This Halloween the Phoenix Picturehouse is putting horror back on the big screen, from genre classics to a couple of more recent features. Tonight it’s John Carpenter’s archetypal ‘slasher’ Halloween, and on Saturday a four film all-nighter.
Horror cinema is nearly as longstanding as celluloid itself. From its earliest inception in films like Le Manoir du Diable (1896) and Frankenstein (1910) to the expressionist classics of 1920s Germany and Universal Pictures monster movies of the 1930s, the culture of horror has drawn heavily on classic European fiction and folklore. Though in the 1950s a shift was beginning to occur; America was on the verge of a discovery that would change the landscape of horror-fiction forever.
In Wisconsin in 1957, police searched the farmhouse of local recluse Ed Gein and unearthed (as a later film poster would read) one of “America’s most bizarre and brutal crimes!…” . Ghouls and ghosts suddenly seemed obsolete relics: America had found its own monsters in newspaper headlines rather than fiction.
In the wake of these discoveries in 1958, a struggling author in Michigan, Robert Bloch, released what was to be his best-selling novel. Inspired by the events in Wisconsin, it was the story of Norman Bates, which would later inspire Alfred Hitchcock’s most groundbreaking film to date, 1960’s Psycho.
Initially disparaged by critics, Psycho was a triumph, not just artistically but commercially. Subsequently the 1960s saw waves of copycat killers fill cinema screens around the world.
But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the ‘slasher’ sub-genre would define itself. Tobe Hooper’s Gein influenced proto-slasher The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Bob Clarke’s Black Christmas, both released in 1974, are most commonly attributed with devising the ‘slasher’ tropes and conventions that would become staples. Both were controversial and enjoyed moderate successes, although rarely seen outside of drive-in or ‘grindhouse’ cinemas. In 1978 the re-defined ‘slasher’ film would capture its largest audience.
John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) cemented the conventions of previous films, with Haddonfield’s morally deviant teenagers targeted by masked-murder Michael Myers. Dr. Sam Loomis, giftedly played by the established actor Donald Pleasence, pursues Myers before his escape from a psychiatric institute and ‘scream queen’ Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Psycho’s Janet Leigh) made her screen debut as virginal heroine Laurie Strode. Halloween is not only chilling, but expertly executed, intelligently written and features Carpenter’s own original score, which could stand up against the most iconic in cinema. By word of mouth an audience grew. Within weeks of Halloween’s release, hordes of adolescents across America flocked to theatres. Scrupulous studios took note, aghast that such a low budget could turn in such a profit.
Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), although acknowledged as fairly weak is still one of the most fondly remembered ‘slasher’ pictures to follow Halloween. Set at Camp Crystal Lake, with heavy use of POV, the unseen killer inflicts misery on a group of fornicating councilors. Whilst far less extraordinary than Halloween, Tom Savini’s special effects still terrify audiences today. The sound composition is a marvel, as is the shock ending. Friday the 13th served as further proof of the genre’s commercial viability: boasting a bigger studio, larger screens and wider distribution.
By the 1990s the ‘slasher’ film had obtained unimaginable ubiquity. Films had become predictable, forgettable and the franchises monopolized. Then Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) brought something wholly renewed: a meta-film where the iconic Freddy Kruger haunts the cast and crew of The Nightmare on Elm Street serial. Reinvigorated with a newfound lease of life Craven’s Scream (1996) saw a group of horror fans tormented by a genre-literate killer in the most innovative horror film in recent years. With its satirical reference to worn conventions and classics in the genre Scream was an encouraging new look and widely successful. Scream stands alongside Halloween as the best on offer over the next few days.
Saturday night’s event at the Phoenix opens with an exclusive premiere of James Mickle’s We Are What We Are (2013), the first of the night’s two remakes. The original We Are What We Are, released in 2010, is a curious Mexican feature that generated a vast deal of intrigue. Following a cannibalistic family suffering the loss of their father it charts the pursuit for a living victim, required in order to perform an important ritual. The 2013 remake has the same concept, although the genders of the family are reversed and the narrative transposed to a storm-stricken Delaware. A more explicit religious commentary, it is beautifully shot with decent pacing. Unfortunately, however, it too is troubled with establishing a history, and the scenes set in previous years are a poor addition. But it’s still a worthwhile watch, more so, I would imagine, for anyone not familiar with the original.
The last film and the second remake, Maniac (2012) starring Elijah Wood, is without question the worst film of the night. William Lustig’s scuzzy ‘slasher’ Maniac (1980) was a troubling exercise, scrutinized for its lack of taste and lack of merit. Effects by Savini are commendable but boasted nothing more than leering exploitation, rather like Khalfoun’s remodel. The use of POV, suggestive of the most troubling episode of the Peep Show you’ve ever seen, is praiseworthy, but even that is tedious after the first 40 minutes. There is scarcely anything else to hold your attention, and plenty to repulse. Elijah Wood is almost impossible to watch; harder still is comprehending his on-screen profession – or the fact that anyone would spend any time with him. Sincerely gory and at once crushingly dull, Maniac is as pointless as it is unbelievable. It will prove a stern test for anyone who stays late enough.
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