In space no one can hear you scream. I can say that over and over and it never loses its power. Much like the film itself, Alien‘s tagline is hypnotic, terrifying and utterly memorable. Sitting down to watch this bona fide classic again this week, I struggled to approach it with anything but wide-eyed wonder. I had to remind myself that Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley, hasn’t always been around. That in 1979 people sat down to watch this film and fully expected the ship’s captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), with his roguish good looks and manly beard, to save the helpless lady astronauts. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t remove the facehugger from my psyche or the residue of the exploding-chest xenomorph which coated Alien‘s innards all over the face of modern cinema.
Having discarded my attempts at an unbiased reading of Alien, I settled in with the crew of the Nostromo and we screamed our silent screams together. What struck me over and over was how well the visual design of Alien has held up. For a modest budget of $11 million, Ridley Scott and his crew created an environment which remains absolutely believable today. The sets for the interior of the spaceship have a solidity to them which computer effects and green screens fall far short of today. The familiarity of the Nostromo’s design with its recognisable cockpit and mess room amidst airlocks and hibernation stations adds enormously to the film’s believability; fuelling the terror of the whole messy situation.
As impressive as the set design is, the iconic design of the film’s titular enemy remains Alien’s strongest asset. The perfection of the xenomorph’s biology combined with its demonic appearance makes it one of cinema’s greatest creations. Watching the ship’s crew initially chase the creature with a net is, from our vantage point thirty years later, sadistically hilarious. How quickly they run out of ideas and go from hunter to hunted, being outsmarted at every turn, is terrifying and testament to the dazzling design of the alien.
While the alien does indeed look like a man in a suit when we see it briefly in its entirety, I would still take this over the more recent swimming, computer-animated incarnations. The animatronic close-ups of the alien have lost none of their impact. Similarly, the face-hugger remains skin-crawlingly effective. Watching it tighten it’s grip when the crew attempt to remove it from John Hurt’s face before it bleeds acid through the floor is as much nightmare territory now as it would have been thirty years ago.
To appreciate Alien is to appreciate cinema. While it is an excellent story in its own right, it is the design of Alien which makes it so memorable. It has lost none of its aesthetic pleasure and still looks more realistic than most special effects oriented films today. For a sci-fi film to retain its impact after so many years places Alien within a very exclusive echelon of cinema. Treat yourself this Hallowe’en to a face-hugging film you won’t soon forget.
It’s one of those films that everyone thinks that they know – so embedded in our collective consciousness that even those who have never seen it feel as though they have. Carrie emerged from a hive of creativity and innovation in 1970s Hollywood, where directors were defying boundaries and making waves in every genre, blowing apart preconceptions of what a movie should be. No other horror movie is so lovingly rendered and artfully shot, and very few shlockers manage to cross the barrier and impress the Academy with its skills. Echoes of Carrie still ripple through horror movies today, as the formula of sympathetic terror is often copied but never equalled in its nuances – and there is no greater compliment to the prescient status of its iconography that it has remained a benchmark for the psychological horror.
What terrifies and enthrals about Carrie is the slow pace – the loving introduction of its main character, and her terrible life. The persistent bullying and aggression, followed by her mother’s religious freak-outs, are all underscored by Sissy Spacek’s soft-voiced, sad and lonely Carrie. She is a fully rounded psychologically realistic character – a rarity as a horror film antagonist – and within moments, our sympathies are fully with her. In fact, our compassion is so closely contained in Spacek’s unprepossessing portrayal of this little girl that as the climax excruciatingly builds, we almost wish the apocalypse upon these townsfolk. When that iconic pigs blood begins to pour, we yearn for the flames and carnage – vicariously cheering on Carrie’s revenge, then breaking down alongside her in terror and fear at her (and our) horrifying actions.
Perhaps my viewing of Carrie is coloured by being a girl, and having seen the movie post-puberty…when her craziness seems just that little bit more understandable. There is a nagging feeling throughout that, though her emotions are exaggerated and accompanied by telekinetic power, there was a touch of kinship in this movie relationship. And perhaps even a moment of vindication and relief…the vicarious living out of puberty fantasy, where the boiling emotions inside could result in flipping over a car or burning down the school!
Again though, the film’s director Brian De Palma – in a career kick-starter – defies our cheering dualism. Carrie is still lost and terrified, and after her cathartic high-school revenge, returns to her state of confusion and horror. She is no devil, despite her mother’s fanaticism, and wants only to be loved. Her tragic avowal of this is her inability to continue living with what she has done – the revenge now seemed outside of herself, and beyond her control. When she returns home to her mother, seeking reassurances and some semblance of love, she is greeted with the biggest betrayal of all…and her emotional collapse at this final insanity is so painful to watch that it bleeds onscreen. But at its centre, under the complex psychologies and emotional rendering, Carrie is still a horror movie – and its beating heart is terror. Carrie might be sympathetic, she might be understandable…but she is still a supernatural murderer, who wreaks a terrifying revenge. The prom-night massacre is no simple matter – she methodically locks the doors, and picks off her victims one by one as her eyes flash and the music soars. Spacek, covered in pig’s blood, stands compressed on the platform, electricity surging through her movements and fists clenched in concentration, slowly and gruesomely murdering her foes. And the final terror is yet to come – generations of movie-goers have still to discover that unbelievably horrific final jump. How I envy anybody who has never seen Carrie, who has yet to experience that moment of release as you think it’s all over, before it delivers its final, terrifying, screaming, wake-you-up-sweating-in-the-middle-of-the-night punchline. If you’ve got a taste for terror, take Carrie to the prom!
Drag Me to Hell
I love the logo for Ghost House Pictures, one of the production companies behind Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell: A skull jauntily bounces out of the screen with the company name written in ‘spooky’ letters. It’s great. Its retro style reminds me of the yellowed horror novels you see gathering dust in second-hand bookshops. But it also serves as a sort of mission statement, it promises a movie that will provide old school scares with a few knowing winks to the audience.
Of course this all came with hindsight. At the time I didn’t really settle in to the movie until about half an hour in. By that stage we’d already had some enjoyable, mild gross-out comedy when the elderly Mrs Ganush arrives at the sweet-natured Christine’s bank. Then there was an uproarious fight scene followed by a gypsy curse. Brilliant. But it was when the curse took effect and Christine’s home was attacked by a shadowy something that I realised I was in the hands of a master. I had laughed when he wanted me to laugh and now I was jumping when he wanted me to jump. It sounds simple I know and yet so many get that balance wrong. Sam Raimi gets it exactly right; the laughs enhance the scares without ever undermining them. After that I settled down and let the film carry me along safe in the knowledge that it wouldn’t disappoint.
It didn’t. It never misses a trick, the jokes are funny, the scares are scary and for two glorious hours Sam Raimi wrested control of the horror genre from crass remakers and torture pornographers and reminded us how it should be done. Oh, and it features the best use of a goat in motion picture history.
Horror is not a genre of subtleties, it reflects the world it is created in, and it pulls no punches and whimpers no niceties about the era. Horror not only shocks its audience with what is on screen, but also with revelations about the world outside the doors of the cinema; it ain’t pretty, but somehow we always go back for more. Human suffering was the cinematic flavour of the day in the 1970s, with scandals piling upon scandals, no one was to be trusted. The Exorcist explores the subject in a manner that no film before or since has attained.
The Exorcist marked a turning point in cinema in many ways. After its 1973 release horror was no longer wholly associated with exciting Vincent Price chillers, but could now be a vicious assault on the audience. Many have taken the idea of audience and gotten carried away but few have succeeded in replicating the atmosphere of The Exorcist, which abuses its audience and yet leaves them wanting more. The film is a possession in and of itself as it both shows suffering onscreen and causes suffering amongst its audience, it remains one of few films which have caused fainting and hysterics in its audience, and one of even fewer to be so sought after that bus trips were arranged to see it during its UK ban. So what made The Exorcist so special? And why should we care now?
The Exorcist was the beginning of atmospheric horror, which remains the most profoundly affecting form of the genre. The set was cooled to below freezing in Reagan’s bedroom and whether we watch it in the depths of winter or the middle of summer, there’s a moment in which we believe that we have seen fog on our own breath.
The Exorcist can also be seen as the origin of character-driven horror. Until that moment it was rare to truly love the characters in a horror movie, but here we had an ensemble cast who captured the heart of an audience, and for me, that is the true genius of director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty. The Exorcist marked the beginning of the end for pre-pubescent children in horror, it seems that one fear has transcended eras. There is nothing more frightening than a little girl, particularly if she’s not quite a little girl anymore. Since its release it’s impossible for an audience not to feel some level of suspicion as soon as little Timmy appears on screen, something that recent release Paranormal Activity 2 has utilised fully in advertising. So Reagan is verbally and physically aggressive throughout her possession, and we see very little of her prior to the possession, and yet somehow we love her, we feel her mother’s growing frustration, and we want her to be healed.
The reason for this is simple. As visually violent as The Exorcist is, it has remained on the right side of a very thin line. There is more character than pea soup, and everything stays just below that visual wasteland of ‘too much’. The ‘spider-walk’ sequence is an impressive, now over-used one, and Friedkin’s removal of the scene is necessary to retain some level of ambiguity. Whilst it is suggested that Reagan’s possession is real, it’s also suggested that it’s the result of mental illness, we will never really know, and the psychological impact of not knowing is what creates true terror and cements The Exorcist as the genre’s first bona-fide mainstream classic.
With this Halloween seeing the most violent audience assault we have seen in the shape of Saw 3D, it’s easy to lose sight of the origins and purpose of modern horror cinema. Each time The Exorcist is popped into a DVD player something special happens. When we lose sight of that little silver disc, we enter a world where the special effects of a long-lost era are still affecting, the characters remain dazzling. The first horror film to be nominated for an Academy Award®, The Exorcist is the horror genre’s greatest cinematic triumph.
There is many a hardy soul immune to the gore and frights of horror; the classics may have become muted over time, through re-watching or over exposure, and contemporary horror can be as frightening as an Andrex puppy through predictability and reliance on gore. Away from the movie screen however and offer that same person a piece of chicken, left atop a kitchen counter and let them see for a moment that a fly has had a moment to perch on the chicken meat and do its worst – even in pangs of humour, the meat will be avoided. While there may be scientific fact and documented medical cases, there is the much more impactful warnings of our mothers of flies landing on food intent on planting eggs to gestate. This is not a pleasing prospect – food, riddled with the spawn of a matted black, winged buzzing insect with compound eyes. So, even with all the detachment you can afford yourself in watching a horror movie and assurances this could never happen, the events of The Fly; the literal erosion of Jeff Goldblum’s human body, and transformation and mutation to one that seems comprised of oozy, navy cream filling when splatted on a window will strike a pre-natural fear in you.
The Fly is uneasy to watch, though of course entirely watchable – it is a visceral story which hardly steps outside the doors of our ill-fated scientists lab and as with most stories there is a girl at its heart. Film, and in particular horror, is full of morphed characters, awakened to instinctive, primal urges, becoming heightened versions of their former selves and most often maniacally violent. Everyone from Harvey Dent to Tweety Bird has had some evil unleashed from within, but this has always been tempered by the effort of their good intentions to win through. There is no finer example of this conflict than Jeff Goldblum and the work he does in The Fly – no amount of gore and dismemberment by toxic vomit can take from the compassion for our hero as he struggles with the way his body and mind changes and the desire he has to right things. His initial self is arrogant but determined, not a clean living character to corrupt but nonetheless the tension that follows puts us on a journey with him. For all the cliché that may smack off, we do want to support his search for a solution no matter how desperate the predicament becomes and unlikely a positive outcome will be. Even in the final moments he looks for solutions and to construct a family. His final resignation is all the more wrenching. Whatever science fiction or horror genre you might assign to The Fly it is most certainly a tragic tale.
The look of the transformation is key; it is convincing and it is vivid. The slow but steady change is unnerving, expanding from odd hair growth to a complete grotesque molting at the finale. (Should the rumoured re-make go into production, it is doomed if it considers CGI – only man-made, caked-on layers of crusty make up that needs peeling off will create the right effect). All the while love interest Geena Davis stays as loyal as possible, her own sense of dread growing, she gets to offer the ultimate of warnings and a now classic movie tag line ‘Be Afraid… Be Very Afraid’. The Fly is considered one of the finest movies of the ’80s and it is a very worthy entry for your DVD collection. It is a simple construct but over achieves in its noble aims, telling a good horror story with plenty of images to make you shudder.
One of the original slasher movies; my mum wouldn’t let me watch Halloween when I was a ‘tween. She claimed (and rightly so) that it would give me nightmares. In retaliation, myself and my merry young amigos arranged an evening of horror at one of the less clued-in parental homes, where we had a triple bill of Jason, Chucky and Freddie himself. A few bowls of popcorn, two multipacks of sweets and a whole host of nervous squealing later, my devious band and I had one of the fearful and restless sleepovers in history.
Although not quite as frightened during my latest viewing, as I had been in that golden era of the mid-nineties, I was taken aback at how, after over three decades, the classic film’s tension and story still remain strong. Halloween was the ultimate low-budget independent horror, with meagre funding of $320,000. However, not only did it manage to gross over $60,000,000 but it spawned one of the most well-known and profitable franchises in horror movie history. The Halloween universe now spans a total of 10 films as well as a number of books, graphic novels and a range of stylish masks – the original of which, Jason’s mask, is actually an old William Shatner death mask from a Star Trek episode, only painted white.
By taking time to get to know the likable characters and their small cosy world of Haddonfield, Illinois, and then introducing an almost supernatural element of threat and terror; Halloween challenges the ideas of home and safety. In fact, Michael Myers is such a great evil figure because although we know his back-story, we essentially see so little of him that we can create the monster in our own imagination; a much scarier world than that any Hollywood prosthetics of CGI could ever create.
Apart from the odd slices of ham, there are some truly talented actors in the cast; the highlights being Donald Pleasence as the hapless Dr. Loom; and a young and talented Jamie Lee Curtis playing the prim and proper Laurie Strode. (Spoiler) It’s Laurie’s strong will and lack of interest in the less-fair sex that ultimately sees her survival.
Meanwhile her more promiscuous classmates get hacked to pieces mid-to-post coitus as a severe punishment to their loose morals.
Here’s an interesting side note courtesy of IMDB; the adult Michael Myers was portrayed by Nick Castle in almost every scene, except for a number pick-up shots and the unmasking scene, where he was replaced by Tony Moran. Castle was an old friend of John Carpenter and went on to be a successful director himself, now with the children’s movie Dennis the Menace under his belt – a far cry from his previous position, stalking and murdering young teens.
One of the best, and also the most frustrating aspect of this slasher classic, is its lack of reveal. This is instrumental in creating the tone, both with the gore as well as in constructing the mystery of Jason’s character. John Carpenter does a superbly subtle job of building the tension excruciatingly slowly so the viewer is both rooting for the spunky teens but also dying for some gory action. Then the murderous rampage is delivered in a swift and clean blow, so by the time the credits roll, you’re left abruptly with an odd sense of unease as the iconic music plays in the background – it’s hard to imagine that Williams composed and recorded that eerie soundtrack himself within four days. Legend.
The Omen is a part of a group of films that symbolise a child being associated with devil. Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) also feature this theme. It is written by David Seltzer who famously said, ‘I did it strictly for the money.’ Jerry Goldsmith’s epic film score won the much deserved Oscar® in 1976. The film was released in the U.K. on 6th June 1976; it stars Gregory Peck as Dr. Robert Thorne, his wife Katherine is played by Lee Remick. In Rome, on 6th June, Robert Thorne is told that his newly born has died, he decides to substitute it with an orphan and protect his wife by never telling her the truth.
Soon after, Thorne is elected as the US Ambassador to Britain, He moves to Fulham to live happily with his wife and the child whom they name Damien. On Damien’s fifth birthday, the nanny commits suicide on the top floor looking out at all the guests. A new nanny Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) replaces her shortly afterwards. Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) knows of Damien’s origins and warns Dr. Thorne and also tells him that Katherine is pregnant and Damien plans to kill the unborn child. Photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner) has been investigating the Thorns ever since the Nanny’s suicide.
The thing that makes the original 1976 Omen so memorable is that it is so believable. What would you do if you were told that your child was the literal antichrist? Ignore it as Peck’s character does?
First-time actor Harvey Stephens plays Damien with a sense of subtle ambiguity. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick give brilliantly realistic performances. Billie Whitelaw is unforgettable as the mysterious Mrs. Baylock. There is good support from David Warner and Patrick Troughton.
Every time that I hear the track from Jerry Goldsmith’s score on my iPod as the Thorns approach the church, I can feel the roots of my hair being pulling at, just as the late great Lee Remick’s hair was by the little devilish Harvey Stephens.
It is a film about our fears. Richard Donner’s dazzling direction not only illustrates the material, but also orchestrates it to a high intensity. Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography makes England a bleak and eerie place. Stuart Baird’s editing is sharp and coherent.
The Omen is a masterpiece of horror cinema. Every time I watch it I marvel at how seriously it takes itself. You will never forget that last shot. It is one to truly remember.
‘No! I will not hide in the fruit cellar! Ha! You think I’m fruity, huh?’
‘Mother-m-mother, uh… what is the phrase? She isn’t quite herself today.’
Ah yes… My youth. Coming out of Rocky and wanting to be World Heavyweight Champion. Rushing home from Karate Kid to aim high kicks at my younger sister, and of course after seeing Psycho, hanging around outside showers brandishing a knife dressed in Mother’s clothes. Such memories…
Alfred Hitchcock is undoubtedly one of the oddest characters ever to have had their wicked way with film. He totally understood how it worked upon the audience and ceaselessly re-invented genres with his perverse mangling of storytelling and in doing so shaped so much of what is modern cinema.
If cinema is the best medium for suspense, then Hitchcock directing Psycho stands tall as one of the finest manipulating inducers of celluloid tension. He is the master magician, using sleight-of-hand, pulling rabbits out of his hat, employing techniques that mischievously implicate the spectator in the evil at the heart of the film. Who hasn’t unwittingly found themselves holding their breathe when Norman pushes the car with Marion’s punctured body into the swamp and for a brief moment it seems the car won’t sink. ‘Sink… sink… please sink’, you find yourself willing. Indeed Hitchcock ensures that for the most part the viewer is essentially seeing through Norman’s eyes.
From Saul Bellow’s screen credits that dementedly split apart the screen to the music of the introductory piece that plays to Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful score, so essential to the mood of the film, through to the last shot of Norman Bates’ face with a still frame of Mother’s skull superimposed over it, Psycho is a feast of demented thrills and intense bursts of psycho-illogical eruptions. Hitchcock took Anthony Perkins’s timid monster and took the Norman out of normal and shacked him up in that eerie house with the skeletoned corpse of his own mother. What can possibly go wrong?
Anytime I see a house that reminds me in any way of Bates’, I always check the upstairs window for ‘Mother’ and can always hear her calling Norman’s name in her twisted voice and goading him: ‘As if men don’t desire strangers! As if… ohh, I refuse to speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me! You understand, boy? Go on, go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food… or my son! Or do I have to tell her because you don’t have the guts! Huh, boy? You have the guts, boy?’
God knows what Hitchcock’s own Irish mother would have made of it all…
I once drunkenly argued that Psycho was the reason people replaced shower curtains with those horrible glass doors on their showers. People laughed at me but deep down I reckon I’m right – and they should consider themselves lucky they don’t have shower curtains; otherwise I’d be there, in Mother’s clothes, with my knife – cue shrieking violins and stabbing cellos.
Thank you Mr Hitchcock…
Over the past five years I have rented four different apartments and every time I attended a showing I always started out by asking the same question: What are the other tenants like? Are they quiet, easygoing neighbourly types who will nod their heads as you pass them in the hallway or step into a crowded elevator? Or are they rambunctious sex-fiends whose padded leather headboards will bark at you through the walls all night long? In my case, it was inevitably the latter and the same thought popped into my head by the end of the first week in a new pad: I wonder if they’re part of a satanic cult?
I have but one man to thank for these thoughts and his name is Roman Polanski. I recall the night I first watched his 1968 horror classic, Rosemary’s Baby. It was a warm summer night in Winnipeg, Canada and, being a homely teenage shut-in, I’d taken to renting heaps of old Hitchcock thrillers each week until the manager of the video store so kindly asked me to ‘watch something other than that old shit already’.
I asked him what he’d recommend, what would really scare the shit out of me? He started rooting around in the returns bin, which was nothing more than a cardboard box sitting underneath a broken window at the corner of the store, and returned with a video he assured me would be the scariest thing I’d ever seen.
He was right.
Hell, even the cover of the box scared me; that ominous green glow across Mia Farrow’s blank profile, that tiny black pram which seemed to be staring back at me saying, ‘You really don’t wanna see what I’ve got in here’. And for a moment I didn’t, but curiosity gets the best of you and, well, I’ve hated the process of renting apartments ever since.
The film itself is so perfectly executed that it’s hard to say where its blood-dimmed dreamscape begins and Rosemary’s reality ends. But that’s what makes it the quintessential horror film; Polanski knows that, as with any good scary story, the screams are only as horrifying as they are true. In this case, the viewer never really knows what’s to be believed and what isn’t. There is no line on the horizon that marks the waypoint between belief and, gasp, what lies beyond belief.
It may seem rather an odd addition to this list of such great horror films, a three-hour-long TV adaptation of a Stephen King story, but this is definitely a film that deserves a second look. I read King’s novel when I was way too young to be exposed to such horror and it started a lifelong love affair between me and King’s books. I first saw the movie as a child, rented by my older sister from the video shop and I remember it being the scariest thing had seen in my life, up until that point. I revisited the film recently and despite the fact that it has aged terribly in parts, including the odd freeze-frame here and there and the dodgy floating demon children, the film still terrified me and the other members of the audience. Because it was originally a TV movie, there is surprisingly little blood in the film. This is something I realised after the fact and had trouble believing how little onscreen violence there actually was, especially considering Tobe Hooper was at the helm.
Salem’s Lot is a story about a journalist, Ben (David Soul) who returns to his home town of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine to write about the Marsten House, a place that had frightened him as a child and has haunted him since. He has arrived at the same time as the mysterious antiques dealer Mr. Straker (James Mason) and his as yet unseen partner Mr. Barlow, who have rented the Marsten House.
The film is part haunted house horror, part vampire thriller, part indictment of the passive masses. King has been known for his tendency to favour small-town Americana. Perhaps this is because his good-evil dichotomy has always had an observer; the passive townsfolk who get picked off one by one. Salem’s Lot is a fine example of this.
The standout aspect of Salem’s Lot is the fact that it features a truly terrifying vampire, a rarity in cinema these days. Mr. Barlow is not sexy, he is not a tortured soul and he is not tragic…he’s evil, he’s ugly and he’s scary! I can’t remember the last time I saw a depiction of a vampire that was truly a bloodsucking demon and nothing more. The introduction of Barlow after almost two hours of anticipation is brilliant, one of the greatest scares in all of horror cinema.
The very long running time of the film may seem excessive but the character exposition and the slow burning tension ensures that it rarely drags. Some of the characters stories may seem superfluous but it all acts as a gateway into the lives of the town’s inhabitants and how far they all are from the world of vampires and demons.
Salem’s Lot is a genuinely tense and scary film; a good, old-fashioned horror film and a film example of what can be done without overuse of blood and gore. Flawed and at times a little cheesy, this is still a truly terrifying film which has been unfairly overlooked for a long time. Maybe it’s time to give ol’ Mr. Barlow another look. You might just find it’s the perfect film for a dark, spooky, Halloween night.
For any misguided soul who views the horror genre as inferior, The Shining is probably the definitive response. Stephen King’s lengthy novel provides a cheap pulpy premise: a writer takes a job as a caretaker in an abandoned hotel for the winter with his family. The hotel, however, has a dark past, and begins to cloud his mind. King’s book took this premise and filled it with literal monsters and the supernatural. Kubrick, meanwhile, threw out the hokier parts of the book (living hedge-monsters anyone?) and instead focused on the family and psychological elements. Famously, King wasn’t impressed, calling Kubrick a man ‘who thinks too much and feels too little’. It’s this rejection of horror-movie grammar, however, that makes the film great. Almost every scene takes place in either a brightly lit area or in daylight. There are no shadows for anything to hide in, no darkness. In Kubrick’s world, evil is perfectly visible, staring you straight in the face. There is no direct antagonist, with the only villain being the hotel itself and the madness it brings out it in the characters. Kubrick’s mastery of atmosphere, compostion and editing brings out a chilling quality in the most ordinary things – a ball being bounced against a wall, a child’s tricycle. Case in point – the scariest image isn’t the tidal wave of blood, or the hag in the bathtub, but simply two twin girls standing in a hallway with dodgy wallpaper.
Despite lukewarm critical reaction at the time, and King’s dismissal of it, The Shining endures as one of the greats. It remains terrifying despite one of the finest ever Simpsons spoofs (‘That’s odd. Usually the blood gets off at the second floor’). Even on television, its chilling composition and electrifying sound design can haunt your dreams. The final shot raises a fascinating, head-scratching mystery that haunts you the more you think about it. And those twins are unspeakably creepy.
I was fully grown when first I saw The Thing. Darkness was no longer scary, night-time bumps were easily identified, and blood and guts in films was yearned for, not feared. A veritable Big Brave Dog, if you will.
And still it scared the piss out of me.
Long had I been searching for a horror that could evoke genuine fear, not cheap jumps or scares. I had tried and tested all the great horror classics, finding them wanting. Then one cold dark night, a friend suggested John Carpenter’s underrated masterpiece, so we flicked off the lights and settled in for two hours of isolation, tension and grotesquery.
I realised this was a particularly distressing feature as I was laughing inside of ten minutes. Each of us responds to fear and tension in different ways. The Thing was so distressing, I laughed hysterically. And it wasn’t simply the ingenious creature effects which caused it (though I’d be lying if I said they didn’t help).
It’s actually The Thing’s subtler themes which haunt us so much: An isolated station, no help coming, an unknown threat, friends turning on friends. Mundane yet effective. In fact, the only aspect not immediately relatable in this horror is the titular creature.
There are no plucky virgins, no chauvinist jocks who could probably benefit from a good stabbing, no would-be heroes offering a glimmer of hope before some wrestler wearing a hockey mask rends him in two with a gigantic butter knife. Every single character is average, relatable, and ordinary.
The real terror here comes not from the prospect of being absorbed by the gross alien baddie, as that’s a relatively unlikely scenario for any of us to encounter. Instead the idea of best buddies turning on each other, becoming each other’s nemesis due to the fear and isolation, that’s what’s really affecting.
Death may come to us all, but it only comes the once. Fear on the other hand, has no such limits, and can take generally decent, civic minded folk, and turn them petty, selfish and unpredictable. What’s so scary about The Thing is that by the time the credits roll on this depressing film, you’ll be a lot less confident in how good and decent a person you really are.