Frights Abound

Modern horror movies have done a terrific job robbing audiences of the pleasure behind being frightened inventively.

While real life offers us terrorism, random mass slaughters, and ingenious serial killings, there’s no entertainment value to be drawn from any of those incidents. We look to movies today as we had literature yesterday – to edify us through expanded and embellished parables about virtuous conduct’s reward or reaping the wages of sin.

Well, once upon a time we did.

Taken to extremes, aren’t either of the above the basis of almost all our cinematic chillers? They’re fairy tales that have been souped up and shammied for mature adults’ consumptions.

Like fairy tales, horror movies once warned audiences about the prices to be paid for disobedience and transgressions. Regard the scientist seeking to create life; the adventurers unearthing cursed treasure; the explorers who’ve disregarded the natives’ advice and cautions against disturbing this ancient malevolence or that.

Until movies became visceral, trespassers invariably escaped by the skin of their teeth or succumbed in ways so abominable these demises remained off screen or experienced vicariously through the reactions of characters spared the same. After all, and we all should know this, what our imaginations form are generally more horrifying than the most graphic scenes filmed. Left to ourselves can’t we each internally devise torturous “fates worse than death” beyond others’ ingenuities?

The violence, no, the judgement delivered, unseen but indicated is often far scarier than clear glimpses of the monster/beast/creature/devil besetting the victim or offender. Supplying our own frights remains the strongest tool in the scare box.

Now that we’re in Halloween season, television broadcasters are deluging our screens with all sorts of mayhem. Thanks to vastly improved special effects, a great deal of what’s shown deeply shocks. But being shocked isn’t equal to feeling unsettled, being frightened.

Viscera, gore, blood wash before our eyes. The torrent numbs us. Haven’t the dismembered limbs, beheadings, skewered bodies, and inexplicable “thing” vaulting out of this cavity or slithering from that orifice lost their abilities to scare? Be astounded, be amazed at the special effects wizardry, yes, but doesn’t this appreciation distract and detract from the story?

Me? I’m old school. I still value storytelling, artistry, and yes, suggestion. Perhaps those three attributes are too subtle, and therefore too substantive, for the instant gratification generation. How far humanity has come, how far we’ve devolved. Before writing made tales easily recalled, storytelling was an oral tradition. Meaning hearing alone didn’t suffice. One needed to listen closely in order to retain details.

I observe the present youthquake. Their senses are bombarded with stimulation. How much of any of it do they actually absorb?

Anyway, now that ghosts, goblins, sprites, imps, and who knows whatever else rattles chains, causes drafts, and issues strange noises abound, I look forward to settling in with the horror classics that informed my impressionable days and nights. That’s getting more and more difficult these days because “classic” is too often heard as “black and white.” And monochrome either dissatisfies or outright bores younger generations who mistakenly believe if the title wasn’t filmed in color it’s not vivid, therefore beneath them.

Long before cable and satellite developed niche television to fragment viewers, that beam channels for specific viewer tastes, over the air signals broadcast to the tribes comprising our society. Somehow no one then moaned about fewer options and limited viewing hours.

I don’t know about other cities, but during my earliest formative Saturday nights the New York Metropolitan region had a station which dedicated blocs of hours to “creature features.” WNEW. On it, cineastes, viewers looking to have their imaginations stoked or simply seeking time-killers watched productions that had thrilled and astounded those inside well-attended 1930s and 40s movie palaces.

Although watching alone or with several friends at home instead of a mass setting as editing that sacrificed continuity for advertising somewhat diluted viewing pleasure, the gems scheduled among the dreck still sparkled. Sure. Many zero budgeted flicks tested tolerance. But the reward for enduring them was finally seeing noteworthy titles no amount of ham-handed commercial interruption marred.

Then, we were enthralled by atmosphere, the power of suggestion, convincing performers who’d immersed themselves in their roles, music and scenery which further enhanced clever scripts. We shared the same pleasures as those who’d seen them during their first releases.

Older now, able to reflect, it’s possible to discern what mixtures likely influenced the horrors presented to initial audiences and later our own.

German Film Expressionism – which contributed mightily to Golden Age horror film productions then later begat what we’d know as film noir – had a deep basis in fairy tales. Not the sort of cutesy morally anchored stories Americans are accustomed to, but ones whose denouements require harsh punishments and perhaps even death of misbehaving children. The moral of their stories was curiosity kills. The emphasis throughout them was “obey!”

But then to American readers isn’t a lot of German literary heritage moody and severe as well as profoundly gloomy?

Germany’s disastrous Great War defeat did nothing to lighten attitudes and minds on that side of the Rhine. Fortunately for Germans who liked huddling together in dark theaters and watching shadowy phantasms that sprung from the morose German soul, they saw a lot of themselves and their then present states in the still nascent art form of film.

Members of the confident victors, Americans could never have fathomed being confronted by unknowns of a new perplexing world. (Our confusion erupted during Vietnam.) Why? One, because our society was – and remains – young and shallow; and two, we never experienced the regimentation propping up the deposed German Reich. Though the scenarios frequently took place in the 18th or 19th centuries, the fears encountered on screen matched those of contemporary audiences.

While then post-Great War men and women weren’t encumbered by breeches or bonnets, the anxieties pouring off screens not only whispered to them but darkened their disquiet.

Wonder if the Germans hadn’t suffered what they considered a humiliating defeat or at least compromised a peace with the Western Powers? Wonder if Germany could’ve retained the Reich, its order, would Expressionism have developed?

After all, from the Expressionism of those films emerges loss of assurance, a people’s self-images, those they thought they would forever behold. Perhaps more so than ramrod posture that kept German society’s fears submerged and impulses checked. But without the past’s restraints, angst could and did surface, breed then mutate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.