It seems too simple and trite to carry any real wisdom, but it’s worth repeating that horror movies need to be scary. Not just disgusting or disturbing, or visually interesting in some artistic way, but scary. Otherwise, they’ve failed to meet the most basic requirements of the genre. This time of year, people like to take in more horror films than usual, and for those of us who aren’t horror movie fanatics, some guidance is usually required. Harry’s been giving us a great tour of some lesser-known (and well-known) titles over the past couple of weeks with his Halloween Binge, and I’m sure more than a few readers have been inspired to get creepy thanks to his efforts. But we shouldn’t forget that scary movies are a rare commodity. When I, personally, look back over a lifetime spent watching movies, the times when I have been genuinely scared by the medium are shockingly few. For me, in fact, there were only two occasions when a horror film actually scared me, but those two films remain etched on my memory, and re-appear in my dreams with disturbing regularity.
A bit of history: I wasn’t allowed to watch horror movies as a child and youth, so I came late to all of the big franchises that everyone else seemed to have consumed right along with Star Wars when growing up. Though I was of the right generation, I didn’t see A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th or even the original 1978 Halloween until I was deep into my 30s. I was educated in film, but there were gaps in my viewing history. In my first year of grad school (for science), I had, for the first time, my own apartment and the freedom to watch whatever I could fit into the VCR. One of my fellow students leant me a VHS copy of Jacob’s Ladder and suggested that I “watch it alone”. (Spoiler alert: he was deliberately playing a dirty trick on me.) In any case, knowing essentially nothing about the film, I put it in the VCR, dimmed the lights and watched it alone in front of my little TV. The next time I encountered this classmate, who shall remain nameless, he laughed at how traumatized I looked. If he only knew.
I haven’t watched the film since, so my recollections of it are emotional rather than academic or intellectual. This Adrian Lyne-helmed projected from 1990 starred Tim Robbins as a Vietnam veteran going through his ordinary every-day life back home in America, who starts to experience visions and terrifying incidents, seemingly at random. Robbins, an actor who exudes natural intelligence and stability, inhabits this character who has a PhD but works at the Post Office, clearly struggling with his war experiences. And then things start to go insane. My recollections are of ordinary scenes suddenly accelerating into nightmarish hallucinations, of characters, such as Robbins’ girlfriend, played by the late Elizabeth Pena, suddenly turning hostile and evil and of disturbing random visions such as a car screeching away with a horrifying man gazing out the back window. A naturally anxious person, I think all of my deepest psychological buttons were being pushed by this film, which made the terrifying suggestion that yes, all my worries are indeed valid and true. For people with anxiety, that’s the deep, abiding fear. We don’t need to be shown terrible things: we imagine them every second of every day. What really scares us is the thought that our fears might actually be true, and not some product of a mental disorder.
Those of you who are horror fans, and have seen Jacob’s Ladder, may not find it as horrifying as I did. It’s not even strictly speaking a horror film, but rather more of a psychological thriller with deep religious overtones. I distinctly recall the videotape box bragged that the film had a “shocking ending that will haunt you forever.” After that first viewing, and again knowing nothing about the film going in, I remember thinking that there was truth in advertising after all. “Forever” is a formidable time stamp to put on that particular emotional haunting, but I must admit that almost 20 years on, it haunts me still.
The other item on the very short list of scary films for me is Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, from 2002. That movie has become a bit of a zombie genre classic in recent years and without a doubt, it was ahead of its time. We live in such a zombie-saturated culture now that it’s sometimes difficult to remember when the horror movies we were offered were such fare as the umpteenth Friday the 13th sequel or a big-budget ghost story with Richard Gere looking suave. In the landscape of the early 2000s, 28 Days Later was shocking. The quasi-documentary feel, the use of shaky hand-held cameras and the sudden, terrible energy of the zombies would all have made for a good little horror film in any era. But 28 Days Later took things many steps further, focusing on the breakdown of society after a zombie plague (which of course is explored now weekly on The Walking Dead) and looking squarely at one of the most awful aspects of this sort of scenario: the loss of loved ones. It’s that latter element that finally drove me over the edge into true horror. Several times during the film, we are treated to the sight of a sympathetic character “turning”, in the span of minutes, into a blood-spewing beast. Boyle does such a good job introducing us to the characters that each transformation is more horrific than the last. It’s not the special effects or stunt work that makes these scenes unforgettable: it’s old-fashioned writing and acting. When (spoiler alert) Brendan Gleeson’s character finally is infected… That’s an image that will stick with me as long as the ending of Jacob’s Ladder.
Beyond my emotional responses, I deeply admire Boyle’s cinematic storytelling skills. For example, the film actually has a third act, set in an military-occupied manor house with a group of soldiers led by Christopher Eccleston. That key pause before the obligatory final action sequence is enough to fool the audience into thinking that perhaps this film will have a happy ending, or at least a victorious one, after all. Then, of course, things take a dreadful turn once again.
The notion of losing control of one’s body and mind, of being reduced to a screeching, blood-spitting monster in minutes, also hits a deep nerve in my psyche. Perhaps it has to do with anxiety, but it seems to me that this is a more or less universal fear, borne out of our deeply conflicted intellectual and animal nature. Our capacity to “rise above” our baser instincts is one of the things that allows us to build a civilization rather than descending into anarchy, so anytime we’re reminded of what lies beneath our veneer of morality and respectability, it’s bound to be upsetting. This is hardly an original or profound observation, and there are many lesser films that aspire to key in on this basic human fear and fail. 28 Days Later is an exception, a horror film that follows a well-trodden path and leads us by the hand into our deepest and most ancient nightmare.
As I mentioned at the top of this piece, I’ve seen neither of these films since my initial viewing. I do have some time to myself on this Saturday evening. It’s possible that this year I’ll work up the courage to face one or both of them again. But I’m not taking bets.