With the 23rd of September having come and gone, it is officially autumn in the United States. Though it’s not yet October, I feel now is as good a time as any to declare it the start of the Halloween season. Hey, if department stores can start surreptitiously slipping in Christmas stock in August, I can talk about Halloween and horror movies in September. I’ve always enjoyed Halloween, ever since I was a kid. It’s easily a close second to Christmas as far as my favorite holidays. I like the fact that we have a day every year dedicated to the macabre, the eldritch, the mysterious, and the spooky.
Also, creepy, kooky, and altogether ooky.
But as I’ve grown into an adult, I have to admit that in many ways, it’s more the idea of Halloween that I enjoy, not so much the execution. Well, at least as far as it applies to adults. Halloween was always, and still is, a great time for kids. They get to dress up in costumes, go trick or treating, and in general have a grand old time so long as their parents don’t panic too much. But there’s not as much there for adults. An adult going trick-or-treating is creepy in entirely the wrong way, and at any rate, we can buy as much candy as we want now. And there aren’t a lot of other places where we can get away with putting on a costume, at least not enough to justify the time, expense, and trouble to do so. Some work places allow it (and just rarely, encourage it), but for the most part, it’s still going to be business casual on October 31. Halloween parties sound like a great idea, and every domestic sitcom out there acts like they’re a staple of the season, but the truth of the matter is they happen much more in fiction than in real life. In real life, the fact that people have to go to work the next morning about 70% of the time means that partying is left for the kids and the college students, who may as well be kids for most purposes.
So what’s left for an adult who wants to acknowledge the season? For the most part, the admittedly enjoyable act of getting to be the person handing out the goodies to the little costumed monsters. You get to delight in the various costumes, from the simple to the elaborate; you can decorate outside your house in any way you like; you can carve pumpkins to your hearts’ content. But that’s a pleasure reserved for those who live in areas that appreciate it, and where trick-or-treaters are plentiful. I live about 10 miles from anywhere, and in the roughly twenty years I’ve lived here, I think I’ve seen a grand total of three trick-or-treaters here… and those more than a decade ago.
So again, what’s left? Well, as it happens there is one season-appropriate form of entertainment that caters directly to adults (and the aforementioned college students): the horror film. Here’s something meant to be scary, designed to tap into the same macabre and eerie feelings that the holiday evokes. Unfortunately, even this isn’t a sure-fire bet for celebrating the Halloween season. First, horror films are often the genre of choice for the novice film producer, being surprisingly cheap (there’s no need to splurge on big name actors); as a result of the novice producer, director, actors, and writers, there’s a pretty dire ratio of bad to good there. The other problem is the intent of the genre: horror movies are meant to frighten; occasionally to shock, but mostly to scare. And I can remember the last time I was frightened by a movie enough for that feeling of fear to actually stick with me a while.
It was The Black Cauldron, Disney’s animated feature from 1985. I was, of course, a kid at the time. And even then, I still loved the film. And that was the last time I recall being frightened enough by a film to have nightmares, or feel uneasy being alone in a dark house. Now, I’ll grant, I’ve missed out on some of the classics of the horror genre. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th are all residing comfortably on my “need to see” list, along with some suspense classics such as Psycho. But I suspect it’s not so much that I’ve missed the “good” ones so much as it is that a movie just isn’t likely to frighten me much. It’s hard to suspend disbelief enough to be taken in by a monster or even the typical psycho slasher, and that’s under the best of circumstances; a moment’s hokeyness can blow the whole thing completely. While such films occasionally do make me jump, it’s nearly always in discomfort by the sudden spike in sound volume. Scary movies… just haven’t proven all that scary to me so far (and that’s not even counting the modern “gore fest” horror movies, which just attempt to squick you out instead of scaring you.)
And what’s a scary movie if you’re not scared? At best, it’s just another action movie or psychological drama. Which can be all right, don’t get me wrong. But that’s at best. Usually, it goes back to that fledgling director and his novice actors, and there’s not a whole lot there to derive pleasure from. Even with a veteran director and cast, it can be difficult as the writing was geared to a specific goal which it has utterly failed to hit. Unless they managed to make a film that would be good even if not a horror film, it’s usually not going to be worth watching. I tried to watch The Blair Witch Project once, but shut it off half-way through, having decided I didn’t really care what happened to those people. Pumpkinhead was laughable; so was Child’s Play, but I’m pretty sure that was at least partially intentional (it still wasn’t good, though.) As someone who has watched horror movies while apparently being unable to be frightened by them, I have found only one sure bet that I’m going to enjoy a horror film.
Walt Disney’s evil twin, Vincent Price. His presence isn’t really a guarantor of a good film, of course; he starred in plenty of bad ones. But when he’s in a good film, he puts his considerable acting talents to good use; The Last Man on Earth and House on Haunted Hill are great films, largely because of his acting. And when he’s in a weaker film, such as The Tingler? The man hams it up to such an extent that he’s bringing the audience in on the joke, having them laugh with him rather than at the corniness of the movie. His frequent co-star, Peter Lorre, is much the same way, of course.
But, perhaps regrettably, not every horror film can star Vincent Price and Peter Lorre. Still, it is Halloween season, so amongst the other films I’m watching, I plan on sprinkling in some alleged horror films. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find some gems that will manage to either genuinely frighten me, or at least to be good movies independent of the scare tactics. We’ll see what transpires.
If you have any recommendations, make them in the comments below. Given my haphazard approach to movie watching (i.e., most of it’s what I can get for free), I can’t guarantee what I’ll take a look at, but any suggestions are welcome.