Of all film genres, horror should be the most timeless, since fear is a primal emotion, immune to cultural trends. Yet more often than not, horror films become period pieces, scaring one generation, provoking laughter from the next. The exceptions — take your pick which they are — only confirm the rule. Consider the police-station coda tacked on to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which a psychiatrist (played by Simon Oakland) provides a painstaking explanation of Norman Bates’s madness. Oakland is really explaining the movie to the audience, which in 1960 did not come across homicidal transvestites too often. Once shocking, the movie’s subject matter is now ho-hum. Hitchcock’s techniques have been borrowed and distilled so widely that even a first-time viewer must really know that Janet Leigh is going to get it in the shower, must really know that the woman in the rocking chair is dead; must really know, somehow, that Norman Bates and his mother are one and the same.
And so Oakland’s potted Freudian lecture now seems embarrassing, even campy, surely not an effect Hitchcock sought. “Is this guy serious?” a friend asked when we watched the movie a few years back.
That’s the problem with horror films: they are serious, at least when they’re made, but the culture plows over them eventually, leaving not much behind but caricature. In fact, one horror franchise, the Scream series, is based on this premise. Steeped in irony, it attempts to scare us even while mocking horror film conventions; this makes the filmmakers clever, at least in their own minds, but does not succeed in making their films scary. It’s hard to be ironic and terrified. If we felt enough of one, we would never feel the other.
The irony quotient has increased exponentially even since 1978, when the low-budget indie film Halloween debuted, becoming a surprise smash and earning the dubious distinction of spawning the slasher flick (though some horror buffs claim that credit should go to a film made three years earlier, the still-scary Black Christmas). But Halloween had its own merits. Its story is simple, with none of the confusions of Psycho: just a little boy, Michael Myers, who kills his sister on Halloween night for no apparent reason, is institutionalized, breaks out 15 years later, and sets off for his hometown to re-enact the mayhem — on Halloween night. No explanations are given other than scattered musings about evil from Michael’s psychiatrist, played by Donald Pleasence in a performance several pay grades above these B-movie trappings. It all works in a film where darkness and shadow are costars and a diabolical human monster lurks behind them. Like Psycho, Halloween works mostly by suggestion, lifting the curtain only in brief, supremely shocking moments. Even when it shows us something, it is often tangential — glimpses of the killer in the corner of the screen, always lurking, but only rarely striking. My favorite is when the camera shows us what a little boy sees when he looks out the window: the killer, carrying one of his victims into a house across the street. We understand that only the kid sees this, and if the movie is working, we are the kid at that moment.
Yet nearly 30 years later, Halloween‘s descendants are so numerous and varied that it is difficult to imagine a younger audience being frightened by such things. Halloween is now predictable; its pace is slow, by current standards; it only has a few “kills.” Like Psycho, its special surprises have been adapted so many times that their novelty has worn off. Anyone coming to the movie fresh will know without being told that the killer will not be stopped the first time, or the second, or the third (never mind the sequels, in which he is transformed into a superhuman being). Unlike Psycho, Halloween‘s acting and screenplay are mediocre, so its rickety foundation, once redeemed by directorial freshness, now stands out more glaringly. Once the scares have been absorbed into cliche, a viewer notices only the potholes.
Maybe the source of the problem is that horror films are uniquely captive not only to their cultural moment, but to the age of the viewer when he or she sees them. Unlike great dramas or comedies that can capture us at any age, if a horror film hasn’t found its way under your skin by the time you’re 21 or so, it probably won’t. Horror buffs will disagree, of course, but I can only speak from experience. I couldn’t have been older than 10 when I stumbled onto an eerie black and white film one day on television, which showed a woman being stalked by a ghoulish presence who kept showing up in her rearview mirror and nearly everywhere else. It was Carnival of Souls, now regarded as a B-movie horror classic, but I would have forgotten the movie by now if not for my age and the circumstances under which I’d seen it. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of good horror films — The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, Evil Dead, Carrie, The Omen, and others. But besides Carnival of Souls, the only ones that really stayed with me are Psycho and Halloween, both of which I saw by age 15.
I haven’t kept up with the horror genre, but judging from a Bravo special on “scariest movie moments,” many recent films, even the highly imaginative ones, seem to confuse sadism with suspense. Some of the films profiled — with titles like Hostel, Saw 2, Old Boy, The Grudge, Cabin Fever, and others — have as their defining scene something truly vicious and demented, like tossing a woman into a pit of hypodermic needles. Hostel, which earns the special’s top honors, appears to be an extended torture film set in a dungeon. The special’s talking heads rave about how scary these various scenes are, yet there seems little that is frightening about them. The movies are less about horror than about chronicling human depravity — the latter certainly a worthy subject, perhaps for a documentary. But there is a difference between sick and scary. However disturbing as an image, a pit of hypodermic needles is not what comes to mind when you arrive home to a dark house; who might be upstairs, or what might be down in the cellar, are still the thoughts that count.
“He’s gone,” the Donald Pleasence character bellows early in Halloween, upon discovering Michael Myers’s escape from the mental institution. “The evil is gone!”
How right he was. The very idea of being frightened by a movie like Halloween is gone. By now, Michael Myers seems terribly slow out of the blocks — his deliberative pace hasn’t kept up with a quick-cut age, and his modest goal of merely killing people, as opposed to ritualistically slaughtering them, seems tame. Give it another 20 years, and Michael will seem like a restrained, almost Victorian villain. And like the Victorians, who couldn’t be blamed if people didn’t understand what was good for them, it’s not his fault that people don’t know anymore when to be frightened.