Why have I not yet talked about David Cronenberg?
Cronenberg is one of the few directors working in our out of horror that regularly visits the theme of body horror, which is exactly what it sounds like: stories finding horror within the body, often serving as a metaphor for anything from aging to disfigurement--an uncomfortable theme, but one Cronenberg uses to incredible effect throughout his movies, in everything from his first features Shivers and Rabid, to my personal favorite, Videodrome.
Made at the beginning of the home video revolution, Videodrome tells the story of a cable company executive who becomes obsessed with a series of pirate broadcasts showcasing a series of filmed tortures. As he watches these images, hallucinations take hold of his mind, and his body begins to transform in harrowing ways.
It can be a difficult movie to watch, but beneath the grotesque imagery is a statement about media, its impact on society, and how we view the world.
Do you have a favorite body horror movie? Do you have a favorite David Cronenberg movie? Let me know in the comments.
A number of writers have shaped no only my aesthetic taste but also my own desire to write fiction, but few have had the impact of Harlan Ellison.
It's hard to look at any genre and not see Ellison's footprint: from mystery to science fiction, he has written masterpieces of the form. We could talk about half a dozen horror stories alone Ellison penned, but for this series, I have to point to "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" as one of the finest.
Walking the tightrope between science fiction and horror, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" tells the story of a computer that has gained both sentience and consciousness. It wipes out all of humanity save for six individuals, and begins subjecting these survivors to de Sadean tortures in a technologically Dantesque landscape. It's a harrowing read that refuses almost any point of redemption.
The Wachowskis used elements of this classic story in developing The Matrix, yet none of their visuals equals the dread or nightmare found in Ellison's work.
Do you have a favorite computer-as-monster story? Let me know in the comments.
I was a teenager when George Romero's Night of the Living Dead appeared on MTV one Halloween. To say it was life-changing is an understatement.
Night of the Living Dead's reputation precedes it. It is the first zombie movie to feature what we think of as zombies today: the flesh-eaters chomping on entrails whose bite will infect the living and turn them into zombies. It all comes from Romero's micro-budget movie. Its premise of a small group of people trapped in an abandoned farmhouse by hordes of the living dead is familiar, even elemental, to modern audiences. And yet, time has diminished none of its power. It's the first horror movie with a genuinely modern sensibility, from the dysfunction of institutions to the nightmarish ending...and the heightened level of gore. Yes, Herschell Gordon Lewis pioneered the splatter movie, but Romero gave it the social consciousness vital to Dead's longevity.
Do you have a favorite zombie movie? Let me know in the comments.
Summer is behind us, which means I probably shouldn't include Jaws among this series' entries. And yet, if we're talking about why I am the horror writer and fan I am, we have to talk about it.
The real brilliance of Jaws is in how many genres it touches. Of course it's a sea adventure, with strong overtones of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. It functions well as a thriller in its pursuit of prey. And, of course, it's a horror story. And a very good one, especially in its portrayal of our fears of the deep, and of our fear of sharks. The shark in question in a twenty-foot great white, and when seen in a shot alongside Quint's boat The Orca, it's absolutely terrifying.
This was only Steven Spielberg's third feature, after both Duel (based on Richard Matheson's short story) and The Sugarland Express. Jaws not only put him on the cinematic map, but in a way became the standard by which many of us judge horror movies. Few others match Jaws's power and intensity, and it is in part due to his actors, especially Robert Shaw as Quint. One look at him, and you see someone who practically reeks of fish.
There are too many great set pieces to single out a single one, so I will simply say that, if there's any one movie in this series I would recommend unreservedly, it would be this one.
One final note. The movie is based on a novel by Peter Benchley. It was a bestseller at the time, but I've never been fond of it. This is one of the rare instances where the movie actually improves on the book.
Do you have a favorite sea-themed or underwater horror movie? Let me know in the comments.
Shockingly, I have not discussed Ray Bradbury at all during this series.
So let's talk about him.
Readers tend to associate Bradbury with science fiction, and it's easy to see why. It's hard to divorce Bradbury's name from either The Martian Chronicles or Fahrenheit 451, his story collection The Illustrated Man, or a fantasy novel like Dandelion Wine. But he's penned at least two books of interest to horror readers: his carnival novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (which opens with one of the greatest first lines in horror fiction, second only to the first paragraph of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House), and the collection The October Country.
The stories in The October Country showcase Bradbury's gift for language, his occasional sense of whimsy, and his eye for macabre details. I tend to single out his story "The Crowd", about an individual who realizes that a crowd gathers at every traffic accident, seemingly from out of nowhere, and his dread as he realizes the individuals making up the crowd comprise the same individuals. Other stories in this landmark collection include "Skeleton" (in which a man discovers his skeleton is attempting to escape his body), "The Small Assassin" (a baby goes on a murderous rampage), "The Next in Line" (mummies in Cancun haunt an individual). All are wonderful in their poetic phrasing and use of imagery. There's almost no gore, and some modern readers may not find many of these stories scary, but all leave some impact, and none lack power, even seventy years after their initial publication.
Do you have a favorite Ray Bradbury story? Do you have a favorite Ray Bradbury book? Let me know in the comments.
Today is September 21. Stephen King's birthday. So we are perhaps obligated to talk about our favorite King work, or in this case, our first King work.
I wrote about both the book and movie versions of The Shining in an earlier post. At the time I read the book and saw the movie, I didn't know who either King or Stanley Kubrick were. So when I picked up a copy of his story collection Night Shift, I knew a little more about King, and read the stories with interest.
In fact, the first story I began reading was "The Boogeyman" because many of my seventh-grade classmates cited it as one of the scariest things they'd ever read. And they weren't wrong. Set in a psychiatrist's office, a patient describes how his entire family has been murdered by a strange apparition. It's a brief story but engaging, with elements of Edgar Allan Poe, and captures well a descent into madness and horror.
Other stories are strong. "Sometimes They Come Back" is an unnerving tale of the past coming back to haunt its lead character, while "Battleground" serves as an homage to Richard Matheson. You can't go wrong with any of these stories.
Have you read Night Shift? Do you have a favorite story in the collection? Do you have a different favorite King collection, or a favorite horror collection in general? Let me know in the comments.
A few quick words about my favorite werewolf movie, An American Werewolf in London.
I tend to like werewolf stories enormously. Their core idea--the beast and darkness living within us all--is captivating. It's the primal sense we are only barely civilized; beneath our human veneer beats the heart of savagery.
The subtext of An American Werewolf in London seems to bear this out. After all, Americans tend to be seen as uncouth, while Europeans see themselves as the pinnacle of civilization and culture. It makes perfect sense that an American, apparently well-mannered but ultimately an uncouth lout, might transform into a werewolf and terrorize England's greatest city.
A sense of tragedy informs most werewolf stories. The protagonists know they cannot escape their inherent animal nature except in death. Throughout An American Werewolf in London, David Kessler (David Naughton) is visited not only by his friend Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), who was attacked and killed by the very creature that transformed David, but also by his victims. Jack warns David he will continue killing until he is dead, leaving his victims in a state of limbo. David's victims, meanwhile, encourage David to kill himself, severing the werewolf's bloodline. It's heartbreaking to see David grapple with this news, and the realization of what he has done.
Heartbreaking, and also very funny. John Landis films An American Werewolf in London with the eye of absurdist, with rich comedy infusing every scene. A single example comes when David meets the souls of his victims. Their bloody bodies sit with him in a porn theater and offer suggestions of the best suicide methods.
What is your favorite werewolf movie? Let me know in the comments.
There are a lot of great alien invasion movies, but few match the paranoia of Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Based on Jack Finney's novel, this adaptation was released in 1978, but I didn't see it until 1980 or 1981, when I caught it on a cable channel at a friend's house. And it was one of the most terrifying things I'd ever seen. It wasn't just the idea that an alien might replace you with an exact duplicate, but that Leonard Nimoy could play a psychiatrist who encourages to get in touch with their feeling--someone completely against the character of Spock on Star Trek. The movie's San Francisco setting and Kaufman's odd camera angles added to the movie's unease. The actors include Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, and Jeff Goldblum, and all are outstanding.
There are two other film versions I can recommend: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, d. Don Siegel) and Body Snatchers (1993, d. Abel Ferrera). (I know a 2007 adaptation exists, but I have no desire to see it.) However, the 1978 version was the one I saw first, and for me remains the most effective.
Which version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers do you prefer? Have you read the novel, and if so, what did you think? Do you have a favorite alien invasion movie? Let me know in the comments.
If you've followed this series up to this point, you probably understand that I tend to like a sense of the otherworldly in my horror. I love the fantasy elements, which means I tend to gravitate to horror infused with surrealism. This can include anything in David Lynch's filmography, works we normally wouldn't consider horror, such as Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, and one of my favorite novels, Philip K. Dick's Ubik.
Written in 1969 and set in a futuristic 1992, Ubik is a science fiction novel; you look at its trappings--precognitives advising corporate CEOs on the effects of mergers, spaceships flying to the moon as regularly as intercontinental flights, the dead living a half-life in "cold sleep", seeing both the phenomenal world and the world beyond--yet it functions equally as a metaphysical horror story. Questions about life and death arise regularly. Reality and unreality crash together, fracturing both.
Dick arguably has written better novels, but in terms of what horror fans might enjoy, Ubik is the one I would recommend. It's strange, surreal, and horrifying, with existential dread building as reality breaks down. Fans of A Nightmare on Elm Street will find a lot to love in its dream logic.
Do you have a favorite surreal horror story or horror novel? Do you have a favorite Philip K. Dick novel? Let me know in the comments.
I can't actually call Creepshow the greatest horror movie anthology ever made, but it was my first, and it has become one of the most enduring.
Directed by George A. Romero, Creepshow comprises five stories written by Stephen King, all of varying degrees of success. The best of these is "The Crate", about a wooden crate (naturally) found in the basement of a university campus, and which is home to a carnivorous being. "Something to Tide You Over" is a tale of love, revenge, vengeance, and the undead. The dead rise from the grave in "Father's Day", a story that doesn't quite work but of which I am particularly fond. In addition, a brief bridging story features a very young Joe Hill portraying a tormented child.
There are other, better anthology movies. Trilogy of Terror is superior, especially in its adaptation of Richard Matheson's "The Prey". (It helps that Matheson wrote Trilogy of Terror's screenplay.) Trick 'r Treat's stories are more consistent. Southbound is more conceptually daring. However, none of these get the camp humor inherent in Creepshow, which took as its inspiration from the EC Comics The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.
What is your favorite episode from Creepshow? What is your favorite horror movie anthology? Let me know in the comments.
Derek Austin Johnson has lived most of his life in the Lone Star State. His work has appeared in The Horror Zine, Rayguns Over Texas!, Horror U.S.A.: Texas, Campfire Macabre, The Dread Machine, and Generation X-ed.
He lives in Central Texas.