A Gentleman's Guide to Sophisticated Horror

A Gentleman's Guide to Sophisticated Horror

Critics and cinephiles often regard horror as both shallow and cheap. It can be infuriating to think that they dismiss our beloved genre as nothing more than fast thrills that make you want to vomit. The cinematic equivalent of a carnival ride. It has also been implied that these films are tailor-made for the teenage demographic, to be viewed only between passionate make-out sessions. While in adolescence they can be a great tool for such activity, these films are so much more than the “tilt-a-whirl” or “Netflix and chill” fodder.

I subscribe to the belief that horror is an art form like any other. As an art form it deserves to be appreciated as such. A few films over the years have given even the snooty arthouse crowd something to talk about. You know the type, the ones who attend gallery openings, visualize that fellow from the Dos Equis commercials. The most interesting man in the world. “I don’t alway’s watch horror but when I do it’s…."

Stuff like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). With casting that included both Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, you would expect Dracula to be a 90s romantic comedy. While there is plenty of romance, this movie is not played for laughs. Dracula has a look and style that falls just short of a Baz Luhrmann movie(Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge!) . Which makes it all the more impressive when you learn that director Francis Ford Coppola called for only practical effects to be used on set. For instance a scene that finds Keanu shaving in a mirror for the token “no reflection” shot, was filmed simply using no mirror and a body double for reeves. A train appearing at the top of Jonathan Harker's journal was modestly achieved using an over-sized book and a small model train. Dracula packs a wallop, it is sexy, adventurous, and unsettling. Coppola may have expressed personal dissatisfaction with the final film, but as the years go on, like his namesake wine, it gets better with age. Incidentally until I discovered weddings, I believed Dracula to be the ultimate aphrodisiac for eligible women. Like kryptonite to superman.

The cosmopolitan audience will inevitably stumble upon Rosemary’s Baby(1968), and they will be hard pressed to pass negative judgment. Based on the novel by Ira Levin, who also wrote The Stepford Wives, this is the tale of a woman who is manipulated into carrying the devils baby. While the movie is guilty of the cliche pre-credits “reveal,” the 130 minutes leading up to said “reveal” is effortlessly watchable. This gimmicky ending is probably the result of William Castle’s involvement as producer. You can thank Mr. Castle for 1950s cinema tricks like Percepto: buzzers under theater seats, and the lesser known “Shock Section” which amounted to seat-belts that “prevented” audience members from leaving. Not to be left out of the fun, he cameos in the movie, outside a phone booth that Mia Farrow’s character uses. Under the direction of Roman Polansky, Rosemary’s Baby takes gothic themes and places them neatly in the apartment next door. You’ll never look at the nice elderly couple down the street the same way again. Boasting characters that you foolishly admire and trust, and a stylized sex scene that is uncomfortably erotic, Polansky’s film is entirely satisfying. You’ll wish you could see it again for the first time. Of course it goes without saying, this is not a good choice for “adolescent activities.” The fear of unplanned pregnancy is bad enough; pop this tape in and watch her knees glue themselves together.

A blog arguing the artistic achievements of horror would not be complete without Hitchcock. Hitch, as I am sure he would want to be called, has put some pretty amazing stories on the silver screen, but choosing one was a daunting task. Rear Window was suggested by a certain Floridian podcast host, while it is a great film Rear Window has very little business in the horror section. I was forced to exclude Psycho for the same reasons I didn’t include The Silence of the Lambs. Attributing their absence to the use of horror elements in an otherwise textbook psychological thriller. Which brings us at long last to The Birds(1963). This gem was survival horror at it's root. You can trace a line between Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, and The Birds. This is the concept of locking people from different walks of life in a room, while a menacing outside force wreaks havoc on their shelter. Survival horror tends to demonstrate an entertaining character study. The icy, calculating, blonde played by Tippi Hedren finds herself stranded on an island with people she hardly knows. Birds swoop and peck at among other things, her reluctant beau (Rod Taylor), and, of all things, school children. A serious piece of classic gore is shown in this movie; a gentleman whose eyes have been pecked out is briefly shown. Yes even a respected auteur like Alfred Hitchcock has stooped to such artless means for a scream.  If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching The Birds check out the TCM schedule it plays there on a fairly regular basis.

Full disclosure: I once had a collection agency after me for what amounted to the price of a DVD copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As it turns out, I had never returned it to Blockbuster. For our younger readers Blockbuster was a video store. A brick and mortar establishment that mommy’s and daddy’s drove to in order to rent movies. I still recall the young lady whose house I left it at. She wasn’t what you’d call classy or sophisticated. Then again neither am I.

This piece was completed on a frigid Monday evening in the Zombie Capital of the World, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. The public library provided the quiet computer lab and internet access for research. If you have any comments, you are encouraged to respond on this post at cultclassichorror.com or on facebook at facebook.com/cultclassichorror.

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