The Darkened Screen: a few selections of cinematic terror
On Halloween, many choose to remain indoors and prefer to have their fear glands palpitate to intense images on the screen. The cinema has the power to terrify audiences as well as set cultural standards for what is considered to be scary. There can be little doubt that a fear of clowns has spiked thanks to films like the Stephen King adaptation "It." Demonic possession has also been made a popular horror theme through William Friedkin's "The Exorcist." Some horror films remain in the underground, to be discovered by film lovers who dig deeper to find hidden, low-budget gems.
Even for those who find it hard to be literally "scared" by a horror film, good craft is simply good craft, and the horror genre has given us some excellent works that stand as masterful filmmaking. The modern horror film can be said to begin with 1922's "Nosferatu," a German gothic nightmare by director F.W. Murnau which retells the Dracula story with a creepy, gritty atmosphere and romanticism. Filmed during the Weimar Republic, in the era of German Expressionism, "Nosferatu" starred Max Schreck as Count Orlock, who wanders in a decaying castle, finding himself lusting after a journeyman's wife in a distant, German town.
The images in "Nosferatu" remain unrivaled in their use of shadows and Schreck's bald, long-nailed vampire with a maddened stare. When Orlock's shadow passes over a wall, his curved fingers looking for prey, the moment is forever haunting because of its silent, predatory tone. Like much of German Expressionism, "Nosferatu" isn't just an artistic masterpiece, it is a veiled expression of Germany at the time, cold and descending into murderous darkness. A 1979 remake by Werner Herzog, starring Klaus Kinski as the Count, is also a hypnotic experience. German Expressionism was a major influence on the American filmmakers who would later make classics like "Dracula," "The Wolfman," and "Frankenstein."
In the 1930s horror films began to capture a time of hyper industrialization when fascism was also becoming a political force shaping societies. A recent rediscovery from the time is the 1932 film "Island Of Lost Souls." This Erie C. Kenton chiller is an adaptation of H.G. Welles's "The Island Of Dr. Moreau," about a shipwrecked sailor who finds himself on an island where a mad scientist, played devilishly by Charles Laughton, is creating human/animal hybrids to produce a master race. The cinematography is beautifully gothic and the makeup is still disturbing in its realism. Laughton is completely insane in his role, portraying Dr. Moreau as a total, power-hungry maniac. It is a film about the danger of mad dreams and the horror of science gone berserk. A perfect film for the age of eugenics and the Nazis.
By the 1970s the United States had undergone such a rapid, incinerating set of changes that the previous era of sustained, cold suspense of films like "Psycho" was replaced by a new, bloody set of films that told unforgettable stories with unflinching terror and violence. Films like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" introduced new, blood-soaked story lines.
But one creepy, low-budget thriller that creates a real sense of dread is Charles B. Pierce's 1976 film "The Town That Dreaded Sundown." Based on the true story of a hooded serial killer who stalked the town of Texarkana, Texas in the 1940s, the film has an almost documentary-style that some critics consider to be a precursor to shows like "Unsolved Mysteries." The film is disturbing because it doesn't follow cheap plot points and the setting is rural and isolated. Its gritty look gives the impression that anything can pop out of a corner or the shadows.
The 1980s saw a rise in slick horror films but one disturbing thriller that has seen a recent revival is "Manhunter." Directed by Michael Mann, the pastel-minded director behind stylish romps like "Miami Vice" and "Heat," "Manhunter" was his first attempt at the serial killer genre. Based on the Thomas Harris novel "Red Dragon," "Manhunter" was also the first feature film to showcase the iconic, fictional cannibal Hannibal Lecter. Immortalized by Anthony Hopkins in 1991's "The Silence Of The Lambs," in "Manhunter" the imprisoned, highly intelligent serial killer is played by Brian Cox with slimy gusto as he helps a profiler played by William Petersen track down an equally disturbing, brilliantly acted killer played by Tom Noonan who is also enigmatically obsessed with a William Blake painting.
The soundtrack and cinematography create a building tension and Mann does not flinch at the predatory bloodshed unleashed by Noonan's character on his victims. This film was later remade in 2002 as Bret Ratner's "Red Dragon," which was also effective, but not as memorable.
While other denizens will partake in the pub crawls and Halloween parties, these titles could prove to be worthy discoveries for those who prefer to stay in for the night and experience the power of pure horror storytelling.