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Spooked!

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 20, 2018
Cold play: Norway has also emerged as an interesting modern horror factory — Nazi zombies are thawed out of the permafrost in Dead Snow

Cold play: Norway has also emerged as an interesting modern horror factory — Nazi zombies are thawed out of the permafrost in Dead Snow

Hit a nerve A scene from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Hit a nerve A scene from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.   -  Special Arrangement

Heart in mouth: Psycho, a Hitchcock classic

Heart in mouth: Psycho, a Hitchcock classic

Cut up: Re-animator, a 1985 science fiction horror film

Cut up: Re-animator, a 1985 science fiction horror film

Confessions of a horror film addict reveal that the obsession stems from the love of being challenged and emerging victorious

Among my earliest childhood memories are those of watching scary TV programmes that featured witches, holding my hands before my face, peeking through fingers at the black-and-white screen. But to see big-screen horror in cinema halls was an A-rated pleasure, so as a kid I spent my pocket money on comics featuring graphic illustrations of creepy swamp monsters instead.

My proper initiation came when I was about 20 and a film scholar at the local university lent me a VCP (videocassette player) and a collection of grainy VHS (video home system) tapes of the best films ever made — according to him. These were George Romero’s 1960s ultra-low budget Night of the Living Dead, the HP Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator, and the first of the Evil Dead movies directed by Sam Raimi (who later became more famous thanks to his big-budget Spiderman productions). The latter two date from the 1980s, which was a great era for horror as well as the decade when I came of age.

From then on, I kept renting horror from the local video store, often staying up until first light, sleep-deprived and scared out of my wits. I was completely taken by the visceral repulsiveness of David Cronenberg, who around that time remade the 1950s cult classic The Fly, with Jeff Goldblum as the mad scientist who accidentally mixes his own genes with that of a fly. Dario Argento, the Italian director, became another hero — especially after I saw his surreal Suspiria about modern-day witches, which brought back memories of childhood terrors. I was so depraved I felt The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a meditation on the harmfulness of non-vegetarianism and therefore I saw all the cannibal movies ever made, never mind that they all ended up with the actors being cooked. The discovery of gore gems such as Bad Taste and Braindead — early low-budget work by Peter Jackson, who much later gained respectability by helming the epic The Lord of the Rings — made me ecstatic.

Horror was a lot of fun when it focused on suspense, as in Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds. The genre classics were well-made cinema: take Rosemary’s Baby by Roman Polanski or Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. A good movie can work as a social commentary — such as Doghouse, a British zom-com (zombie comedy) which explores machismo by pitting a bunch of bachelors against a village full of female zombies, or Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs about modern poverty and exploitation. On a very cerebral level, Candyman, nicely adapted from a short story by celebrated author Clive Barker, explored the darker sides of urban mythology.

At some point about 15 years ago, I got to know the film critic Pradeep Sebastian and we watched videos together. He introduced me to the creepiness of Japanese horror, eerie movies such as Ringu, which was remade in Hollywood as the global hit The Ring, with Naomi Watts starring as a journalist who digs out the truth behind a murderous videocassette. The mind-bending, menacing atmosphere of these exotic films — others, such as The Grudge and Dark Water, were remade in Hollywood around that time — gave me new highs and also led me to watch Hong Kong, Thai and Korean horror.

When Ram Gopal Varma invested in Indian horror, I was on the front bench in the cinema hall watching Bhoot, Vaastu Shastra s and Darna Mana Hai. Vikram Bhatt was another great Indian horror director I picked up DVDs of. Saif Ali Khan in a zom-com, Go Goa Gone, was a total blast and I also had good fun watching the Kannada ghost movie 6-5=2. Another friend introduced me to vintage Pakistani horror, which piqued my curiosity as I had no clue that there had been a stylish remake of Dracula in Urdu, Zinda Laash, also known in English as Living Corpse.

More but not merrier

I developed a particular preference for zombies, mesmerised by the earnestness of 28 Days Later and the comical British takes on the genre like Shaun of the Dead (the title punned on Romero’s Dawn of the Dead). I even wrote a zombie screenplay, which was picked up by two film companies, though it never got beyond the development stage with either. I strongly felt that the zombie was an adequate metaphor for modern society: brainless monsters stalking survivors in a world that has turned into a death trap thanks to some virulent pollutant. This genre had reached its apex in 2002 with Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, which was so realistic that I couldn’t imagine anything more sublime. Then a sequel was made and ruined it for me. I started to get critical about the exploitative nature of horror.

Many of the American movies spawned innumerable sequels and, being an addict, I still continued to buy them all — Scream 1, Scream 2, Scream 3, Scream 4…, Hostel 1, Hostel 2, Hostel 3…, Wrong Turn 1, Wrong Turn 2…, The Hills Have Eyes 1… I binged, watching two or three back-to-back. It did occur to me that I probably required psychiatric help if I needed my brain cells to get rattled on a nightly basis by scenes of extreme perversion and cruelty. Days when I didn’t have a new horror DVD to load into my player — by then the VCP and grainy black-and-white 14” had been replaced by a state-of-the-art 5.1 home theatre system — felt impossibly dull and long.

Suddenly, one night, I asked myself what I was doing enjoying a bucket of popcorn while before my eyes some actor was being dismembered on the flat screen as ketchup sprayed all over the studio. I felt depressed. The same tropes were being recycled by greedy producers and unimaginative filmmakers: the sequels of Paranormal Activity and Saw were pointless when compared to the freshness of the original movies, even though Saw is apparently the industry’s highest grossing horror franchise. Even when a movie wasn’t a sequel, I felt like I’d seen it before: how many times can you watch a bunch of teens enter an abandoned house to party until it turns out the basement or attic is infested with demons, zombies or slasher killers? How often have we seen somebody on a long-haul drive take a wrong turn on a desolate side-road only to be chased by a maniac hitchhiker or check into a motel run by drooling cannibals? Why do characters in these films act as if they’ve never seen a horror flick themselves — it takes them forever to grasp the obvious, such as the fact that the weirdly staggering cadaver who is coming closer and closer is out for a bite of human takeaway.

True to formula

Another thing I realised was how punctual horrors were — 99 per cent of all films ran like clockwork. There is always a suspenseful teaser sequence at the start. Then, following a slow build-up, if you keep your eyes on the clock you will observe that exactly 30 minutes in, the monster puts in a first appearance. Unfailingly! Another climactic scene comes at the halfway mark or 45 minutes into a typical 90-minute feature (or at 40 if it is 80 minutes): there’s a brief relief as the maniac seems to have gone away, or the protagonists experience some form of control, just moments before it dawns on them that their troubles have barely begun. At about 60 minutes, the killer himself is wounded or a monster is put down, but the respite is short-lived as the horrors return with force. At the end, as the last survivor heaves a sigh and the sun is about to rise, there’s a final shock that suggests that it isn’t over — no, there will be a sequel.

This is the rough formula for mass-produced scary films. Once this becomes clear, the scariness dwindles as we realise that everything we see on screen has been calculated by the producers to make us into adrenaline addicts. In order to analyse my mental condition, I turned to a couple of filmmakers and critics. Piyush Jha, director of King of Bollywood and Sikandar, is also a crime novelist whose latest serial killer thriller Raakshas is being adapted for the big screen.

He says: “In my opinion horror films are a great way to exercise if you don’t like to go to the gym. While watching, we’re transported into a world that has a physical effect on us, increases our heart rate and makes us sweat with anticipation during the suspenseful sections. Watching horror is a cheap way to bust our stress. Also, if you watch it together with a woman, it is a great way to get her into your arms. The fear and shocks will at least get her to grab your hand.”

I make a mental note to try that last trick sometime. Jha’s favourites include The Omen, The Shining, and Let The Right One In (the latter is an innovative Swedish take on the vampire theme), because they combine chills and scares with (non-vegetarian) food for thought. He adds: “I personally feel that excessive gore is a turn-off, although some filmmakers revel in it. For example, a killing by a knife stab is more chilling if shown as a suggestive act off-camera, than when shown as an actual act of the knife going into the body and blood spurting out. The best filmmakers exercise caution. The underlying subtext of every film is what the people should be taking away and not just a hedonistic sensation.”

Films that Jha dismisses as “pure American mindless gore-fest slasher fare” include Friday the 13th, Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Meanwhile, Srinivas Bhashyam, a film buff-turned-Bollywood filmmaker with comedies like Paisa Vasool and Love Khichdi under his belt, says: “I do love horror movies inordinately. Why and how horror does whatever it does to us is primal, mysterious and thus fascinating. It is also surely cathartic, sado-masochistic and funny.”

The 1970s demon flick The Exorcist, which gave Bhashyam a sleepless week after he watched it as a kid at a theatre in his hometown Bengaluru, remains his all-time favourite. He even felt his bed shake that night and the chilly Deccan winter air appeared to be extra-sharp in the bedroom. It was only later that he understood what a terrific director William Friedkin was and how he used the craft with great effect — Bhashyam loves to quote what Friedkin said about his own movie: “You take from The Exorcist what you bring to it.”

Bhashyam, who is currently developing a thriller “on an unusual subject”, confides that he has written a bunch of horror screenplays but keeps them safely hidden away. For, as he points out, “The fact is that horror also has, perhaps, the highest percentage of mediocrity amongst genre movies. It is difficult to pull these stories off seriously. There are, of course, ridiculous numbers of Indian horror movies that are horribly entertaining, unintentionally. That’s perhaps the reason why I have forever postponed the need to make a horror movie myself.”

Within, without

My cinema guru, the critic Pradeep Sebastian, who loves to watch Rosemary’s Baby, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the version starring Donald Sutherland) and The Exorcist again and again, admits that he has never wanted to examine closely why he likes being scared by horror. “Perhaps because I felt if I understood what scared me, or why the genre has such a grip on me, the experience of watching them may diminish. And I didn’t want that. I wanted to go on being properly frightened.”

Another critic, cinema scholar and frequent film award jury member, MK Raghavendra, does have answers to why people like me become addicted to horror: “I would say that it is the resistance we offer to the domesticating pressures of everyday life. We imagine ourselves in genuine danger from agencies we have no control over. We experience the thrill that a zoo animal might feel when released into the wild. It is frightened, but that fear is tinged with freedom of some kind. It is the sense of the threatening unknown confronting us that is most important.”

Horror movies challenge people, and the act of watching them becomes a feat. Viewers are tested, but always emerge victorious. Raghavendra ranks Cronenberg as perhaps the best horror filmmaker, naming cult classics such as Shivers, Rabid, Scanners and The Brood. Incidentally, watching The Brood on a videocassette some 30 years ago was a seminal moment in my personal development into a horror addict. Now I’m beginning to see what was going on. What is it that Cronenberg’s films, and other great horror films, teach us?

“In The Brood, it is the fear of our own incapacity to keep our powers under check. What would happen if our hates were given immediate manifestation? Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers makes us sense the threats to individuality and individual identity. Obviously, all horror films are not equal because the fears they draw upon are not the same. The best make us aware of fears we have been unaware of. Bad horror films draw on our fear of the dark or being alone in a strange place, which are very ordinary fears. The greatest horror films identify new fears,” Raghavendra explains.

And so I go on watching horror to discover new fears that I may be able to develop, but try, these days, to be discerning, focusing on great directors and quality cinema. Therefore, I decide not to watch Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But horror, which has been pulped to death by Hollywood’s formulas, is lately being rejuvenated from unlikely directions.

Australia has produced gems such as The Babadook (by debutant director Jennifer Kent), Wolf Creek and 100 Bloody Acres — a witty line in the latter is spoken by a man who grinds down the occasional traffic victim in his organic manure factory: “We’re not psychos, we’re small business operators.”

Similar stories may have been done before, but here the characters are richer and the films expand the limited framework of the jaded mass-market horror.

Norway has also emerged as an interesting modern horror factory — Nazi zombies are thawed out of the permafrost in Dead Snow, while Cold Prey and Manhunt are films where the harsh but haunting Norwegian landscape is utilised as a backdrop to stories that pit the urban against the wild.

In short, characters continue to perish on screen, but horror cinema appears immortal.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist, based in Bengaluru. His latest novel is Haria Hero for Hire

Published on March 25, 2016

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