Monday, October 1, 2012

Horror, the View from Mid-Life

There is almost no movie seen in youth that doesn't look or feel different in middle-age.  I can only assume the same will be true of my advanced years, watching movies again then decades after first seeing them now.  Age and time are, indeed, the ultimate critics.  And so it goes with horror.

Horror, for years now, has no longer been about scaring me than about a mood and a feel I get from the atmosphere of the story.  I am no longer scared by a movie though that's not to say it can't happen, just that as a general rule, it doesn't.  Not only does it no longer scare me but revisiting things that once did now feels a bit strange.  I watched Burnt Offerings again recently and found the dreaded chauffeur (Anthony James), so creepy to me as a child, singularly unfrightening.  In fact, his skinny frame, aviator glasses and goofy smile (intended wholeheartedly to be eerie) made me laugh a little bit.  I thought, why would Oliver Reed be scared of him?  Just walk over there and deck that skinny little shit to the ground.  But that's because I'm older and I've now seen the "creepy smile" cliche about three or four thousand times.  It's a fairly standard go-to in cinematic horror, from Norman Bates to Jack Torrance, and you can't watch much without seeing it far too many times.

And I find myself seeing similarities everywhere, even if they're not very close matches but approximate the same look, like this shot from Burnt Offerings...

...that reminded me of this shot from Suspiria.

Or like when I watch The Exorcist and immediately think of the last shot of Norman from Psycho...

...when I see this shot of Regan.

Also, judgment calls constantly come into play.  For instance, I'll give Suspiria the nod for the shocked death face and Psycho the nod for the better superimposition, because it's minimal and less showy.  And I'll give them those nods while I'm in the process of watching the other movie.   And that's because at a certain point (and that point is probably somewhere around the five or six thousandth movie watched) you have enough of a backlog of information that watching is no longer just about that movie, the one on in front of you right now, but every other movie that feeds into it, or from it or simply hovers inside the same sphere of influence.  Like anything else in life, the more you know about it, the more you appreciate it.   And the more you appreciate it, the more you can see the missteps as well as great leaps.

So watching something like Burnt Offerings provides for a frustrating night because the missteps outnumber the great leaps.  The actors are great but the dialogue is dull.  The shots are inspiring at times but the lens is smeared with Vaseline in a tragic decision to film the whole movie in soft-focus.  The two most interesting characters in the movie, the brother and sister Allardyce (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart), return triumphantly at the end - in voiceover.  And one of the early scenes intended to show the house has a mind of its own (in which a light to the pantry that did not turn on seconds before, now does - though why the house chooses to do that I have no idea) is played under some of the most ridiculous dialogue ever written, instantly robbing it of any chills it might have provided (the term "ding-dongs" tends to do that). View it in all its glory below:

But when the movie's over, because of the surrounding folklore, I still think about it because it informs me in ways it couldn't were it the only horror movie I'd ever seen.  That is to say, there's enough good in something like Burnt Offerings that it satisfies my need for a haunted house movie (or possessed house, in this case) because it can make me think of other haunted house movies and the true delight in taking it in is the feeling that comes rushing back in from all those other horror movies that came before.

Maybe what all this means is that things really do get better with age.  Simple pleasures mean more and  the memories of all that came before inform the present and make the cliches more bearable if only because they bring to mind those that did it better.  October and horror mean more to me than rituals and movies, they mean familiarity and middle-age comfort zones.   And at this point, that's something I'm okay with.  Bring on the horror.