[Yes, it's been a while, hasn't it? Apologies - things became quite busy. But I live.]
I don't normally do holiday-themed posts — so many other people do a far better job of it, it seems — but this time around I thought I'd take a moment to post my own take on a discussion held elsewhere about the horror films that really worked for you as game-changers and formative experiences.
M. I recently rewatched Fritz Lang's movie (thank you, Criterion and NetFlix) and saw much in it that I missed the first time around. Not hard since the first time I saw it was literally decades ago, and having seen that many more movies between then and now not only showed me how influential the film had been but how restrained filmmaking seems to be on the way out. Silence, distance, contemplation — the very things that help create the most primal dread and terror — are being replaced by loud, fast shocks. When was the last time you saw a movie where not a whole lot happened on the surface but you were uneasy for days after you saw it? M did that to me, and also introduced me to Peter Lorre (funny that the next movie I should see with him in it was The Maltese Falcon), who all by himself is reason enough to see the film. He presents us with a serial killer not in the Nietzschean superhero mold, but in a coldly unromantic way — as a frightened man lashing out pathetically at the rest of the world, killing children as a way to stitch up his ragbag ego. That is far more horrifying than any ten Jigsaws.
Videodrome. "It's against pornography, but it's also against the people who are against pornography." That was the explanation provided to me by a friend the first time I saw Cronenberg's amazing sleeper of a film. I was 19 at the time; he, 20; and while my understanding of the film has widened a great deal since then, that formula still seems valid. It was the first truly modern horror film I'd seen, where the danger was not a masked killer with a knife or a monster in the closet, but pieces of the fabric of modern life itself: TV, the media, mass communication, mega-corporate concerns, and most of all the ideas that drive all those things. "It has a philosophy," says one of the main characters, in reference to the clandestine satellite broadcasts that form the movie's main plot point. "That's what makes it dangerous." And in what other movie are you gonna see James Woods being turned into a human VCR?
Kwaidan. Sometimes the atmosphere matters more than the meaning, and Kwaidan is all about the feelings of cosmic disquietude conjured up by its four classical Japanese folk tales. If nothing else it stands as a masterpiece of production design, with giant indoor sets that gave the whole thing a deliberately stagy and phantasmagorical sheen. (The same approach is found in Jigoku, which I saw far too late to be on this list but which could have been just as influential.) The last story in the cycle remains open-ended, as a way to remind us all the more that with horror, sometimes a meaning is not needed — just an aesthetic.