By Gemma Files, for Patreon
My Facebook friend Daniel Braum calls fun horror "the smallest category in [his] genre food pyramid," but to me, that's the category from which all Halloween playlists should be programmed. Because Halloween is mostly about a celebration of horror culture, it should embrace the grotesque and spectacular—the monster movies/mashes, classic and otherwise, from Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow or Dark Shadows to the original Universal Invisible Man, Mummy, Wolf Man, Frankenstein and Dracula variants, all those ones people usually complain “aren't very scary.” The Nightmare Before Christmas end of the scale, in other words.
Let's pause for a moment to examine this particular complaint, however, since it's one I've also seen levelled at almost every new horror film anybody makes the amateur mistake of telling somebody else they enjoyed online, at one point or another. Immediately, a horde of people will show up to put your enjoyment in context, assuming that their lack of enjoyment vis-a-vis the same thing must necessarily trump it: How could you like that crap, let alone proselytize for it? is the clear implication. As though a horror film's sole function was to frighten across the boards, and any film that claims to be horror which doesn't is just a big, creepy joke being played at their expense. As though any narrative, horror or not, could ever hope to produce exactly the same effect in every person who encounters it.
Consider the jump-scare, that bane of modern horror—a classic bait-and-switch once used to great effect in movies like Val Lewton's Cat People (1942): through careful cueing, a character/the audience is led to expect something (direct threat) before suddenly being given something else (not that, not at all). The scare in question might be as elaborate a set-up as a New York City bus abruptly pulling up right next to the woman who's just spent five minutes thinking she's being stalked by a panther while simultaneously making almost the same sound such an animal might emit as it pounces, or as simple as a lost pet falling on you from an upper cupboard, a noise in the dark loud enough to make anybody flinch, or a child in a mask jumping out to scream in your face sheerly for the pleasure of watching you freak out.
Most people agree that jump-scares are the lowest rung on the ladder of purely autonomic horror responses, the simplest possible effect to achieve—and that, no doubt, is why genre-literate horror fans have become so reflexively contemptuous of them rather than delighted by them. Other such autonomic effects include low-decibel sound to create a mood of impending doom, use of frame, darkness contrasted with dimly-seen or out-of-focus images, whip-pans, sudden appearances in mirrors, et cetera...all the myriad ways in which filmmakers try to trick us into mistaking something normal for something not, a long-established vocabulary of fright developed over almost a hundred years of Hollywood film history. Unfortunately for genre fans, however, the more you encounter these techniques, the easier they become to recognize in action—until that recognition itself, eventually, serves to defuse or callus over the same inherent human fight-or-flight prey reflexes on which the techniques rely most directly to work.
So we ask ourselves, as horror fans, what are these tricks being used in aid of, exactly? Are they tools being used to construct something, some greater argument/narrative, or is the point of the exercise the use of the tools themselves? Are these mere mechanics what make up the mechanism itself, in its entirety? When we talk about something being a simple “thrill ride,” this is what we're saying—that while the film may work moment to moment, it contains nothing we can take away from it, nothing which will make us want to take that particular trip again. That it's a haunted mansion without a ghost, empty as any given cartoon Halloween Disney ride, and we should feel bad for even meeting it halfway.
Or, to put it another way: I was scared on an autonomic level by Annabelle: Creation because it does these particular things very well, but does that make it a “good” movie, enduringly so? Probably not, objectively, any more than making me cry makes a movie from some other genre “good”...I'm easy like that, annoyingly. All you have to do is press in the right places, and it's like turning on a faucet.
One reason that people who otherwise love the genre of cinematic horror may start to have a flinch/cringe reflex around so much of its established vocabulary is that the jolt of “seeing the strings” often causes them to assume there's nothing there but a big ball of string. For me, even though the more often I view something I already enjoy, the more strings I see—those moments in Blade and From Dusk 'Til Dawn where Stephen Dorff and George Clooney get switched out for their stunt doubles, for example—it actually somehow increases my affection for those things, instead of diminishing it. It's like a bad retro haircut on an old familiar friend.
So we have to ask ourselves: is the goal simply to scare people, or is the goal to make them afraid—aware of their own fears, their own mortality, the things they don't know and never will? To make them question themselves, their own sense of reality; to put them in a bad place, then help them back out of it? Or not, depending. I'd argue it's always the latter, or should be, because the latter is far, far more difficult to achieve. Not that anything's inherently wrong with the former, if that's all you want to do, but that means you're going to end up creating something that probably passes right through people, pretty much undigested—you won't get a lot of repeat business. It's the repeat business that we all long for, though; whatever that itch is that makes you want to scratch, and re-scratch. To return to the moment of your own fright and study it, break it down so you can figure out why it works for you, and—hopefully—how to make it work for somebody else.
As my husband Stephen J. Barringer points out, when you define your genre by its subjective effect rather than its objective content, you will always run into trouble convincing people who are genre-literate to look deeper once that effect wears off for them. Which explains why “It's not scary” is, from my POV, an evaluation so subjective as to be empirically useless as a mode of assessment. In my own work, I concentrate on what scares me personally, what disturbs me most, and trust that there'll be people out there in my prospective audience for whom it works the same way...and as for the rest, well, fuck 'em. They're not for me and I'm not for them; it happens. It is, in fact, life.
What might be threatening about this methodology beyond the fact of mere rudeness, however, is that it's sort of the reverse of the logic that people who complain about being triggered in some way appear to be employing; by pressing on my own scabs, I feel as though what I'm trying to do is to tell all the people out there who jump at the same things that their response is valid: their fear, their pain, their grief, their hurt. Their wounds. That pressing on those wounds—embracing and familiarizing oneself with pain, rather than avoiding it—may be, in the end, more helpful than not, because it has been for me. And if they can't make that leap with me, I understand, but it's never going to stop me from doing it—because, on some level, I need to. Like Joan Didion, I need to write about things to understand what I think about them, and in a way, my fiction can be read as a series of metaphorical essays about certain moments in my life.
As I've said before, turning things into fiction gives me retroactive control over them. I can change how I remember things, and de-fang them in the process. E.M. Forster said it very well: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say [about anything]?” This applies to most types of writing, in all genres—personal honesty and delight in your own storytelling trumps mere cold mechanics, especially when reduced to pure tropery in hopes of reaching the widest possible audience. It's the theory behind PG horror, supposedly—but always remember, by today's standards, Rosemary's Baby is PG. The Exorcist is PG. It doesn't necessarily have to mean what we've all been trained to think it means, in other words: to pitch your story only to some amorphous mass of white, straight, mainstream teenagers out there in the dark somewhere, never thinking—never recognizing—that some of those teenagers might in fact grow up to be people like me (and you, I can only assume).
One of the biggest advantages of horror is that, like erotica, its fundamental techniques are inexpensive and you will always find a market for the type of thing you're selling. In fact, the people you end up targeting will be so happy to see themselves reflected back, centre-stage at last, that they will respond with instantaneous affection—and better yet, they'll spend as much of their money on you as you want to take, just to get another hit of that good stuff, the stuff that's for them. It's a crass way to put it, but it's true. It's like flipping a house—you can get out of it far more than you put in, depending on what you put in.
So...with the whole “but it's not scary!” thing hopefully gotten out of the way, let's go back to the idea of “fun horror” in general—what's so fun about it? For me, it all boils down to the element of delight: what makes a horror film “fun” is that it's someplace I want to inhabit over and over, to explore as I would a landscape, or re-play as I would a curated playlist. The entries on such a program would have to consist of films that each represent a bunch of strung-together moments I thoroughly enjoy, pretty much from beginning to end. They might range from eccentric picks like Big Trouble in Little China (aka John Carpenter Does Urban Wuxia, at least in my house), with its crazy pacing, screwball comedy dialogue and genuinely weird supernaturalism, to supposedly mainstream stuff like Paul W.S. Anderson's Event Horizon, which doesn't in any way set out to be funny yet nevertheless ably manages to juggle both Hellraiser In Space antics and deadpan action-film comic timing throughout. (After having finally viewed the titular lost ship's final space-bending hell-dimension body horror flesh apocalypse log entry, badass space-rescue captain Laurence Fishburne has only one thing to say: “We're leavin'!”)
Most of Clive Barker's work qualifies, to my mind, because it takes place inside a clear horror universe where magic is to some degree routine: Hellraiser, Hellbound, Lord of Illusions, Nightbreed. In Barkerlandia, even relatively “normal” impulses, like cheating on your boring-ass American husband with his dirty yet sexy-ass brother, lead not to divorce so much as to, oh, say, being flayed alive and torn apart by the demon Leviathan's representatives, then put back together by an insane psychiatrist who conjures your living corpse out of a mattress watered with the blood of a self-harming psychotic. It's all about the truly big issues, in other words: Immortality and destruction, transformation and transfiguration. As John H. Frank observes, in Lord of Illusions the “fun horror” is front-loaded by concentrating on Scott Bakula's black magic P.I. Noir shenanigans while the back half eventually turns out to involve pure cosmic Gnostic nihilism, as Aleister Crowley/Charlie Manson-style cult leader Nix announces: “I was born to murder the world.”
With a lot of my Fun Horror faves, gore is a given, since once you push things past a certain level everything tends to take on a Grand Guignol quality of inventive nuttiness. Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn is as much a slapstick comedy as it is a horror film, and I love it for that—both sides of the pie are equally valid; I'd also throw Fede Alvarez's equally gonzo yet totally straight-faced re-visioning of the original Evil Dead into the mix, noting that its French title is something like L'Opera des Terreurs. But then there's Dan O'Bannon's punk extravaganza Return of the Living Dead, in which we learn that nihilism won't help in the face of mucky, brain-eating tar-man zombie attacks, that apparently “It hurts to be dead!” (which is why zombies want to eat those damn brains in the first place, who knew?), and that no matter how shitty a part of town you're calling from or how decayed your voice sounds when you say it, some moron down at the 9-1-1 answer line will always “ssssend... morrrrre... PARAMEDICS.”
(Always remember, O'Bannon also wrote the screenplay for Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce, which adapts Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires into the best schlock sci-fi horror movie Hammer never made. The end result plays somewhat like a Nigel Kneale softcore, and is probably best known for its liberal use of the often completely-nude Mathilda May, in her English-film debut, and her amazing gravity-defying breasts. The moments that have stayed with me the longest, though, are the hellish spectacle of thousands of zombified Londoners simultaneously energy-vampirizing each other while crumbling to dust at top speed as the space vampires' umbrella-shaped ship sucks up their residue, counterpointed with that one time our protagonists try to locate May's astral form by slapping possessed lunatic asylum director Patrick Stewart in the face over and over again before finally making out with him.)
Peter Jackson also has a fair deal to answer for, in this respect—Lord of the Rings Oscar-winner loot aside, his early filmography mostly looks like the work of an incredible talented New Zealander ten-year-old gross-out artist on a sugar high. My favourite of these entries has to be Dead-Alive, the hands-down foulest, most suppurating, over-the-top cartoon zombie film ever made. Thrill as a hapless nebbish cuts his way through acres of pus-filled undead Kiwis with nothing but a manual lawn-mower, eventually rescuing his lovely girlfriend by cutting his own mother in half and “returning to the womb” in style! The sight of an otherwise mild-mannered cleric drop-kicking half a dozen zombies—including a rotting infant in a baby buggy—through a graveyard while announcing: “I kick ARSE for the LORD!!!” is worth the price of admission alone.
Stuart Gordon's early films—Re-Animator and From Beyond, in particular—are prime Fun Horror material, consistently rocking both that all-important retro pulp vibe and a certain Saturday morning serial sense of constant acceleration; they satisfy even with their downbeat Lovecraftian endings virtually intact, exhilarating me in a way that makes me laugh out loud during certain sections of both. In a lot of ways, it boils down to exactly how many moments per film there are of: "Oh my God, ha ha, you actually went ahead and went there, didn't you? Dude, you really did! Good for you."
But then there's also Neil Jordan, who's directed three films I could watch again and again (and have), immersing myself inside them like a bath of glorious, sensual darkness: The Company of Wolves, Interview With the Vampire, and Byzantium. Much like Guillermo del Toro in his own Fun Horror triptych (Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone, Crimson Peak), Jordan comes at horror from the Gothic side of things, with all that that entails intact—Romanticism with a big “R,” sexuality both vanilla and bent, mis en scene so lavish you live in it (“Welcome to my haunted garbage dump, Edith!”, as the primary Tumblr meme about Crimson Peak goes).
It's just not debatable that all these films are made by masters operating at the very top of their respective games, no matter whether or not you find their actual content a tad shallower than you might otherwise hope. What's equally undeniable, however, is that both Jordan and del Toro know exactly what they're doing, and that they've studied the same sort of films they're trying to craft for years—del Toro in particular, that gigantic monster-loving fanboy. Like Martin Scorsese, they can cobble together visual, character and mood quotes from their own internal library of films with ease, because they know its various entries both inside and out.
In a way, you could claim that all horror films made before a certain era—your own, most probably—tends to fall under the category of Fun Horror simply because of the way they were made, which can derail even the most devoted of viewers' sense of internal reality just on grounds of “but wait, real life is in colour” or “but wait, real life comes with sound.” I've had film history students who literally claimed they just couldn't watch genre staples like The Silence of the Lambs because “those fashions are so awful, and that music!” (“I was born in 1990,” one once told me, almost causing me to choke on my own spit.) People in the past looked and acted differently, news at eleven! Suck it up and move on, folks. On the other hand, the same can be said of almost every advance in special effects. For all the people who decry computer-generated imagery, there'll be somebody for whom practical effects or stop-motion animatronics look equally ridiculous.
Willing suspension of disbelief is what carried everybody through the long phase of film production during which something as simple as a mobile camera seemed an impossible dream, or in which all vehicle shots were achieved with rear-projection on a studio back lot because the idea of actually filming outside on location was fucking crazy-talk. So to my mind, affection—sheer delight in the way all a film's elements come together, grinding gears notwithstanding—is the only thing that's ever going to make you want to make that particular leap of credibility, to agree to pretend you just don't see the seams and the pulling, the slight pixilated blur, the zipper up the back. The first step in suspending any disbelief is to stop looking for excuses not to.
It's like Stephen King says in Danse Macabre, talking about watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon from the back seat of his Mom's boyfriend's truck at a drive-in: most of the time he knew it was just a guy, a stuntman who could swim really well and didn't mind being encased in rubber...but every once in a while, if he didn't watch himself real close, it suddenly turned into something else—this horrible thing, muck-encrusted and primordial, building a dam to trap its prey where it could get at them, handful by slimy handful of mud and sticks and hate. “Its ancient, evil eyes...”
That's what I'm looking for with Fun Horror, and on really good days, that's exactly what I get. That's what makes it so fun.
AN INCOMPLETE LIST OF FUN HORROR FILMS NOT DIRECTLY COVERED HERE
Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula
Attack the Block
Attack the Block
The Lost Boys
The Fly (David Cronenberg's version)
The Wolfman (Benicio del Toro edition)
House of Dracula
House of Frankenstein
Bride of Frankenstein
Son of Frankenstein
The Invisible Man
The Black Cat
The Mind's Eye (aka The No-Budget Telekinetic Exploding-Head Scanners Successor You Never Knew You Were Missing)
The Legend of Hell House
Brides of Dracula
Dracula A.D. 1972
Dracula Prince of Darkness
The Abominable Dr Phibes
Twins of Evil
Happy Birthday to Me
City of the Living Dead
Demons and Demons 2
House of Dark Shadows
John Badham's Dracula (1979)
John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness
Phantom of the Paradise
Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
As Above So Below
Dean Koontz's Phantoms
John Carpenter's In The Mouth of Madness
We Are The Night