Friday, August 13, 2010

Scared and loving it

Friday the 13th meets Halloween in my latest Yahoo! column.

Update: full piece below -

It was in Ludhiana of all places - during a three-week-long summer reunion between my mother and her cousins in 1989 - that I had my first ever brush with a Friday the 13th film. There wasn't much for me and the other kids to do in the sweltering afternoons, so we watched rented video-cassettes. Hindi movies were the norm (and it was on this trip that I first saw J P Dutta's solid, ahead-of-its-time underworld film Hathyar, more on which another day) but occasionally we indulged ourselves with Hollywood horror.

Being the eldest - and the big-city boy with some minimal knowledge of "English movies" - I initiated these adventures. Besides, my senses were primed for thrills and scares that summer: a few days earlier I had read Agatha Christie's Murder in Retrospect in a shaded room while the adults had their afternoon siesta, and had shivered at the premise of a murder being investigated 16 years after it had occurred; in particular the chilling image of a beautiful young model watching poison slowly take effect on her artist-victim even as she posed for him.

Friday the 13th Part 2 (or Part 3. Or perhaps even Part 4 or 5 or 6) didn't spook me as much, and definitely not in the same deep-rooted way, but it had other points of interest. My memory of it comes down to one scene: two teenagers making out in a tent in the wilderness. A bonfire casts teasing shadows on the tent canvas, jeans are unbuttoned, much heavy breathing occurs, the girl's breasts heave, our mouths hang open. Cut to outside the tent, with the camera adopting the view of a knife-wielding killer heading for the panting pleasure-seekers. Cut to an aunt entering our living room. The canvas is ripped open, the girl screams, our TV set is switched off, maasi mutters something in Punjabi, trying to sound unruffled. "Stop watching this, go cycle on the chhat." (This is not as dangerous as it sounds - it was a large, walled terrace.)

For a long time afterwards horror and titillation were tangled together in my mind, like the entwined limbs of those luckless lovers, and my subsequent movie-rental decisions (back home in Delhi) were determined as much by a film's potential nudity-content as by the fright-o-meter. But there were other reasons why the genre became my entry point into the world of non-Hindi cinema.

The accents in American movies could be hard to follow, but horror didn't depend on dialogue for its effect. When Freddy Krueger leapt out at witless teens in a dark alley, chased them down Elm Street and slashed them to witless teenie-weenies, the visuals - and my senses responding to them - were all that mattered. The opening credits of John Carpenter's Halloween, with the camera tracking in on the sinister glowing pumpkin (accompanied by the brilliant minimalist music score), spoke more forcefully than pages of writing. This was cinema at its most egalitarian, and so I rented the Evil Dead films and a series called Demons, as well as slightly more up-market movies (though I didn't know about those distinctions at the time) like Gremlins and Poltergeist.

Later, when I became more seriously interested in films, the star-rating system in my precious Leonard Maltin movie guide (mentioned in this earlier column) made many important decisions for me. With one exception - horror movies were never allowed to fall under its hegemony.

"Iss kitaab mein duniya ki sabhi movies ka naam hai?" ("Does this book have the names of all the movies in the world?") asks the video-parlour owner, looking amused, but I'm not listening. The cassette cover fitted in the shop catalogue shows a Cary Grant film from the 1930s and I tell myself that I'll rent it if the guide gives it three or more stars. But then something else in the catalogue catches my eye.

Demons 3.

Which has the dreaded "BOMB" next to it in the guide.

The 1930s film won a best director Oscar, is rated three-and-a-half stars and considered one of the classic screwball comedies - a genre I've just started to relish.

Irrelevant. Demons 3 it is.

Even at that impressionable age, eager as I was to hear what the Critics had to say about the Canon, I had accepted that horror movies - even the disreputable ones - spoke to me in special tongues. More than twenty years later this continues to be the case, even though the films are much more diverse in subject matter, style and vintage than the simple label "horror movie" could suggest.

The sub-categories now include (among many, many others) silent films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (a movie about a madman's nightmare that, thanks to its brazenly Expressionist set design, looks every bit like a madman's nightmare) and the vampire classic Nosferatu. Psychological horror, as in Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, about a painter visited by phantoms of the mind, and Roman Polanski's Repulsion, in which a young girl left alone in an apartment slowly loses her bearings. Comic-gothic horror (Polanski two years later, with Fearless Vampire Killers, about an Albert Einstein look-alike and his bumbling assistant exploring castles in Transylvania) and portmanteau ghost stories, like Masaki Kobayashi's dazzlingly shot Kwaidan. And yes, gore films too - properly speaking, a different genre, but one that occasionally intersects with the sort of horror I love.

Not all these films achieve their ends in the same way. Many of them don't have a single jump-out-of-your-seat scene but they have something more invidious - the ability to crawl back into my mind at the most unexpected times.

More than any other genre, I discovered that good horror created a distinct, self-contained universe with its own set of rules. Did I mention Halloween above? Well, that film was one of my first experiences of how a skillfully crafted horror movie can take the most familiar, comforting setting and turn it into something dark and unknowable - so that even after you've left the movie hall, elements of the "real world" are never quite the same again. To this day, whenever I'm walking through a deserted car park on a Sunday afternoon - even if it's just a stone's throw from my house - I think of the agoraphobia-inducing scene with young Laurie strolling, books under her arm, through her neighborhood on a sunny day, dozens of cars parked everywhere but not a human being in view - and the omniscient killer Mike Myers presumably watching her from somewhere.

It's a suburban setting - the rational mind tells me there must be people around, just out of sight, lolling on rocking-chairs on their porches - but the effect of the scene is just as vivid and intense as if this were Little Red Riding Hood walking alone through the jungle at dusk.

Who said scary scenes have to take place in the dark? In the best horror films it's always night-time even when it's broad daylight, and every day is Friday the 13th.


  1. I stumbled upon your blog and now rolling over merrily!
    Can you open up more on some psychological horror films as the ones mentioned above are the famous and by now very generic, i need something that teases my mind with an incredible story yet scares the shit out of me, something like the scene from Shutter Island wherein the 3rd prison, known for its dreaded psychopaths, is set open and the prisoners have escaped, scattered around. Now who the hell on this planet would want to go there alone and what if it is a compulsion to go in there alone? That kind of a chill am talking about.
    Please suggest me few of them, I am tired of all the famous ones and do not want to turn to Vacancy,The Strangers (Good stuff!) for this kind of satisfaction.

  2. Viraj: thanks. A much longer version of this piece is in the anthology The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies do to Writers, which I've edited. The essay I've written for the book is called "Monsters I have Known". But I've also written about various other scary films on the blog - such as this one.