Scared? Hey, don’t be. It’s just your friendly neighborhood journalist, here to regale you with tales that are sure to terrify and intrigue! Or, in plain terms, here’s reviews of two classic horror films.
Horror is a genre that is both simultaneously broad and niche. In the past, it had wider appeal. Just look at the decade-long box office sensation Dracula and Frankenstein created with their feature film debuts in the 1930s, or the ongoing slasher film craze kickstarted by John Carpenter’s classic Halloween the 1980s.
Nowadays, horror seems to have a few set topics: stupid, horny, unrealistically-attractive teenagers hunted down by a serial killer (usually masked, disfigured, or both), someone (usually a child) possessed by a ghost or demon, or the standard jumpscare-filled gore fest.
These days, if you’re a real horror connoisseur wanting to find some true gems, you either go for the classics or for films that really didn’t have a theatrical release. Films such as Thirty Days of Night and Creep received solid reviews, but not a peep in most theaters.
When I began this article, I intended to review a couple of favorite horror films from faculty and students. However, the student-suggested films were unavailable – my apologies to those looking for the movies they suggested.
What follows are two reviews: The Exorcist, suggested by English professor William McCloskey, and Halloween, suggested by Speech professor Mark Bergmooser.
1973’s The Exorcist is a true juggernaut of horror history. Its weak sequels aside, the film is a testament to the fear of the unknown, and to the psychological trauma that can befall humankind when we’re in over our heads.
“The film was directed by Friedkin, I think, and written by Blatty… I think,” says McCloskey, who cited the film as his favorite.
He’s right on both counts – William Friedkin was specifically requested by William Peter Blatty to direct this adaptation of his 1971 novel. The book itself was based on accounts from Loudun and Louviers in France circa the 1600s and the late 1940s case of Roland Doe.
“I think I liked it because it was doing things in the horror genre that just hadn’t been done before,” McCloskey says.
He’s mostly correct. The only other film that touched upon the subject matter of demonic possession before this one seems to be Häxan, a 1922 Swedish-Danish silent film that focuses more on how witchcraft can be interpreted as mental illness.
While demonic possession films are a dime a dozen now, in the 1970s this was a fresh new pasture. When audiences saw the film, they were terrified. Some theaters issued barf bags especially for the film! Audiences had never seen such things before, on or offscreen. And what’s worse, it hit close to home for many mothers.
The crux of the film is the mother-daughter relationship between Chris and Regan. As much as it’s about demonic possession, the film is also about the emotional trauma and sense of helplessness felt by most of those involved.
After all, if you saw your only child doing what Chris sees Regan do in the film, you’d be hysterical, too!
But what was truly striking was the sound design.
These earlier horror films rely as much (or more) on sound design as they do on visuals. While everyone remembers Regan’s diseased appearance, head-spinning, and pea soup vomiting, they’re actually relatively minor parts of the film.
The sounds are what get you: the ringing noise plaguing the priest in the Iraqi marketplace, the ungodly, demonic noises Regan makes once she’s possessed, the cracking of her neck when it spins. All the sounds come together into a perfect storm of unease that really helps the movie set its tone and keep the tension at a fever pitch almost throughout.
Another movie that makes effective use of sound – or, rather, lack thereof – is 1978’s Halloween, directed by celebrated horror director John Carpenter. This is Bergmooser’s favorite horror film.
“I love the whole atmosphere,” he says. “From the music, to the editing, to the acting. It was a minimalist approach, and it really generates fear.”
Really, if we wanted to call it a day, that’s the movie’s best aspects to a tee.
The music is never obtrusive and is used sparingly to great effect. The cast all give strong performances, even the children. And the editing and minimalistic approach – results of having a small budget mostly blown on getting Donald Pleasance to appear – lend the film a stark, almost alien atmosphere that grips viewers by the shoulders and squeezes just hard enough to be uncomfortable.
What really held my attention during the film is something most don’t actually pick up on. Namely, that Michael Myers has a sense of humor. Watch carefully and it’s clear that he’s having the time of his life here.
Slasher movies like this are always some variation on a cat and mouse game, and the cat, in this case Michael, always has a whale of a time.
Even more than that, Michael makes little jokes.
Early in the film there’s a scene with the main character, Laurie, and her friend, Annie, on the street. Michael drives by rather quickly and Annie calls out that “speed kills!”
The car abruptly brakes, and sits, idling for a bit while the girls mutter amongst themselves. Then it takes off. It demonstrates Michael’s sense of humor and also freaks them out a bit. The growing horror of the monstrosity that is Michael.
Later on, Laurie’s other friend, Lynda, and her boyfriend, Bob, are about to have sex. Only one problem: Michael’s killed Bob. Michael turns up to kill Lynda, pretending to be Bob by wearing his glasses over a white sheet ghost costume. He stands in the doorway until she gets unnerved and calls Laurie, then strangles her with the phone cord.
Now on the face of it, this seems like standard slasher fare. But think about this. Why did Michael turn up like that? Why not just stab Lynda (who’s still naked, and thus almost totally defenseless) and be done with it?
Because, in his own sick way, Michael’s having fun. He clearly saw Bob’s glasses and thought, “Oh, I know exactly what to do with these!” Then he used his knife to carve holes in a sheet and went upstairs in Bob’s stead.
I suppose it’s true what they say: if you do what you love, you never actually work a day in your life.
All in all, I’d say that along with the professors, I recommend these movies – provided you have the stomach for them.