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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 44
Returning to the Classics

Salò: 120 Days of Sodom Recently I posted a list of my 13 favorite horror movies, a fundamentally different one than appeared in a previous column entry. In that particular installment, I concentrated specifically on post-Exorcist works that I thought deserved mention, and that were readily available to modern audiences. I thought (and continue to think) all were effective, even if some appeared controversial. Oddly, the titles I thought might initiate dialogue nobody bothered to remark on, while more recent, less "serious" fare met with howls of outrage. Nobody seemed very surprised at all that Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò: 120 Days of Sodom received attention, yet the inclusion of Frank Darabont's The Mist saw such hostility that one would have thought someone had hung Mapplethorpe's "Piss Christ" on the neighborhood church's wall.

I shouldn't have been surprised. At nearly 40 years old, Pasolini's disturbing masterpiece possesses the luxury of being pretty thoroughly discussed (or perhaps vetted) by horror fans and critics; The Mist, barely half a decade old, perhaps remains much more fresh in the minds of many, fans and broader audiences alike. Salò challenges with its structure and subject matter; The Mist employs a narrative far more familiar to genre fans, its tropes more comfortable and easier to grasp.

(Even more surprising were the movies that received no nods whatsoever. Both The Host and Pontypool frighten and engage, the former with reverence to Ishirô Honda's Gojira, the latter a breathtaking chamber opera set almost entirely in a radio station during a very unique zombie apocalypse. Neither of them elicited any kind acknowledgment.) The Mist

So when a friend of mine used his Facebook page to list his favorite horror movies, I decided to compose my own, if only to see how mine compared. It meant including much older work, dating back to 1932 with Karl Freund's The Mummy, and progressing with those movies that have managed to maintain their power while embracing the tropes and approaches of the best genre work.

Here's the list, for the curious:

  • 1. The Mummy (1932, d. Karl Freund)
  • 2. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, d. James Whale)
  • 3. Cat People (1942, d. Jacques Tourneur)
  • 4. Gojira (1954, d. Ishirô Honda)
  • 5. Les Diaboliques (1955, d. Henri-Georges Clouzot)
  • 6. Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960, d. Georges Franju)
  • 7. Psycho (1960, d. Alfred Hitchcock)
  • 8. The Haunting (1963, d. Robert Wise)
  • 9. Repulsion (1965, d. Roman Polanski)
  • 10. The Exorcist (1973, d. William Friedkin)
  • 11. Dawn of the Dead (1978, d. George Romero)
  • 12. The Shining (1980, d. Stanley Kubrick)
  • 13. Ringu (1998, d. Hideo Nakata)
Several things jumped out at me upon completion of my list. Genre classics occupied almost every slot; its contents lack the most idiosyncratic selections, such as The Abominable Dr. Phibes. A super-majority of the titles were filmed in black-and-white, including two of the post-1960 works. Additionally, a majority of the titles were made in 1960 -- something I expected, given that I set few actual limits in making this list. (And the most disturbing thing I found was the exclusion of anything from Hammer Studios. Somehow I neglected to mention such favorites as Curse of the Werewolf, Horror of Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, and a whole slew of others. Perhaps next year.)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes The Vampire Lovers

Most remarkable of all, though, was that I selected nothing from the 21st century. Surely, I thought, there were movies made in the last 10 years that I could place on this list. I know horror movies have been made; I've seen, and reviewed, many. So I thought...

And thought...

And realized that, try as I might, nothing made after Ringu actually stuck in my mind. The ones that did, yes, I certainly liked -- I've already cited Pontypool and The Host -- but could I actually place these in the same league as Les Yeux Sans Visage or Dawn of the Dead, or even The Mummy?

Not really, no.

Pontypool The Host

(Yes, I already know many good ones have been released. I think highly of The Others, and understand the high opinion many have of The Orphanage, a movie that filled me more with boredom than chills, but otherwise, I struggle to consider recent titles.)

The Bride of Frankenstein A recent viewing of two classic horror movies -- James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein and Jacques Tourneur's Curse of the Demon -- at my favorite venue only exacerbated my view that modern movies offer very little in the way of scares or chills. Of Whale's sequel to Frankenstein, little needs to be said: from its use of black-and-white to the intriguing prologue, in which Mary Shelley (played by the stunning Elsa Lanchester, who also played the Bride herself) continues the tale of mad scientists toying with biology, this groundbreaking picture absorbs and intrigues nearly eight decades after its release. Pretorius homunculi, groundbreaking in their day, remain convincing in a way breathtaking, even as many of the movie's other elements are replaced in cinematic memory by Mel Brooks's brilliant Young Frankenstein. For some, watching The Bride of Frankenstein might be a chore, especially with the knowledge of Brooks's parody, but when considered in terms of cinema and genre history, it stands as a genuine masterpiece, a sequel surpassing its initial effort.

Curse of the Demon I'll confess I had never seen Tourneur's Curse of the Demon until recently, a mistake I had hoped to correct for a long time. It's not that I lacked interest; given how many classic movies lay at my disposal, and given how many I must catch up on (let's be honest; we all have deficiencies in our film diet), I simply never found the time. I always felt guilty for this oversight, especially when you consider how much I love Tourneur's Cat People, one of the greatest terror tales ever filmed. So of course I leapt at the chance to see this classic when I learned it would be playing the day before Halloween.

No, it didn't disappoint.

Tourneur fills every frame with elements of atmosphere and dread, and humanizes the menacing Dr. Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) in order to make him even more terrifying. He also wisely keeps any real romance at bay; a possible romantic relationship between John Holden (Dana Andrews) and Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins) never develops, allowing Tourneur to concentrate on a tale of a skeptic confronted by the horrors of the unknown. The version I saw also included shots of the demon that terrorizes Joanna's father at the movie's opening, and again makes an appearance at its close. For some audiences it's a cheat, and I could perhaps see it sparking titters among modern audiences, but its design proved fascinating, and, with the reverent audience with whom I saw it, awe-inspiring. And its visuals stayed lodged in my brain, even after the credits rolled.

It's a shame I couldn't include it on my list of 13. Perhaps it will show up next year. Perhaps, too, a horror movie will come along that will so blow me away that it demands to be placed alongside it.

Perhaps, but I won't count on it.

Copyright © 2013 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His stories have appeared in Rayguns Over Texas edited by Rick Klaw and Le Bon Temps magazine. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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