BLOG: Horror – No Laughing Matter

To me, horror films have always been the poor relation in serious film criticism, with many being derided and dismissed out of hand, but the better ones have left an indelible mark on this fan-boy.

Like music, horror has so many sub-genres, from body horror through gothic horror and on to the fabulously named splatterpunk (distinguished by its graphic, often gory, depiction of violence, countercultural alignment and hyper-intensive horror with no limits). While I am no fan of the latter genre, my enjoyment of horror in general started as a child in the 1970s and 1980s.

My early recollections of being scared stiff in front of an old fashioned square TV started specifically with what I believe to be one of the most frightening children’s television series ever broadcast, Children of the Stones, screened to petrified kids in 1977 and 1978. The series followed the adventures of astrophysicist Adam Brake and his young son Matthew after they arrive in the small village of Milbury, which is built in the midst of a megalithic stone circle. Filmed at Avebury, it has sinister, discordant wailing voices heightening the tension in the incidental music and featured the Ambrosian Singers, who chanted in accordance with the megalithic rituals referred to in the story. Director Peter Graham Scott was surprised upon seeing the script that the series was intended for children’s airtime, due to the complexities of the plot and the disturbing nature of the series. Sleepless nights followed, but I was hooked.

Via Children of the Stones, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who and terrified glimpses of Quatermass and the Pit, I arrived at a defining moment in my horror journey, Alien by Ridley Scott. Although too young to see it on the big screen when it first came out in 1979, I recall starting to watch it a year or so later on late-night TV. I should have been in bed, but once I’d seen the first 10 minutes, wild horses could not have dragged me away (my parents let me have that particular battle).

This iconic sci-fi horror proved to be the kind of horror film that I have sought out ever since, defined by the phrase ‘less is more’. Seeing snatches of what is lurking in the shadows is always more frightening than a grand reveal; my imagination will always conjure up something far more scary than a rubber monster! Alien is a fine example of this, as are the first two Paranormal Activity films where you actually see nothing at all throughout the film, but you know it’s there!

A good example of a film letting itself down in this respect, for me anyway, is M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, a great film up to the point where the ‘creature’ is revealed in all its ridiculous glory. I lost all interest after that scene, although I know that many people love that film nonetheless.

So, back to the horror journey – after Alien, the next film that sent a luscious chill down my spine was Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Although disliked by Stephen King, the film was among the first half-dozen films to use the newly developed Steadicam, a stabilizing mount for a motion picture camera, which mechanically separates the operator’s movement from the camera’s, allowing smooth tracking shots while the operator is moving over an uneven surface. One of the most talked-about shots in the picture is the eerie tracking sequence which follows Danny as he pedals at high speed through corridor after corridor on his tricycle. The soundtrack explodes with noise when the wheel is on wooden flooring and is abruptly silent as it crosses over carpet. Scared me half to death it did!

By-passing all things slasher, which I never liked (sorry slasher fans), I discovered folk horror by way of The Wickerman and The Company of Wolves, good old-fashioned ghost stories via the likes of The Others and a smattering of comedy horror with An American Werewolf in London.

Latterly, the horror genre has been revived with some cracking films such as Jordon Peele’s Get Out and Us, David Mitchells It Follows and Ari Aster’s supernatural horror Hereditary. My personal modern favourites are Ben Wheatley’s very strange A Field in England, Ari Aster’s Midsommar and Robert Egger’s The Witch, all of which would fall into the folk horror genre.

I can’t end without a reference to perhaps the most famous horror of them all, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which is Mark Kermode’s favourite ever film. This is a rare occasion where I acknowledge the impact and power of a film, have seen it once, but don’t actually ever want to see it again. The film’s imagery remains as shocking and horrifying as it was when it was released in 1973. A classic of any genre, but one that this horror fan struggles to cope with (and whose laundry bill would be huge if he ever did see it again)…

Mark Starte