Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Halloween Ramblings: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

When I was a kid, Halloween was the only time of the year when I felt normal. The rest of the year, I was that weird boy who liked horror movies and monster magazines, the guy my Seventh-day Adventist friends liked but still viewed askance ... as if I might, at any moment, reveal fangs and hiss at them. But when Halloween rolled around each fall, everyone became as weird as I, and for one night, I blended in.

Whenever someone knocked at our front door, my mother would immediately run – not walk, but run – to my bedroom and pull the door closed. Sometimes, she wouldn’t wait for a knock at the door. If a car slowed to a stop in front of our house, off she would go to shut that door. Even if it wasn’t someone stopping to see us – maybe they were lost, or stopped to light a cigarette, or something, I don’t know – and drove away a moment later, by then my bedroom was closed and Mom wore an expression of relief. She closed the door so no one could see the posters on my wall, or the issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland lying on my bed, or the Aurora model kits of Frankenstein’s Monster or the Wolf Man that stood on my shelves. There was always the chance that it might be someone from the church dropping in to see if they could catch us sinning. If they were to see the horrors in my bedroom, word would get out, and everyone at church would know what an abysmal failure my mother was as a Seventh-day Adventist parent.

Even more frightening for my mother was a knock at the door while I was watching or Dark ShadowsThe Twilight Zone or Outer Limits or Batman (my grandpa feared that Adam West’s betighted cavorting would turn me into a Satan-worshiping homosexual). Somehow, the idea of someone from church seeing me in the act of watching one of my favorite shows on TV terrified her more than the possibility of someone getting a glimpse of the Dracula poster in my room. Sometimes while I was watching one of those shows – or, even better, a horror movie double feature on Creature Features, which I never missed on Saturday nights – she would ask, “What would you do if Jesus walked in here right now and saw you watching that?” I quickly learned that smartass responses like, “Make him some popcorn,” or, “Catch him up on the plot,” did not elicit positive responses. That’s when my dad – who usually didn’t bother much about what I watched because he was usually angry and brooding about something – would get involved and ask me, “You gettin’ funny? Huh? You want me to get the belt?” He would always start to unbuckle his belt when he asked that second question. So I learned not to respond at all and told myself Mom was simply being rhetorical (although to this day, she has no idea what “rhetorical” means).

Today, my life is much, much different. I was fortunate enough to fall in love with a woman who shares my taste for the macabre. The first thing you see when you walk through our front door is a faceless Grim Reaper oozing ghost-like out of the wall and reaching out to you with both hands. On the wall beside the door are two bony hands; Dawn hangs her purse from one and the other holds keys. There’s a mummy on our living room wall. Also hanging in the living room are two holographic portraits of Dawn and me; as you walk by them, we change from our normal smiling selves into monsters – I into a werewolf and Dawn into a vampire, both with blood dribbling down our chins.

The house is filled with bats and gargoyles. In the front bathroom, a winged Nosferatu hangs upside down on the wall holding a black candle, and small skeletal hands are attached to the four corners of the mirror on the medicine cabinet. The white shower curtain is smeared with blood, some of it in the shape of hand prints. The back bathroom has two framed posters on the wall – The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Lair of the White Worm. My office is ... well, it’s what my bedroom would have looked like when I was a boy if I’d had the money to buy what I wanted and had my parents not been in the thrall of a deranged religious cult. There are movie posters on the walls – Magic, Return of the Living Dead, The Blob (the 1958 original), Curse of the Demon, Mars Attacks, and an autographed photo of the man who helped keep me sane when I was growing up, the late Bob Wilkins, host of Creature Features. On the wall behind me, the large head of a tyrannosaurus rex hangs on the wall. Also behind me, the shelf above my U-shaped desk holds a host of monsters, including a replica of the Zuni fetish doll from Trilogy of Terror and an alien from Independence Day. There are so many books in here, it looks like the room collided with a library. Monsters and dinosaurs are everywhere, as well as action figures from Star Wars, Star Trek, Lost in Space, and Batman, an alien skull beside the TV, a King Kong lunchbox on a book shelf. The walk-in closet holds three large bookshelves that are overloaded with books, top to bottom, as well as more action figures, a large tarantula, and a “Bumble” doll – the abominable snow monster from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The room next to my office is filled with movies – we call it the movie room – about a third of which are horror and science fiction films, as well as more horror and science fiction memorabilia. In the bedroom, Christopher Lee looms above our bed in a framed poster from Horror of Dracula, and a giant spiderweb made of yarn stretches out in front of the round mirror of Dawn’s vanity. There are a couple of other posters – Lee again, dining on a beautiful, bloody throat in Taste the Blood of Dracula, and House of Dark Shadows.

When people visit, they come inside, look around and inevitably say, “I see you haven’t taken down your Halloween decorations.” One of us always replies, “Yes, we have. It always looks like this.” Guests reveal a lot the moment they come into the house because they do one of two things. Either their eyes widen and a big grin slowly spreads over their faces, or their eyes narrow and they pull in their chins as they look around with frowning disapproval. Both reactions occur in varying degrees. Some people try to hide their disapproval. But they can’t. Two different people have actually screamed when they noticed our faces change in the portraits. Not unlike the Spanish Inquisition, nobody ever expects it. That always makes me happy.

Mom almost never comes over. If she does, she seldom comes inside. And if she comes inside, she doesn’t stay very long.

When I was a boy, I was taught to be ashamed of myself because of the things I enjoyed. I was taught that so well that it took decades to get over it. I’m over it.

Given the house we live in, it probably comes as no surprise that Dawn and I love the month of October. We don’t wait for Halloween – we celebrate all month long. In October, we take the horror movies off the shelf and start watching them. To be honest, we have so many that sometimes we start late in September, and even then, we don’t get through all of them by Halloween. As I write this, I’m watching Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and last night I watched The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Earlier this month, I made my way through the old series of Universal Frankenstein movies and watched a few other Universal classics like Werewolf of London and The Wolfman and The Black Cat and The Raven. It’s a month of Poe movies, like The Pit and the Pendulum and Masque of the Red Death; Lovecraft movies, like Re-Animator and From Beyond; Stoker movies, like the many versions of Dracula and Ken Russell’s insanely funny Lair of the White Worm; Stephen King movies like Carrie and The Dead Zone and The Night Flier; Val Lewton movies like Cat People and I Walked with A Zombie. The vampires in The Hunger and Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat; the werewolves in The Howling and Wolf and An American Werewolf in London; the ghosts in Poltergeist and The Legend of Hell House and The Haunting; the mad killers in Halloween and Psycho and Chamber of Horrors; the creepy aliens in Alien and It Came From Outer Space and the first two versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (sorry, not a fan of the two that followed); the terrified kids in Monster Squad and Invaders from Mars and Parents; the puppets in The Mad Monster Party and The Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas (which also works as a Christmas movie); and the freaks in Freaks and the thing in The Thing! Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas – but when it comes to variety, Christmas has got =nothing on Halloween!

The older I get, the more I feel a sense of sadness when I watch the old horror movies I loved so dearly as a boy. Back then, they scared me. I mean, they really scared me. I watched lengthy segments of them with my hands over my eyes, peeking between my fingers, and sometimes I had to cover my eyes completely. They made me afraid of the dark and often gave me nightmares. As a child, vampires and werewolves and ghosts and mummies seemed threatening, a genuine possibility in a dark room or while walking around outside at night. All of that is gone now. Today, I find none of those things frightening. A good example of a movie I find scary now is Requiem for A Dream. Vampires and werewolves are fantasy. But drug addiction? Mental illness? Dying alone and abandoned? That’s some scary shit. But I still have a sentimental attachment to those old horror movies, and even if they don’t affect me in the way they used to, many are admirable simply for their cinematic qualities.

For my money, Bride of Frankenstein belongs right up there with Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard and other titles that are considered among the best American movies ever made. It has such a broad emotional range – horror, pathos, comedy – and James Whale had a grand old time slipping gay themes and jabs at the church past the censors. If all it had going for it was Ernest Thesiger’s performance, that would make it worth seeing, but it’s a treasure chest of cinematic gems and movie gold.

Horror movies don’t get much respect, and yet some of the most memorable moments in movie history come from them. Nosferatu rising from his coffin or the Phantom being unmasked are among the most well-known and enduring iconic images from the silent film era. All of the Universal monsters – Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the wolf man, the mummy, the gill man from Creature from the Black Lagoon – are still a vivid part of our culture more than half a century after they first appeared on movie screens. Those movies feature scenes that have been burned into our consciousness: Colin Clive shouting, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”; Dracula’s “Listen to them ... the children of the night,” as he stands on that enormous staircase in his castle; Larry Talbot’s first transformation into a werewolf. These movies set the mold for cinematic horror in Hollywood and continue to be influential today. In the ‘50s and ‘60s in England, Hammer Studios put its own stamp on these horror icons, casting Christopher Lee as Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the mummy, Peter Cushing as the mad scientist or the monster-vanquishing hero, and Oliver Reed as the tragic title character in Curse of the Werewolf. But these were still reflections of the original visions that began at Universal.

In the 1950s, Hollywood replaced two-legged monsters with giant multi-legged monsters as the nuclear bomb turned harmless little bugs into giant nightmares. Then in 1960, Janet Leigh took a shower and there was a wave of twisted psychopaths. After Rosemary Woodhouse had a devilish time with her first pregnancy in 1968, Satan and his servants became the popular menace, possessing a little girl in The Exorcist, melting William Shatner and Ernest Borgnine in The Devil’s Rain, taking over a New York brownstone in The Sentinel, and generally raising hell all over the place. While Satan was doing his job, nature was going crazy in movies like Frogs and Sssssss and, of course, Jaws. The 1980s was a wonderful grab bag of horror. Werewolves and vampires made a comeback in movies like The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, Fright Night and The Lost Boys; there was a killer dog in Cujo, a killer family man in The Stepfather, demon-possessed zombies in the Evil Dead movies. It was a great decade. Things began to go downhill in the ‘90s, and only got worse after that.

Horror movies get less respect now than ever before. Part of the reason is that the genre has decayed in recent decades. There have been bright spots – movies like 2001's Session 9 and 2006's Pan’s Labyrinth spring to mind – but the genre seems to have dug a hole for itself, and rather than climbing out, it keeps digging.

I think a big part of the problem is that too many horror movies are made by people who don’t really understand why horror works when it works. The first mistake that trips most of them up is setting out to make a horror movie. They approach making a horror movie as if it were like making a cake, which requires certain ingredients in certain quantities. As strange as it sounds, I think horror filmmakers have seen way too many bad horror movies. They seem to think they need a certain amount of this, a bunch of that, a dollop of another thing. Horny teenagers, gore, sex – that kind of thing. That’s putting the horse-drawn hearse before the horse. It results in the kind of bland sameness that infects so many horror movies these days.

Director William Friedkin has said that he refused to approach The Exorcist as if it were a horror movie because he didn’t want to make just another horror movie. He approached it like any other movie. Shoving all thoughts of the horror genre aside, he decided to focus instead on the core elements of the story it told. He once said about himself, “I tend to be attracted to characters who are up against a wall with very few alternatives. And the film then becomes an examination of how they cope with very few options. And that's, I guess, what interests me in terms of human behavior.” That’s what happened with The Exorcist. It was a story about a woman horrified by what was happening to her daughter and helpless to do anything about it, a woman who quickly exhausted all her options and found herself up against a wall. That doesn’t sound like a horror movie, not at all – and that’s part of the reason why it works. Friedkin didn’t try to make a horror movie, and he ended up making one of the greatest horror movies ever made. One of the reasons it’s so scary is that we believe and care about the characters. Friedkin made a movie with a gripping, grueling story about people for whom we cared. If we hadn’t cared for them, the story wouldn’t have mattered much because we wouldn’t have cared about what happened to those people.

This attitude, I think, is absolutely essential in making a horror movie or writing a horror novel that works. Rather than setting out to write a horror story, start with story and character and let the horror evolve out of that.

The best horror movies – the ones that stay with us long after we see them – tend to be products of their time and to comment on or reflect those times in one way or another. In the 1930s, Universal Studios employed a lot of European immigrants, many of whom had fled the rise of Nazism in Germany. Glimpses of this can be seen in Universal’s horror films, especially the Frankenstein series. In those movies, we identify with the monster. He’s not only an outsider who doesn’t fit, he is despised by everyone. Even as a child, some of the most frightening images from those movies for me involved the angry, torch-bearing mobs out for blood. When they chase the monster, they are chasing us. Replace the creature made of cobbled-together corpse parts with a person of Jewish descent and suddenly, all fantasy melts away from these movies and they become vivid reflections of a very real time and place.

The big scares in the 1950s and onward were the possibility of a nuclear holocaust and fear of the communist boogieman. At the time, the general public was pretty ignorant of the true effects of a nuclear bomb. If they could be convinced that their children would be safe in an atomic blast by hiding under their school desks, then it’s pretty obvious they were in the dark. And they were afraid. The movies of the time reflected that fear. Who knows WHAT the bomb might do? they asked. Then they answered that question by exposing everyday insects like ants and spiders -- things we see around the house on a regular basis -- to nuclear bombs and growing them to monstrous sizes. These movies may not have the same effect today that they had then, when the mystery posed by the ominous bomb opened up all kinds of nightmarish possibilities.

When The Exorcist was released in December of 1973, it was a phenomenon, a blockbuster that created lines around the block. It made the news when moviegoers were so horrified by the graphic images that some of them became sick or even fainted. But people kept going back for more. The Exorcist tapped into something that many people recognized from their own lives. Parents were confused and frightened by the changes they were seeing in their children; drug use, sexual openness, political activism and a general angry anti-establishment attitude were making their children unrecognizable to them. When Regan MacNeil began spewing profanities and pea soup and going through frightening physical changes, those parents saw their own children, their own lives up there on the screen. To them, a child possessed by Satan made perfect sense, and they reacted to it strongly.

Jaws and the other “nature fights back” movies of that time period reflected a growing environmental consciousness. People were becoming aware of the damage we were doing to our environment and worrying about what the consequences of that damage might be. In the movies, the consequence was some pretty pissed off animals that were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore. Jaws tapped into that so effectively that it made people afraid to get into their own bathtubs.

In 1979, Alien plugged into a timeless fear that spans all eras. It was set in outer space well into the future, but the discomfort and dread it aroused were as immediate as if the movie were shot yesterday in your own neighborhood. Is there anything more terrifying than the idea of some malignant thing growing inside you? Something you are unaware of and helpless to combat? Something that will kill you no matter what you do?

No matter what they are about on the surface, the best horror movies – like the best movies of all kinds – are those that touch us in a familiar and recognizable way. Whatever monsters or supernatural threats they may contain, they are about our lives right now, today, and the things that disrupt or threaten our lives. I don’t see horror movies doing that today. Instead, we get endless Saw sequels, or remakes of movies that weren’t any good the first time, like Friday the 13th or My Bloody Valentine. Who gives a damn about horny teenagers being slaughtered? Hell, spend a couple of hours with some of them and you might want to slaughter them yourself! Horror movies today are disconnected from us, from our lives and our experiences. They reflect nothing but the desire to have a blockbuster opening weekend that will make enough money to feed a small Third World country.

Another thing missing from horror movies today are horror movie stars. What comes immediately to mind when you hear the names Karloff or Lugosi? What images fill your head when you hear the names Christopher Lee or Vincent Price? The closest thing we have today is Anthony Hopkins, who not only gave us one of the greatest movie monsters in recent memory, Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, but also starred in the haunting 1978 film Magic, played Van Helsing in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and turned in a chilling performance in the recent remake of The Wolf Man.

Nobody worked harder to keep those old horror movie stars alive than Forrest J. Ackerman. As a boy, I got far more comfort and spiritual enrichment from Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine than I ever got from the bible. When I met Ackerman at a science fiction convention in 1984, it was like meeting Santa Claus – the real Santa Claus – and visiting his museum-like home a couple of years later was liking touring Santa’s toy factory at the North Pole. I was a boy the first time I read an interview with Ackerman, and I was dazzled when he said he’d created Famous Monsters of Filmland so fans could have Halloween all year long. What a concept! Halloween all year long! That was what I wanted. Most kids looked forward to getting married and having children and a white picket fence when they grew up. But when I grew up, I wanted to have Halloween all year long.

When Forrest J. Ackerman died in 2008, I was struck by how much he had influenced my life. All you have to do to see that influence is look around my house. It’s Halloween all year long here.

I suppose I’ve rambled enough. But I’ll leave you with a few suggestions. Even if you don’t have kids, carve a pumpkin, do a little decorating. If you do have kids, dress up along with them when you take them trick-or-treating. Turn out the lights and watch a scary movie with them – don’t forget how much kids love to be scared in a safe way (something adults do all too often in an effort to protect their children). This Halloween, frighten someone you love.