Urban legend has it that one of the first examples of a movie famously—and apocryphally—provoked mass panic when its audience thought the train would storm through the screen and barrel into the theater.
Sitting in the dark, comforted and disturbed by the difference and similarity between watching and participating, there’s something inherently frightening in the movies. But it’s a fun kind of fright—like a roller coaster or carnival spookhouse—that’s equal parts scary, stupid, and delightful. Sensory gimmicks, which invaded that safety, were integral to the genre. It’s no wonder that horror and Halloween go together like light and shadow, and area movie houses are celebrating the holiday with a salute to things that go bump in dark theaters.
With his cutting wit and crooked grin, no one better embodied the genre’s macabre mischief than Vincent Price in House of Wax (Alamo, 10/09), perhaps the best 3D picture of the 1950s. It’s fun, color-drenched hokum with some surprisingly grisly jolts, and beyond a few self-reflexive carnival goofs with a paddle ball, the 3D effect is subtle and startling. This brand-new restoration should pop.
Price would return to the mad scientist role often, notably in The Tingler (Screenland Tapcade, 10/26),. Released in “Percepto,” where auditorium seats were rigged with a kind of buzzer, it’s about a spine-tingling parasite that can only be killed when its host shrieks and is a shockingly post-modern schlockfest—at one point the creature is set loose in a movie theater.
From the beginning, most Americans have tended to prefer horror with Price’s air of well-financed respectability. For a more direct comparison, see TCM’s presentation of the Bela Legosi Dracula, and its less stodgy, more fluid Mexican-produced sibling, which was filmed simultaneously with the same sets and costumes but on the graveyard shift (Wide, 10/25 and 10/28).
The old-dark-house subgenre may be horror at its most suggestive, wielding off-screen space the way others spray fake blood. At once classy and kooky, The Haunting (Alamo, 10/26) is a best-in-class example, all dark hallways and off-kilter angles. Its ghostly reach extends so far that Alien (Screenland Tapcade, 10/23 and 10/24) could be “The Haunting in Space.” The same way Strangelove is a remake of Failsafe, The Shining (Screenland Armour, 10/10 and 10/11) is Stanley Kubrick’s (in)version of The Haunting: bleached out and drenched in light, everything twisted inside-out. The most direct remake is England’s The Legend of Hell House (Screenland Tapcade, 10/13). In a move typical of European 70s horror, the plot is virtually identical but everything is amplified: bloodier and sexed up. It’s a hoot.
If England’s horror was prim but crude—best exemplified by Hammer Studio’s reworkings of classic Universal Studios monster movies starring Christopher Lee like Horror of Dracula (Screenland Tapcade, 10/12)—Italy’s were straight-up gonzo. Operatically hyper-sexed gorefests, they’re known as Giallos, which literally means “yellow” but more directly translates to “pulp” or “trash,” and boy were they trashy.
The best Giallos are not to be missed: Dario Argento, with his vibrant colors and dreamlike lighting, made beautiful trash like Deep Red (Screenland Tapcade, 10/19); Lucio Fulci, on the other hand, made trashy trash like House by the Cemetery (Screenland Tapcade, 10/20).
As the 70s gave way to the 80s, increasingly cheap independent productions dominated the genre thanks to the runaway success of a little movie called Halloween (Cinderblock Brewery, 10/29). John Carpenter didn’t invent the slasher, but he cut away all the fat and, along with other filmmakers like Wes Craven, injected the whole thing an era-appropriate, reactionary tone. Carpenter was always a classicist, and his remake of The Thing (Screenland Tapcade, 10/23 and 10/24) is even more sparse than the Atomic-era original. But Craven was so brutal and cunning he eventually took the whole thing to its logical conclusion with Scream (Alamo, 10/29). Even he couldn’t take it anymore.
But not everyone was so cutthroat. As much in love with Giallos as the Three Stooges, Sam Raimi churned out a trilogy of comic-book-slapstick horror farces, each more unhinged than the last. Even the first Evil Dead (Alamo, 10/18), by far the grizzliest of the pack, was a goof. Less sequel than better-financed remake, Evil Dead 2 (Alamo, 10/18) took the first movie’s cabin-in-the-woods premise but ramped up the humor and technical acrobatics. Army of Darkness (Alamo, 10/23), the third, is a kitchen-sink swords-and-sandals epic.
Sex has always been as important to horror as blood, and no movie has better dramatized the gaga-giddy panic of a girl’s coming of age than Carrie (Alamo, 10/25). Equally earnest, crude, and over the top is The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Alamo, 10/17; Screenland Armour, 10/30), which managed to locate the intersection between horror-movie tropes and gender-identity norms. All of these movies play best with an audience; Rocky Horror, though, is like the proverbial tree: without anyone around, does it make a sound?
That sense of communal experience is as important to horror as any technical innovation, and maybe that’s why both the Alamo and the Screenland are hosting surprise triple features (Alamo, 10/24; Screenland Tapcade, 10/30). The Screenland will even revive the “Percepto” conceit by screening the superb spelunking-freakout The Descent in a cave (SD Caves, 10/27) and a Halloween party at a former psychiatric hospital (Delvoir Winery, 10/31). It’s mass hysteria at its most inviting.