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Beyond the Buckets of Blood: Horror Food for Thought

Ryan Ackerman (3L)

The Witch (2015) is an odd horror movie, bearing so many similarities to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) that it’s difficult to write about them separately, so I won’t. They both trade heavily in the fear of the unknown, and in the clues presented in-film that the unknown is actually our worst nightmares come to life. The Witch is beautifully shot, rendering the Canadian New England forest a thing of sublime beauty and pure terror. Much like the familiar urban surroundings of Rosemary’s Baby are rendered remote by her isolation from friends and contacts, the family in The Witch willingly forsake their bonds to the community in order to live apart. Both films track the descent into accusations and paranoia that these environments breed, and ultimately confront their protagonists with the fact of evil, unapologetically standing in front of them, begging for acceptance into their lives. The crying baby, the book of names, they both require an action. These are not movies about passive horror; bad things happening out of the blue to unsuspecting people. These movies are about so much more, but those are best pondered over watching the films yourself.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is a grim little movie which unfairly has a poor reputation, undoubtedly because of the Halloween franchise tie-in despite there being no Michael Myers, no stalk-and-slash sequences at all, and no real connection to the other movies save for the eponymous holiday providing the backdrop. In a plot that could be taken from one of the lesser James Bond films, a giant corporation in Northern California (complete with it’s own campus-style town) is planning on using masks to kill all children who wear it on Halloween. This film’s bread and butter is the sense of unrelenting dread that there is no escape from this corporate entity, they are everywhere, watching everything, and always one step ahead of you. That being said, the film has major flaws: borrowing too heavily from James Bond, the male protagonist has an implausible sexual relationship with a woman at least 30 years his junior. The deployed henchmen are murderous when necessary and incompetent at other times as the script demands it. Finally, the myriad of costumes seem out of place no matter what era is imagined. However, this film is memorable in a way that so many horror movies are not. The murders are strange affairs, simultaneously weird and gruesome, and the soundtrack, or rather lack thereof, consists of a lot of rural ambient noise, like shoes clacking down empty hallways and the like. A few notable twists to the plot culminate in one of the most downbeat endings ever seen in a Hollywood studio movie. Far from perfect, but worth a watch.

Peeping Tom (1960) came out the same year as Psycho and inevitably draws comparisons. Where Psycho is preoccupied with the victim’s story, Peeping Tom follows our protagonist around a thoroughly drab-looking London as he films his murders for later viewing. The protagonist relishes the fear captured on film, and in many ways questions why us, as viewers, would seek this out on film ourselves. The film was immensely controversial upon its release, effectively ending director Michael Powell’s career in UK cinema for decades. By today’s standards it is a tame, somewhat languidly paced thriller, but it’s impact on cinematic masters such as Hitchcock in Frenzy (1972), and later serial-killer character studies like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and the very grim all-POV Maniac (2012) it’s easy to call this a classic worth viewing.

Tenebre (1982) is a film by Dario Argento, master of the giallo film (a type of mystery-slasher hybrid, the 1975 film Deep Red is an example). Tenebre is really the culmination of his work in the genre. An American author is in Rome promoting his latest book and a serial killer using the book as inspiration begins to terrorize the author and those around him. A simple setup, competently elevated into art by stunning cinematography, a true sense of self-reflection, and more than one memorable scene. First, the film looks unlike other horror films, it is harshly lit, and even night scenes are bathed in a bright glow from street lights. The title means darkness or shadow, but it’s clear that what is really hinted at is the concealed darkness within the psyche. This flows well with the dynamic characters, they are complex and prone to change: the author’s ex-wife is presented as both worthy of fear and pity, and the young woman reporter as both a harsh critic of the book and a close friend of the author. The film is overtly concerned with the passive gaze; neighbors poke from behind curtains, converse through windows, and yet seem utterly detached from the world they observe. A masterful tracking shot swoops into and completely around a house only to return to where the killer is snapping the blinds away from the window preparing an entrance, as we the audience are put in the place of those neighbors, witnessing something awful and voyeuristically doing nothing. With some questionable behavior (who leaves a bag alone at an airport for even a moment?) it’s not a perfect film, but Tenebre remains one of the first modern horror films concerned with how the viewer relates to the horrors presented and subverting expectations for a neatly wrapped cinematic package.

The Witch (2015) is on Netflix, ITunes, and GooglePlay. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is on ITunes, and GooglePlay. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is on ITunes, and Shomi. Peeping Tom (1960) is tough to find, good luck! Frenzy (1972) is on Shomi, and GooglePlay. Maniac (2012) is on ITunes. Tenebre (1982) just got a Blu-ray release (which has been up on YouTube since July) but otherwise is difficult to find. Argento’s other great films such as Deep Red (1975) and Opera (1987) are available on ITunes.