I knew what I was getting into, but after putting myself through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning this weekend, I started to question and distrust my own taste for the macabre. Of course, this was only a momentary lapse spurred on by the soul-deadening experience of Jonathan Liebesman’s effectively gory yet ill paced, plotted, and conceived prequel to the Chainsaw series. This continuing tale needs an “origin” story like it needs a hole in the head (or abdomen as the case might be)…a psychoanalysis of Leatherface, blaming an abbatoired ubringing and mocking schoolmates? Uh, yeah. Leatherface only works as an image of the unthinkable, not as a full-fledged thinking individual; he thus loses his power as a conceit. However, more importantly, the film simply feeds into the recent trend of pure torture overtaking the suspense and playfulness the genre used to wield. Sure, Hostel at least tried for some sort of poltical commentary-cum-satire and the Saw films are memorably grotesque, but neither are as clever or well-crafted by half as the films their filmmakers all claim as influences (Tobe Hooper’s Chainsaw original, Halloween, etc.)
So, feeling depressed by the sheer lack of imagination (why have shock and depravity been completely substituted for ingenuity and ideas in the current glut of gorefests?) in current horror hits, I’d like to put forth a list of some great examples of the genre, just in time for Halloween. These films will run the gamut from solely atmospheric to deeply intestinally unpleasant, so a proper opener is someone who has always dabbled a bit in both, the singularly unsingular John Carpenter. Never overdecorative in his art direction, never overtly showy with his camera moves, Carpenter nevertheless quickly eked out a place for himself as one of the finest craftsmen in horror, using equal parts restraint and violence, emphasizing sound and image at once, in wholly unexpected and sense-heightening ways.
There may be no better place to start the Carpenter oeuvre than with his independently produced 1978 breakout Halloween, but for me, there’s really no finer example of Carpenter’s elegance than his much-anticipated follow-up, 1980’s The Fog. A more effective example of how setting and composition can make a scary movie than even Halloween, The Fog is one of just a handful of horror films I would call “beautiful.” Its first fifteen minutes, and much of it thereafter, are made up of gorgeously ominous shots of the natural environs of its location, the North Californian fishing village Antonio Bay, composed in elegant widescreen, and often accompanied by Carpenter’s own delicate piano chords. What’s most surprising about The Fog, and why it holds up so well 26 years after its release and one year after its severely loathed teeny-bopper remake, is that its central ghost-story hokum (about long-dead leper fishermen who have returned to the cursed Antonio Bay hundreds of years after the town’s elders murdered them and stole their gold, looking for revenge) works in perfect deference to the lovely imagery.
Most importantly, The Fog is utterly earnest in its telling—as exemplifed by John Houseman’s cameo prologue as a crusty seaside storyteller and the Edgar Allen Poe quote that precedes it, The Fog believes in the power of a good-old fashioned ghost story. The tale seems dog-eared and stale, yet there’s no ironic removal or self-referentality. True, the characters seem slightly secondary to the superb photography, but the host of late Seventies/early Eighties genre standbys (Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook, and Janet Leigh) play their parts with an infectious, likable enthusiasm that transcends any thinness in the characterizations.
No one would make claims for The Fog as a great artistic statement, but it has so many memorable creep-outs and such expertly paced scares, all done with such low-budget ingenuity, that it leaves you giddy—there’s more primal, shivery goodness in one handsomely composed shot here than most films can achieve in their entirety. Halloween may be more iconic and narratively satisfying, and The Thing (1982) does display some of the most dazzling, horrific sights crafted during the heyday of horror effects, but The Fog could stand as Carpenter’s true testament to the genre he so loves; along with Jacques Tourneur’s comparably silly yet superbly accomplished Cat People, it could be an effective study aid for future horror filmmakers on how to use editing and cinematography to heighten tension and create visual nuance. All the more impressive for its being a relatively negligible flick about angry ghost pirates.
For more good current reading on some classic horror alternatives to TCM: The Beginning and the imminent Saw III, also check out Not Coming to a Theater Near You’s third annual “31 Days of Horror,” always an incisive and fun round-up, especially Leo Goldsmith’s new appraisals of Demon Seed and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Tom Huddleston on Murnau’s unforgettable Faust, Ian Johnston on Kobayashi’s Kwaidan.