father, stricken with sudden foreboding on an ordinary afternoon, runs from the house to find his premonition realized, his little daughter drowned in the pond outside.
The Innocents, Cat People, Don’t Look Now–three great scenes from three classic horror films, each offering a different take on the idea of horror: You’re not sure you’ve really seen what was there, or you think something’s there but you can’t see it, or you see–unavoidably, undeniably–what you cannot bear. The implication of sight in the dynamics of horror may explain the prevalence of the genre in film history–one of the first genre movies was a primitive riff on Frankenstein produced by Edison in 1910, with Charles Ogle as the monster. Even Boris Karloff’s poignant turn in that role in 1931 looks a little primitive to modern audiences, and the recent resurgence of horror bids for a new relevance–as in The Blair Witch Project–via a return to the “primitive.” That’s what horror is, a full view of the primitive, and what it does, to show us how primitive sight is.
Besides the Western, horror may be the most regressive genre in movies, because it’s so bound up with the energies of the primal. But it’s also, among film genres, the most self-reflexive, so concerned is it with what we see, and how we see–the very bases of the medium. The best-known horror movies–The Haunting (1963 version) or Rosemary’s Baby, or The Exorcist or Carrie or The Shining or The Sixth Sense–all, in one way or another, concern the clash of primal energies with the fact of mediating sight: “I see dead people!” This Halloween, when many may seek out horror as a kind of local anesthetic, an antidote to the experience of terror, some may be more aware than ever that believing is not always seeing.
Second to the Western as the most highly conventionalized genre, horror tends toward camp, even more powerfully than the Western, because it’s most basic affinities are with the comic mode. Despite its concern with dire fates, horror has nothing to do with tragedy; its attitudes are typically mordant, caustic, ironic, funny. (It’s no accident that Mel Brooks’ tender and knowing horror parody, Young Frankenstein, is his best film, or that such great movies as Kubrick’s The Shining or Polanski’s The Tenant hover between comedy and horror.) The camp-horror classics let you experience an anatomy of horror without having to be its victim. They show you what’s supposed to be scary and–partly because fashions in horror shift as quickly as those in any genre–all you can do is laugh. They’re the ones I’ll be renting this year.
Take Mad Love, for instance. It’s a 1935 variation on the old “Hands of Orlac” chestnut, with a pianist in a train wreck (Colin Clive, Baron Frankenstein himself) that somehow mangles only his hands. He is given a hand transplant by a mad scientist and the new hands, suffice to say, are those of a killer–and you can guess what comes next. What you can’t fathom, though, are the crazed glories of the film’s visual design, which surpasses Edgar Ulmer’s fantasia on Poe, The Black Cat (made the year before), for sheer Expressionist delirium. Directed by the photographer of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and shot by the photographer of Citizen Kane, it clearly prefigures the gothic excesses of Welles’ masterpiece, even down to the high-lit baldness of Peter Lorre’s cue-ball pate–an image Welles perversely resurrected for Kane’s dotage. If nothing else, the film features Lorre’s most slyly fervent performance, as the maddest of doctors. (If you want to see his best Hollywood performance, look for–but don’t, sadly, expect to find–Robert Florey’s 1941 Face Behind the Mask, a real heartbreaker.)
Or consider Curse of the Demon, a 1958 take on “Casting the Runes.” It’s directed by Jacques Tourneur, associated with the RKO horror series of the 1940s that was known for placing suggestive atmosphere above more literal, bluntly visualized horrors. Those films included Cat People, The Seventh Victim (the most influential of them, with echoes in Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby), and the unpromisingly titled but beautiful meditation on childhood reverie, The Curse of the Cat People–a movie critic James Agee loved so much he tried to recapture some of its spirit in his script for Night of the Hunter. True to form, Tourneur drenches the first half of Demon in well-wrought atmospherics. Then, in the second half, he loses it and vaults wonderfully over the top–thrusting the demon in our faces, full-tilt boogie, with pulsing chords of music cueing a shock that, each time, can only come out as a guffaw. It takes guts to don a gilla-monster suit and expect scares, the kind of guts Jeepers Creepers can only dream of. That movie, for the record, steals its demon from Tourneur, who in turn, to be fair, seems to have plundered the Black Lagoon.
There’s a certain innocence in these films that more recent forays in camp usually lack–but Vincent Price in 1973’s Theatre of Blood performs one of the greatest exercises I know in self-conscious camp. Price plays a ham actor who, lambasted by a critic’s circle, knocks off the critics one by one, in an ever more baroque series of murders modeled on Shakespearean deaths. (Coral Browne–Mrs. Price–and the great Robert Morley are among the critics, with a hilariously staunch, post-Emma Peel Diana Rigg also on hand.) The movie has little of the ardently straight-faced high camp of Price’s ’60s Poe vehicles, or the strutting low camp of the Dr. Phibes series. With its fey, sardonic wit, it has more in common with the Alec Guinness classics, Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Ladykillers, than with a British Hammer horror show–but you’ll never see Price having more fun.
Certainly not in Witchfinder General, an uncompromising and grimly horrific study of the pathology of sadism (in which Price is magnificent), made in 1968 by the gifted, short-lived Michael Reeves, who had directed The Sorcerers in 1967, a late Karloff vehicle with an unshakably oppressive aura. Among the films of the 1960s and 1970s in which aging stars dutifully don their fright wigs, camp is obviously the order of the day–think of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, What’s the Matter with Helen?, Who Slew Auntie Roo? But those, like Reeves’ films, that go for something more, can exert a strange fascination. The best of these is Jimmy Sangster’s 1965 Hammer film The Nanny, a delicate psychological study with a post-Baby Jane Bette Davis trying to act again, as the title character with possibly murderous designs on her precocious charge. It’s not just her best horror performance, but one of her best turns ever: An unforgettable scene where she watches a boy drowning in a bathtub (recalling her demonic character in The Little Foxes) is among her greatest screen moments.
These movies flirt with the “art-horror” cycle of the ’60s and ’70s, movies with real scares but enough aesthetic distance to make them bearable in times of real trouble. They have their camp quotient too–we have this genre, after all, to thank for Dario Argento. That quality is largely what enabled their marketing as gore fests at a time when more straightforward European art films were being purveyed stateside as sex movies. Soon after Bergman’s masterpiece The Clown’s Evening was shown in the United States under the salacious title The Naked Night, Georges Franju’s remarkable, poetic new-wave horror film of 1959, Eyes Without a Face, played here under the sensationalistic title Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.
Sometimes the sensationalism was well earned–as in the case of Roger Vadim’s disastrously influential 1961 film Blood and Roses–but often the art outweighed the schlock–as in Peeping Tom (1960), Black Sabbath (1964), Daughters of Darkness (1969), or Bergman’s own semi-horror film Hour of the Wolf (1967). (Honorable mention in this category goes to The Hunger, a punk-vampire film by Tony Scott from 1983, back in the days when one might still have thought he was vaguely human; and if you’ve never seen Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931), the film Vadim’s potboiler rips off, then dump the rest of these suggestions and rush to get it: As art, it has no peer among the classics of horror.)
Closer to home, a few Hollywood efforts of the past 25 years might be worth another look. The Fury is Brian DePalma’s most “mainstream” effort of his early career (pre-Untouchables, that is), but also perhaps the most lyrical, accessible and powerful. 1980’s Mother’s Day is one of the creepiest and sleaziest slasher movies I’ve seen–a kind of pre-I Spit on Your Grave, with a real sicko’s sense of humor. (It features an inbred family that harks back to Murder He Says, a 1945 Fred MacMurray horror comedy, one of the funniest movies ever made in Hollywood.) A little-known 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (directed by Jack Clayton, who made The Innocents) captures some of the autumnal glee and childlike exuberance of Bradbury’s horror stories (and riffs wonderfully on the great 1964 Tony Randall vehicle The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, to boot). Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991) mixes trenchant commentary on Reagan-era class politics with a series of real, albeit tawdry, frissons. And Candyman (1992) has a great (largely unrealized) premise, and–the real reason to see it–Philip Glass’s best film score, except for Kundun. See it, hear it, in stereo.
The TV, it occurs to me, is something like a modern equivalent of the proverbial jack-o-lantern. Mysteriously lit from within, it wards off spirits by seeming to welcome them. This Halloween, that’s how I’ll be using it.