Horror Movies: Do Dead Men Walk Our City Streets and How Can We Tell?     by Marjorie Dorfman

What has happened to the world of the horror cinema? Can it scare us the way it used to? Read on and laugh.

I can’t think of anything more exciting than watching a well crafted, really scary, suspenseful movie. I write horror fiction myself and love the suspension of reality that accompanies the experience. For ninety minutes or so, I have no problems, no dishes or laundry to do and no bills to pay. I have always been attracted to this genre, although I am not sure why. Perhaps it concerns hostile feelings that find a harmless vent in this way. In any case, a good scary movie or murder mystery is always my cup of tea. Killer kumquats, homicidal tomatoes and angry zombies, however, are not.

As a child, I used to go to the neighborhood Movie Theater with all the other kids who lived on my block, I was terrified by such classics as "Invaders from Mars" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", and later, when I was old enough to take a shower by myself, Alfred Hitchcock’s "Psycho."

Invaders from Mars was about a young boy with a fantastic tale whom no one believes. It is he alone who must convince all the adults in his world that the Martians have not only landed, but have also implanted everyone with a black mole at the base of their necks. In the end no one wins, which is a pretty scary prospect even if you are only eight years old.

I remember it rained that summer Saturday when the whole gang went to see "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers". The movie had a profound effect on me and I became convinced that my own parents were really pea pods and not the people who had lived in my house before I went to see the movie. (I was never very sure about my sister in the first place. She hadn’t come along with us and I wondered why.) The end in this movie is really only the beginning. The pea pods have prevailed with Kevin McCarthy trying to warn the world as he runs like a lunatic down the Santa Monica Freeway. (It has since occurred to me that he might be trying to hail a cab that would take him away from the movie!)

I also need to take a moment here to mention another child’s horror tale. This one results from the trip to the dentist after an afternoon of Almond Joys, buttered popcorn, jujubes, Three Musketeers and Milky Ways. Perhaps there’s a trip to the doctor’s as well for a severe case of chocolate indigestion. Let’s not forget to give honorable mention also to the horror emanating from the gunk that can be found clinging to your shoes after you leave the theatre! Ugh!

I have often wondered whether zombies (the undead) were named after the potent cocktail or if it was the other way around. I remember films about dead people telling no tales even though they still ordered pizza and went bowling, but the only real zombie movie I can recall is "The Night Of The Living Dead." To those of you out there who worship this film, I apologize for what I am about to say, but I intend to say it anyway. Claiming that this movie is in bad taste is an understatement, cutting more to the emotional quick than wearing stripes, plaids and polka-dots all in one ensemble.

Opening in a cemetery and closing in front of a farmhouse where the dead eat their young and the young eat them back, the suspense is as relentless as an ingrown toenail. Everyone eats or shoots everyone else except for the hero who gets shot in the end by the police because they think he is one of "them." What it all really means is not very clear because if the zombies are dead, how can bullets stop them? These and other questions loom and make one wonder if this film was released or did it escape. Still, no one seems to care and the theaters are always filled whenever and wherever the film runs again.

But there was never any real harm done with these movies which have become cult classics over the years. Films about homegrown psychopaths, such as "Psycho," were a lot more frightening. Maybe that’s because in the corner of everyone’s mind lurks the potential reality of such a situation. It’s all about the boy next door, quiet as a mouse, until the day you meet him on the stairwell all dressed in gingham with a butcher knife in his hand and no place to go. (Of course, it was all his mother’s fault, but that’s another story entirely!)

We’ve come a long way since the horror films of the 30s and 40s, if for no other reason than it takes a lot more to scare an audience these days. Some of the old movies had dialogue that was unintentionally hilarious when compared to today’s sophisticated standards. For example, in one of the old Dracula films Bela Lugosi is preening in front of a large mirror. (The makers of the film forgot that a vampire cannot see his own reflection.) He is saying to himself as he slicks back his hair and prepares for a night on the town: "To bite or not to bite." The door-bell rings and he whispers sullenly into the mirror: "Tonight, we bite." For an actor who so identified with his role that he opted to be buried in his Dracula costume, he could have been more convincing. But the times were different and so was the audience.

To those who claim that horror films have no redeeming value, I would ask if they themselves think they have any. Movies are an art form and should be done well. If they are true to their genre, then it all becomes a matter of personal choice. Blue isn’t necessarily better than red; it’s just different. The English take the horror genre more seriously than American filmmakers and it shows. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing both portrayed psychopaths and moody monsters with purpose and dignity. Yes, the English seem to have it all in that regard, except for maybe Vincent Price, whose spirit belongs exclusively to the American horror cinema scene.

Science fiction, suspense and horror films all have their place in the modern cinema. Do dead men walk our city streets? Perhaps they do. Maybe they’re just looking for a good movie or as Rodney Dangerfield used to say, "a little respect." Let’s give it to them. Support your local cemetery and the ghoul-a-month plan where you work. And then go to the movies to watch the latest horror flick and scare yourself to death!

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Copyright 2002