Saturday, June 28, 2008

When The Terror Died

I first published this essay on my MySpace blog on the 5th of February, 2005. I feel the need to reprint it here, since I think it bears reprinting; especially in the post SAW & Hostel era. I'll probably come off as an old fogey, but you know whay? I am an old fogey... at least in this context. Read on, true believers:

When the Terror Died

Current mood: Surly

I was born in 1969. That was a pretty good year, I gather. The Beatles were still together, Man landed on the moon and Night of the Living Dead was still playing theatres and delivering the goods as the first important modern horror film (arguably, of course).

I am now a Horror fan and I have been for about 28 years. I wasn't born a horror fan; I had two considerably older brothers that took care of that. I was so terrified of just about EVERYTHING, thanks to them, when I was a toddler that I can't believe I made it this long without therapy. In my earliest years, I couldn't even hear the theme to Chiller Theatre without running, screaming into the next room. Thanks for that, bros. Of course, all of that eventually changed. Around 1977 / 1978, in the midst of the big Star Wars mega hoopla, I discovered my oldest brother's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. I wouldn't have even picked it up if not for the picture of Darth Vader on the cover. I leafed through slowly, cautiously as each page revealed something even more fantastic and grotesque than the last page. That magazine... and a few Godzilla movies later, and I was a bona fide Horror / Monster movie fanatic.

About this time, a movie was released that was made not far from where I live. Dawn of the Dead was everywhere in Pittsburgh. The city was proud of the movie and rightly so. I was a little uneasy about the poster: a half rotted head of a zombie rising up over the landscape like a horrific sun, with eyes burning straight through me. I was also a little shocked by the TV ads. I remember it well. I was watching Blackula on WPGH's 11:00 Saturday night movie. The movie was a bit hokey, but fun. When the first commercial break came, the first commercial was an ad for "Dawn...". There wasn't much to it; just an animated version of the poster graphic with Adolf Caesar's creepy voice intoning that, "Dawn of the Dead is here!" and a shot of zombies rushing towards the camera through an elevator. Wow. That was strong stuff for a 9 year old. I was also intrigued by the fact that the film was not rated. Being that the MPAA's rating system was established in 1968, I had no idea hat a film could be unrated. EVERY film I ever saw in a theatre had a rating. The mind boggled.

Even though I didn't see "Dawn..." until the mid 1980's, I knew by reputation that it was an extremely graphic film. I even saw in an issue of Fantastic Films magazine (god, I miss that rag), a frame by frame collection of stills detailing the bursting of someone's head via shotgun. It blew my mind as much as the victim's. Then there was Halloween. Not a gory film, but seminal. Everyone talked about that one. Alien followed in 1979, then Friday the 13th in 1980... by then there was this unholy glut of slasher films, Italian zombie films, sci-fi gore movies, you name it. If blood could be put anywhere in a movie, it would be. A new magazine came along to cover it, too. It was from the makers of Starlog magazine. Starlog was a magazine for Sci-fi geeks. Fangoria was for Horror aficionados. What's really the distinction? Sci-fi geeks had their own little world created for them. Thanks to the Star Wars merchandising strategies, it became essential to consume anything that had it's name on it: Action Figures, lunch boxes, models, playsets, etc. Horror fans didn't really have anything like that (at least not since the mid 1960's). The main reason was as such. Studios making Sci-fi movies were big budget, for the most part and Sci-fi movies in of themselves were a family friendly genre. Modern Horror films, on the other hand, were for (demented) adults, presumably, and there was no room for merchandising. Sure "Dawn..." had a posterbook and a role playing game, but there were no dolls, or Monroeville Mall playsets.

Let me pause here and refine the subject of this blog. The reason for this rant stems from a video I watched the other night. It was a 1986 VHS of Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors. It wasn't a video I had seen in the past. It always sat on the Video Store shelf, but my 17 year old self really had no use for a documentary about a convention. I was a devoted reader of Fangoria, and I was until 1992, but I wasn't into conventions and the whole thing just left me totally uninterested. Watching this tape now, however, is pretty essential. What was a mish mash of convention goings on mixed with promo reels and shameless huckstering on the part of Media home entertainment now appears to be a time capsule of a turning point in American entertainment.

Yes, friends, this tape is the key. It tells us the exact moment the Modern Horror movie died. It died at this convention and the disease was a movie. the movie? A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Now, before you get your panties in a bunch. I have the utmost respect for ANOES (which it will be heretofore referred to). It was a long time favorite of mine and I saw it about a dozen times in it's initial run. Looking back, now, I believe it might have ruined horror forever. The first film in the series was a horror movie, but subsequent films, in the attempt to garner a larger and larger audience, began to leave the horror genre and embrace the genre of fantasy. Freddy Kruger himself went from a relentless bogeyman to an uneasy cross between the Crypt Keeper and Shecky Greene.

The Death Knell:

Right up front, you should know that until the mid 1980's, horror aficionado and Sci-fi geeks stayed with their own. A line was drawn in the sand and one rarely crossed it. Sci-fi geeks didn't like horror aficionado because horror movies were gross and simplistic and catered to the basest of human depravity. Horror aficionado didn't like Sci-fi geeks because they were weirdos that liked to play with dolls and dress up and role play. There was a rift in the cinematic fabric of space. One man brought the two together.

The big attraction at the convention was Robert Englund. Now, Robert Englund wasn't your average Horror movie star. Had Gunnar Hansen or Nick Castle shown up as the main attraction, not a 1/3 of the attendees would have shown. You see, Robert Englund was a horror AND Sci-fi/fantasy star. He played Willie on the NBC television show V. Since the convention was advertised in all of the Starlog publications, the attendees at the convention were split pretty evenly down the middle between Horror aficionado and Sci-fi geeks. The unholy melding begat a new kind of fan: The Horror Movie Geek®.

This beast is frightening in that it loves horror movies, but has the mentality of a Sci-fi geeks consumerism. Lemme tell ya, money doth talk and corporation listen. It wasn't long before ANOES posters, T-shirts and other geeky swag were bursting out from licensing companies. There was much of this swag to be had at the convention. Seems, for the first time, horror film memorabilia was standing shoulder to shoulder with Phasers and Taun Taun busts.

This was also making the bigger studios take notice. About the only thing the Majors had was Paramount's F13 series, and they weren't marketing that very much at all. Now these smaller studios were getting bigger and gaining more muscle. Let us not forget New Line Cinema was originally an acquisition house that played mainly underground and grindhouse fare for College and drive in audiences. Now, with ANOES and it's decedents, it was killing all it's competition on opening weekends. So, of course, the big studios were cranking out carbon copies of the junk the lower budget studios were already watering down for the masses who all of the sudden were embracing the horror genre.

Gone were the visceral thrills and chills of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Evil Dead. Now we were getting diluted horror that relied more on hallucinogenic imagery and crass one liners spouted be charismatic villains. For the first time in movie history, viewers were vocally cheering for the killer. They were no longer placing themselves in the position of the victim. They were now all for the bad guy... and all thanks to Wes Craven and his bogeyman Fred.
Horror Cinema really hasn't been the same since. Sequels to established genre classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn were going for the laugh rather than the scare. Even original scare flix like H. P. Lovecraft's Re-Animator were funnier than actually unsettling. Drive ins and single screen movie houses were closing and being torn down and turned into parking lots, or worse, mega stores.

Things got worse in the 1990's as smaller studios and acquisition houses were either turning to other venues like Art films, being swallowed up by the major studios, completely unchecked by the anti trust laws of the US Government, or just simply closing down all together. Sure, little straight to video studios were popping up everywhere, but cheap looking video couldn't then, or now, hold a candle to a theatrical film.

Today, New Line Cinema is a major player, owned by Warner Brothers. Even the smaller releasing houses (Dimension, Screen Gems, Rogue) are actually offshoots of the major studios. The films suffer because of it. Everything is made by committee and there is no real room for new, mind leveling ideas. We now go to other countries for that, the true horror aficionados do, at least. Things are bad and they won't get any better. They say the Golden Age is where we are now, but I say in order for an age to become golden, one has to look back on it and filter out the no so good parts. Seems we had a major golden age and the non believers pissed on it. Thieves in the temple, I tell you.

I wish I could come up with a suitable coda to this rant, but I can't. This story really has no end, so I am unable to conclude. I guess I'll just end this one by asking something of you, the reader: Tonight, go into the farthest reaches of your video collection (or video store, if you have an older, not franchised, one available) and find a horror movie, pre 1986. Watch it, all warm and fuzzy with it's bad video transfer and sound drop outs. Don't watch a remastered DVD or VHS. It has to be a tape from the era. Drink it in. Remember how you felt when it was new and you were watching it for the first time. Return to that time. And Smile.

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