For years, the makers of Saw and its sequels have subjected us to an increasingly convoluted morality play, presumably intended to legitimize the prolonged torture and mutilation of what was, as we recall, a fairly interesting psychological horror concept in 2004.
Not to pick exclusively on the big weekend opener. The “horror remake” trend is doing our intelligence no favors either. The directors of these films feel obligated to saddle their monsters with implausible, quasi-sympathetic back story which, instead of making them more complex, only humanizes all the scariness out of them. A good scary story inspires wonder and dread. The appeal of disgust, as an emotion, wears thin so quickly.
It’s almost Halloween, folks! Aren’t we supposed to be having fun? Rather than dwell further on the shortcomings of modern horror, we salute the spirit of the campfire tale, the ghost story, and the urban legend in this nostalgic look at great horror stories in film and television. Join me – Dan Fields – and my fellow campers William Bibbiani and Julia Rhodes, as we pass the flashlight and torch a few marshmallows.
The Fog (dir. John Carpenter, 1980)
John Carpenter, horror king of the 1970s and 80s, made a big splash early in his career by making the definitive Halloween movie – appropriately titled Halloween. Soon after, he released a less celebrated but certainly noteworthy adventure called The Fog, about undead terror in the little seaside town of Antonio Baby. As the citizens prepare for a centennial celebration, a dense fog rolls in from the water. With it come a murderous crew of ghostly pirates, out for all the blood they can find. As the body count climbs, a number of local figures piece together the dark secret which brought this curse upon them.
The film boasts a killer B-movie cast. Adrienne Barbeau stars as a local late-night DJ who battles the menace of the Fog from her lighthouse radio station. Tom Atkins, of Halloween III and Maniac Cop, pairs off with teen drifter Jamie Lee Curtis (lately of the first Halloween). Jamie Lee’s mom, Psycho starlet Janet Leigh, plays a put-upon community pillar who wants nothing – least of all deadly pirates and fog – to ruin her centennial party. Rounding it all out is Hal Holbrook, playing the town’s gloomy priest, who does most of the hard detective work about the nasty spirits, and dutifully confronts them. Priests always have the toughest job in horror films, from The Exorcist to ‘Salem’s Lot and beyond. The Fog is no exception.
Let us not forget the telling of the legend itself. The film opens with a monologue by venerable thespian John Houseman, as a weathered old salt who frightens the town kids with campfire ghost stories. He spins a ghastly tale of a ship sunk in the night, and subsequently of the evil portent of sea fog to this particular town. The wide-eyed audience swallows the story whole and so should we. Any change in the weather will bring trouble close behind it. It is a good old-fashioned yarn, in its own way as haunting as the gory aftermath which will follow. Houseman’s performance is brief but memorable, calling to mind the sermon by the Reverend Orson Welles in Moby Dick. Old man Machen does not tell the children the whole story, of course – the sordid part played by all their ancestors is part of the mystery, and gets saved for later. But the storytelling frames the narrative wonderfully, and signals that we will soon witness a ghost story of the classic kind, though with a distinct Carpenter flavor.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (dir. Tim Burton, 1985)
You might not think of a Pee-wee adventure as the place for a good ghost story. Then again, recall that this is the feature debut of weirdo spook-meister Tim Burton. Never more than in this bizarre road comedy did Pee-wee’s dark undercurrents emerge. Until, of course, that other thing with the… nevermind. Big Adventure follows the exuberant man-child on a quest to recover his stolen bicycle. Swindled by an unscrupulous gypsy into believing the bike is hidden in the “basement” of the Alamo, he makes his across the country by any means he can.
Oddball chaos ensues, and director Burton spares no imagination in devising predicaments for hitchhiker Pee-wee. From evading the police to dancing in biker bars to trashing Hollywood backlots, Pee-wee gets into trouble absolutely every way he can. From one vignette to the next, one never knows what will come around the next corner.
Woven into all the slapstick are a couple of genuinely creepy moments. Most notable is Pee-wee’s horrifying nightmare in which clown surgeons dissect his bike. There’s a Halloween movie idea for you, all by itself. Blecch. The second notorious scare in the film is a lot sillier, and is a great send-up of countless cheapo horror flicks. Down and out on the highway, Pee-wee flags down an eerie pair of headlights belonging to an eighteen-wheeler. He spends the next few minutes getting creeped out by the driver, a grizzled woman fittingly named “Large Marge,” who recounts a grisly accident which occurred “on a night JUST LIKE THIS.”
The punchline of the story is predictable, though the method in which it is revealed is an utterly wacky surprise. When I was small, it sent me flying out of the room. It is an unadulterated dose of gleefully diseased imagination, courtesy of a young, pre-burnout Burton and a similarly fresh Paul Reubens.
Session 9 (dir. Brad Anderson, 2001)
This cult favorite by Brad Anderson features a decent cast, a passable script and some satisfying but not very surprising twists. Its greatest asset is a location that most horror filmmakers can only dream of having – the ruins of the Danvers State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts. It looks exactly the way a haunted madhouse ought to. It was also one of the first features shot on 24p HD video, a technology which made a more celebrated debut in the Star Wars prequels of George Lucas.
Session 9 is a simple movie, to be enjoyed for its atmosphere. The more you think about it, the more you realize that the structure, pacing, and execution are largely mediocre. Yet I am not the only person who loves this film. Script and performance-wise, it amounts to a really fantastic TV movie. Small wonder that USA Films distributed it. Oddball Scottish actor Peter Mullan and American small-screen favorite David Caruso headline this tale about working joes whose latest job goes a little weird on them. They are removing asbestos from the hospital’s remains, and as they uncover the history of the place, it draws them perilously under its spell the way all haunted places do.
Danvers was home to some profoundly disturbing individuals, in the story and presumably in real life. Among these is a girl named Mary, whose therapy sessions have been archived on tape. The characters discover and play these tapes, one by one. Mary lived long ago, and never appears except as a series of voices – her multiple personalities, each having its turn to tell the doctor what happened to bring Mary to the asylum in the first place. Mostly, the characters enjoy a lurid fascination with the dark history of the hospital. Some, however, feel a stronger connection to the ghosts of madness and violence that seem to linger on in the place, looking for a place to settle. The most concrete embodiment of wickedness in the film is Simon, most dreadful of Mary’s personalities, who reveals that his home is “in the weak and the wounded.”
There is never an explicit connection drawn between Mary and the present-day characters. Whether her actual ghost is wandering about, or the accumulation of other patients’ misery has tainted the entire building, or evil has assumed some other face here, no one can say. However, her harrowing breakdown and theirs unfold parallel to one another, lending support to the theory that this place is infused with lasting evil, and anyone venturing in does so at his own risk. Some are more susceptible to its influence than others. The ghosts are more abstract in Session 9 than in other tales of its kind, but they seem to be just as real.
Christine (dir. John Carpenter, 1983)
I know… two movies by John Carpenter? Say what you will about the man, he appreciates a scary story. Christine has the further distinction of coming from Stephen King’s imagination. A film about an evil car is a tough sell, but Carpenter manages to make it entertaining and frightening – more so, in my opinion, than the original novel.
Arnie (Keith Gordon) is a lonely loser with one friend and precious little else going for him. His mother is domineering and manipulative, his dad is a wet noodle, and high school thugs bully him without mercy. He is right on the edge of thinking up something drastic to do, when he finds something drastic lying in the road. A beat-up, cherry-red Plymouth owned by a nasty old codger named Roland LeBay. Arnie loses his heart, then his soul, to the car, which is clearly possessed of an evil and jealous power to do his enemies harm, and which is named Christine.
Again, is this scary? It doesn’t seem like it should be, but yes. It is a well-acted and cleverly executed movie. The story, like King’s earlier work Carrie, illustrates in the extreme how bleak adolescence can be. Arnie’s pal Dennis, and later his girlfriend Leigh – the car attracts and kills chicks! – try to ease Arnie off his unhealthy attachment to the car, but only drive him further into his obsession. Arnie, or the car, or both, seem to be murdering more people every night.
Dennis confronts LeBay about just what kind of car Christine is. LeBay confirms that the car has a history of death and mayhem, centering around the previous owner, LeBay’s brother. Depending on your mood, this may sound hokey or it may cement the supernatural weirdness of the story in just the right way. The film version of Christine’s story is actually condensed from a longer, more involved, and much more sordid narrative in the book. It would have been nice if Carpenter had gone a little further down this road, but in skipping it he avoids the over-plotting and lack of focus that weighs the novel down. It is a lean, simple ghost story. The key is to remember that it’s not actually about killer cars – see King’s own icky directorial effort Maximum Overdrive – but about the human tendency toward dangerous obsessions. With a few pages of well-delivered dialogue, LeBay lets us know that the evil of Christine has been around a long time, and won’t be going away anytime soon.
Friday The 13th: Part 2 (dir. Steve Miner, 1981)
It is a secret poorly kept that the original Friday The 13th, though historically significant, isn’t a very good movie, even by the otherwise forgiving standards of the slasher genre. It is, however, very well known that Friday The 13th: Part 2 is one of those wonderful sequels that outshines the original, and a big part of the reason why is because it takes the padded and poorly plotted original and turns it into what it always should have been in the first place: a mere campfire story, and a really very good one. Five years after the first massacre at Crystal Lake the summer camp reopens, and the tragic events of the first film are, to these new teenagers, already a distant memory. What the viewer saw firsthand in Friday The 13th has become an urban legend. Parts of the story already contradict with the facts as we saw them: Now everyone thinks that Jason Voorhees lived after all, and after watching his mother die he now roams the woods, a vengeful homicidal maniac waiting to strike. Look behind you! There he is now! RUUUUUUUUUN!!!
Oh wait, that last part’s actually true. (The Jason Voorhees bit, not the bit about him being behind you. Unless your name is Dan. In that case… don’t turn around.) Jason Voorhees is a fully grown and wholly deadly slasher who starts offing camp counselors one by one before the big opening. Steve Miner (Lake Placid) did a really classy job in Friday The 13th: Part 2. The film strikes all the familiar slasher movie tropes, in some cases even helping to solidify the clichés – Survivor Girls and so on – but under Miner’s direction there are some really likable performances, jump-out-of-your-seat shocks and memorable kills.
At the end of the film the importance of the campfire tale becomes even clearer: The Survivor Girl manages to survive because she heard the story and actually paid attention. Ginny (Amy Steele of April Fool’s Day) even has a fascinating speech in a bar that focuses on the sob story that is Jason Voorhees. She took the time to think about the character and sympathize with him, and when she actually confronts Jason in person she uses that insight to turn the situation to her advantage. Friday The 13th: Part 2 remains the best film in the franchise (a backhanded compliment, but still…) because it understands the value of storytelling, both in concept and execution. No seriously, Jason’s right behind you.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (dir. Charles E. Sellier, 1984)
Scary stories have a way of traumatizing young children. Of course, that’s the whole point: Kids hear that monsters are under the bed, so before they go to bed they decide to check… and then stop themselves, because what if that’s just what the monsters want you to do? But no kid ever suffered more than little Billy Chapman (Danny Wagner), whose family took him to visit Grandpa (Will Hare) at The Home for Christmas Eve. They leave Billy with his catatonic grandfather for just a few minutes when suddenly the old man comes to life and tells him this:
Did you ever check under your bed for monsters and actually find a monster there? That’s what happened to little Billy Chapman, because the same night Grandpa tells him the horrifying truth about Santa Claus, Billy is forced to watch as a maniac in a Santa Claus outfit murders his parents, and even tries to rape his Mom. That’s one hell of a coincidence. It’s almost like Billy’s fears physically manifested themselves out of the sheer power of the story, but that’s a bit of a stretch. It’s not supported by the text, that’s for sure. I’m just trying to make sense out of a really horrible coincidence, and that’s just what Billy Chapman tries to do. Soon his fears manifest themselves in a paralyzing fear of Christmas, so it was probably tempting fate for him to get a job in a toy store when he grew up. And it was a really bad idea to ask him to be the store Santa Claus.
Billy (now played by Robert Brian Wilson) snaps under the Christmas pressure and goes on a killing spree dressed as Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick, and it’s a hell of a spree at that. Billy decapitates sledders as they shoot down hillsides, and impales women on deer antlers mounted on the wall. The iconic image of Santa Claus murdering people caused quite a stir in 1984, with many claiming the film was in poor taste. Siskel & Ebert read aloud the film’s production credits saying “Shame, shame, shame” after each name. Mickey Rooney wrote a letter of protest about the film, saying the “scum” who made it should be “run out of town,” although he wound up appearing in Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker anyway. (Whether he got a sense of humor or just needed the work, we don’t know.) It would take years for anybody to point out that, despite the premise, it’s actually one of the better slashers of the 1980’s.
Hatchet & Hatchet II (dir. Adam Green, 2006 & 2010)
Adam Green’s Hatchet movies are one of the bigger underdog success stories of the last ten years. The first film was a simple, campy affair that pitted a hapless tour group in the bayou against an unkillable backwater mutant named Victor Crowley (played by everyone’s favorite Jason Voorhees, Kane Hodder). I wasn’t a fan. The kills were inventive as hell but everything, from the over the top sense of humor to the unnaturally high-key lighting indicated that Hatchet was not to be taken seriously. Since it wasn’t really funny enough to stand on its own as a horror comedy, I felt we were left with a rather uninvolving film. Green’s sequel, the extremely excellent Hatchet II, improved on the original in every way. The filmmaking was more assured, the performances were better, and Green played the story straight, making the comedy seem more like a relief than a constant reminder not to get too involved with the film.
But at the heart of both movies, the one I loved and the one I didn’t, is a really, really good origin story. The urban legend of Victor Crowley is simple enough in the first film: Victor Crowley was born horribly deformed, so his father (also played by Kane Hodder, sans makeup) keeps him away from prying eyes at their home in the swamp. Eventually, on Halloween, a bunch of kids go to the Crowley house to pick on poor Victor and accidentally set the place on fire with Victor inside. Victor’s father tries to break down the door to save his son, but while trying to tear it down with a hatchet he accidentally cleaves open his own son’s face, killing him. That’s one hell of a tragedy. It might not be Shakespeare, but it sticks with you. Hodder doesn’t really have any dialogue as either of the Crowley clan, but his performance as the tragic father figure is extremely sympathetic. The story, and the film, would have been nothing without his wonderful work.
Hatchet II expands upon the story in the original, which certainly explains why Victor Crowley has every right to be pissed but doesn’t go very far in explaining how he’s become a supernatural monster. Tony Todd (Candyman, Final Destination) fills in the blanks from the first film with a tale – and the film just came out so I’ll try not to spoil too much – that explains why Victor was deformed in the first place, why his father was so very ashamed of him, and yes, goes a long way to explaining the “immortal killer” angle. Unlike some of the plot revelations in, for example, the Saw series, Hatchet II’s revelations make sense and feel like a natural extension of the original narrative. (Green claims to have planned the second half of the story all along, and I believe him.)
Both Hatchet films, whether you love them or not, are rooted in an unusually strong origin story for the slasher genre. These tragic tales ground an otherwise ridiculous franchise, and are a big part of the reason why Hatchet and Hatchet II have stood out from so many of the other (failed) attempts to build a new horror dynasty over the last decade or so.
Candyman (dir. Bernard Rose, 1992)
We all grew up with mythology—it’s part of humanity. When I was in elementary school, my friends and I would sneak into the girls’ room after school and turn off all the lights. In the dark bathroom, every sound was magnified—the drip-drip of a leaky sink was forbidding, the squeak of sneakers on the nearby gymnasium floor like a whole other world. We’d stand in front of the (usually dirty) mirrors and mutter “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary!” as our hearts raced in our chests. Then someone would flip the lights back on and we’d flee, screaming like as not, into the hallway to collapse into fits of giggles.
Sometimes, in the very moment the lights came on, lurking behind my shoulder was a disheveled woman dressed in rags and bleeding from massive facial wounds, her head tilted ever so slightly, her toothy mouth open in a kind of grimace. I could swear she was there.
That’s the point of urban legends. You could swear it happened, because it happened to your best friend’s brother-in-law’s buddy’s dad. And when Candyman, based on a short story by Clive Barker, released in 1992, our “Bloody Mary” game became “Candyman” (thanks to some great parenting around my elementary school). By the time I saw the movie, the very premise was frightening enough. Add in the supremely creepy Philip Glass score, Tony Todd’s unbelievable basso voice, and the Cabrini-Green setting (which was as unfamiliar to me as outer space even though I only grew up four hours from Chicago) and you’ve got one freaked-out fourteen-year-old.
In the film, grad students Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and Bernadette Walsh (director Kasi Lemmons) decide to investigate the Candyman legend that centers on the Cabrini-Green projects in terms of its mythological implications. The idea, of course, is that people who live in the projects fear for their lives twenty four hours a day, seven days a week—and they translate this fear into something supernatural in order to cope with it. How wrong the students were, though.
Shakespearean player Tony Todd, a tall, gangly man with one of the most recognizable voices in horror, plays Candyman, also known as Daniel Robitaille. Sensitive artist Robitaille fell in love with a white woman in the days of the Civil War, and as a result he was brutally dismembered and murdered. It’s rare for horror movies to feature black people much at all—and to feature an African American as a villain is wholly different territory. What makes Candyman interesting is that sure, he’s a villain–but you pity him, too. There’s an undercurrent of strange romance to the film. Cabrini-Green (which only houses 39 families as of last year) is a genuinely scary setting; apparently residents sometimes shot at the crew during filming. Candyman is not horror at its best, certainly; it does, however, take “urban legend” to the very literal extreme.
“Supernatural” (created by Eric Kripke, 2005-present)
“Supernatural” fascinates me because it’s a horror-based series that airs on The CW (which used to be The WB, a.k.a. home of “Dawson’s Creek,” and also airs “Gossip Girl” and “90210”). “Supernatural” features two incredibly attractive young men (Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki), which automatically caters to the CW’s core audience of teenage girls. But it also features great monsters, witty writing, pretty girls, and hot cars, making it enjoyable for the rest of us as well.
The show has had its ups and downs. Last year’s fifth season finale probably should have ended the show completely, but instead they went ahead and greenlit a sixth season–and it’s still trying to win over audiences. The series took a turn toward Biblical mythology a few seasons ago, which normally would turn me off, but the writers handle the material deftly and intelligently, making it palatable even to us Godless twenty-somethings.
From the very first episode, “Supernatural” is about legends. It covers both ancient and modern myths, and every single plot twist, monster, and ghostie has a firm base in word-of-mouth campfire tales or written mythology. From the cannibalistic Wendigo to the Hook Man (yet another childhood tale that managed to scare the hell out of me) to Bloody Mary, from vampires to werewolves to zombies, to the Croatoan legend, every single episode of “Supernatural” brings to giddy life things that go bump in the night. Angels, demons, and Gods (every deity you can imagine–Ganesh, Kali, and Baldur included) play major roles. Further, the show keeps its finger firmly on the pulse of pop culture–it touches on slashfic, fangirls, plays with the Twilight phenomenon, and makes periodic nods to its predecessors (“The X-Files”‘s Mitch Pileggi currently has a recurring role).
In short, it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea. However, if you’re interested in urban legends, if you were terrified of Hook Man or Dracula, or if you just enjoy road-trip movies with monsters, then “Supernatural” is the show for you. Also, it’s definitely the show for you if you enjoy watching pretty men fight evil in an awesome car.
Urban Legend (dir. Jamie Blanks, 1998)
Urban Legend tried really hard to cash in on Scream‘s success, and it failed completely. It does, however, manage to bring horrifying reality to some of those stories we told each other in darkened rooms as children. The movie opens on the tale of the young woman who encounters a creepy gas station attendant (in this case, horror legend Brad Dourif) and flees, thinking he wants to kill her–when really he’s trying to warn her there’s someone hiding in her back seat. (To this day I often check my back seat before getting in the car.)
The movie murders a platinum blond, Cruel Intentions-era Joshua Jackson in a variation on the Hook Man legend. “Bloody Mary” gets a shout-out. The film plays with the “Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Turn on the Lights?” myth–featuring Halloween 4‘s Danielle Harris. Robert Englund plays a professor teaching a course on (what else?) Urban Legends–and touches upon the myth in which a murderer calls a babysitter from inside the house, as well as the Pop Rocks & Coke legend. There is probably no myth in this film you haven’t heard before–but to see them enacted this way is pretty satisfying.
The only problem is the actual plot: the killer acts out urban legends on classmates in a convoluted revenge scheme, to avenge a loved one’s untimely death as a result of a botched prank. It’s quite silly. Urban Legend might well have been the last time Tara Reid was relevant. Jared Leto does his best to muddle through as a journalism student lacking ethics, and creepy-guy extraordinaire Julian Richings plays a scary janitor (Richings also has a memorable role in “Supernatural”). Urban Legend tried to bask in Scream‘s teenage-slasher glory and failed utterly, but around Halloween it’s a lot of fun to watch if you make a drinking game out of it.