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Homogenized Horror Part I


I have never cared for the word "horror" when applied to scary movies. The dictionary definition of "horror" includes words like "revolting" and we certainly don't go to the cinema to be revolted. The word "terror" seems much more appropriate, and was actively used by Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee to describe their films. Ah, but people still like to say "horror movies". What can you do?

Scary movies belong to the Independent Film genre. Why? Simple! The Indies are more likely to take chances and be innovative. Sure they may lack the big bucks and sophisticated technical effects of the major studios, but then a budget that looks like the GNP of a Third World nation is no guarantee of a good movie. George Romero claims Night of the Living Dead cost $118,000 while John Russo claims the cost was closer to $58,000. The point is, it was an indie film and it took chances that no mainstream movie would even have considered; ie, a black hero, explicit (for the time) gore, and a downbeat ending where everyone dies. David Lynch made Eraserhead for under $40,000 and claims "I never set out to make a cult movie. It's a student film." In a way he is very right, Eraserhead has been studied by film students all over the world by now.

Mainstream Hollywood, or Corporate Hollywood as it is properly known to-day, has always seen art as secodary to black ink on the bottom line of the ledger page. To that end, it has always declared that movies should have happy endings so audiences would go home feeling positive. This goes back almost to the very beginning. In 1920 Louis B. Mayer ended his 5 reel version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the whole adventure having been a dream and Dr. Jekyll (Sheldon Lewis) leaping from his chair and declaring "It was all a dream! I believe in God! I have a soul!"

Carl Laemmle, founder and president of Universal Pictures always hated the B-movie genre. He would rather have made movies like Blind Husbands (1919) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), what he called his "Super Jewel" productions. His son Carl Jr knew that B-movies brought in the money that made the A-movies possible. Both Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein almost ended with Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) dying. A hastily tacked on postscript in the original film showed Henry recovering from his fall from the windmill, and in the sequel, equally quickly reshot scenes showed The Monster himself (Boris Karloff) telling Henry to flee before the castle was destroyed.

Rarely was Hollywoods penchant for happy endings so obvious, and so obtrusive, than in the 1947 film Nightmare Alley (which comes closer to being a "horror" film than any other I have mentioned so far). In that film Tyrone Power makes a fortune as a phony medium who fakes raising the dead for rich customers who pay a fortune to see their dead loved ones again. When his racket is exposed he hides in the only place left to him, the carnival sideshow where he becomes a pathetic drunken "geek" who entertains the rubes by biting the heads off live chickens. The original movie ended with Power going insane and remaining a geek, but the studio bosses decided the audience could not handle that and changed the ending showing a wildly drunken Power calming down immediately upon seeing his estranged wife (Joan Blondell) who declares that she still loves him. The final scene promises redemption, not punishment for his misdeeds.

One of the scariest sequences to come from Mainstream Hollywood occured in the 1961 film Suddenly, Last Summer. In a lengthy flashback, we find out that Montgomery Clift was a homosexual (the actual word is not used, hey it was 1961 for cryin' out loud!) who used his wife (Elizabeth Taylor) to lure young boys to their mansion overlooking a small Mexican village for his own sexual pleasure. On their last night in the village Clift and Taylor have dinner at an outdoor cafe separated by only a thin fence from the boys they have been exploiting. Getting more nervous by the minute they decide to leave, but the children follow them banging on tin cans which they have flattened out to make crude musical instruments. Finally Clift breaks into a frenzied run but the children follow him up a steep hill where they corner him. As Taylor watches, the children of the damned cut Clift to pieces with the sharpened edges of their cymbals and then partially devour his corpse. The allegory is unmistakable: you cannot prey on people without them preying on you in return. The studio was taking a big chance in doing an ending this downbeat and they knew it. To-day, Suddenly, Last Summer is a difficult film to see either on Cable TV or on video.

Time and changing public attitudes brought about changes in movies, but still these changes were not very drastic. We can excuse Burt Reynolds literally getting away with murder in Deliverance by saying he killed the mountain men in self defense. But we can also imagine he did it to get even for what was done to his pals beforehand. At the same time, the main studios were giving us terror-disguised-as-adventure in Deliverance, a fellow named Wes Craven was pushing the envelope with Last House on the Left. The theme of Last House and the similarly themed The Hills Have Eyes and Mier Zarchi's I Spit on Your Grave was that so-called civilized people were capable of the same brutal violence as the societal lowlifes if they were pushed far enough. To that end, Hills Have Eyes and I Spit on Your Grave are far more honest in their approach than Last House. The parents of Mari, after getting a well deserved revenge on Krug and Company just stare at each other in mute shock as the horror of what they have done begins to sink in. To make matters worse the local sheriff, an ineffective Barney Fife type, comes in at that moment and nearly loses his lunch at what he sees. Hills and I Spit showed protagonists pushed way past their limit and getting revenge against people who clearly have it coming to them. Both times they are smiling when their deeds are done. They have been vindicated and they have a reason to smile without a shred of guilt. Remember though that these are all Independent films. Mainstream Hollywood had its eye on these low budgeters and especially the high returns they were reaping across the country. They decided to take a chance.

Paramount, the studio that had given the world such films as Murder by the Clock (1931), Island of Lost Souls (1932), Murders in the Zoo (1933) and who had nearly made terror films respectable by producing a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that won an Oscar in 1932, took a chance with Friday the 13th in 1980. The public had shown that it wanted lots of blood and gore and Friday gave it to them. Well, almost! Looking at Friday with an analytical eye, we can see that in many cases we are seeing only the aftermath of a violent act. The death of the first victim is shown onscreen but after that many of the other deaths happen just out of camera range and we get a look at the brutal after effects. Of course, if there was a chance to showoff a gosh-wow effect like the fellow who gets an arrow puched through his neck from behind this was allowed, because a scene like that would promote good word of mouth about the picture and bring even more people back to see it.