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.

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.