First I’d like to start off with a generic yet favorite question of mine that I like to ask fans: what does horror and the fantastic mean to you personally?
It means watching others always flirting with death and you always coming up the winner. It means knowing there are worse things waiting patiently for you in dark rooms and under your bed, but you still dare walking into those dark rooms and still bravely poke your head under the bed, even in the dead of night. It means fully understanding, then ignoring, the reality of your existence–and flipping the bird at it when it comes bearing down on you hot and heavy. It’s hop scotching over graves, laughing at funerals, skipping under ladders, and slowly saying Bloody Mary three times in front of an old mirror lit by candle light, all the while wishing you weren’t so stupidly ignorant to tempt fate, yet damn happy you were so stupidly ignorant that it didn’t matter. In a word–or two–it’s liberating.
It seems like you were deeply influenced by the macabre matinees that you watched as a youngster. Do you think the horror movie-going experience today has changed with the times for better or for worse?
To be precise, I was deeply influenced by my mom who took me to the theater to watch those macabre matinees. I happened to like what I saw. You can blame it on genetics, I suppose, or the emotional pull I still get from that connection made long ago. And my Dad, although he wasn’t in to it, still put up with my need for sci-fi and horror movies, and took me as often as he could.
And yes, the movie-going experience is very different. Not only do you now get messages onscreen to remind everyone to shut up, pay attention, don’t text, don’t do stupid rude people tricks, then you’ve got to suffer through crappy 3D and pay extra for it, and recycle glasses that don’t need to be recycled. Don’t get me started on the concession stand. But what I miss the most, and what really hurts the movie-going experience now, is the lack of a balcony. Seeing a horror movie–any movie–from a balcony is a whole ‘nother experience, let me tell you.
Having said that, nothing–and I mean NOTHING–not television 3D, not video on demand, not an iPad screen or dinky handheld one, will ever replace the emotional impact of sitting in a movie theater in front of a BIG screen with BIG sound to watch an epic, a drama, an apocalyptic romp with zombies, or an animated feature. You can keep your video on demand. It’s convenient, but it lacks the theater magic. Hell, even Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster was fun to watch on the big screen.
As to the genre itself, there’s a certain sensibility that’s been lost and found and lost again in horror movies. Do you think we could ever do the fun stuff that William Castle did again? It’s not that we’re so darn sophisticated now, it’s the opposite. We’ve simply seen too much on and off the screen.
Also, from a more mainstream start, the genre itself has fractured its audience into tribes of fans who look only for specific elements instead of the whole production’s merits. This has led to a lot of incomplete or amateurish attempts at movie-making to be lauded as good cinema. These partial movies, focused on a limited set of elements as opposed to a whole movie that makes sensible and artistic use of those elements, keeps horror cinema in a strange place in regard to critical acknowledgment. It’s the one movie genre every studio loves to make money off of but hates to brag about.
One of the unique things about your blog is that it incorporates a cast of spooky characters of your own creation who pop up every now and then to cause mayhem. How did that come about? Does it help keep your creative writing mind fresh?
“What is that he said?”
I looked up from my writing desk. Zombos was reading over my shoulder. I hate when he does that. The man’s so damn quiet. Times I think he doesn’t breathe just to spite me.
“Said what?” I asked.
“A cast of spooky characters of your own creation?” he said.
“Oh, that. Well, you do realize our readers think you’re fictitious, don’t you? I mean, given the circumstances.”
“What circumstances do you mean?” Zombos folded his arms. He leaned a bit toward starboard. I felt a storm brewing.
“Ummm…well, the fact you live in this big mansion, how you and I tend to get into odd situations that stretch credulity, and… oh, for instance, how you never seem to age. Given your old acting career and such. Oh, and not many people these days know what a valet is, let alone how to pronounce the word.” I tipped back on my chair legs, waiting for Zombos to take the rebound.
He was about to say something but Zimba called to him. Saved. He said, “I will return shortly,” and left. Score. Now I could finish answering the question in peace.
“What are you doing?” asked Glenor Glenda, our maid, popping into the room.
“Trying to answer this question without being constantly interrupted,” I replied.
“I just came up because Chef Machiavelli is experimenting with fresh roast coffee and chocolate again, and he wanted us to try his samples.”
I do admit his concoctions are always delightful, even when he’s experimenting. I looked down at my writing desk. I looked up at Glenor. I looked past the open door. The smell of crisp coffee beans, sweet chocolate, and oranged cream wafted up from downstairs.
“Well, then, this question can wait. Let’s go!”
I followed the promise of tasty delights to the kitchen. A bold coffee drink is always stimulating to the writing faculties, wouldn’t you agree?
If the werewolf apocalypse finally kicked in as prophesied by the Mayans and Miss Cleo, what would you want to dress up as for your last Halloween (at least on Earth)?
A werewolf of course, silly. Then I’d fit right in. May itch a little, though.
Where is horror as an art form heading?
There's a positive and a negative perspective to that question. The positive is that horror is heading to other forms of distribution and expression. With this generation of media-enthused horror heads, who are technically savvy, cinematic and fictional horror is moving to the Internet, Ipod, You Tube, and more places then you can shake a severed limb at. More and more would-be creative people are producing their own horror films, with varying degrees of success, both artistically and financially. But the digital revolution is on. This is a positive development given that new generation distribution methods and media will move horror along into the 22nd century.
There are also the negatives to be considered. All this technology and mondo-accessibility to the medium, combined with the increasing psychological and sociological influences of global-warming and terrorism, will foster more nihilistic forms of horror for mass consumption to compensate. Look at it this way: Universal's horror cycle swung into full-force during Word War II. Why? Because people needed a greater horror than the real one they were facing to escape. To take a vacation from their reality with a fictional 'someone else's worse problem.' One that couldn't affect them. That helps to give you a sense of empowerment. It's a matter of becoming desensitized in order to survive the sensory-overload of constant, background fear. We all have it, though we hide it well.
Today, that fear keeps chugging along - it's now 24 by 7, on the Internet, on the TV, on the radio, on every hour of the day, every day of the week. So is it any surprise to see teenagers piling in to watch Jigsaw cruelly torture and rip victims apart in bloody chunks? They know it's not real sitting there in the theater, but they can still feel some sense of control over all the bloody mess because it's almost real. It still desensitizes them, and us, to the horrors all around us.
Horror, as an art form, may be heading toward more graphically nauseating, realistic horror story lines - ones that force us to vicariously experience someone else's helplessness and gut-wrenching fear of not being in control so we can hah-hah, glad-it-wasn't-me afterwards. I'm not so sure that's a good thing for the art form, or the audience either. Of course, I'm biased. I grew up in a time when the only monsters you feared were on the movie or TV screen (or under the bed – couldn’t resist, The Commentator). When the hell we became the monsters I'm not sure.
What would you say are some of the best horror movies ever made? The worst?
Let’s start with the worst: there are so many out there. I take umbrage with those who cram the shelves with DVD excrement just for a quick buck. It drags the genre down and loads the verbal shotguns of critics who take aim at the genre as a whole. So you can say I’m not one for the purely commercial side of exploitation. On the other hand, mainstream horror films also squander the classic heritage of monsterdom, like the poorly conceived and executed Van Helsing, to Uwe Boll’s never-ending curiosities—the man’s unstoppable—which really irks me.
So the worst? How about Cannibal Holocaust? It’s degrading. Yes, it achieves its goal of making you think it’s all real, but it panders to our basest tastes for grue. So horror films pretending to be art house, but only devote their time to sickening scenes of torture and depravity to make a quick buck, do not help the genre. Where’s the art in watching death?
In 2007 PBS’s Masterpiece Theater ran a reimagining of Dracula amounting to the absolute worst in storyline and characterizations. It took a classic work and destroyed it completely. Dracula himself was nothing more than a mercurial, long-haired rock star impersonator, showing no cunning, no evil wisdom garnered from living for centuries. And he had no accent! It was abysmal in conception and execution. Murder Set Pieces is another WTF! wonder. And Hannibal Rising is a series of ludicrous static images strung together to simulate a motion picture. The idea of providing a backstory to Hannibal Lecter was not a good one to begin with. Who wants to understand evil? By its very nature it defies understanding, which makes it frightening. Giving reasons for Lecter’s cannibalism and insanity removed the mystery. Giving the laughable reasons in this film did more to undermine the character than broaden it. Feardotcom was another exercise in incomprehensible storytelling. Interesting visuals, but incoherent story. The script writer appears to have written it while water-skiing. Roger Ebert said it best when he wrote it’s “a jumble of half-baked ideas.”
The amount of bad horror films, sadly, far outweigh the good ones, but let’s list some of the best. Halloween is one. Carpenter’s ground-breaking film is a perfect blend of scares, mood, and sustained tension. Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein are stunningly effective, even today–vibrant characterizations by actors who treated horror with respect and craft. Dwight Frye as Fritz practically created the mad scientist’s lab assistant role, although it did typecast him. Dracula, with Bela Lugosi; sure, it’s slow and static, but Lugosi’s performance set the bar for the undead count. His performance is still mesmerizing. Ditto on the typecasting curse. Donnie Darko: an eerie film combining mystery, a subtle, growing chill, and pathos. Night of the Living Dead: the grandfather of zombie horror. Surrounded by the hungry undead–it still scares you. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator: Jeffrey Combs is perfectly over the top in an over the top masterpiece of gory delight. Shaun of the Dead: hilarious send up of zombie cliché’s. Uzumaki: an underrated film based on the Lovecraftianesque manga, bringing it to creepy life. Dead Birds: a successful exercise in the less is better school of horror with some solid scares. Psycho: another visual and story-wise masterpiece of real terror. The Last Broadcast: a few months before The Blair Witch Project, this film brought a documentary realism to chilling, totally unexpected climax. Again, it’s what you don’t see that scares you the most. The Descent: a claustrophobic nightmare of unrelenting horror with truly frightening predators.
Now there are, luckily, lots more. I recommend reading The Rough Guide to Horror Movies by Jones, and Horror 101 by Christensen for more good titles to order on Netflix.
Do you think traditional, atmospheric horrors like The Others, The Sixth Sense, Rosemary's Baby, etc., have more artistic value than slasher films such as Halloween and Scream? Which type is more popular?
No. First, artistic value, by its nature, is part objective and part subjective. The objective elements that make good horror movies are the same as those that make good dramatic movies: the “secret” many independents keep forgetting, as well as Hollywood. No matter which sub-genre of horror these elements appear in, the fact they do appear is important to the artistic integrity of the movie. Now the subjective part, the preference for the sub-genre style itself, may require some modifications to those basic objective elements to align them to most effect with the sub-genre, but as long as care is taken to put them there in the first place, it doesn’t matter if the story is about a slasher, or ghost, or zombie, or psycho chainsaw-wielding lunatic in a leather.
One of those elements, by the way, is to make sure you create an emotional attachment to the characters onscreen, otherwise they are just victims. I remember the ending to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. After putting up a hell of a good fight, the heroine, which by now has all of us cheering for her to survive, is summarily killed by Leatherface. Well, of course! She has to die. This is the beginning, right? If she survives, the whole setup is blown to hell. But the emotional attachment created had us all give a collective sigh of disappointment when she did die. That’s how effective this essential element was used. It set us up for a big letdown, but it worked as it was supposed to.
As for which is more popular, it depends on your target audience. Older horror fans tend toward slashers and more traditional horror storylines involving demons, the supernatural, and ghosts. Younger audiences tend toward the more sensational, mainly because they go to the theater with their friends, so it becomes a right of passage; who can survive without blinking and that sort of thing. Take the successful SAW series. Every Halloween, it brings in the crowds because of the group effect. It’s rare you would see a teenager watching it alone in a theater. Without his friends to cushion the visually stomach-churning sadism, it’s, quite simply, not much fun to watch.
Why have films like Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen become such classics? What sets them apart from other horror films?
What sets them apart is serious attention to the craft of making a film first, horror second. From the actors to the director and production people, everyone took the storyline seriously. To them it was just another dramatic movie with touches of horror, not a horror movie with touches of drama. The second thing is they all had strong characterizations connecting with you emotionally, especially one central person whom you wanted desperately to win. The third thing is the classic battle between good and evil. Now unless the audience is one in a Gahan Wilson cartoon, no one in a typical audience wants evil to win. This healthy bias can be exploited by the storyline to fortify the emotional connection to the drama.
In order of popularity, how would you place witches, vampires, ghosts, zombies, and werewolves?
I’ll assume you mean judging by today’s standards and what contemporary horror fans like. Zombies are the darling of the moment, so they definitely are the most popular right now. They lend themselves to an awesome range of social, political, satirical, gross-out, religious, and philosophical depictions in books and movies, or just simple schlock, too. It’s also cool to dress up as a zombie and stagger around on a Saturday. Next would be vampires, as they never go out of fashion thanks to the Gothic mystique surrounding them.
Now the tougher part comes when choosing which comes next, ghosts or werewolves? There’s been a bit of a resurgence with werewolves popping up in fiction and soon the—lord help us all—reimagining of The Wolf Man. They also make perfect antagonists for vampires, so you often see them prowling around in the background of vampire-centered movies. But I would have to put ghosts ahead of them, thanks mainly to the Japanese Horror wave that’s influenced many horror films in the last few years, what with their revenge seeking ghosts or evil spirits in need of a good shampoo and rinse. Ghosts, too, lend themselves to real artistic scares. Just watch Robert Wise’s The Haunting, or Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited alone, late at night, and I promise you’ll get keep looking over your shoulder.
The vampire seems to be the most die-hard, popular supernatural fiend of all time. Why do you think this is? What is it about vampires that fascinate people so much?
Well, who wouldn’t want to stay up and party all night? Vampires can be depicted as sexy, sophisticated, and powerful. They lend themselves to all sorts of social situations and characterizations that make television and movie people drool over the possibilities. And they live forever. Werewolves aren’t sexy: all they want to do is devour you limb from limb and soil the carpet. Zombies stink and also want to eat you, brains and all. Who wants to live forever as a zombie? That’s a bummer.
Vampires, on the other hand, are the eternally beautiful people of the horror genre. Given a choice, who do you think readers would want to see on the cover of People magazine; Brad Pit or Tom Cruz as a cool vampire (or Charlize Theron all vamped up—yeah, my personal fantasy okay?), or some hairy guy with a mucous-filled snout barking at the moon? The whole life everlasting angle is quite enticing, especially when, unlike a zombie or werewolf or Frankenstein’s Monster you don’t have to give up your good looks for it. And don’t forget vampires get all the babes, too. Hell, Dracula had three wives, right?
On the down side, this seductive image of the vampire can get in the way of the scares, the overall horror effect they have on you. So when movies or novels depict them, you have to go the extra mile to toss in much more baggage regarding the social and political intrigue that surrounds them as opposed to the direct effect they have as “monsters.” The more successful iterations of vampires in film, television, and fiction tone down the blood-sucking fiend angle and focus more on the sociological and psychological aspects of their condition.
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