FANTASTICA Presents: Appreciating Horror Beyond HorrorFearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
Upon consideration, one rarely gets their first taste of horror from the horror genre itself. For an unfortunate number, it comes from reality: whether personal or not, tragedy and inhumanity can lead one’s young mind into dark places. For others, it can be from our own imagination, with dark corners of rooms and unfamiliar noises guiding us towards the paranoid and petrifying. But for the rest of us, it comes in the cinema from which we least expect it, often in the genres we trust not to drag us into terror.
Now, it’s not uncommon for non-horror films to have a good amount of suspense without directly injecting horror. After all, the unease and tension gained from suspense is often a direct result from dramatic storytelling, and is by no means a propriety of the horror genre. Hell, one might say that contemporary horror films have little understanding on how to effectively use suspense. But sometimes, other genres will go beyond that standard suspense and, for a brief while, entertain some truly nightmarish impulses.
In fact, one of the most frequently frightening non-horror genres would be the family film genre, although not so much nowadays considering the checks and balances of Hollywood. Many children likely got a frightening wake-up call with WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, which featured the imposing Slugworth scenes as well as the unforgettable nightmare that is the river tunnel sequence. By taking Roald Dahl’s frequently dark imagination and pairing it with surreal, sometimes visceral, imagery, WILLY WONKA burned some questionably tasteful terror into the minds of many, many children. And as soon as it arrived, it’s gone, bringing the characters (and audience) seemingly back to reality, but not without the resonating reminder that horror could come again at any time.
Furthermore, the family film landscape is ripe with some heavily horrific sequences. On the live action side, PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE has both the “bike surgery” scene, which is likely to get under the skins of those with a fear of clowns, as well as the “Large Marge” scene that has permeated into pop culture as one of the scariest scenes in family film history. Ditto on the likes of JUMANJI, which contains a solid amount of creepy and unnerving thematic material that push it to the edge of family fare, including man-eating plants, a claustrophobic monsoon sequences and a murderous big game hunter. And on the animated side of things, horror is almost too common: FANTASIA, BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER, TOY STORY, DUMBO, SLEEPING BEAUTY, and many other animated flicks all have some pretty scarring sequences.
But even beyond family fare, horror can hit in almost any genre; for instance, standard sci-fi films sometimes contain some chilling moments, and often will blur the line between genres. STAR WARS fans will remember Luke’s hallucinatory duel with Vader in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, covered in a terrifying mist and featuring a beheading sequence punctuated by a surreal moment of true terror. Sci-fi also doesn’t get more horrifying than the interrogation sequence from THE MATRIX, which goes from intimidating to outright macabre in a matter of seconds. And fantasy films, such as LEGEND and WILLOW, contain nightmarish elements that come from the nature of the genre and its exploration of physical and psychological evil.
Even action movies can spring horrifying elements onto the audience now and again. Certainly, the Kurgan character from HIGHLANDER leads to some savagely sinister scenes in the original HIGHLANDER, especially considering the supernatural elements that occasionally come into play. END OF DAYS also rides the line between horror and action, using a thrilling, shoot-’em-up construct to frame a tale of terror. Sam Raimi even brought some of his horror expertise to the SPIDER-MAN franchise, especially in the utterly scary Doctor Octopus surgery scene.
But if there’s any genre that indulges in horror on a semi-frequent basis, it would be drama. Of course, former horror directors do have the urge to implement those themes more often than not: William Friedkin’s SORCERER has both the palpably tense bridge scene and the third act nightmare fever dream, Danny Boyle scared a generation off-drugs with a head-spinning baby in TRAINSPOTTING, and Polanski’s MACBETH has some of the scariest and most surreal scenes of his career. Yet non-horror directors can effectively implement them as well, such as the horrifying strangulation scene in Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL or the dream-like surrealism in Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Hell, even Clint Eastwood has ridden the line of horror now and again with unmistakably creepy moments in PALE RIDER, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and MYSTIC RIVER.
All in all, while horror is a frequent experimentation zone for filmmakers to bend and twist other genres (especially comedy), it’s also a tool for non-genre filmmakers to use for their liking. Whether it’s to scare the hell out of kids, raise the stakes in a sci-fi or action flick, or toss a curveball to dramatic and art house audiences, horror is as universal to cinema as storytelling itself. Now if only it could get the credit it so deserves…