On Horror Movies and a Random Ten

Various "spoilers" for the Halloween and Black Christmas movies follow...

As some of you know, I spent a good chunk of my summer working on a new essay about horror movies. I love horror movies-- particularly of the slasher variety. Don't get me wrong-- I'm not a huge fan of gore, but the original Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and-- to a lesser extent-- the first two Friday the 13th movies are all quite scary, effective movies-- shot for basically no money-- that never fail to entertain me.

So, as you can imagine, I'm a little curious to see what Rob Zombie's up to with his new remake of Halloween. John Carpenter's original is widely recognized as something of a horror movie classic, and is often credited as being the first slasher movie (it isn't, but more on that in a second). I watched it again just the other night (Emily hadn't seen it) and was struck once again by just how good it was. As opposed to most slasher movies, Halloween doesn't have its killer just jump out of the shadows and grab his victim; rather, Carpetner shoots his movie so that you'll see the killer-- Michael-- behind the actor in the foreground, advancing slowly. As a result, the movie winds up being an exercise in tension ("Turn around, Jamie! For God's sake, turn around!") rather than shock. As an audience, we wind up squirming in our seats in discomfort rather that jumping and spilling popcorn all over ourselves. And there's no gore at all, really-- a little bit of blood, I suppose, but that's it.

Based on a lot of the reviews I've been reading this morning about Zombie's remake, it doesn't sound like the film he's made is nearly as effective. They complain that Zombie has removed much of the tension that made the original such an effective movie, replacing it with the gore and rudeness that marked his earlier efforts House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects. Of course, I kind of liked those movies-- though not as much as I liked the original Halloween, to be sure-- so I'm not sure such changes will necessarily result in me hating the new movie. Although rumors of a hastily re-shot ending after the original failed to win over a test audience doesn't exactly fill me with much hope.

This all kind of reminds me, though, of last December, when Glen Morgan's remake of Black Christmas was released. The reviews of that movie-- both in print and online-- were universally negative. They all pointed out-- quite correctly-- that the filmmakers had abandoned just about everything that made Bob Clark's original such a great movie. What they neglected to mention was that Morgan replaced that stuff with elements that resulted in a movie that's by no means terrible-- just not as great as the original.

For those of you who don't know, Clark's Black Christmas-- released in 1974-- actually is the first real slasher film (and by "slasher" film, I'm referring to a very specific type of movie where some mysterious, deranged, unstoppable crazy hunts down young people-- I know some would argue that Psycho fits the bill, but it really doesn't-- Norman Bates killed grown-ups). Essentially, Clark's movie opens with some unseen figure breaking into a sorority house and setting up camp in the attic, while several of the house's residents are getting ready to go home for Christmas. Most have left already, but there are a few stragglers.

This was the first movie to employ the "He's calling from inside the house!" plot device, and the first to feature an unseen boogeyman character methodically stalks and picks off young women he has no connection to (in fact, both When a Stranger Calls and Halloween were originally developed as sequels to Black Christmas). The killer-- whose name we surmise is Billy-- hangs around the house, watching the sorority girls, and waiting until each is alone. Periodically, he calls the house to deliver bizarre, ranting monologues that don't seem to tie into the action of the movie-- "It's me Billy, Agnes. Don't tell them what we did!" (I should note that there are no characters in the movie named Agnes, and the only reason we "know" the killer's name is Billy is because that's how he identifies himself in the calls). Interestingly enough, since this movie was produced before the slasher sub-genre had its established "rules," the girl who manages to escape the killer is not a complete and total innocent like the survivors in Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street; she's not only the one girl we're sure isn't a virgin, she's actually the one who has just informed her boyfriend that she's going through with the abortion, and he she won't be talked out of it, because she knows it's the right thing to do. So, that's kinda progressive, anyway.

The original Black Christmas is hands-down the scariest movie I've ever seen; I love this movie. Obviously, the remake wasn't going to be nearly as scary-- fright comes out of surprise, after all. A horror movie remake usually isn't going to be able to frighten you as much as the original did, simply because it's no longer new (there are exceptions to this rule, of course, but for the most part I think it's true). So Glen Morgan wisely decided to not even try to make a "scary movie." Instead, he created a bizarre little meta-narrative about violence and voyeurism and how-- in effect-- people who watch big screen death and mayhem are themselves kind of sadistic. It was a bold choice, telling your audience that they're nothing but cruel little monsters, and it didn't seem to go over very well.

Voyeurism was already an important theme in the original Black Christmas-- the most memorable visual comes when the heroine glances through a crack in the door and sees just a small part of the killer's face-- mostly the part surrounding one eye, staring at her. The remake recreates this shot with some frequency-- it's almost like an episode of Scooby Doo-- throughout the house there are little holes in the wall, and the camera keeps focusing in to show us the eyeball gazing. There are other hints that visuals are important-- the screen saver on one victim's computer is just a series of floating eyeballs coasting by on the screen, and the killers routinely yank their victims eyeballs out of the socket. One girl discovers that a former boyfriend had secretly taped a sexual encounter with her, and the tape wound up on the Internet. The understanding in this movie is that the act of watching is intimately related to the victimization and over-the-top violence occuring throughout the film, and no one who engages in watching can claim to be innocent.

So the movie may be an unpleasant, not-particularly-scary gorefest, but it wasn't stupid, and it's not as insignificant as critics last year tried to claim. I can't really say I recommend this movie, the way I highly recommend the original and Carpenter's Halloween, but I liked it well enough that I'm not really inclined to take the critics at their word when they tell me I don't need to bother with Zombie's latest effort. They fooled me once before, and I almost missed out on a really entertaining and clever little piece of entertainment.

Anyway. Here's my Random Ten for this week. Shuffle your iTunes, record what comes up. Couldn't be simpler. But don't leave out any White Zombie that comes up-- that shit's better than you think.

1) Lou Reed-- "Cremation/ Ashes to Ashes"
2) Billy Bragg and Wilco-- "California Stars"
3) Nine Inch Nails-- "In This Twilight"
4) Rick Springfield-- "Jessie's Girl"
5) The White Stripes-- "Seven Nation Army"
6) Reel Big Fish-- "Story of My Life"
7) Rhianna-- "Unfaithful"
8) John Cale and Bob Neuwirth-- "Old China"
9) The Temptations-- "Little Drummer Boy"
10) Rolling Stones-- "Ruby Tuesday"

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