Posted by Richard Harland Smith on October 11, 2013
Last week I explained my own personal Halloween aesthetic — not ooey-gooey rich’n’chewy, not gory or cruel, not blood-spattered and ichor-soaked but rather dry, papery, eldritch, withered and sere. Crepuscular rather than craptacular. Old school. Quaint and curious. Movies that evoke for the viewer mystery and wonder, dread, and true fear rather than just disgust and the vicarious thrill of inflicting harm. And I take back not a word, mind you, but I will allow that the build up to Halloween itself does allow for many different experiences, not all of them feature length. Really, nothing mirrors the anticipation of All Hallows Eve better than the horror movie trailer, with its promise of the forbidden, the horrid, the profane, and the grotesque. For this holiday-themed edition of my ongoing Trailer Park series, I will showcase fright films that I might not actually sit down and watch on 31 October but whose previews make my Gothic ganglia twitch. And now, in no particular order…
I first saw THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN (1971) at a kiddie matinee. No warning, no hint of what I was about to be subjected to. Man, I loved the 70s! The title alone should have been a red flag warning to my parents but, no, I was allowed to go off on my own. For those who thought THE EXORCIST (1973) was proof that the world was going to Hell in a hand-basket, this thing smacked moviegoers flat in the gob two full years earlier and it’s the more disturbing of the two. (It’s worth point out that little Geri Reishl, who has the principal child role here, was a contender for the part of Regan in THE EXORCIST.) Being a natural non-joiner and a near-lifetime atheist to boot, I find sects and cults of any kind to be creepy, whether they’re roasting a virgin in a wicker behemoth in a bid to benefit the harvest or simply setting up foldling tables for a prayer breakfast… so obviously a small town filled with old folk harvesting the local (and visiting) kinder for their own selfish ends is going to fill me with positive horror. Superficial points of commonality notwithstanding, BROTHERHOOD is far from just a quickie ripoff of ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968); it’s a movie that truly gets to you and works on you with a parade of images that, even at their most timeworn and hoary (hooded cultists, black candles, creepy dolls) upset and bother. The movie spoke to me then, at age 9 or 10, and still feels relevant to me now at age 52 as a comment on asleep-at-the-wheel-of-reason parenting and the monsters that spill out of the wreckage.
You know what’s really wrong with contemporary horror movie trailers, and I mean apart from the issue that the movies themselves invariably suck ill wind? It’s that the previews don’t shout the movie’s title in your face anymore. God, remember when movie trailers assumed your were blind and read everything out to you? Good times – and DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1964) is a prime example. I love that clumsy ad line “The terrifying horror of a man called Dr. Terror…” It feels like that was written in about five minutes, by someone with not quite enough adjectives at his disposal, but ye Old Gods I love it. Plus, it’s always great to see Christopher Lee properly freaking out, the old turnip. And Peter Cushing just looks great, doesn’t he? There is no proper US DVD of this early Amicus effort, and more’s the pity, because on second thought I would watch this one on Halloween… though keeping my distance from the houseplants.
As far as titles go, you’d be hard pressed to do better than WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY, whose original title (I almost hate to tell you) is/was LYCANTHROPUS (1961). I like the American title better because it is the apotheosis of truth in advertising, like the little can of “potted meat product” you can buy at the 99 cent store. (An alternative release title was I MARRIED A WEREWOLF, which is just dumb.) This is the kind of (now) vintage experience I really crave on Halloween. It has the coziness factor of a girl’s school located in the European sticks and an autumnal ambiance, a werewolf in a suit, and a great leading lady in the beautiful Barbara Lass (who was married, by turns, to Roman Polanski and PEEPING TOM‘s Karlheinz Bohm– yeesh!). But even on the level of its US trailer, this thing sings to me. Come on… a N-E-R-V-O-R-A-M-A SHOCKER! Have you ever been offered such a wonderful gift as a nervorama shocker? Or even the promise of one? Wouldn’t you rather watch a nervorama shocker than Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson explaining horror?
Like THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN, TOURIST TRAP (1979), which brackets a wonderful decade of disturbing, visceral horror, is supremely messed up. Movies in which stuff flies around on its own generally don’t do anything for me but TOURIST TRAP mixes in so many wildly disparate and nightmare-inducing elements that even if you find it hit or miss you’re going to go home (or go to bed) in a state of heightened vigilance. More than half of the equation here is the movie’s soundscape, which works on you as a bamboo sliver works on a fingernail – it loosens you, it bends you backward, and leaves you raw where once you were hardened and secure. The trailer does a great job of selling the experience, and that wonderful ad copy is the icing on a very disquieting cake. Bonus points for movie trailers that work the title of the flick into a full sentence. “God help those who get caught in… the TOURIST TRAP!” And even better: “SHOCK YOU CAN SEE! TERROR YOU CAN FEEL! HEARTSTOPPING SUSPENSE THAT MAKES THIS THE NIGHTMARE THAT NEVER ENDS!” Can you stand the confidence? If this trailer were sitting at the bar buying drinks, I’d be going home with it!
THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1977) is one of those movies that really divdes the room, even among the horroratti. I will admit that it is an imperfect picture, whose comic elements seriously undermine the “torn from the headlines” verite of Texarcana’s “Phantom Killer” case (aka “The Moonlight Murders”) of 1946, and yet… I cannot deny it. My affection for the film may be due to the fact that I heard about it for years before I got a chance to see it, so it attained a kind of iconic property in its unavailability, merging as it does true crime with urban myth. The trailer encapsulates what works for me about the film, that police procedural quality, names and dates, that seem to be an attempt to render what is chaotic and nightmarish into a spreadsheet of names and dates, something understandable, categorical. And the tension between the ghastly and the mundane is where the best parts of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN call home.
The people who sold THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) seem to have taken a tip or two from, if not THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN spefically, then at least from the tenor of the times in which the earlier film was made. You get that same sense of oral history/police procedural, the cold relating of facts surrounding something hotly horrific, and the implantation of that seed of curiosity. The trailer makes you want to know more, want to peek, want to open that door even at your own peril. Looking back at BLAIR WITCH now, at the distance of 14 years, it’s interesting to note what lessons subsequent horror filmmakers and horror film trailer makers have taken to heart and what they seem to have left with the scraps as not useful to them. What works best about this preview, to my mind, seems to matter less to previewistas in 2013, which is to say the bland police log facts o’the case articulated in a disconcertingly dispassionate voice (for auld lang syne, I’d love to hear John Laroquette read “In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland…”) while what has been carried forward is the device, the herky-jerky film style (“ShakyCam,” as it is known in certain circles) and the reduction of the message to micro-bursts of visual information. That’s a gag that worked a few times for me but probably never better than for…
… ALIEN (1979). And after that it just got old and annoying. Like Rip Taylor old and annoying. I think this trailer for ALIEN works gangbusters and I love the movie… but you can see this almost subliminal style as the beginning of the end of that old school blood and thunder, which so wonderfully epitomized the era of hoopla, hyperbole, and ballyhoo. Few horror movie trailers nail that rap better than …
… THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES (1968). Say what you will about the movie itself, or about how much Wendell Corey had to drink before he showed up on the set, but the trailer works it. And working it, my friends, is what Halloween is all about.
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