Cinema: The Predecessors: They Came from Beyond

  • Share
  • Read Later

Sure, Hollywood can occasionally throw a scare into an audience. The ravenous extraterrestrial in Alien. Jack Nicholson going bonkers in The Shining. The thought of a sequel to Big Daddy. But the scariest cinematic moments, for the most part, have come courtesy of low-budget independent films that, like The Blair Witch Project, arrive unheralded from outside the Hollywood mainstream to chill us with their grungy lack of artistry. These films disorient moviegoers by removing the usual Hollywood guideposts that subtly reassure us it's only a movie: recognizable stars, slick production values and a respect for ordinary dramatic conventions--like the triumph of good over The Evil. Only after we're planted in our seats, eyes bulging out and hands gripping the armrests, do we realize we're at the mercy of people who don't play by the usual rules, who are capable of...anything.

The archetype of these renegade fright fests is Night of the Living Dead, George Romero's 1968 horror film about ghouls who rise from the grave to devour the living. Made by a bunch of unknowns in Pittsburgh, Pa., for a piddling $114,000, the film has a grainy look, cheesy acting and a preposterous premise. But the characters we root for are eliminated with grisly dispatch, and the claustrophobic tension mounts so ruthlessly that many early filmgoers had to leave the theater midway--in shock. Sequels and imitators notwithstanding, it remains the most terrifying movie ever made.

Poverty-row chillers were a staple in the 1950s, with a string of lower-than-lowbrow horror movies by such directors as Roger Corman (Not of This Earth) and William Castle (The Tingler), films that were enjoyable in direct proportion to our sense that they were made without adult supervision. The tradition was carried on by filmmakers like David Cronenberg; though later celebrated for the high-toned horror of The Fly and Dead Ringers, he never matched the shocks of his early, amateurish offerings such as Rabid and They Came from Within. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper in 1974, was almost comical in its killer-on-the-loose hysteria, but it set a new standard for slasher films to come. The masterpiece of the genre remains John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Despite some Hollywood credentials (including a couple of name stars), it was shot for a mere $325,000 and had the deep-focus single-mindedness of a true horror exploiter. Imitators came thick and fast after that; by the time of Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1982), the genre had descended into gruesome lunacy.

The problem with renegade horror, of course, is that it quickly gets domesticated and respectable. Directors such as Hooper and Raimi went on to big budgets and big stars. Horror villains such as Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger became kids' Halloween costumes. The Blair Witch will undoubtedly reappear in a sequel. But nothing will match those first bone-chilling, totally unexpected nights in the woods.

--By Richard Zoglin