Sunday, October 14, 2012

Monsters I have known

[Here is the full text of the essay I wrote for The Popcorn Essayists: What Movies do to Writers, about my horror-movie love. It’s been long enough since the anthology came out, so I thought I’d put it up here. While I’m at it, a reminder that the book contains excellent pieces by many fine writers. More information here]


It’s June 1988, a summer vacation in London, and I’m sitting in a darkened room with my cousins and their friends, watching a horror film called House. Ten-year-olds, eleven-year-olds huddle together, murmuring, waiting for the scary scenes. One of the adults partying in the living room outside sticks his head in, rolls his eyes dramatically and makes a deep howling sound, but we aren’t impressed; we saw Silver Bullet a few days ago, we know what a real werewolf sounds like.

So one of us gets up and bangs the door shut again, and now the only light comes from the TV set, which isn’t much to speak of, because it’s a dimly lit scene. We hold our breath as someone on the screen (the hero? Is there a “hero” in this film? Or am I thinking in the language of Hindi movies?) slowly walks up to a closet, puts his hand on the knob and turns it. Hanging in the air for a few seconds is the question: will a slimy monster leap out at him (and at us)? Or will he heave a sigh of relief (our cue to do the same), then turn around and find the fiend behind him (in which case our screams will be even louder than if the creature had been inside the closet in the first place)? Or will the jolts be postponed to the next scene? There’s a limited set of options and we know them all, but that doesn’t make the process any less frightening.

Afterwards we chase each other around the lawns, taking turns to play the film’s chief predator Ben (“Big Ben”?), a walking skeleton still grotesquely dressed in the soldier’s uniform in which he died. We were playing in the same garden a few hours earlier, but something has changed since then. The late-evening darkness is stiller than it should be, even though lights are on and the adults are just a few paces away. The rustling of the leaves in the trees and bushes seems full of strange meaning. Distant bird sounds carry portents. My senses are heightened, intensified, the world is suddenly an unfamiliar place.

More than twenty years later, as an adult movie buff with more developed and varied tastes, my favourite horror films continue to have this effect on me. Even when the films themselves are much more diverse in subject matter, style and vintage than the simple label “horror movie” could suggest.

The categories include (among 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 Nosferatu, the creepiest vampire film I’ve seen. 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, or: Pardon Me, but Your Teeth are in my Neck, 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 insidious, something that crawls back into my mind at the most unexpected times, long after I thought I’d forgotten all about the film.

It has been a long relationship. A few months after that House viewing, back in Delhi, horror films became my major entry point into the world of non-Hindi cinema. Thrills aside, there was something very accessible about them: the accents in American movies were sometimes 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 camera tracking in on the sinisterly glowing pumpkin (accompanied by the brilliant minimalist music score) during the opening credits of Halloween spoke more forcefully than pages of writing. This was film at its most egalitarian.

And so I rented video cassettes of the Evil Dead and Friday the 13th films, and a low-budget series called Demons, as well as slightly more sophisticated “mainstream” movies (though I knew nothing about those distinctions at the time) like Gremlins and Poltergeist. An education began.

Around the age of 13 my attitude to movie-watching began to change in subtle ways, and this was in large part due to a film that is considered a seminal horror movie, but which I’ve never really been able to think of in those terms. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho encouraged me to take cinema seriously, as an art form with its own methods and a visual language distinct from the words being spoken by the characters on the screen. It led me directly to movie literature and some of its scenes became personal reference points for my subsequent movie-watching (as you’ll see later in this essay). But I was never scared by Psycho in an immediate way. Maybe this was because I already knew all the major plot twists – I had heard jokes about “mummification” from my own mummy, and a friend in the school bus had given me a shot-by-shot description of the final revelation of the embalmed corpse of “Mrs Bates” in the fruit cellar. (Sorry if I’ve spoilt the film for you, but if you’re old enough to be reading this you ought to know these things already; it’s primary-level stuff.) Besides, my first viewing of it was on videocassette, in a well-lit room.

Or maybe it was that I was too moved by the film, that I found a deep sadness in it – “we scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other,” says Norman Bates, “and for all of it, we never budge an inch” – and surely a movie that put sad thoughts in your head had to be “more” than a “mere” horror film?

Today, of course, I know better.

Anyway, in the early 1990s the most important book in my life was a fat video guide that had nearly 20,000 capsule “reviews” packed together. The films were classified by a rating system ranging from four stars to one star, with a special “BOMB” rating reserved for the bottom-of-the-barrel movies. (The “review” for a long-forgotten Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film called Boom was the single word “Thud”. Next to the film’s title was BOMB, in all-caps. Criticism at its tersest, and a good counterpoint to the lengthy film essays I was reading around the same time.)

I carried the guide around in a polythene bag each time I went to the neighborhood video library – in a modest, five-shop community centre in south Delhi’s Saket that would, years later, become the location of India’s first multiplex theatre – and it made many important decisions for me. With one exception. Horror movies were never allowed to fall under its hegemony.

The video-parlour bhaiya looks amused when I extract the thick book from my bag with my free hand – I’m holding open his catalogue with the other – and leaf through it.

“Iss mein duniya ki sabhi movies ka naam hai?” (“Does this have the names of all the movies in the world?”) he asks.

“Haan,” I say without looking up, not wanting to get into a prolonged conversation.

“Hum isska photo-copy karaa sakte hain?” (“Can I get it photo-copied?”) he asks, but I’m not listening. The film I’m looking for is a Hollywood classic from the 1930s. The cassette cover carelessly fitted into the catalogue shows Cary Grant and Irene Dunne – two of my favourite actors – and I tell myself that I’ll take the film 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 Grant-Dunne film won the best director Oscar for 1937, is rated three-and-a-half stars and considered one of the classic screwball comedies – a genre that I’ve just started to relish.

Irrelevant. Demons 3 it is.

Even at that impressionable age, eager as I was to listen to what the Critics had to say, I had accepted that horror films spoke to me in ways that no film scholar could understand.

If I had to name a single quality that marks my favourite horror films, I’d point to a near-ritualistic intensity, a sense of belonging to a very different world with its own, special set of rules: a good horror film, even one that’s located in a familiar setting and has no obviously supernatural elements, feels weirder and more self-contained (to me, at least) than a science-fiction/fantasy film that really IS set on, say, Middle-Earth or Narnia or the moons of Jupiter. My child-self experienced this in the garden after that House viewing.

(“So you’re saying House was a good horror film?”, you ask, backing away slowly [and thinking to yourself, ‘What’s HE doing editing an anthology of film essays?’] Well, yes, it was. For me. At that age. If I saw it today I’d probably laugh, or worse, yawn. But how is that relevant to anything? By the way, more than 20 years after that evening in London, I turned to the Internet to confirm that bony old Ben really did exist – within the world of the film, that is; that he wasn’t just a manufactured childhood memory. I was thrilled when I discovered a photo of him on a website, looking more or less as I remembered him.)

Opening scenes are always crucial to a film’s success in pulling me into its world. Consider the first five minutes of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), where an everyday setting gradually turns into something lush and fantastical. As the credits roll, a solemn voiceover tells us that Suzy Banyon, a young American, has come to Germany to join a famous dance academy. We see Suzy walking to the airport exit, and a sense of menace is created by the most ordinary elements: the neon lights in the Departure terminal, a brief glimpse of a woman dressed in red in the distance, the sudden opening of the automatic doors through which Suzy walks (and our simultaneous realisation that a storm is raging outside the airport’s sterile, orderly interiors), the howling of the wind, the water flowing into a nearby drain, the initial obtuseness of the cab driver who takes her to her destination.

Contributing immeasurably to the mood of this sequence is the pounding, punk-rock soundtrack by the band Goblin, with whispers of “witch!” regularly punctuating the score. Suspiria is not especially discreet about the mysteries of its plot: you don’t have to be a student of the genre to figure out that Suzy will find a modern-day witches’ coven at the dance school.

Actually, for the most part this isn’t a subtle film. It’s very arresting visually, and it contains at least three grisly murders filmed with such imagination that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen (isn’t this the opposite of what a horror film is supposed to do?). But unusually for a movie with a lot of gore and blood, it also has graceful scenes that only hint at something unknowable. The barest suggestion of witchcraft, for instance, in the shot where a chambermaid momentarily dazzles Suzy with the light reflected from the silverware she’s cleaning. Or the prolonged nighttime scene in a deserted public square where a blind piano teacher and his seeing-dog sense something evil around them but don’t know exactly what it is (the viewer is given the privilege of a shot of shadows flitting across a building facade – witches? On broomsticks? Or just a flock of birds or bats?). These are the setpieces that stayed with me for weeks after I saw the film. In contrast, when the supernatural is explicitly presented at the end, it’s anti-climactic.

Suspiria would be unimaginable without its lurid colours, but Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (“The Devil Woman”) (1964) is shot in what is usually described as “stark” black and white. Set in medieval Japan, this film opens with an overhead view of a windy grassland, the reeds – more than six feet high – swaying in the breeze. The camera moves closer to show us a large pit in the ground and the next shot is from deep inside this hole, looking up at the sky. The image reminds me of another iconic Japanese horror film, the much more recent Ringu – and its American remake The Ring – apart from evoking the passage in Haruki Murakami’s immense novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle where a man shuts the world out by sitting at the bottom of a well.

But now Onibaba’s opening credits appear on the screen – the Japanese script is menacingly distorted at the edges – accompanied by a soundtrack that’s as mood-setting as the Suspiria score, but more drum-based and minimal, and much more disquieting. In the film’s (almost wordless) first five minutes we learn that the pit is a secret maintained by a middle-aged woman and her daughter-in-law, who live in squalid conditions in this large marshland. Struggling to make ends meet (the son/husband is away fighting in an army), they murder wounded Samurai who stagger into the grassland looking for shelter, and then sell the armour in exchange for meagre rations of food. Meanwhile they also get by with killing rats, dogs and whatever other creatures they can get their hands on, and generally live like wild animals themselves.

So claustrophobic and stifling is the mise-en-scene of Onibaba that one easily forgets it’s set in the same country and roughly the same period as Akira Kurosawa’s classic Samurai movies. Superficial details of time and place scarcely matter anyway; as in so many great horror films, the setting is really the human soul, and it’s always night-time. Atmosphere is created through hand-held camerawork, eerie aural effects (such as bird sounds in the scenes where the young woman, her face rapturous, races through the grass to meet a lover), and of course the setting itself. But for me the unforgettable image is the malevolent face of the old woman, a streak of white hair in her head making her look like a deranged simulacra of the Indira Gandhi photos I remember from the newspapers of my childhood. As the story progresses, my rational mind tells me that she’s a victim – terrified by the thought that her daughter-in-law will leave her to scavenge for herself – but when her piercing eyes fill the screen, the rational mind goes AWOL.


In a lovely essay titled “Pictures and Secrets”, Ptolemy Tompkins recalled his father’s advice to him when movie monsters gave him nightmares. “Take them out of the context of the film,” said Peter Tompkins (co-author of The Secret Life of Plants), “and place them somewhere else. Control their actions with your own mind.”

At times I try similar mental games with my personal demons. So Onibaba’s “devil woman” reluctantly leaves her grassland at my bidding. I pull Gabbar Singh (bogeymen can come from far outside the genre) out of the sunbaked landscape that was the dacoits’ hideout in Sholay, then lure the rat-like Nosferatu out of his mansion and seat them all at a tea-party together, with a few zombies from George Romero’s films thrown in as foot-servants, and invitations sent out to Michael Myers from Halloween and Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The background music is the sound of Darth Vader’s raspy breathing (I can only hear, not see, him – there was nothing scary about the cheesy black suit!). Unfortunately my mind refuses to take this scenario much further; I’m not sure this lot would have much to say to each other.

However, the films I love have no trouble conversing with each other, even when they are separated by decades, different styles and languages, and an unbridgeable divide in quality. One scene frequently recalls another, setting off a chain of connections in my mind.

As an example, take a randomly selected scene from a film that isn’t strictly a horror movie but which made me shrink into the rickety seat at Delhi’s Shakuntalam Theatre when I first saw it: Fritz Lang’s M, about the hunt for a child-killer in the streets of Berlin.

Early in the film we see a pillar with a notice announcing a reward for the killer’s capture. A little girl bounces her ball against this pillar. At this point the scene is clumsy – there’s no spontaneity in the ball-bouncing, you can tell that the girl is carefully doing what the director is telling her to – but then the shadow of a man comes into the frame from the right. “What a pretty ball!” he says in a childlike voice. Shortly afterwards there’s an aerial view of him buying the girl a balloon while she titters excitedly. Cross-cut to the girl’s mother, waiting for her child to return from school, slowly coming to realise that something is wrong. The sequence ends with a pair of poetic images: the ball slowly rolling out of a hedge, into a patch of grass; the untethered balloon brushing an electric pole and floating away.

So here are three broad constituents of the scene: the girl; the man who approaches her; the ball and the balloon at the close. Whenever I think about any of these elements, other scenes from other films swarm into my head, one scene invoking another, and another, and another, building a monstrous skein of references.

The ball and the balloon adrift. A visual cue for the viewer: something terrible has happened to the little girl, we realise. But what did the man do to her, exactly? A 1930s film couldn’t plainly tell us, but in a way that makes it scarier.

“My son was torn to pieces!” screams the father in the 1980s slasher film Silver Bullet, more than fifty years after M (or five years earlier, in terms of my viewing chronology). In the
scene before this, we see a young boy flying a kite late in the evening, in a deserted spot. He hears strange sounds, looks around him nervously; we already know that a ravenous werewolf is on the loose, and we half-cover our eyes. In the next shot we see a policeman carrying the kite, torn, dripping blood. And then the father’s cry.

In most ways that matter, there’s nothing to link M and Silver Bullet (well, except for the important detail that they are both made up of strips of film). Yet, for me, the dual image of the rolling ball and the unrestrained balloon are forever linked to the image of the tethered kite, and to the idea of innocence wantonly destroyed.

The man. The nervous-looking character actor Peter Lorre played the unhinged killer, the shadow on the wall, in M. Ten years later, the same Lorre – a little balder now – played the most scared character in one of my favourite dark comedies. There’s a genuinely creepy scene in Arsenic and Old Lace (assuming you watch it in the original black-and-white, not the hideous colorisation) where a runaway criminal played by Raymond Massey – made up to resemble Boris Karloff as the stitched-together Frankenstein monster – and his doctor, played by Lorre, descend the stairs to a basement. The bodies of 12 men lie buried here, which in itself is not as gross as it sounds: Arsenic and Old Lace is about a pair of sweet, well-intentioned women who do away with lonely old men to put them out of their misery. But the scene with Massey and Lorre going down the stairs, the shadows falling across their faces, the light flickering beyond the closed door they are approaching, gives me the shivers.

The girl: She’s a distant cousin of another young girl playing with a ball, in Federico Fellini’s short film “Toby Dammit”, about a depressive British actor visiting Rome for a movie shoot.

At a press conference, Toby Dammit is asked a string of banal questions. He answers them half-heartedly, crabbily; he looks like he badly needs to sleep. He turns around, seems to see images and people from his past. Dream and reality are blurred – it’s the sort of thing Fellini does so well.

A reporter asks, “Do you believe in God?” “No,” replies the actor.

“And in the Devil?”

Now, for the first time, Toby Dammit looks interested. He leans forward. “Yes. In the Devil, yes,” he says.

“How exciting,” exclaims the questioner, delighted to have hit home, “Have you seen Him? What does He look like? A black cat, a goat, a bat?”

“Oh no,” says Toby, a faraway look coming into his eyes, “To me the Devil is cheerful, agile…”

Cut to an insert of a girl, her face occupying the left half of the screen, grinning diabolically at the camera

“He looks like a little girl.”

Why the actor is haunted by this image I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. But while the little girl in M was a cherubic victim, the girl in “Toby Dammit” is Beelzebub. A role reversal, and a reminder that in horror there are no rules, no character types. Anyone can be monster or prey, or both at once.

But already the connections are overflowing, like the swollen river of blood coming through the slowly opening door in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. As I finished writing the last paragraph, I remembered that the British actor Terence Stamp played the lethargic Toby Dammit, and that my first ever viewing of Stamp was as the evil General Zod in Superman II. It was a supremely entertaining movie, with the inbuilt assurance (as in any Superman film) that things would turn out all right in the end, but it contained one scene that gave me many sleepless nights as a child: Zod and his two minions land on the moon, slay a human astronaut by tearing off his oxygen mask and then kick his dying body gleefully into the distance.

My chief memory of the film today is the utter helplessness of that poor moonstruck astronaut in the face of this assault by Godlike beings. It was so unfair, so far from a fight between equals. Even today, the scene makes it impossible for me to think of Superman 2 as a feel-good movie.

Other connections aren’t so obvious, or maybe they are obvious only to me. I mentioned Psycho being a reference point for much of my other movie-watching. Well, Suzy Banyon’s journey in the taxi at the beginning of Suspiria always reminds me of Marion Crane’s car drive in Hitchcock’s film – a voyage to the netherworld, with lightning heralding the way. It ends with a similar image too: a menacing building (the Bates Motel in Psycho, the dance school here) coming into clear focus through the rain-soaked night. Welcome to Hades.

“Take off your mask,” whispers Onibaba’s old woman to the young Samurai who has just told her that he has a beautiful face underneath the demon mask he is wearing, “I’ve never seen anything really beautiful in my whole life.” The words open a window to a lifetime of struggle and squalor, reminding us of the dire straits of the two women who need to hawk the armour of dead warriors to get food. But it also makes me think about the unhappy world that lies just beneath the surface horrors of Psycho: a world where the now-psychotic Mrs Bates was once a young widow, raising a little boy all by herself, vulnerable to the charms of a smooth-talking man who was after her money; a world where being left alone is the biggest fear of all.

But Onibaba’s Samurai mask is beautiful too, in its own way. It’s just as impassively beautiful as the smooth white face-cover worn by the young girl Christine in Georges Franju’s indescribably lyrical Eyes Without a Face. In this cult classic, the monster not only has a human face, he’s a loving father – a doctor who surgically removes the skin off the faces of kidnapped young women in increasingly desperate attempts to cure his disfigured daughter. Meanwhile she wanders the lawns of the mansion alone, wearing her white mask, communing with the birds and the captive dogs her father has been conducting grisly experiments on.


Often, when I’m driving alone late at night, I catch myself humming a certain tune without realising it. Then I remember: it’s Maurice Jarre’s spooky score from the opening scene of Eyes Without a Face, in which a middle-aged woman drives a car through deserted streets, occasionally stopping to glance in the rear-view mirror at a shadowy figure in the back-seat. We don’t yet know that the figure in the back-seat is a dead girl whose body has to be disposed of, but the music, the camerawork, the worried but determined look on the middle-aged woman’s face, combine to tell us that something is very wrong.

Driving, I look into the rear-view mirror, half-expecting to see a body slumped in the back-seat, its face inadequately covered by a large floppy hat, but darkened by a trick of the light.

Other scenes from other horror films have similarly infected my life, so that in certain situations and settings I find myself playing out those very moments. While sightseeing, if I see
something I want to photograph and reach for the camera around my shoulder, my own gesture makes me think of the split-second shot in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom where Mark Lewis – a disturbed young man whose camera is almost an extension of his personality – reflexively reaches for his shoulder, where the instrument would normally be, the one time his lady friend persuades him to leave home without it.

Or when I’m walking through a deserted car park on a Sunday afternoon, I think of the agoraphobia-inducing scene in Halloween with Jamie Lee Curtis in a desolate neighborhood on a sunny day (who said a slasher movie’s scariest scenes had to be shot in the dark!), dozens of cars parked around her but not a human being in view – and the seemingly omniscient killer Mike Myers presumably watching her from somewhere. It’s a suburban setting – the old rational mind tells me there must be people around, possibly in their houses, looking out from behind the curtains or 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.

If I’m in a large hall with many exits and corridors, and just a few people moving in and out of the “frame” of my vision, I find myself in the glorious tracking shot from the museum scene in Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill, where a middle-aged housewife alternates between being quarry and pursuer to a handsome stranger. But then, if a flash of light – a reflection from someone’s glasses or cellphone – catches my eye, the scene quickly changes and I’m in a late scene from the same film, where another woman is momentarily blinded by the light glancing off the razor blade that a killer holds in his hand. Or there’s the chambermaid from Suspiria again, flashing her silverware at me.

Thinking about it, I realise that hardly any of my favourite scary scenes would be improved by better technology. No other genre can make such a virtue of being shot on a shoestring budget. Once in a while, even incompetence can be a useful thing. A jerky camera or careless editing can be unsettling in a certain context, and how many cases there have been – especially in zombie and vampire films – of mediocre actors unwittingly making a film more effective because their reactions seem so unnatural, so removed from regular human behaviour!

Which is not to say that good, low-budget horror films are “accidents”. Far from it. But finesse and money can spoil their effect. It’s no coincidence that the silent film was particularly well suited to this genre – horror and fantasy films from that era still hold up so well because their creakiness gives them an unmatched visceral effect. Watch the hero slaying an obviously papier-mache dragon in Fritz Lang’s 1922 film Siegfried, a smoky liquid flowing out of the creature’s ruptured sides, and you’ll know what I mean.

Improved technology can dampen the horror-movie experience in other ways, I realise, as I watch a 70-minute “Making Of” feature on my DVD of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Generally speaking, DVD Extras, with their audio commentaries and interview packages and outtakes, have been a boon to me as a movie buff. But the information overload can be deflating when it comes to films that I’d prefer to think of as belonging to a special, self-contained universe.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre exemplifies that sort of movie, and it would be so nice to be able to think of it as something that was made anonymously – perhaps by a cannibal family as a macabre home video – and then deposited into the mailbox of one of the studios, with a note asking them to distribute it. But here, 30 years later, are the crew members – respectably middle-aged, laughing and joking with each other, relating anecdotes. Director Tobe Hooper tells us he decided on the film’s title when his girlfriend at the time exclaimed, “Yuck, I’d never watch a
nything called that!” (Decided?! And here I was thinking that everything about that film just fell into place entirely independently of such banalities as human decisions.) One of the scriptwriters (this film needed to be scripted?) relates the story behind the dead armadillo we see as road-kill in the first shot. And here’s the actress Marilyn Burns, whom I’d have preferred to freeze into my memory-bank for all time as the screaming, blood-covered Sally trapped in a house of horrors; now she’s gazing into the camera with grandmotherly indulgence. Even Gunnar Hansen, who played the chainsaw-wielding, retarded monster Leatherface, participates in audio commentary.

And now here’s the Onibaba DVD, with colour footage (!) of the tents where the crew lived communally, cosily together during the month-long shoot. Those grasslands no longer look unfathomably creepy and alive, and the people are dressed in modern clothes, even T-shirts. Between shots, they were probably reading Manga or listening to their Sony transistors! For a fan of the film, that’s a blasphemous thought.

Of course, horror-movie DVD extras can be illuminating (as when Dario Argento relates a childhood memory of having to walk down a long dark corridor to his room every night, each half-open door on either side seeming to contain a threat) and I still watch them with enthusiasm. But when I’m alone at home and it’s dark outside and I see shadows and hear little noises (and it’s probably my years of experience in watching horror films that has made me conscious of all these things), at such times I return to the pristineness of those childhood days, the days before I started reading about cinema and discovering back-stories: sitting in a room with cringing children, watching a film that I knew nothing about beyond the images flickering the screen – images that were more real than most things in the real world.


“Everything means something, I guess,” says a character in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Could he be talking about the tendency of film buffs to read layers and layers of meaning into a movie that means a great deal to them (especially when the film isn’t widely deemed to be worthy of analysis)? Could this be the hidden message: if a film says something to you, touches something deep within you, listen to it, open yourself to it; don’t give in to the hectoring of those who dismiss it as “cheap entertainment”, even if you’re in a minority of one.

After all, horror film are especially vulnerable to genre-snobbery, with viewers routinely putting cerebra before instinct when it comes to assessing their worth. There’s the common phenomenon of people being genuinely affected by a horror film while they are actually watching it, but then emerging from the hall and laughingly dismissing it as nothing more than escapism. I suspect that my love for these movies provided me with a conduit for a basic open-mindedness towards all kinds of films: once you’ve given your heart to a genre that many people are snobbish about, it becomes difficult to be too judgmental about others’ tastes.

There’s the popular story from the earliest days of moving pictures, about the unprepared viewers of a Lumiere Brothers short film who ran out of a Paris theatre when confronted with the image of a train seemingly coming towards them. This is probably apocryphal, but there are other similar, less dramatic stories from that period, and even common sense tells us that the first movie viewers must have experienced quite a few shocks to the system. Today, even the most casual viewers unconsciously process such aspects of film grammar as cross-cutting between unrelated scenes. But in the earliest days, even basic cutting from one image to another (let alone rapid-fire splicing) must have felt otherworldly. To some, it must have been frightening, even demoniac. (Was that puffing train the first movie monster?) Only gradually must viewers have become inured to the violence of the cuts, learnt to stop being scared and love the new medium.

Some of us, though, never stopped wanting to be scared, even as our love for the movies deepened and grew.


  1. how were the writers for this book selected? was it publisher's choice, or your own personal network?

  2. Anon: the writers were selected by me, but I wouldn't call it a "personal network" - I contacted a number of writers whose work I regarded highly, and happily a majority of them said yes.

  3. Jai,

    "Could he be talking about the tendency of film buffs to read layers and layers of meaning into a movie that means a great deal to them .. "

    Did you happen to catch 'Cabin in the Woods'? I'm not even a horror movie fan, but the riffs on the entire American horror genre in it are terrific..
    Also on Psycho, did you catch the trailer for 'Hitchcock'? Do you know if there have been any other 'biopics' on Hitchcock? Its tough to believe this may be the first one, given how influential he seems to be ..

  4. awkshwayrd: no, haven't seen Cabin in the Woods - will look out for it.

    Saw the Hitchcock trailor - must say I'm feeling very uneasy about that film and may have to watch it with my fingers splayed across my eyes (the way many people watched Psycho when it first came out). Only because I feel so close emotionally to the subject matter, and am also a fan of the Stephen Rebello book on which the film is (very loosely) based. And I don't much like the idea of an actor of Hopkins's stature being reduced to mimickry just because he's playing such an iconic figure - that may be the case here. Hope not.

  5. the same Lorre – a little balder now – played the most scared character in one of my favourite dark comedies. There’s a genuinely creepy scene in Arsenic and Old Lace

    Atlast there's a movie on which we seem to have diametrically opposite views.

    Arsenic and Old Lace is my least favourite Cary Grant, least favourite screwball comedy and probably my least favourite 40s film (must've seen atleast some 50 films from that decade).

  6. Wow, you really think Hausu would appear silly to you if you saw it today? Not sure if you're saying that in a srcastic way, given the fact you didn't use scare quotes. It's one of the finest examples of acid horror!

    That's a genre that you did not touch upon in this essay. And it's a genre that thrives on being absurd and "silly". You should watch Death Bed, for example, chilling, erotic, hilarious and extremely "silly", but awesome all the same.

    If you liked Silver Bullet, you should also watch Wolfen, which interestingly, has a neat eco terrorist theme.

    Also, minor quibble, but Goblin is not a punk band, nor would the music be commonly described as punk rock. They were categorically a progressive band (the polar opposite of punk!), specializing in ambient, moody, largely instrumental pieces. Borrowing heavily from krautrock, I imagine. Just like Morricone and Moroder, two non-rock composers who scored a lot of similar Eurocamp movies in that era.

  7. Sapera: thanks for that bit about Goblin. But where does Hausu (the Japanese film) come into this conversation? The film I mentioned here is the 1980s Hollywood film House.

    I liked Silver Bullet when I saw it - all of once - at age 10 or something such. No idea if it would have any effect on me today.

  8. hahaha!

    Hausu is commonly translated as House, and I thought that's what you were referring to. Sorry, my bad.

    Wolfen is a pretty amazing creature flick which features the much vaunted landscape of a pre-Giuliani NYC, when shit could really escalate fast. I think it's probably better than SB.

    decent HD version if you care to watch it on the comp during a break -

  9. Finally, a post on horror with some focus on the Slasher :-). This is one genre where the more they mess up a movie, the more I like it. I specially love the sequels which seem to get more and more ridiculous and the 100% predictable characters.

    Favourite for me is Friday the 13th with its stereotypes and campy setup. Jason Voorhees kicks ass. he can't be reasoned with and always comes back no matter what you throw at him.

  10. I am sure you have watched Ray's Monihar based on Tagore's tale. I somehow prefer the unsaid, unseen kind of scares than the explicit ones. On another note, I wonder why doesn't the Indian film industry produce too many good scary films any more, given that the country is replete with such tales of the supernatural...

  11. Monsters were the scariest thing in town before the Twilight came.Now all the teen age girls dream about a vampire(veggie)! What a change.

  12. @jabbewock- Oh man! your knowledge of horror genre makes me embarrassed. I am horror fan and have not seen hallf the movies you mentioned.

    By the way ,do you like movies with gore. As horror movie fan, I prefer the ones which rely less on gore.