Terror and Horror; being scared

There is a strange joy in watching a horror film. For me, some of this excitement comes from the anticipation of being scared – will I, or won’t I? That is not to say if I’m not scared by the time the credits roll I’m disappointed. The success of horror films shouldn’t be judged on such a binary outcome, such is the range of the horror film. You might get scared, but then, you might laugh, cry or just have a great time. Two of my favourite horror films, Evil Dead 2 and Hellraiser, evoked no fear at all and they are truly brilliant, from the gloriously camp comedy in Evil Dead 2 to the gruesome sadomasochism of Hellraiser, these are as much pieces of art as any contemporary indie release.

But as I’ve watched more horror, in particular more of the classics of the genre, I’ve found myself ‘being scared’ in broadly two very different ways.

My first experiences with being scared from horror films was when I watched The Ring (2002) followed by The Grudge (2004) in my pre-teen years with my Dad, followed by The Blair Witch Project (1999) with my grandparents. Suffice to say I was suitably petrified; heart in mouth, could not watch, nor look away, definitely couldn’t sleep after the trauma was over. I recently experienced this horror again watching Insidious (2010). In this apparently haunted house the stairs were creaking and the violins screeching and once again I was scared, so much so I didn’t dare look into the dark space of the open cupboard, opposite my bed where I was cowering, in case there was a monster lurking.

HAL 9000

This is a very different fear from that which I have experienced watching a select few other horror films. During 2001: A Space Odyssey, the character Poole is outside the spaceship carrying out repairs. The shot cuts to HAL and pulls in sharply with the sound muted. HAL sets Poole loose and he spins into the depths of space, wildly out of control. This scene inflicted such terror in me that I experienced what I can only describe as out-of-body terror. I was no longer conscious of the cinema seats around me, or the other people in the audience, only the abject horror of what I was experiencing, or rather, what was happening to me. I don’t possess the vocabulary or ability to sufficiently express this experience, suffice to say it was not a feeling of horror I was used to. This happened as well during The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) during one of the times Leatherface appeared suddenly out of nowhere, looming above his victim, screaming incoherently chainsaw in hand.

Leatherface on the move

Both experiences of being scared are oddly cathartic; they allow me to feel a primal fear that is (thankfully) missing from my life.

May the chase for this rush and the hunt for a film that will scare me again into oblivion never end.

Videodrome (1983)

I wasn’t alive in the 1980s, so I can’t speak of the relevance of the film for the time it was released, but watching it in 2020 it feels poignantly prophetic. The Videodrome is a pornographic S&M television programme which Max Renan (James Woods) becomes obsessed with. The more he watches the more he hallucinates and the more he undergoes grotesque physical changes.

Reading online it seems there isn’t an agreed consensus on what Videodrome is about. Director Cronenberg said:

“It’s very hard for me to say what Videodrome is about in a sense, because it’s, I think it’s totally misleading to say that it’s a criticism of television or that it’s a, you know, an extension of network or something like that. It really is exploring what I’ve been doing all along which is to see what happens when people go to extremes and try to alter their total environment to the point when it comes back and starts to alter their physical selves.”

Interview with Cronenberg and cast .

This wasn’t my take.

Max Renan hallucinates.

I saw a lot in Videodrome that reflects how we interact with technology today. However, rather than exclusively with the screens of TVs, now more so with the screens of our phones. In the film Renan becomes more machine as his hallucinations progress; the boundary between man and machine is blurred. While transhumans would like to see this reality realised, and philosophers David Chalmers and Andy Clark suggest your phone could be a part of your mind, I don’t think we’re quite there yet. As this happens and as he hallucinates, Renan becomes a slave to the Videodrome, receiving orders from others, becoming its assassin. I’m not suggesting we are slaves to our phones, or that social media controls us, however, during the film I did find myself with my phone in hand and twitter open, without consciously having made that decision, such is the habit.

The film also touches on themes of truth and trusting what we see on the screen. The hallucinations are an obvious case of this, Renan seeing dead bodies in his bed where there apparently are none and losing his gun inside is stomach. We also find out that the character Brian O’Blivion, previously thought alive, was in fact dead, and his daughter was posting previously recorded videos of him to mask his reality. Questioning what we see online and on social media has been more important now than ever. Tech companies are creating better and better deepfakes, gaining the ability to make anyone say and do anything.

Videodrome is an excellent exploration of the interaction between the screen and the human mind. I do not share Cronenberg’s view that the screen or film can (significantly) change the physical state of a person directly, only via any changes it has on the mind first. It is a film that can be read a dozen ways, each one revealing an important truth about technology in the 21st century.

Long live the new flesh.

Les Raisins de la Mort (1978)

In rural France a homemade pesticide turns workers and townspeople into aggressive zombies. These zombies don’t want your brains, but they definitely do want you dead. They’ll stab you, hit you and even crucify you on a door.

The Grapes of Death (English title) follows Élizabeth, who, while travelling cross-country to visit her fiancé, abandons the train she is on after a crazed zombie murders her friend. The rest of the film tracks her through the countryside trying to work her way to her fiancés vineyard where he works. On her way she meets many zombies and a few fellow survivors.

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Marie-Georges Pascal as Élizabeth

The zombies themselves are gruesome; blistering skin, leaking with puss and blood. Rollin pulls the camera in often for close-ups of the infected and uninfected alike, capturing their serene despair in life and death. Sections of the film were filled with clear (erotic) religious imagery and to me, a commentary of occupied France during WWII.

I was surprised by the praise of others online; ultimately the film failed to impress me. It was unambitious and slowly paced despite its short runtime. To its credit, the beheadings and wounds are properly and suitably gruesome.

Phase IV (1974)

A cosmic event causes ants in the Arizona desert to become hyper-intelligent, leading to two scientists, Hubbs and Lesko, set up a research base to observe and study them. Unfortunately for the researchers, the ants are full of bloodlust and desire to conquer the living world.

There are clear parallels in Phase IV to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but this film lacks the vision and quality of Kubrick’s masterpiece. The film is divided into two realms – of the humans above ground and of the ants below. It is the filming of the ants that impresses here. Cinematographer Dick Bush does masterful work with the close-ups of the ants, as we see them navigate their tunnels and conspire with each other.

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The scientists Hubbs and Lesko stand before the monolithic ant columns.

There is one particularly memorable scene, where the ants carry out funeral rites on their dead. The fallen ants are lined up in rows, in what can only be a military cemetery, the surviving ants mourn on the sides, over a slow guitar riff and organ soundtrack. The ants, although indistinguishable from one another, have real personality.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film falls flat in its script and acting. However, the finale enjoyably subverted my expectations, just not enough to pick up what had come before.

Welcome to Leith (2015)

Welcome to Leith offers a clear account of the trials and tribulations of one small, remote town in North Dakota, USA, as their community is threatened by the presence of white supremacist Nazis.

The infamous Nazi Craig Cobb, well known to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, selected Leith to become a haven for like minded racists. By inviting other white supremacists to Leith he intended to take over the town through its own council and democratic system.

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Cobb and fellow Nazis intimidating the residents of Leith.

The documentary tracks the conflict and rising tensions between Cobb and his allies, and the towns people, showing footage from large demonstrations to smaller confrontations. Here the film is at its best, collecting footage and photos from the residents present. However, it offers little depth in its insight into the workings of Cobbs mind, or the community with which he is affiliated. Instead we are presented purely with events, with no comment or judgement from the film makers. Given the subject matter, I can’t help but be frustrated by this.

While this was an interesting watch, it is nothing remarkable. The racist thugs shown are beyond comprehension, but ultimately are small timers in the face of the systematic racism that plagues America today.

First Man (2018)

There is a joke about a conspiracy theory on the moon landing. Those in tin-foil hats claim NASA asked Stanley Kubrick, having just filmed 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to produce a fake landing to one-up the Soviets. The joke is that being a renowned perfectionist Kubrick would insist on filming it on the moon itself, thus rendering the faked landing redundant. Such a task is now obsolete as director Damien Chazelle has given us a truly authentic production of the moon landing, more so than any other, in his latest film First Man.

First Man is a radical departure from his previous two feature films Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), both centred around the throes of artistic ambition. However, there is continuity with First Man and its predecessors. Where previously Miles Teller plays an incessantly tenacious jazz drummer, sought on gaining the approval of his uncompromising mentor and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a jazz pianist and actress respectively, striving to fulfil their dreams, Chazelle presents Neil Armstrong played by a stoic Ryan Gosling as a man driven, resolute in his mission to reach the moon. 

Throughout, the film navigates the dynamics of a family whose father and husband is to be sent into space to his possible death. Clare Foy gives a convincing performance as Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife and the mother to their two sons. She struggles with the demands of raising her children while dealing with the emotional toll of her husband’s job. We see Neil haunted by the death of his daughter, the effects of which are seemingly absent in Janet’s narrative, which is disappointing as her role is ultimately reduced to ‘Neil’s aggrieved wife’. The depths of Armstrong’s grief are captured brilliantly by cinematographer Linus Sandgreen using 16mm film for the close-up shots, reflecting shadows on the moon in Gosling’s face often shot half covered in darkness. Gosling carries Armstrong’s despair to the ethereal surface of the moon where Sandgreen switches to an IMAX camera, allowing the heightened detail and clarity in the colour and light to be brought forward. Armstrong’s grief is brought into sharp focus with the bleak moonscape spanning the screen, void of life and score, where he starts to let go of the death of his daughter, leaving a memento of her behind.

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong

Although the majority of the film is centred on the events on Earth, Chazelle is best in space; the shaky camera work on Earth, although cleverly mimicking the discord in the Armstrong family, grows tiresome. Only once Gosling is hurtling through space does Chazelle reveal the full extent of his directing talent. It is the first mission; Gemini 8, that stands out. Here Armstrong and co-pilot David Scott, played by Christopher Abbott are launched into space and then tasked with locating and docking with a second vessel. On their ascent Chazelle puts us squarely in the action along with the pilots in the cockpit, avoiding any shots of the spacecraft from the outside. The result is a tumultuous cacophony of noise, the camera shaking violently as the astronauts are rocketed through the atmosphere into space. And then they break through, into an elevated state of tranquillity after the violence of their ascent. For First Man Chazelle has paired again with composer Justin Hurwitz (whose entire filmography is made up with collaborations with Chazelle and with two Academy Awards after three films has established himself as one of the standout film composers of his generation ), and once again the result is spectacular. For the Gemini 8 mission, Hurwitz gives us a sublime waltz (Docking Waltz) as Armstrong and Scott drift through space just outside the Earth’s atmosphere, the curve of which is gracefully reflected in Armstrong’s helmet. 

First Man is an excellent portrayal of a lost man, buried by grief, seeking remove from his anguish in the perilous missions which have claimed so many of his friends’ lives. Ultimately, however, it is just another biopic centred around a tortured man and although it is beautifully crafted and technically sound, unlike the Gemini and Apollo space missions it makes no new ground in the already bloated genre.