Sunday, October 28, 2007


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in a society conditioned to fear, fear becomes an entertainment.

that's one explanation for the popularity of horror films.

of course, horror has a long + distinguished history, its modern forms dating back to late 18th-c. romanticism--as europeans recoiled from the reign of terror (or simply 'the terror') in france, + english gothicism emerged as a distinct literary genre for several decades.

polidori's suave vampire (modeled on his friend lord byron) + later stoker's cultivated count dracula radically changed the image of the vampire from hairy, supernatural vermin to cosmopolitan gent, suggesting that horror could inhabit the most civilized exterior (stevenson makes a similar point in dr. jekyll + mr. hyde).

in film, horror emerged mainly in germany following the first world war--caligari, the golem, nosferatu.

it attracted a larger american audience during the 1930s. if nothing else, horror films convinced americans that, however bad their lot in the depression, things were worse elsewhere. fascism, nazism, + stalinism reared their heads in europe just as dracula, frankenstein's monster, + the wolfman reared theirs in hollywood's 'european' backlots.

the 1940s offered little beyond val lewton's meditative, psychological b-picture horrors, perhaps because americans were caught up with can-do optimism, buying war bonds, planting their 'victory gardens,' + fighting the 'good war.'

the cold war + the atomic bomb emerged as threats at the end of the '40s, inducing anxiety under the surface in decades of hollywood films, + their presence is most felt in a series of movies portraying invaders who look just! like! your! neighbors! + giant monsters released by nuclear testing.

hannah arendt's phrase 'the banality of evil' (an expression used to describe nazi bureaucrats accused of heinous war crimes) can be seen in hitchock's psycho ('wouldn't even hurt a fly'), frankenheimer's manchurian candidate, kubrick's 2001 (the insanely soft-spoken hal 9000), + clockwork orange (the ludovico technique).

vietnam + a series of political assassinations in the 1960s brought the horror closer to the home--demon-possessed family members + inbred cretins with axes + chainsaws ruled the new multiplexes of the 1970s.

aids + other venereal diseases, along with a born-again sex-phobia reacting to perceived excesses of feminism + 'free love,' gave us sexually aggressive female psychos (fatal attraction, basic instinct) + monsters spawned through viral infection (the blob, virus).

of course, sex + fear of sex thread through the whole history of horror (part of the reason 'sex + violence' can be paired without much protest)--from vampires sucking the blood of beautiful english virgins to horny teenage camp counselors unable to meet or survive for more than 10 minutes their midnight assignations.

it's not hard to see the shadows of 9-11 + the iraq war upon recent horror films, like spielberg's remake of war of the worlds, the british zombie films 28 days later + 28 weeks later, or even the saw series, with its brutal 'improvised explosive devices' + excruciating scenes of 'alternative interrogation procedures.'

horror became mainstream in the 20th century--who spoke of genocide or serial killers much in the 19th century? (with apologies to jack the ripper, whose disease had not yet been named.)

now we consume terror like breakfast cereal. it's a part of the games we play as kids. it has shed most of its fantastic, supernatural trappings + become a normalized fact of life.

we laugh at horror--not just the old, quaint spiderwebs + dry-ice fog in the campy hollywood classics. the new horror films expect us to laugh--to 'get the joke' whose punchline is an expoding head or a drawn+quartered body.

still, there are some films, old + new, that capture the macabre sense of dread that defines horror at its most interesting--not necessarily shocking, not even necessarily scary, but horror that haunts your dreams + perceptibly chills your waking life.

here are 13 of my personal favorites (i know, it's a pretty conservative list, but i have a taste for the 'classic' in horror movies):

1. the bride of frankenstein (1935)

2. cat people (1942)

3. psycho (1960)

4. the birds (1963)

5. rosemary's baby (1968)

6. the exorcist (1973)

7. carrie (1976)

8. halloween (1978)

9. the shining (1980)

10. the hunger (1983)

11. the silence of the lambs (1991)

12. the sixth sense (1999)

13. irreversible (2001)

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