Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Halloween Bash...John Everson and The Seduction of Horror Film… Unchained.

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The Seduction of Horror Film… Unchained.
By John Everson

I am a Eurotrash film fanatic.
There. I've said it. I've confessed. Give me '70s horror/exploitation films from Italy and France… or give me death. You can quote me on that. 
You want to talk Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, Jean Rollin, Jess Franco, Harry Kumel, José Ramón Larraz? I'm your guy. Come into my basement, won't you?
Be careful. This could be you someday. 

Maybe it starts innocently with the Universal Frankenstein or Dracula. Maybe it grows up with you, and progresses through the Hammer Films versions of the same names. Maybe it is still with you as an adult, and wades through 30 years of Hollywood generic trash only to finally realize that the best films are often those made on a low budget with only half-believable effects - but they work and engage the viewer because they were made from the heart. By people who truly believed in their art and vision.
What is that "it" I'm talking about? 
I don't know, exactly. But "it" started out for me as the side of my brain that loved the strange, the unconventional, the gothic. It is a love of the thrill of spookiness. Of the romance of dark castles and the promise of everlasting life… or not-life (sometimes called, the undead). "It" is the thrill of encountering the unknown.
As a horror author, everyone asks me why? Why do you like horror? Why do you want to see skulls and monsters and things that are creepy and dangerous?
I don't know, really. It's not like I want to die. It's not like I'm fascinated with pain or blood; heck, I've gotten faint a couple times when I got a bad cut and saw it running down my leg. 
Still, I am always drawn to the thrill provided by the macabre. I blame the stories I read as a kid by Roald Dahl. And Richard Matheson. I blame "Twilight Zone," and "The Outer Limits," "One Step Beyond" and especially "Creature Features."
When I was a kid, we had "Creature Features" in Chicago, a TV show on the weekends that showed all the old black and white monster movies. I loved them. The fuzzy grey backdrops of all those castles and crypts? They were exotic and beautiful to me. Strange beauty. The worlds of monster movies to me were a portal to places far outside of my dull life -- places where the unusual could happen. Where magic was possible. I think I grew up to love horror (supernatural and monster horror, not serial killer stuff, which is kind of mundane and “real”) because it really hinges on the idea that there is something more beyond this. It says that the gutters in the street may lead to a secret necropolis where strange creatures live. It says that the crypts beneath the old church may hold some bizarre spark of life from another eon yet. The idea that there is more to this world than the pedestrian is like a drug to me.

I love horror – especially non-pedestrian horror -- because it promises that life may be more than going to work in an office Monday-Friday and cutting the grass on Saturday. That an entire other world may exist of spells and magic and creatures.  Who wouldn't like to have a witch living in an old tilted house at the end of their subdivision? Sure, it would bring a tinge of danger to your everyday life… but it would bring magic too. And what good is magic without a little danger in it, to spark things up a little?
That's the appeal of horror and Halloween… the patron day of horror. 
I watch horror movies all year long, but October is naturally, my favorite season. Haunted houses and creepy decor abound and spook stories are everywhere. Halloween is like most people’s Christmas to me.
I watched the Universal and Hammer horror films growing up, and then spent quite a few years watching the horror films of Hollywood in the '90s. After awhile… I grew immune to them. They were predictable, every one feeling the same. Those sharp, shock surprises, were no surprise. In the modern age, we've really lost the ability to create "lurid" masterpieces that really build on mood.
And so I started looking elsewhere for my horror fix. (This is all a really long way of getting back to my thesis by the way. Don't worry… we're getting closer).
The horror films of the '60s were mired in a fear of the effects of science (radioactively mutated bugs, women, gila monsters, blobs from outer space…) but they managed to maintain a sense of wonder that was entrancing. I loved watching those films as a kid. As an adult though, ultimately, I craved something more.
Horror through the '70s maintained some of that sense of wonder, but it diverged down two paths that were definitely NOT for kids. One was the Texas Chainsaw Massacre style brutal stalker horror film. The other I find more interesting, since it tends to maintain a connection with the supernatural. With the changing acceptance of nudity in film, the "naiveté" of radioactive monster horror movies dissolved and an era of "exploitation" cinema began.  There were vampires and ghouls and witchcraft and there was also… sexuality.  Sexploitation, nunsploitation, and a torrent of Satanic and vampiric movies (filled with wanton flesh and Bacchanalian rituals that could never have been previously filmed) began cropping up. Girls have been showing their boobs in horror movies for decades now, but those first few years when filmmakers around the world realized they could truly create a Satanic orgy on screen, or really sexy vampires and actually release flesh in their films… everything changed. There is an enthusiastic exhibitionist energy about those 1970’s horror/exploitation movies that you just don't find in the films made today. No matter how "out there" modern filmmakers are, they still ultimately tend to show more restraint than some of the horror films of the mid-'70s.  Obviously none of this impacted me at the time that it was being made – I was like, 10!   I was there… but I wasn’t.

I grew up in the '70s, and never saw these films until I was in my 30s and 40s, after being jaded on the films of the '80s and '90s. And while the production values are often poor, and the acting frequently questionable, the directors and writers back then were not held in by boundaries. They experimented with light and music and sexuality in a way filmmakers today almost never do. The '70s were a period in filmmaking that is really fascinating to watch for its explosion of excess, and the filmmakers of Europe were even more unfettered than their American compatriots.
Almost ten years ago, I was doing occasional DVD reviews for the newspaper I worked for, and I received a 3-DVD box set called The Vampire Box. Image had put it together in combination with England's Salvation/Redemption Films. It was comprised of the sensual vampire movies of Jean Rollin, a French filmmaker who gained renown in the '70s and '80s. Rollin's camera is a sensually poetic one; he loved capturing the female form, and had an obsession in all of his films with the bond between two women. Shot against backdrops of real French castles and cemeteries, all of his films feel like strange fever dreams to the modern viewer. Sometimes clumsy, always strange… they were my introduction to European horror and exploitation films. And since then, I've discovered a wealth of other strange productions along the way. Ramaz' Vampyres is one of the sexiest, evocative vampire movies ever filmed, and it's paired on some releases with Daughters of Darkness, an almost "cold" erotic horror movie that updates the Countess Bathory story.

Then there are the late '70s Dario Argento horror films, which focus on color and blood and gloved killers. I'm not usually a fan of the serial killer genre, but Argento's films drew me in, especially when he deals more with the supernatural, as in Suspiria, or the psychic bug-driven plot of Phenomenon.
How about Lucio Fulci, who's known for his Zombie 2 color reprisal of Night of the Living Dead, but made a film called The Beyond that literally uncaps the doorway to hell?
You have to see these movies if you are really a horror fan. They are all flawed. And yet, they are in so many ways so much more interesting than the latest paint-by-number effects-laden mousetraps that Hollywood produces.
So in some ways… I guess as I’m aging, I'm doomed to rediscovering the past. My own past. And the past has certainly influenced my writing along the way. I wrote The 13th after about a six-month stretch of constantly watching Euro-horror films. And I tried to approach my new novel, NightWhere with the kind of manic abandon that some of my favorite crazy old films displayed.
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My biggest fear now? There were only so many movies shot in the '70s, no matter how obscure. And with every over-the-top "I can't believe they did that" movie that I discover from the dust bins of Eurotrash… I worry that that is the last one of its kind that I haven’t already seen.
Luckily, so far, I keep stumbling on one more. And one more. The good thing is, I have a horrible memory, so by the time I've mined it out and watched all the Eurosleaze treasure there is to find… I guess I'll be able to just start over!
My assignment for you? This Halloween, if you've not seen a Rollin or Fulci or Franco… seek some of the following list out. Kick back with a beer or a bourbon in a dark room, put your mind on hold, and prepare yourself for a trip through the surreal, sometimes seedy celluloid past when all the bonds came off. And please, watch them subtitled where appropriate. Hear the soundtrack and actors’ voices as they were meant to be heard, not embarrassing dubs.
So here is my list for you to get you started -- 10 films from 5 directors, none of which are too hard to find, but provide a good entree into the world of Eurotrash horror. You can even find some of them on Blu-Ray now:

1. Jean Rollin - Living Dead Girl or Fascination
2. Lucio Fulci - The Beyond or House by the Cemetery
3. Jess Franco -- Female Vampire or A Virgin Among the Living Dead
4. José Ramón Larraz -- Vampyres or Black Candles
5. Paul Morrissey -- Flesh for Frankenstein or Blood for Dracula

Dark, twisted dreams.

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 John Everson is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the horror novel COVENANT, as well as its sequel SACRIFICE and the novels THE 13TH, SIREN, THE PUMPKIN MAN and NIGHTWHERE. He has also written several horror/dark fantasy short story collections, as well as a heartwarming collection of CHRISTMAS TALES for the whole family, and a short book for 5-8-year-olds called PETEYBOO AND THE WORM.
John shares a deep purple den in Naperville, Illinois with a cockatoo and cockatiel, a disparate collection of fake skulls, twisted skeletal fairies, Alan Clark illustrations and a large stuffed Eeyore. There's also a mounted Chinese fowling spider named Stoker, an ever-growing shelf of custom mix CDs and an acoustic guitar that he can't really play but that his son likes to hear him beat on anyway. Sometimes his wife is surprised to find him shuffling through more public areas of the house, but it's usually only to brew another cup of coffee. In order to avoid the onerous task of writing, he occasionally records pop-rock songs in a hidden home studio, experiments with the insatiable culinary joys of the jalapeno, designs book covers for a variety of small presses, loses hours in expanding an array of gardens and chases frequent excursions into the bizarre visual headspace of '70s euro-horror DVDs with a shot of Makers Mark and a tall glass of Newcastle.

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  1. Hi John,

    Thanks for the Netflix suggestions. I accept your challenge! Another reason to like 70s horror is the groovy style. Mutton chops! Austen Powers cravats! Joan Collins in a FABULOUS pantsuit, killing her husband in Tales from the Crypt (the movie, 1972). Suspiria is a seriously beautiful movie because of its sets and costumes (don't eat and watch though - the scene where she's flailing around in the razor-wire room put me off my bloody steak dinner)

  2. Hi Naima! Looking forward to hearing what you think of some of those movies! I completely agree - seeing the styles in the older films is a kick; like a glimpse through a window to a place you remember... but don't. And SUSPIRIA (and all of Argento's '70s output) is a gorgeously shot film. Directors were really playing with extremes in color back then as part of their sets.