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The joys of horror cinema


I was going to say “lately I’ve been into horror films,” as if trying to tie it in with this Halloween-y time of year, and it’s true that the longer, dark nights and cold, icy weather are perhaps more conducive to fully appreciating the beauty of the horror genre, but really I love these often mysterious, psychological-oriented films all year round – when done well, of course. I’m not talking about cheaply, badly-done slasher movies or sub-par zombie flicks. There are some pillars of the genre that I adore – Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now – but I’ll focus for now on a few that I’ve rewatched recently, or seen for the first time in some cases.

There seemed to be something of a vogue for creepy “possessed child” movies in the ’60s and ’70s, and after Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist came The Omen which had a marketing budget substantially larger than its filming budget, playing up to the “6-6-6” theme (advance screenings were held on June 6, 1976.)

For me, Rosemary’s Baby is far and away the most superior of the three films (which aren’t related in story or personnel, anyway) but The Omen has its moments. The decapitation scene is marvellous, as is the oddly joyful surprise death of Damien’s initial nanny. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick are great in their roles, and Billie Whitelaw threatens to the steal the show as the supremely unsettling Mrs Baylock. It’s hard to criticise Harvey Stephens since he was barely five at the time of filming, but I didn’t find Damien particularly convincing.

As with The Exorcist, the moments of sheer horror are quite few and far between and the bulk of the film is taken up with far-flung visits to try and get to the bottom of, in this case, the effect Damien has on those around him. It’s a good film but it’s not a cinematic masterpiece. Certainly, all horror fans should watch it.

Ingmar Bergman’s Vargtimmen, or Hour of the Wolf, is an altogether more different and subtly unsettling prospect; it possesses a number of Bergman trademarks (direct address to the camera, atmospheric Swedish village setting) but has a strange, somewhat disturbing psychological bent all its own.

The film seems to be a musing on the perceived madness of Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) but, by the end, the viewer is left wondering just who is mad or beset by demons, and indeed whether the demons are imaginary or real. To compound the sense of disturbance and dislocation, various strange surrealist moments are injected into the film, lending it an off-kilter, experimental feel.

The performances are uniformly excellent, and Ingrid Thulin is almost unrecognisable here as the temptress Veronica Vogler compared to her comparatively dowdy schoolteacher in the earlier Winter Light. Bergman often worked with the same actors but they all give wonderfully diverse performances.

Various haunting moments stand out, including the episode between von Sydow and the young boy on the rocks, the passionate argument between von Sydow and Liv Ullmann as his wife Alma in the forest, the creepy soiree at the castle, and Naima Wifstrand as the “Old Lady with Hat,” who provides one of the film’s most memorable and quietly horrific moments.

It’s a strange, atmospheric 84 minutes and the sort of film that rewards repeated viewing.

The same can be said of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. More a slow-burning, subtle psychological study than a fully-fledged horror, The Innocents is wonderfully understated and quietly creepy as it unfolds. It’s a mostly very faithful adaptation of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, which is just as mysterious and suggestive (especially of the relationship between the “deceased” Quint and Miss Jessel and the children Miles and Flora), and the team working on the film did a great job in capturing the essence of the mystery of the story.

We’re never quite sure whether Quint or Miss Jessel are dead or alive, or whether governess Miss Giddens (unnamed in the book) (Deborah Kerr) is hallucinating; part of the beauty of Kerr’s performance is that the viewer identifies with her calmness, her goodness, her rationality – which makes the questions that arise at the end of the film even more unsettling.

Megs Jenkins as the kindly Mrs. Grose is the glue that keeps the film together, and Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin give excellent performances as the young children – two of the best child actors you could hope to see on screen.

It’s a film that is especially memorable for its haunting black-and-white cinematography, gorgeous setting, and chilling soundtrack, where the sound of chirruping birds suddenly cuts in and out. One of the finest in the psychological/mystery genre.

Four decades later, the novella was revived and taken as a reference point for a different adaptation, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others. It’s a brilliantly atmospheric, austere, unsettling haunted house mystery, with Nicole Kidman giving one of her best performances. It’s beautifully shot and gets the level of creepiness just right to be an effective film in the mystery/horror/thriller style.

Altogether different is zombie movie Night of the Living Dead. On a first viewing, it impresses with its grainy black-and-white cinematography, level of intensity, and almost documentary style quality. It’s perhaps a little too long, and after the gripping opening sequence, where Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) visit their father’s grave, only to be chased away by a zombie, it doesn’t quite maintain that level of engagement – but it’s quite probably one that would improve upon a second viewing.

Then there are a couple of classics that merge horror with the teen movie. Halloween is an iconic horror that deserves all the praise, and you can trace a plethora of similar horror/slasher films (yes, Scream) back to here. A lot of it is actually set in the daytime and it makes for iconic viewing. The perpetrator Michael Myers is creepy throughout, and the murder methods inventive (and scary.) There are numerous memorable scenes, from the telephone cord killing to John Michael Graham’s uncurling toes as the life drains away. It maintains the intensity and the hour and a half flies by. One of the most important classics of the genre.

But arguably even better is Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, which brings horror to the teen genre as it tracks the trials and tribulations of its titular ‘heroine,’ the maligned and victimised Carrie White.

Most of the “horror” derives from Carrie’s telekinesis, the power to move objects through sheer force of mind, and initially it seems like something of an undeveloped sub-plot – but the film’s denouement could not be achieved without this strange feature.

But the core of the film is based around Carrie’s relationship with her fellow high school students and her overzealous, fanatical mother, played to absolute perfection by Piper Laurie. The majority of the film’s creepy, unsettling quality revolves around Laurie’s portrayal of Margaret White and the White home, which is like a Christian shrine. It’s a claustrophobic world Carrie inhabits, but schoolteacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) leaps to her defence and is one of the few “nice” characters in the film.

Buckley, Laurie, and Sissy Spacek as Carrie give memorable performances, as do the other cast of high school students. While Carrie ostensibly weds the horror and teen movie genres, it’s also really quite remarkably sad, with only the redemptive resolution keeping the viewer from descending into a deep melancholy over the treatment of Carrie. It all adds up to an engrossing film that bears repeated viewing.

And I haven’t stopped there. I’m still going through my horror collection and discovering new favourites, and when you surrender to it, horror does not have to be gimmicky or cheesy. Most of the films listed above bear that out.

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