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One night when I was 13 years old, I found myself to be in that gleeful scenario that 13 year olds yearn for but rarely find themselves in; my family had all separately gone out for the evening and thus I had the entire house to myself, albeit for a few hours, to act however I saw fit! At one particularly late hour that was surely well past my bedtime, I curled up on the couch and flicked on the television just in time to witness the opening credits of what looked to be a scary (and therefore promising) film.
I can remember it in vivid detail. Some very creepy music and then, in blood red lettering, the title: When A Stranger Calls. I braced myself, grabbed a cushion should I at any point need to cover my face and started to watch. In the film, a teenage girl sits alone in a house on a babysitting charge. When the house phone rings, she politely answers only to be met with a mysterious voice on the other end that torments her, call after call, giving her all manner of bother until a thrilling climax and an absolute shocker of a twist. I watched the entire film, transfixed from start to finish. I was Immediately hooked. I had fallen in love. A love affair with a film genre that would ensue to this day.
I had seen Horror films before – I can clearly recall having immense difficulty recovering from a television screening of Ridley Scott’s Alien when I was far too young to witness such tension and extreme imagery (What were my older siblings thinking?!) and then on another occasion when one of said irresponsible siblings brought me along with him to see the original Ghostbusters at the Savoy cinema in Dublin. More of a comedy horror granted but the final act is terrifying if you happen to be eight and my brother was duly reprimanded after I struggled to sleep for almost a week. The difference when I watched When A Stranger Calls, was that this time I had caught the bug. The thrill. Every true Horror fan knows this feeling.
So just what is the appeal of Horror cinema? Why do some of us willingly put ourselves through tense, nerve wracking, often deplorable experiences time and time again? Whilst I know many people who share my appreciation for the genre, I know many more who do not and they are the ones likely to ask the above question with palpable bafflement. The short, simple answer is a desire to be frightened. A want for that most basic, primal of emotions. To be on edge. To feel the unease of not knowing what you will be shown and how it will make you feel and react.
Whilst I can totally understand the incredulity of those who would rather give titles such as Dawn of the Dead, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre a wide berth, I have also, on occasion, sensed more than a whiff of elitism when it comes to the cineastic value of the Horror film. Fair enough, the genre is indeed littered with films of the underwritten, sensationalist and badly acted character of, say, the ‘Exploitation’ or ‘Slasher’ sub genres but I have also encountered those quite reluctant to admit that the likes of Hitchcock’s Psycho, Polanski’s Repulsion and Spielberg’s Jaws are all bona fide examples of pure Horror cinema.
It’s as if some film lovers are genuinely more content to believe that such wretched output could only be the work of deeply suspect, misguided ‘filmmakers’ who clearly have personal issues and questionable credentials. Certainly they could never be the result of the craftsmanship of some of cinema’s most celebrated auteurs. Far from it!
What a lot of people don’t realise it that Horror is one of the most difficult film genres to get right. Burrowing directly into people’s fears and anxieties is a hard task to produce well and in terms of plot, scenario and set up, so much has been already done that originality has become increasingly elusive to find.
You may be surprised to learn that Horror’s closest film genre relative is Comedy. Granted, each has a near polarised raison d’etre but both must also adhere to the very same central principle, in that their success ultimately relies on a singular base response from their respective audience. Put simply; If it’s not scary, it’s not working and if it’s not funny, it’s not working. No matter how clever or original the film deems itself to be.
In my own opinion, the classic studio produced Horror film peaked in the 1970s/early 1980s and mainly in the US. Titles such as The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, John Carpenter’s Halloween and the best of the Stephen King adaptations all set the benchmark to be rivalled.
The quality began to petre out a little during the 1980s and chief among the causes for this gradual downturn was an ever increasing penchant for sequels. This suspect craze went from one or two modest extensions to a successful original title to ridiculous numbers and increasingly overstretched plausibilities. The first Friday the 13th from 1982 was a genuine scary classic but Friday the 13th part Vlll: Jason Takes Manhattan, anyone? If a scare works once then great but it’s not likely to work nearly as well the second time or indeed several times over.
Studios generally don’t like to take risks and they increasingly shy away from originality in order to ‘repeat magic’ or hope that lightning can strike twice with an existing hit. A shame to be sure as this type of lazy safe play invariably leads to sharp drops in quality and fading audience interest. We can presently see this occurring similarly with the seemingly endless ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ franchise.
Horror cinema began to steadily retreat to the Independent sector around the early 1990s. This largely resulted from the fact that audience interest in predictable big studio output had began to wane and the best known franchises of the genre had all but dried up. With the creative freedom and greater opportunity for original ideas allowed by lower budgets we were steadily treated to a treasure trove of self assured, bolder concepts such as The Blair Witch Project that would pave the way for a fresh and exciting new wave of Horror thinking.
World cinema too took centre stage and the true ‘renaissance’ arguably came from East Asia, most notably Japan and South Korea. These territories with cultures steeped in folklore and ancestral fables, provided the backbone for tales that were refreshingly new to a Western audience and terrifying to boot. The star at the top was undoubtedly Japan’s Ringu (The Ring) in 1998 but thereafter a flood of equally unnerving and very well made titles soon surfaced. Whereas Hollywood had fallen victim to laziness, cheap scares and draining repetition, the far East and beyond were churning out cautionary fables of welcome intelligence and morbid analyses that truly got under the skin.
Europe followed and various countries appeared to suddenly be the next go-to-haven for Horror, be it France (Switchblade Romance, Martyrs), Spain (Rec, The Orphanage) or England (28 Days Later). The success of ‘Scandi Noir’ even provided the substance for an all-too-rare Horror masterpiece, in Tomas Alfredson’s chilling and moving Swedish vampire yarn, Let The Right One In.
Irish cinema too has had its fair share of standout Horror releases in recent years, with films such as Wakewood, Citadel, A Dark Song and The Cured all comfortably holding their own along with the rest on the worldwide circuit.
In fairness Hollywood has also bettered its output in the last few years, with the likes of Get Out, A Quiet Place and Hereditary all demonstrating a welcome return to an intelligence and originality too long absent from the more widely seen Multiplex fare.
The ‘Mecca’ for Irish Horror fans is without doubt the annual Horrorthon film festival held each October in the Irish Film Institute, Dublin. Here all manner of dedicated ghoul obsessives gather, mix and gorge over five days of Horror films, old and new, deranged and comical, at what is widely considered to be one of the most good natured and enjoyable festivals on the Irish film scene.
So, it’s clear that Horror cinema does mean a lot to a lot of people. But aside from sheer visceral entertainment value do these films have anything else to say to us, or more importantly, about us? Mexican Horror and Fantasy maestro Guillermo Del Toro, has this to say on the subject: “I feel that monsters are here in our world to help us understand it… When I was a kid, monsters made me feel that I could fit somewhere… I love Monsters…”
My four year old daughter has just discovered films and has no hesitation in telling me what she loves or what she finds “a bit scary” (The Jungle Book and Lady & The Tramp are currently ticking both boxes). When I can clearly see by her face whether she is enthralled or finding a scene a little difficult, I don’t necessarily regard any of it as negative and it’s my job to talk through with her whatever she is feeling and bring her back to ‘safety’ if needs be. It’s all a vital part of our development and sense of self discovery and we needn’t over analyse.
At 41 I am just as enthused by a promising new Horror release or unseen classic as I was when I was 13, and I can’t see myself ceasing to surrender my senses to those with a flair for the macabre anytime soon. I don’t need the cushions anymore, but they’re never too far from reach all the the same… just in case.