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Tag Archives: Slasher Movies
To understand something is to take away its power. A look behind the curtain renders the tricks in front of it less formidable. The mechanical dinosaur isn’t as scary after the director opens it up to show us the gears and pistons that make it move. The things that we understand are less imposing, even if they are beyond our control, because they can be classified, categorized, and broken down into digestible little chunks until they no longer represent the unlimited, terrible possibilities of the unknown.
In Halloween, director John Carpenter never gives the audience a chance to fully understand the monster he crafts in celluloid. He never lets us truly know Michael Myers — what makes him tick, what produced the cold-blooded killer who emerges from the void at the film’s beginning. Indeed, through the character of Dr. Loomis, Carpenter suggests that Michael may very well be something unexplainable, something that cannot be parsed or reduced to understanding. He simply is.
And that’s a sizeable part of what gives Michael Myers so much power on the screen, so much capacity to terrorize and frighten us. Michael stands a step apart from any discernible human thought or feeling. He is simply a force, lurking in the shadows, silent, cold, and methodical as he completes his grisly labors.
What makes a work of art a classic in one era and laughable in another? I’ve written before about the Citizen Kane Effect, or the idea that some works that were groundbreaking for their time had such a profound effect on the medium that they essentially became the new standard, to the point that the innovations of the past might appear mundane to the modern eye. But there’s a flipside to this phenomenon — sometimes a work is innovative and interesting for its time, but as the years pass on, the tropes of the genre change, or the grammar and shorthand for how particular ideas are expressed evolve. When this happens, older works can feel miscalibrated or even half-baked to viewers who come to them after their heydey, having grown accustomed to the conventions of follow-on works that build on, and eventually move away from, their hallowed predecessors.
Perhaps this is why, despite my best efforts, I essentially laughed my way through A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s prudent to go into any work of art, especially those considered landmarks of the genre, with an open mind. While some seminal works may be overpraised, it’s worth the effort to appreciate why something is considered a classic, even if a modern viewer may have trouble connecting with it. But at a certain point, no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape the baggage that we carry into our viewing experiences.
Perhaps it’s naive to expect a horror film to have the same impact thirty years after its debut that it did when it was originally released. And yet, my prelude to A Nightmare on Elm Street was The Exorcist, a film that predated Nightmare by nearly a decade, but was still just as vivid, striking, and scary in the present day as it was to audiences in the seventies. At the same time, my postscript to the film was Nightmare director Wes Craven’s own Scream, released a little more than a decade later, which manages to be both frightening and fun while trafficking in the same tropes that Craven himself helped establish in Kruger’s first slasherrific outing. So what makes the difference? Why is one scary movie chilling and another chuckle-worthy?