How 6 Classic Horror Films Appear To Modern Audiences
I, like you, enjoy watching classic horror films on the big screen. Sadly, since every movie theater schedule isn't Alien ad infinitum, the times that I do get to enjoy them are rare. And while it would be nice if everyone approached these films with a naive sense of wonder and an under-developed sense of courage, seeing modern audiences react to them has been intriguing. These reactions ranged from exuberant to tortured, and nearly all of them were compelling to view.
I was apprehensive about Halloween because of a prior experience that I'd had at the theater that was showing it. I'd seen Paranormal Activity 2 there, and in the middle of that movie, while one of the actresses was talking about how totally strange it is to have your house and sanity slowly dismantled by poltergeists, the man sitting behind me, in a raspy voice, said, "I'mma fuck them titties." Now, he didn't say this with the hesitant but hopeful intonation of, "I'd really like to fuck them titties if the circumstances are right." He allowed no possibility that them titties might remain un-fucked, and he spoke with the confidence of a man seeing the future for the first time. It was the most terrifyingly awkward So Raven moment that I've ever been privy to, and he had to make sure that an entire theater full of people were able to bear witness to the birth of his amazing new mental powers.
If you've ever seen Halloween, you'll know that there are surprisingly few times where "I'mma fuck them titties" would be the appropriate thing to respond with, and even fewer times if you're set on making these intentions known to 200 people. Luckily enough, no one in the theater for Halloween made a single remark about any of them titties. But that's a bittersweet victory at best, because that man and his ghastly premonitions are still out there.
I'm 90 percent sure that was the plot for this one.
Before the movie started, a "History of Michael Myers" mini documentary played, because the best way to hype an audience up for the first film in a series is revealing copious footage from the later films. Edited together like the Halloween series had fucked the editor's girlfriend's titties, it was a slapdash appraisal of 10 movies that no one wanted. By the time the actual film played, the sense of anticipation in the room had been deflated. If they had wanted to see the fifth guy who played Michael Myers talk about how challenging it was to accept the iconic role and how Halloween will still frighten everyone who stumbles across it today, they would've been scrolling through DVD special features. And the movie was never able to regain its momentum.
Which actually makes it a meta-commentary for the franchise itself.
The audience responded to Halloween in the same way that one would watch improvised jazz for the first time. They shyly smiled and nodded along, and there was a mutual recognition of, "Yeah, this is great stuff, and I respect it, but, uhhhhh, yeah." Halloween has long been declawed due to a thousand hours' worth of film history where the killer is also hiding in the dark. At the end of the showing, a man tried to get a clap going, but he stopped when he realized that the balloon of enthusiasm had been popped. Halloween had been propped up for years as one of the scariest movies ever made, and seeing it with an unimpressed audience turned it into just a well-made one.
"Sorry, man. Can't fuck titties with a half-chub."
The Thing (1982)
With Halloween, there was a feeling of "This is a classic movie, dammit! You should dig it even if you hate it." Made just four years later, The Thing gave off no such vibes. It's much harder to duplicate the Oh Shitness of The Thing, and unlike a majority of modern horror effects, where a computer-generated monster dismembers a computer-generated man and no one is affected because it's computers, The Thing is cool to look at. Also, the day we start feeling empathy for computer men is the day that we let the nerds win.
Pity? Maybe. Empathy? Never.
As I've written about before, The Thing has a certain visceral look to it that makes every death scene a thesis on how lackluster it is to have a body that stays in a consistent shape. Chests turn into giant maws, dogs become dog-related death mounds, and heads detach themselves from bodies and crawl away. Anything is possible in The Thing's universe as long as you truly accept that flesh can rip that way. The Thing is all about believing in yourself and trusting that, with hard work and a little luck, you too can be invaded by an alien and surprise your co-workers with your new nightmare form.
Sadly, having hair/beard game as good as prime Kurt Russell will always be out of reach, though.
I have seen two reactions in movie theaters that I'd regard with the adjective "thunderous." The first was when The Joker did his "pencil trick" in The Dark Knight, and I thought that the audience would carry away whatever are the movie theater equivalent of goal posts. The second was during The Thing, when the aforementioned head pulled so hard that it came off its former owner's neck, grew spider legs and antennae, and scuttled away. There were some screams, but mostly it was met with generous approval. People clapped and cheered, because this is what life was all about:
The sheer ecstasy of getting to see that former skull/current crab enlarged to 60 feet wide,
surrounded by people who feel the exact same way that you do.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is barely a movie. There are no pauses that allow audiences to put two and two together, and even when potential revelations are made, they're accompanied by ceaseless screaming and a soundtrack that sounds like someone attacking an orchestra with a hammer. It's a weird, creaking carnival ride that feels like it's about to break apart and sling you off into the cotton candy and toothless barker stand at any moment. You can compare it to other movies, but the thing that it most aptly resembles is being trapped in a sweaty, revolving cart while "Freebird" blares at you through speakers that should've been replaced 20 years ago. It's a grating, impossibly timed piece of celluloid.
And I love it.
And so did a good third of the people that sat beside me when I saw it. There is a cult of Chain Saw that can barely be replicated by any other movie. It is to horror fans what Jimi Hendrix and Pulp Fiction posters are to your freshman year roommate who just had the best, most interesting, hilarious moment, bro, while being high for the second time: a monument dedicated to everything they stand for. They know every detail of its creation and will eagerly present their Leatherface tattoos as a defense mechanism against predators who don't wear T-shirts with pictures of masked cannibals on them.
Another third of the audience seemed disgusted. The guy beside me kept whispering, "What the fuck?" whenever he saw a piece of furniture made out of something that a person uses to wave. There is nary a couch or table in Chain Saw that didn't used to be a handshake, so "What the fuck?" became a musical cue to inform me that something awful had already happened. When it was over, a woman stood up, said, "That was sick," and then immediately tripped in her aisle, because the world solely exists to laugh at us until we die.
The last third of the audience exploded out of the theater to tell their friends that they didn't find it that scary. There was an intense fervor to these personal declarations of fortitude. It wasn't just an "I wasn't scared!" that you'd use to hint to your unfortunate date that your genitals are intact, fearless, and functional. It was them proving themselves able to sit through Chain Saw's fabled roller coaster of an experience and come out unscathed and with all of their pieces not yet turned into a chair.
When Freaks was originally released in 1932, people were appalled. Variety lambasted it because it had " too fantastic a romance," and the reviewer said, "It is impossible for the normal man or woman to sympathize with the aspiring midget." The critic could not become interested in the film since, apparently, a love story between a person of average height and a little person was some Tolkien-level shit, even if that love story was a sham. It takes a lot of willpower to overlook the entire narrative of a film when critiquing it, and even more determination to basically say, "If it isn't Spencer Tracy, it isn't human." I can only imagine that he left King Kong thinking, "Why would an ape fight a lizard thing? My brain hurts!" and walked out of Gone With the Wind muttering, "Vivien Leigh was NOT my wife. One star."
"He's in bed, but I'm watching this at 3 in the afternoon!?! What bullshit."
Freaks is now regarded as an overlooked classic, and there was a tension in the room the day that I saw it, because a lot of people there had never seen it before. It's an 83-year-old movie. Was it going to be funny? Was it going to be bizarre? As they would soon find out, the answer to every question you could ask about Freaks was, "Yes, stunningly so." I've never sat with a more uncomfortable group. Freaks, as good as it is, brought out the worst in everyone that day.
There was a lot of giggling, and even worse, that giggling was almost always sharply cut off, as if the people doing it had caught themselves and weren't quite sure of their own reactions. A college-aged guy close to me began making those "I'm bored here and no one is looking at me!" gestures, where he'd sigh, and chuckle, and then put his head in his hands as if he was embarrassed for the fictional characters on-screen.
Meanwhile, characters were embarrassed for his parents.
As a 25-year-old who recently texted his girlfriend "5 DVDs/Blu-rays at this gas station for $10? So pumped," I am not the gatekeeper for what's "cool." But there is nothing less cool than basically telling everyone sitting around you that you have nothing witty to say but would still like to be seen as better than the movie that a whole room paid to watch. The most fascinating thing that has happened to me in the last week was that I farted and it sounded like my butthole was saying, "I don't know," and I will never be as uncool as the dude who stage-whispered, "REALLY?" during a public showing of Freaks, and then smacked at his forehead with his palm.
I've never seen a Godzilla movie that had enough Godzilla in it, and I appreciate directors and screenwriters for understanding that this is for the best. Not giving us an inordinate amount of Godzilla with every installment of the franchise has allowed us to have 30 of them, and I would rather have 30 more Godzilla movies where we end up complaining about the main attraction's lack of screen time than one where we see enough continuous 'Zilla for us to realize, "Well, this whole thing is pretty stupid."
That's what the cartoons are for.
Making it through the first half of the 1954 version seemed like an insurmountable task to the people around me. I don't know if it was the lack of tumbling brawls with other rubber-suited stuntmen that early Godzilla movies are famous for, or the love triangle plotline that sent people to texting. Maybe it was the subtitles that forced them to both read and look at the moving pictures, when all they wanted was to see buildings get stepped on. It certainly doesn't help that Godzilla sort of plods along, with the pace of the film barely keeping up with the slow dragging of the titular monster's feet. People could not be bothered to pay attention to the how and why of Godzilla. They did not care in the slightest about the fears of nuclear testing that are ever-present in the movie. They only perked up when Godzilla appeared to declare his vengeance on the Tokyo Department of Building Inspections.
We can't stop him: He filled out the correct permits for this."
When you take a movie like Godzilla deadly seriously and you put it in front of people who don't feel the same way, you're bound to be disappointed. That film has had its reputation stretched over the years by repeated cries of, "It's a metaphor for Hiroshima and is NOT to be taken lightly, heathens." And it's that. It's definitely that. But it's also a movie about a guy wearing a dinosaur costume, kicking around miniatures. The two can be reconciled without it being blasphemous.
The 180-degree turn when Godzilla finally gets up on the beach and brings the ruckus was fun to witness, as suddenly we all managed to "Kumbaya" for the first time in an hour. There's something simple and beautiful about '50s monster rampages that turns what could be an ironic appreciation into a sincere one, as long as you're not eager to constantly point out the wires showing.
The audience of Frankenstein had the highest median age, and you'd have thought that Golden Corral was catering the event from the excited buzz of its older members. There was no air of conceit, nor did I feel that all-too-common premonition where I enter a theater, see those that are going to be crammed in next to me, and realize that they're probably going to ruin the movie for me. It was also the most nostalgic crowd of the six movies, and I heard, "I've never seen it on the big screen before!" multiple times. Parents excitedly nudged their kids as the lights dimmed, and their kids blatantly ignored them because parents are lame and Snapchat is cowabunga, or whatever kids say when they're in middle school and can't enjoy anything properly.
"I swear, we will leave and I will make you watch I, Frankenstein instead."
"... I'll be good."
It's so fucking easy to be cynical about old horror movies, because it's also easy to imagine that you're in an invisible war with all the Transformers and Ouija fans out there who comment on a YouTube clip of Creature From the Black Lagoon with, "So fake looking." So much of our stupid time is spent showing our love for things by getting pissed about things that aren't it. Being a fan of something doesn't necessarily entail going out of your way to upset yourself by seeking out those who aren't fans. You don't need to put on war paint because someone thinks that movies made in 1931 look a little hokey by today's standards.
Like we should have recognized with Halloween, there was no need to pretend that what we were watching was still effective in the same way that it was effective when it was originally released. When a horror movie doesn't have the presence that it used to, people like to say that "history has been unkind," as if later generations had made subsequent deliberate efforts to scuff its shoes and make fun of its haircut. But instead of calling out Father Time for being a dick and a robber of bliss, it's more satisfactory to think of horror movies in the same way that we think of movies in other genres. As time goes on and things change, why they are relevant changes too. No one needs to be fainting during Frankenstein's Monster's entrance for it to be an integral part in every person's life. Vaccinate your kids, guys, and then show them Frankenstein. You'll be raising a better tomorrow. And an army of children who are ready to battle to prove Frankenstein's dominance.
Uh, maybe show them how to swim too.
Everything is going according to plan.
Daniel was given the normal brain and has a blog.
For more from Daniel, check out 7 Monsters That Bigfoot Hunters Are Too Scared to Believe In and 6 Stupid Misconceptions That Ruin Classic Movies.
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