LIFE AND DEATH, FEAR AND FUN; AND THE HEALTHY SOUL'S
INNER NEED TO RUN RAMPANT!
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS' "Halloween for grown ups" moment
HAPPY HALLOWEEN EVERYONE! Remember in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, when Melinda Dillon and Richard Dreyfuss are waiting on the road at night, with a crowd of others for what they believe will be the re-arrival of a UFO they saw the previous night? And she, chuckling to herself at her own (perhaps) silliness, says to him, "It's like Halloween for grown ups."? Back in 1977 that was charmingly ironic and humorous. But today (like it or not) it kind of just IS the case. Halloween now seems to be primarily for grown ups. Notice how you see fewer and fewer children trick-or-treating every year, but more and more adult Halloween parties? From the Playboy mansion, to the bar across the street, to the office bash, Halloween has been commandeered by the big folks. Seth Meyers even made humorous comment on it the other night on The Late Show, citing recent retail figures indicating that adult Halloween costumes now bring in three times more revenue per season than children's; a great irony as they're made of far less material. Badaboom!
And this is okay. I mean, because (no disrespect to our "mini me"s out there; you're all adorable in your bunny suits and AVENGERS outfits), but Mom and Dad probably need the cathartic release of pretending to be someone else, and scaring the beejesus out of someone, and being scared in return, maybe just a little more than the young'uns, especially these days. And while not everyone can afford to do the big budget Heidi Klum (or even Martha Stewart) Halloween outfit and party, just about EVERYone enjoys settling in for an evening or two of good scare'em fright flicks. Let's admit that EVERYone loves a good horror film. Hey, even those who say they hate horror movies really enjoy two or three. They've maybe seen them a few times on video or on cable. They know what's coming, but they still cower, cover their eyes and grab the person next to them on the couch. Then later they (not unlike Melinda Dillon in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS) chuckle to themselves at their own silliness for doing so. Once again, this is A-Okay. Life just can't be taken TOO seriously all the time. It just isn't healthy.
Super model Heidi Klum goes the max at her annual Vegas Halloween Party
That's why we dream after all, isn't it, to keep from going crazy in the day by ventilating all those pent up fears and frustrations at night? And the horror film genre allows us to do that arguably better and more effectively than any other. Needless to say every year every publication and show (online or broadcast) rolls out their list of "All Time Best Horror Films". And, I dunno, I always think they're kind of boringly the same, don't you? They all have THE EXORCIST, HALLOWEEN, THE SHINING, THE OMEN, ALIEN, yadda yadda yadda. And those are fantastic films. But rather than doing the "Best" thing we always thought doing a "Favorites" list was more interesting ... and fun. For with a "Faves" list you also get to include all those "Guilty Pleasures" no self-respecting film fan should ever admit to liking in a thousand years. I bet you've NEVER seen a Halloween movie list which includes THE DEVIL'S RAIN. Well, we've got no shame. We've got that one covered. Anyway, ...
This Halloween season time last year we rolled out, on the
GullCottage / Sandlot’s Facebook page, a nifty month long countdown list (adding two to
three entries per day) of what we called our “4 Fs” - FIFTY FAVORITE
FRIGHT FLICKS OF ALL TIME: LEADING UP TO PERHAPS THE GREATEST HORROR
FILM EVER MADE … WHICH YOU’VE PROBABLY NEVER EVER HEARD OF. And yeah,
that’s a mouthful of a title. But it grabs one’s attention, does it not? And, let me reiterate - with the exception
of the “PERHAPS THE GREATEST HORROR FILM EVER MADE … WHICH YOU’VE
PROBABLY NEVER EVER HEARD OF” part, we’re not necessarily saying these
are the 50 BEST horror films ever, just our personal faves. It's important to be
clear on that.
Fear and fun hand in hand: the Two Stephens (Colbert & King)
What causes something to be a
“best” or “favorite” will vary from person to person. And Stephen King once
made wonderful analogy to this by describing each person’s mind as a
mesh or screen or net. And how the interlaced spaces within everyone’s mesh
differs from those of the next person. Therefore items which may pass
through the mesh of one will tend to get “caught up” within the mesh of
another. And that kinda nicely sums up succinctly, wittily and visually how and why
everyone has a different favorite color or song or movie, or why one
loves blondes while another fella's into brunettes or redheads.
PRINCE OF DARKNESS motion picture score:
"Hell Breaks Loose" - J. Carpenter / A. Howarth
As for our own mesh,
what makes a horror film a fave of ours is that very elusive factor
where, while a film will make you jump-and-creep-you-out-and-make-you-cover-your-eyes-and-give-you-nightmares-and-the-heeby-jeebys-after-you-get-home-from-the-movies-and-you-step-into-that-empty-dark-house-or-long-apartment-hallway ... ALL ALONE!!! (cue the Crypt Keeper laugh ... "Hee! hee! hee!"), they’re also kind of a good time too. Excuse me? Well
yeah, there should be an element of fun. Not necessarily camp, mind you. We can't stand that crap. A little
is nice when (like salt or cologne) used sparingly. But more times
than not in recent days it seems to be the defacto fall-back-upon
position or filmic tone taken when a movie maker can’t figure out how to
carry something off in a convincingly straight manner.
Camp rules (and ruins) the day in FREDDY VS. JASON (2003)
They begin second guessing themselves
and the audience, and thinking perhaps the originally intended final result will perhaps look a little too silly. So it becomes “Let’s just yuck it up big time, filling the dialog with
all manner of ’clever’ verbal entendres so the audience won't make the mistake of thinking we’re not intelligent, self aware / post modern (oh brother, THAT phrase!) filmists, but that we're genuinely sophisticated enough to not take this shit seriously”. In other
words said creator(s) become more concerned about their own rep
(covering one’s own “artistic” ass) than the audience. And that's always the death knell of any film, genre one or otherwise, as it emits an almost subconscious disdain for the material. Like a young
inexperienced bumpkin hot to trot at the High School dance, and who slapped on
just a little too much Axe because in the TV commercials it drove the
babes wild, so can an audience smell that cinematic attitude miles away, even if they may not necessarily be able to pinpoint exactly from whence said olfactory funk commeth.
Now, it's going to at first look like we're indiscriminately jumping all over the map thematically here, but I promise you within a couple of paragraphs it'll all string together nicely like the written equivalent of an elegant pearl necklace. So, diving in (so to speak) - I vividly remember seeing JAWS in the
theater five times during the summer it opened in 1975. Like many of you, Spielberg films always held a personal fascination for me in
childhood. And in some respects that particular director’s ongoing
career has served as a series of recurring “sign posts” in my life the same way
others will fondly remember a World Series, NBA or Stanley Cup championship
20 or 30 years ago. That neat thing we do subconsciously - flashing back to who we were at that
time, and to what future hopes and dreams we had. Then maybe flashing
forward to how it all eventually turned out - our subconscious
necessarily “hitching a ride” on those cinematic or sports event "time machines" back
to better days.
In that respect seeing Spielberg’s DUEL on television
for the first time fired my imagination as no other TV movie ever had,
helping to influence me into wanting to write “that kind of stuff“ when I
got older. And Spielberg’s 1974
theatrical directorial debut, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, would be the very
first movie I’d memorize - every line of dialog, note of John Williams’
score; every edit, camera pan, sound effect and fade.
There are many such memorized films bangin' about like bumper cars in my noggin now, but SUGARLAND was the first.
In the late 1970s / early 80s HBO bursts onto
the cable scene and changed it forever. It would change this kid
forever too as back then "Hibbo" (as me and my classmates called it)
was not only a movie network but ESPN, Sundance Channel, IFC, Turner
Classic Movies, NPR and even the Playboy Network (after certain hours -
“ehh hem!”) all wrapped into one. And I was one of those who just devoured EVERYthing -
watching the same film two (sometimes three) times per day over a
And yes, reciting an entire film while Mom was cooking dinner
or Dad was driving the family down to the shore, I'm certain drove them a
little batty at times. But the up side (and somehow they realized this and
encouraged it - go figure) was that after seeing a film 35 times within a month, ... . Well, you're imperceptibly going to start thinking with the mindset and mental lens of a
screenwriter, director, editor or cinematographer. Anyway, not meaning
to digress, ...
JAWS was another Spielberg “sign post” - the first film I saw multiple times
in the theater - FIVE DIFFERENT theaters in fact across the U.S. I’d first see it alone on a local screen in
Willingboro, N.J., then another time with friends, then across the river in
Philadelphia with family, then (as my father was an interstate trucker,
and I often traveled with him during the summer months) in Dallas, Texas, then in another movie house somewhere in southern Florida. And the awesome part was how EVERY audience (regardless of geography,
age, sex, race, whatever) RESPONDED IN EXACTLY THE SAME WAY. Everyone
laughed and screamed and jumped and dropped their popcorn boxes and
sodas in and at exactly the same scenes … almost to the very same
nanosecond to which the audience did in that theater three weeks ago and a thousand miles away. That “seeing JAWS in five theaters" summer was not only a creative eye opener, but an early lesson into mass audience psychology. Perhaps the greatest (certainly earliest)
example ever of the power of film to reach into and come out with the
heart, soul and guts (hell, we’re talking about horror films, right? …
so yeah, GUTS!) of an audience through the craftsman-like manipulation of the
cinematic medium. In a word “Wow“!
THE EXORCIST (1973)
later would recount how, after previewing JAWS to an early
audience - how with the scene where the corpse head of Ben Gardner pops out from
the hull of his boat, and Richard Dreyfuss drops the flashlight and does
that classic underwater freakout, how he then decided to, via
editing, make Dreyfuss’ freakout a tad longer, as well as his swim back
to the surface, because the audience was screaming and yelling and then
laughing (at themselves) so much, the din of it all drowned out the
dialog of the next scene where Roy Schieder and Dreyfuss try to convince
the Mayor (Murray Hamilton) to close the beaches. This audience
“screaming then laughing (at themselves)” thing is to us such an
integral part of a great horror film.
It happens (differently but
definitely) too in films such as THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN and THE
SHINING. While certainly not funny movies, while exiting the theaters
and heading home from them there was a lot of audience chuckling going on, with
patrons laughing about how their date or brother or
sister, or (grinning and good-naturedly embarrassed like Melinda Dillon in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS) they themselves reacted. You‘d swear they‘d just come off an
amusement park rollercoaster. And in a way they had.
The "Crate Monster" from CREEPSHOW (1982)
cinema history theory textbooks inform us there’s a deep
psychological catharsis which happens when we’re allowed to safely “dip
into” the darker side of the human psyche then re-emerge
90 minutes or so later safe and sound in our theater seats. But there’s also a “fun-ness” into and out of that Space Mountain ride into Joseph Conrad / Friedrich Nietzsche land. Or at least there SHOULD be. In the end there
should be some kind of glee in knowing you survived unscathed. And how, even though while you were in the midst of the terror back then, and you
swore and prayed, “Just let me get through this and I’ll never do it
again”, ... you now can’t wait to do it again, you promise breakin' son-of-a-bitch. That’s the fun part.
And (not trying to come off as an old fart), far too many current horror films seem to go to one or the other far side of the spectrum: becoming little more than a "camp-it-up" fest with gore, or a fun-less exercise in filmmaker self aggrandizement. To us the later began (we may catch brick bats
for this) with 1999’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.
WITCH was the fulcrum shift point for the new millennium horror film in
that it (to us at least) ultimately felt more like a brilliant ad
campaign (and it's pre-release online P.R. juggernaut was
ingenious) in search of an actual film worthy of those efforts. Upon
leaving the theater there was an almost palpable sense of having been
duped / ripped off in an almost boiler room-like marketing hustle. From a
craft standpoint BLAIR WITCH is masterful filmmaking. It's got damned good
characterizations and performances. And what co-writer / co-directors
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez accomplished on a miniscule budget was perhaps
the greatest act of cinematic prestidigitation since Tobe Hooper’s
original THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. But there was NO story, no
narrative. And it left the audience with a dark foggy pall upon exiting
the theater. Not that the film should have been “funny”, but it wasn’t
“fun”. And there’s a difference. Somehow when you come out of THE
EXORCIST or POLTERGEIST, or even the low budget PRISON, you emerge
shaken and stirred but with that little grin - having survived the
coaster. With BLAIR WITCH one feels more like the forced victim of the
stereotypical (sorry Eduardo) “Dirty Sanchez”. Some of you may have to
Google that one.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
While Myrick and Sanchez’s careers in
film didn’t skyrocket in the wake of BLAIR WITCH (each did
a few web series and relatively unknown genre films), every studio exec
did put out the edict to (as Peter Guber says) “Get me one of those!” -
something cheap and filmed quickly by a near novice filmmaker, which
could turn a huge profit within one weekend. The era of the humorless
“found footage” horror film had begun.
Some will say, "Yeah, but back in the 1960s /
70s, B-movie king Roger Corman built a studio empire via that brand of
filmmaking - with the near-novice movie makers at the time being Bogdanovich
Coppolla, Scorcese, Ron Howard and that entire cinematic posse". The difference however was that the Corman
films, while at times transgressive (ever see Coppolla’s DEMENTIA 13?),
still had an air of “ghoulish fun” - or they at least (and this is important, and where talent and craft come in) contained elements subtly and artfully embedded within them which encouraged the audience themselves to subconsciously bring fun (and emotional release) into the equation. In the same way say a chef may sprinkle a barely noticeable dash of pepper on their Crème brûlée in order to get the diner's taste buds to salivate a bit more, become more sensitive, then by extension make the brûlée taste sweeter without having to add any extra sugar, so did Scorcese, Coppolla, et al do the same thing cinematically.
The well wrought horror film is a much more complex, intelligent and psychologically probing exercise than most think. It ain't just blood and guts and nifty gravity defying CGI images which look good during a 30 second TV spot. THE LAST EXORCISM, THE AWAKENING, THE POSSESSION, THE CONJURING, OCULUS - some of them are damned well made films. But don't you think there's a terrible sameness to them all - both visually and thematically? Can anyone really cite (let alone remember) their various story lines and characters as much as their nift-i-ly realized visual tricks? And as for the "found footage" horror trend, can anyone really cite the differences, story wise / character-wise between the five PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films between 2009 - 2014? And there's another one coming up next year. Just a little filmic food for thought.
DEMENTIA 13 (1963)
Corman and Scorcese and the others didn't TELL the audience they should be having fun (as in the campy horror films), but they instead encouraged them to WANT to bring fun into the theater in order to emotionally save themselves from the ride. Those fortunate (some would say "unfortunate") enough to have experienced watching a horror film in an old school midtown grindhouse theater during the 1970s - 90s know exactly what we're talking about. Everyone was there to have the pants scared off of them. But when it got a little too intense, people would start talking back to, yelling at, and hurling jokes and sundry MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000-like commentary, at the characters (good and evil) on the screen. There was even laughter as reaction to these comments.
It's that JAWS "mass-psychology-audience-manipulation-through-cinematic-craft" thing going on. How else can one explain the sub par sequel CHILD'S PLAY 2 (1990) being one of the most enjoyable nights out at the movies we've ever experienced? While certainly a step down from Tom Holland's original, it still focuses on characters. Foster children Andy (from the first film) and teenage Kyle (who begins as cynical and self absorbed, but eventually ends up as Andy's protector) are genuinely touching. So much so that the most hard core audience of inner city grindhouse theater patrons fell in love with them. This of course made what happened to them that much more terrifying, engrossing, and their ultimate survival / victory a wonderful rollercoaster / cathartic release mechanism for the audience. It's not a great film by any means. But it's a REALLY ENJOYABLE one.
You see the same thing at work in director Wes Craven's otherwise forgettable THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991). It's soooo all about craft, and about loving the audience. That is what is necessarily part and parcel of the elusive mixture of fear, fun and craft which makes a horror film not only a fun night at the movies when first viewed, but years later a favored gem. Whew! See, told you it would all string together by the end. At any rate, all of this to say …
The sub par but very enjoyable CHILD'S PLAY 2 (1990)
As stated this
is a list of our “4 Fs” - FIFTY FAVORITE FRIGHT FLICKS of all time. And
once again, perhaps with the exception of that “GREATEST WHICH YOU’VE
NEVER HEARD OF” pick at the end, we’re not calling the other 49 the
absolute BEST. That's for you to decide with your own list. We’re just calling them our faves based on the criteria
of our own (admittedly subjective) "fun" meter. And yeah, we know, some may be
miffed at the exclusion on our list of an obvious choice or two such as
our own beloved JAWS or even John Carpenter’s legendary HALLOWEEN, especially
since we’ve included a few other Carpenter titles.
But like we said,
it’s all so subjective. In the case of JAWS for example, while it IS a
horror film (the first half anyway), it’s usually not thought of
as such by most, not even by it’s creators. And since we originally had a much
longer list which we had to trim down to 50, we decided
to leave it off. As for HALLOWEEN, we’ll be honest and say maybe
because it was such an obvious choice, we just plain simply forgot
to include it. Sorry about that Michael Myers fans. We’ll do better
next time, we swear. But as said, we’re not trying to cure cancer
here; just having a good time, and we hope you will too while
scrolling through this nifty listing of film trivia, music and clips.
Lon Chaney in LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927 - left) and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925 - right)
Oh yeah, also keep in mind that, with the exception of that #1 choice again, the
films aren’t listed in any kind of ascending or “worst to best” order.
We love 'em all equally: the super cheesy-fied (but cool and creepy) SSSSSS!
every bit as much as Robert Wise’s original THE HAUNTING. From the art house
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE to the 1931 Spanish language version of
DRACULA, then on to Ridley Scott’s still trend-setting ALIEN, a good time is a
good time is a good time no matter how you (heh! heh!), "chop it up" (once again mentally insert the Crypt Keeper laugh, "Hee! Hee! Hee!") Nighty nite!
Excerpt: TERROR IN THE AISLES (1984) -
Opening Montage Sequence
Hosts: Donald Pleasence / Nancy Allen