"Listen to them – Children of the night – What music they make." Count Dracula.
Halloween approaches and movie theaters and cable networks abound with the macabre and the grotesque. Should we view them?
The enduring roller coaster proves that people of all ages like to be scared – so long as there's really nothing to fear. Well, the horror genre has lasted throughout the history of movies, with just that agenda – to scare the Sweet Tarts out of us. The horror film has, however, undergone more transformations than Lady Gaga's wardrobe. In the '30s and '40s, horror films such as Dracula, Frankenstein and Cat People were actually morality plays, where good was triumphant over evil. And because of "restrictive" decency codes, studios mandated that their filmmakers be careful not to offend the church-going public. So, when you view The Bride of Frankenstein or The Cat People or even Dracula, you can detect a morality tale amid the thrills and chills.
In the '50s, most horror films were, well, goofy, the Saturday matinee screen being full of giant lizards, ants and even a 50-foot woman. The '60s saw classic fright flicks resurrected by Hammer Studios (Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave). That studio was known for using vivid color to captivate, especially with the use of a thick red liquid that looked more like candy apple syrup than the gushing blood it was supposed to represent. But in the '70s and '80s, horror films became gruesome showcases for studio special effects departments, and evil and apparently indestructible ghouls such as Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddie Kruger, Halloween's Michael Myers and Friday the 13th's Jason returned sequel after sequel to kill as many hormonal teenagers as possible in 96 minutes.
The '90s once again unearthed the classic monsters – with a twist. In Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, his monster contemptuously burned a crucifix with a stare, rather than turning away from the significance of the cross – something the vampire had done ever since Bela Lugosi (the first Dracula) first put on a set of fangs. This new spin changed the entire theme of the Dracula legend. No longer was God the conqueror of the devil; now man alone was in control of his fate.
In recent years, Universal Studios has re-mastered the original Dracula, as well as his buddy, Frankenstein. And most recently, Boris Karloff's The Mummy has been dug up and given the brush-up. Added to these classic spook fests are commentary tracts and documentaries that not only spotlight the ingenuity of those bringing the then new genre to movie theaters, but also giving a perspective on the culture of the time. Question is, will you watch an old black & white film? And will you be as engaged with their eeriness as you are with today's CGI gruesomeness?
Some of you may have read my appreciative critique of M. Night Shyamalan's psychological thriller, Signs, about alien beings coming to take over Earth. In it suspenseful Hitchcockian elements serve to unnerve the audience. (Note to younger readers: Alfred Hitchcock was known as the "master of suspense.") Added to the unsettling atmosphere, the story's subtext concerns a man losing then regaining his faith. The film also has an intriguing take concerning coincidence in our daily lives: Do things happen by chance or do they serve to develop our nature? Shyamalan's film is about finding our way – or finding our way back. I guess you could say it's a thinking man's (or woman's) horror movie.
Thought-provoking horror movies are few and far between. And I'm not sure any of us realize the true purpose or affect of horror movies on our psyches. Don't be quick to write off the "garbage-in/garbage-out" theory. We are bombarded by a great deal of media influence, much of which doesn't feed the soul. Some will defend the escapism value of the horror film, while others steadfastly maintain that it is a genre with a demonic impact. Here's something we should consider: like all living things, the spirit of man needs to be nourished.
I couldn't possibly say it any better than the following quote. And it came from a movie. You might keep it in mind when attending any new release. "Your head is like a gas tank. You have to be really careful about what you put in it, because it might just affect the whole system" (I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, Miramax Films).