A disclaimer, the birth of a child at the end of October has meant that I haven’t dedicated my time to the things that really matter: listing. Preparing for and looking after a baby has selfishly taken up my time, apologies reader, so you get this slightly rushed write up straight from my phone as I sit in a hospital room.
Peter Jackson’s masterpiece, Braindead was (for a long time) the bloodiest film ever made. I remember watching Jackson’s debut, Bad Taste (1987), and wanting to share it with my fellow weirdos. Then I saw Braindead and that was everything. Nothing else mattered.
If you like squelch, madness and horror comedy where the comedy is from the horror, you don’t get better than this. It’s the Sam Raimi (more on him later) idea of physical comedy in which custard pies become blood and guts. It’s hard to convince the non-horror crowd to engage with the genre sometimes. The name is a touch misleading as it’s more of a genre of aesthetics and codes than it is one of a central emotion.
It may deal with the conventionally ‘horrifying’ but in the filmic context, what would be a horrifying reality is a delightful experience. The energy of Braindead is undeniable, a spirited romp of blood, blood and blood. A bloody good time.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
As said, horror is aesthetics and codes. Silent horror is the heart of this: beautiful, twisted imagery harnessing the ability of a representative medium to channel the uncanny. The stylisation of German Expressionism is core to what we think about when we think about horror. Art is a lie, just ask Magritte and Orson Welles, and lies reveal truths. The skewed expression of the legendary Caligari is the perfect example of what cinema is best at: presenting interior realities as exterior realities. This subjective space is the heart of horror, as real terrors lie within. Getting them out to the surface is scary but it’s also cathartic.
Did I mention this film is just very cool? It’s very cool. Over 100 years old, still inventive, still singular, still gripping. Its age comforts me, through cinematic history horror has been a staple, and even an artistic staple. It’s a genre that many put down but it’s always been innovative, artistic and daring. At the heart of the defining medium of the 20th Century.
Ganja & Hess
This took me three watches. The first time I didn’t get it, but I respected it. The next day I watched it again and got it. A year or two later I watched it again and realised it’s perfect.
I’m going to say it again, horror is aesthetics and codes. It’s all semiotics. This film is pure semiotics, every frame full of symbolic meaning in a way that means this works through feeling, through essence. It’s a collage of filmic parts, the focus of silent horror sharpens the imagery — this keeps that — and the added soundscape is linked to the same result. A scattershot collage of scattered and chaotic terrors.
The story is about race, history and horror through time. The chronology and clarity are unclear, folding back to its central concerns. When you’re dealing with horror, you’re allowed to be associative, to pursue pure feeling. It is all images that make sense in the moment, or get under your skin by not making sense.
Meshes of the Afternoon
Speaking of images that don’t make sense, do I have a film for you! It’s another classic and it’s a Things (1989) esque kaleidoscope of discord and narrative deconstruction.
You don’t need to know what it means, you know the images resonate and by focusing on fear it speaks truly. Again, silent horror is the purest horror. All you need is some frames that lie and core symbols. Edit it together with a deft, uncanny touch and you’ve got the aforementioned classic.
The peer of associative imagery distilled. Get confused; get scared. That last bit makes sense though, the fear is true even if we lie to get there.
My long established favourite film. Another whirlwind, surrealist tour of the interior as it bubbles over into a cinematic reality. The films I love have images that stick with me, Eraserhead is made solely of these. Like Ganja & Hess, it knows when to use a language more linked with silent cinema and then how to add in a soundscape to make things superlative.
The best surrealism feels like follows an internal logic that is locked off from you. You know it’s not just random, you know it all carries a meaning. The meaning you get from it may differ to that intent and that’s key. Images in the right order speak directly and the associative semiotics of horror gets under our skin.
What does the totality of Eraserhead mean? It doesn’t matter, every moment speaks clearly, speaking to you more directly than anything that explains itself.
Night of the Living Dead
And then it can explain itself directly and work for that reason, too. That’s a duality of horror that I love. It is association and essence, and then it is bluntness, a direct assault on a topic. This film is obviously influential, partly for copyright reasons, and has one of the most important casting decisions in cinema, making for an ending that pushes this film beyond any other version.
The messages feel trite now, we’re the real monsters, etc.. But staring dark truths right in the face is a great thing horror can do, bringing the things we shy away from to the surface. The pandemic logic is also more fascinating now, seeing how narratives spread and how the way events are broadcast defines those events. Prescient stuff about how human’s react under pressure.
Such things to show us! Transgressive and wonderfully squelchy horror that is so enduring due to its focus on pleasure and pain. The twist of the macabre into something decadent, even if depraved, is tantalising. You get so see cool skinless things — always a horror bonus — and you get to feel uncomfortable.
This makes it feel dangerous and tempting. The symbolic puzzle box and the clear Pandora’s Box analogue running through. Horror is enjoyable and this film deals with that dark delight. It’s not about don’t go down there, it’s about how going down there is exciting. Danger worked through on screen is tantalising.
It’s not horror and then it is. Which makes it always horror as the absence is why the latter part works. There’s real power in putting on this supposedly extreme film and it just being… Pretty normal for so long. This allows the filmmakers to inflect the everyday with horror. It allows them to find the horror in the central situation.
Consequences usually aren’t as direct as they are in Audition. That’s a fun thing horror can do: shine a violent light on transgression. A man, in this film, objectifies and manipulates the vulnerable for his own wants — or out of societal pressure. It doesn’t work out well. For all the films that romanticise patriarchal impulses, this confronts it and also doesn’t romanticise trauma and abuse. There’s sledgehammer targeting at the end but the target feels under served in film.
It also just rules and is properly, properly scary. An amazing shift towards darkness that makes you realise it was only ever dark, and you reap (in a hyperbolised way) what you sow.
The Evil Dead
I was brought up in a horror film free household. My parents abhor violent media and it was mostly kept away from me. Of course, this made it more tantalising. It honed a taste for the most extreme. This one’s extreme. I love it.
I could talk for hours about why I love this, but that would also be a bit of repeating some of the points made in the Braindead entry. So, here’s why I really love it:
A holiday at home around Christmas, after having been to university (first semester of my first year). I’m sat in a room that connects to the lounge where my parents are watching something. I find this film on a streaming service and watch something I’ve always heard about.
And it is violent. Gosh is it violent. It’s extreme and wonderful. The small barrier between this room and my violent delights and my parents watching something wholesome makes it all the better. I hope they don’t hear anything or pop in for any reason. They wouldn’t get it and the I don’t want that conversation. So there’s another layer to the experience.
A few years later and there’s a royal wedding happening that I totally don’t care about (the older Prince). People are out celebrating that, which seems ridiculous to me. Down with the royals and all. The cinema at the end of our road (my favourite place), The Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, is showing this instead. I convince a friend to go with me, I remember the film being very funny and I sell it as that.
When watching it I notice anew how extreme it is. I worry I’ve made a mistake.
My friend got it. It’s not a comedy but it’s not not a comedy. Let the blood flow.
In the Mouth of Madness
Horror is fun. It’s about the stories we tell and what they reveal about us. What we make matters, the world’s we conjure have a fictive reality that is still a kind of reality. There’s lots to say about how this film is about horror, what horror media does — or is feared to do.
But it’s fun. It’s so fun. Horror is fun. Bringing nightmares into the world is delightful. The hysteria and paranoia around horror is part of the genre, the reactionary disdain creates a group that get it. This film is horror for horror fans from a horror master.
For my Stag do, we rented out a cinema screen and me and some very close friends watched this. We all got it. Even the horror sceptic got it. Collective enjoyment is part of it, a film about horror spreading into the world seen with an audience is the right way. What if horror is dangerous, huh? Isn’t that even scarier…
Isn’t that even better?