The joys of being horrified

Too many horror films give us mere jump scares when what we want is real terror.

Andrew Doyle
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According to Stephen King, the best kind of horror story is that which successfully terrorises the reader. ‘If I find I cannot terrify’, he writes in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre, ‘I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.’

It is no coincidence that the most successful film adaptations of King’s novels are characterised by restraint. One thinks immediately of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) in which the moments of brutality are all the more potent by virtue of their infrequency. Even the sight of Annie Wilkes crippling the author Paul Sheldon with a sledgehammer in Misery (1990) owes its impact to the gradual tension that has escalated during his captivity. In King’s novel, Annie’s weapon of choice is an axe. It is a good example of where the ‘gross-out’ option proves to be less effective.

The horror genre is currently in a period of stagnation, relying too much on what film critic Nigel Floyd has called ‘cattle-prod cinema’. Instead of a narrative that builds a sense of cumulative dread, we are forced into a reaction by jump scares. The Insidious and The Conjuring series are both guilty of this kind of shortcut shock tactic, and it is notable that the best of these films – Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015) and Annabelle: Creation (2017) – focus on a single lead character in a relatively confined space: a simple approach that enhances the claustrophobic pressure.

Of course no great claims can be made for either movie in terms of artistic merit, but I am unapologetic about my appetite for trashy horror. I enjoyed the preposterous right-wing paranoia of Eden Lake (2008), in which working-class hoodies are reframed as the true monsters in our midst, and I adore the crazed homoeroticism of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). It really has to be seen to be believed.

I’m particularly fond of those films that are able to blend horror with Marx Brothers-style slapstick. Sam Raimi is the master of this technique, as anyone who has ever watched Evil Dead II (1987), Army of Darkness (1992) or Drag Me To Hell (2009) can testify. There are few more satisfying sights to a horror aficionado than an old hag, cackling maniacally, and Raimi’s movies have them in abundance. (For the record, Ridley Scott’s 1985 fantasy Legend has the ultimate cackling hag in the form of Meg Mucklebones, but she is sadly decapitated by Tom Cruise after only two minutes of screentime.)

But horror needn’t be frivolous. Mark Kermode is probably right that The Exorcist (1973) is the greatest film of all time, and classics such as Psycho (1960), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) regularly feature in lists of critics’ favourites. Even a gruesome shocker like Candyman (1992) is able to deal intelligently with issues of class and race, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) deserves far more credit for its surprising metanarrative, transforming the iconic Freddy Krueger into a demonic entity who manipulates filmmakers into creating stories so that he might be brought to life. In other words, there is no reason why a slasher shouldn’t aspire to artistic heights. Fear is a fascinating primal instinct; the possibilities are endless.

There have been several recent attempts to reboot popular horror franchises, but the only one that has really worked is David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018), partly because it has the courage to ignore the dismal sequels to John Carpenter’s 1978 original, but also because it has a superb script which generates moments of almost unbearable suspense. This year’s remake of Pet Sematary added very little to what had already been achieved in Mary Lambert’s 1989 movie, with the exception of a twist to the tale that was needlessly revealed in the trailer. And the less said about Samuel Bayer’s version of A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), the better.

I had high hopes for the reincarnation of the killer doll Chucky in the new Child’s Play, released this week, but it fails to succeed either as comedy or horror. Much as I enjoyed its sillier aspects, these are but pale shades of the delirious absurdity of Ronny Yu’s Bride of Chucky (1998), a homage to James Whale’s definitive exercise in high camp horror, Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Moreover, by eliminating the supernatural aspect of the character, writer Tyler Burton Smith has reduced Chucky to a kind of parable about the dangers of artificial intelligence. The idea of an amoral robot who doesn’t understand why murder is wrong somehow lacks the dramatic appeal of Don Mancini’s original conception, in which a serial killer proficient in voodoo transfers his soul into a doll when fatally shot by police in a toystore. But I suppose these things are subjective.

Worst of all, Chucky is now animated, through unconvincing CGI, from the very beginning of the film. The brilliance of the first Child’s Play (1988) was that the doll doesn’t move of its own volition until well into the film’s second act. Before then, the movements can be explained by Chucky’s basic mechanical functions, which makes the revelation that his owners had forgotten to fit him with batteries all the more surprising. The scariest moments occur thanks to the eerie stillness of the doll; we imagine that we see him move even when we don’t. The technique is familiar from all films that rely on the theme of automatonophobia. Notable examples include the ventriloquist’s dummy Fats in Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1978), and the doll Annabelle in The Conjuring series.

I’m not averse to being occasionally prodded along like cattle, but I’m eager for another masterpiece which manages to sustain a sense of terror as effectively as Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). In terms of pure horror, this film has never been surpassed, so much so that I don’t think I can bring myself to watch it again. Every shot is infused with the threat of imminent violence, which is why it has a reputation for being a gory slasher even though there is hardly any blood on screen at all. Like all good horror, it is what we have felt that disturbs us, not what we have seen. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the tension is unrelenting.

For the past few years, horror fans have been satisfying themselves with morsels in anticipation of a feast that never quite gets served. Critics raved about The Babadook (2014), but in spite of its imaginative qualities it nonetheless left me cold. I haven’t been genuinely disturbed by a horror film since the dénouement of The Borderlands (2013), so a reignition of the genre is clearly long overdue. It’s fun to be grossed out from time to time, but surely we deserve to be terrorised.

Andrew Doyle is a stand-up comedian and spiked columnist. He is also the co-founder of Comedy Unleashed, London’s free-thinking comedy club. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @andrewdoyle_com

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Comments

Jasper Vidot

27th June 2019 at 8:52 am

Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” is the best horror film I’ve seen in years. I don’t recall any other capturing a sense of grief/dread and mixing it with pure archetypal terror so effectively. The scene where the mother screams after finding out what has happened to her daughter stuck with me for days. I haven’t seen his latest offering “Midsommar” yet but I hope it matches up.

Hana Jinks

27th June 2019 at 8:28 am

Human centipede was good. The Vanishing is excellent. Salo is a masterpiece.

Winston Stanley

27th June 2019 at 1:29 am

“The joys of being horrified.”

Have fun.

https://twitter.com/LondonStreets3

Winston Stanley

26th June 2019 at 9:54 pm

If you want to see horror these days, you only have to put on the TV. The culture itself is pretty horrific now. That is likely an insight that dates back to an earlier stage of the horror genre.

Winston Stanley

26th June 2019 at 9:28 pm

I like the Vincent Prince movies on American International Pictures. He is always looking for revenge. The character that he plays dates back to the 50s before AIP. He generally started out as a decent bloke, a respectable character, and he suffers some “wrong” like the death of his wife, or the failure of his plays, and he goes mental and commits his life to inflicting “just” rewards on his enemies. It is quite comic the inventive schemes that he comes up with. Egs. House of Wax , The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, Theatre of Blood, The Masque of the Red Death, The Tomb of Ligeia. We can all identify more or less with his characters. Sometimes he is apparently just a lunatic from the get go, eg. Witchfinder General. Price is the undisputed master of the horror genre. Hammer also deserves a heads up, everyone should see all of their horror films at least once. Arguably, American producers trashed the horror genre with their psychological thrillers and slasher movies of the 70s. Universal, Hammer and AIP are the classics.

Ed Turnbull

27th June 2019 at 1:24 pm

Winston, I’m afraid I must disagree with your assessment of some of the films you cite as examples. Masque of the Red Death is about cruelty, ambition and hubris rather than ‘revenge’; ditto Tomb of Ligeia iit’s about obsession rather than a revenge piece. Similarly I think your characterisation of Price in Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General (to give it its full title!) is inaccurate. The Hopkins character is not a lunatic, but rather a calculating and cruel man, the film being a study in how pain and suffering corrupt both receiver *and* giver.

Having said that Price has delivered some fine performances over the years, though most have tended toward camp to some degree (Witchfinder being the notable exception; such a shame Michael Reeves the director died so young). I think it’s arguable who’d be the ‘undisputed master’ (in terms of acting at least) of horror. Other actors worthy of consideration are surely Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man was a real stand out in his long career), Peter Cushing.

James Knight

26th June 2019 at 5:34 pm

The best thing about TCM is the title. The weak point is that it goes weirdly camp.

gershwin gentile

26th June 2019 at 3:02 pm

“Notable examples include the ventriloquist’s dummy Fats in Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1978), and the doll Annabelle in The Conjuring series.”

Dead of Night? Is wiki the go to resource for Spiked?

gershwin gentile

26th June 2019 at 2:59 pm

“I’m particularly fond of those films that are able to blend horror with Marx Brothers-style slapstick. Sam Raimi is the master of this technique, as anyone who has ever watched Evil Dead II”

The Three Stooges dude. Didn’t you know that?

gershwin gentile

26th June 2019 at 2:56 pm

Do you know what really scares Spiked? Mentioning Russia and Iran.

gershwin gentile

26th June 2019 at 3:01 pm

Why do those two countries get you so scared and me modded?

Ed Turnbull

26th June 2019 at 1:56 pm

The most affecting horror films I’ve seen recently (though, technically, one’s a ghost story rather than horror film) are Panos Cosmatos’ delcious homage / reboot of 70s grindhouse ‘Mandy’, and the utterly creepy and terrifying ‘I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House’ by Osgood Perkins (son of Anthony no less!).

The former perfectly nailed the atmosphere of 70s exploitation horror (even down the red text of the opening titles), and added some wonderful psychaedelic flourishes. By the midpoint of the film I was feeling so disturbed by what I was seeing I was wondering if I should continue watching (much of this doubtless came from nostalgia of a youth misspent watching ‘video nasties’ – Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato have much to answer for). I did continue and I’m glad, for Cosmatos had performed a clever trick: he’d convinced me I was watching something way more distrurbing than it actually was. He was following in the footsteps of Hopper with ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (though ‘Mandy’ is actually far bloodier than that movie). Highly recommended if you haven’t seen it (watch it twice in case much of the black humour and campness eludes you on first viewing).

‘I Am The Pretty Thing..’ is an altogether different propostion. Whereas ‘Mandy’ was gaudy and colourful ‘I Am The Pretty Thing…’ uses a very limited palette and a number of static camera setups. This film brings the chilling, mounting atmosphere Andrew mentions in the article. It brings it by the truck load. In many ways this film reminded me of ‘The Haunting Of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson – the opening and closing narration by Lily being very reminiscent of that of the doomed Eleanor Lance in ‘The Haunting…’. And the character of Iris Blum, particularly in the flashback scenes, seems consciously modelled on Shirley Jackson. ‘I Am The Pretty Thing…’ (even the name of the film sends a shiver down my spine: pretty *thing*? Not pretty *girl*?) Perkins performs an even more remarkable feat than Cosmatos did with ‘Mandy’ – it tells you, *within the first five minutes*, exactly what’s going to happen…and keeps you in utter dread of that event for the next ninety minutes. I’ll also mention that the soundscape (it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to call it a ‘score’) by Elvis Perkins (Anthony ha a weird sense of humour when it came to naming his sons) only helps amp up the unease…and it goes all the way to 11. Also highly recommended.

Kelly-Laila Al-Saleh

26th June 2019 at 12:41 pm

Always loved horror films (even as a child). The more psychologically disturbing, the better (because you’re properly engaged and get psychologically challenged, get taken out of your comfort zone).

Neil McCaughan

26th June 2019 at 12:31 pm

Chucky was modelled on Hazel Blears. Not many people know that.

Jerry Owen

26th June 2019 at 11:18 am

King certainly terrifies me with his unhinged rantings about Trump.

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