Horror movie fest: Dread in the dark

Posted: March 14, 2014 at 2:32 a.m.

Movie poster for Eric England’s Contracted

Movie poster for Eric England’s Contracted

For the last few weeks I’ve been seeing trailers for the Little Rock Horror Picture Show before the PM Gathr film previews I host every Thursday evening at the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock’s River Market area. (Self-promoting plug alert: You should come, you can find details online at PM gathr.us. Some really good movies coming up, including TheRaid 2 and Hide Your Smiling Faces.)

Among the horror choices are All Cheerleaders Die by Lucky McKee (May, The Woman) and Chris Sivertson (I Know Who Killed Me), a remake of a video-shot film they originally made in 2001 that looks to be a pulpy, smeary high school sex-revenge-slasher kick. Ti West’s Sacrament appears to be based on the Jim Jones mass murder. There are a couple of pregnancy anxiety films and the documentary As the Palaces Burn, which started out as a conventional rock ’n’ roll tour souvenir for fans but turned into a legal thriller when Lamb of God lead singer Randy Blythe was charged in the death of a 19-year-old fan who died after Blythe pushed him off the stage during a concert inthe Czech Republic.

The festival will take place Thursday-March 23 at the Robinson Theater. Daily passes are $20 each and a three day pass is $50. You can buy them online at tinyurl.com/ opue6ts.)

I appreciate well-made horror films, especially low-budget films, such as Russellville native Eric England’s Cronenbergesque Contracted (to be released on DVD Tuesday), which is as much character study as gory ickfest (though it has those moments as well). But I’m not a huge fan of the genre.

I know that a lot of you are. Our first stories were horror tales - Beowulf, “St. George and the Dragon,” “Hansel and Gretel.” Because our world is a dangerous place and there is much we can’t control, we manufacture scary stories to empower ourselves. In the end, scary movies make us feel better about ourselves; they provide the same sort of cathartic thrills as theme park roller coasters. We know we are safe so long as we keep our heads and arms inside the car at all times, but there is a part of our brain that experiences illusion as reality. We make ourselves afraid in order to feel the ensuing rush of endorphins.

The horror genre is also a great place for an aspiring filmmaker to start because it offers conventions to follow and subvert. (And because they sound like they might be fun to make, you might be more likely to coax your friends into providing their skill sets for free.) Making a horror film is a little like writing a sonnet; there are certain conditions that must be fulfilled. Working in the genre doesn’t limit how much you can achieve, it only forecloses certain options. Given the requisite talent and drive, you can make a great film about monsters and murderers.

But movies are by their very nature resistible. Just as you don’t have to buy a ticket to any given film, you don’t have to make yourself available to any given film’s advances. There’s always an escape hatch, a well-lighted exit sign the moviegoer can escape through if he wishes.

And while a movie might startle you with pop-out ghosts and ringing phones, or shock you with escalated levels of gore and violence, the key to a genuinely scary movie is the voluntary enlistment of the audience in the cause. We have to want to be scared.

Movies don’t usually scare me. Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead were exceptions, Wait Until Dark made me jump, and Ken Russell’s The Devils unnerved me, but I wasn’t really scared by Jaws or The Shining or any of the usual suspects. This is likely due to a certain moviewise reluctance I have to giving myself over to a film too cheaply. But I may be a little vain about my expectations.

The Exorcist succeeded in disrupting my sleep habits not because of its special effects or shock shots but through the pervasive atmosphere of tension and dread director William Friedkin was able to build and sustain. The movie builds slowly, almost subconsciously, through the funereal pacing of the first hour of the three-part structure. Friedkin manipulates our mood, punctuating his oppressive tone with torrents of graphic language and grisly atrocities inflicted upon Linda Blair’s preteen Regan MacNeil.

I wouldn’t dispute the conventional wisdom that The Exorcist is the scariest movie ever, although I suspect that many of the young people who see the movie for the first time might not experience it the same way those of us who saw it in the ’70s experienced it. I’ve not encountered too many movies since that met my standards for authentic scariness.

One that did creep me out, however, was Spoorloos, a 1988 Dutch-French production also known as The Vanishing. Five years later, director George Sluizer remade the film for Hollywood, but that version - with its Hollywood ending - hardly made a dent in my consciousness. The understated original, with its unknown (to me, at least) cast and low-tech documentary-style textures, is a haunting, spooky movie that will freeze your heart.

If you allow it to.

Email: pmartin@arkansasonline.com


MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 03/14/2014