Werewolves were hardly a fresh idea when John Landis helmed his mega-influential “An American Werewolf in London,” but it was one of the only movies of the modern era to do a faithful call-back to George Waggner’s “The Wolf Man,” the first picture to ever show the carnal transformation of a man into a bloodthirsty creature. Like that famed identity from the 30s, the villain in Landis’ outing is not an unknown source: it is the cursed alter ego of the protagonist, who undergoes the painful transformation as a result of a near-fatal encounter in the early scenes. “Beware the moon, lads,” a bar patron at a local pub ominously warns two Americans as they prepare to continue their hike through the Yorkshire countryside. Walking silently among rural shadows, a howl in the distance begins to sound. It moves in – closer and closer, until a violent attack ensues and one of them is killed. Gunshots ring out just as the second is mauled, but he survives. And so begins another glimpse into the world of the mythical lycanthrope, told from the rare perspective of a man who walks around knowing what he carries, but is uncertain about what it might cost him until far too late.
What a strange and surreal experience it can be to look upon George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” in the here and now, so long after zombie culture has ingrained itself firmly in our minds and our sense of cynicism has caught up to its underlying influence. All the obligatory questions emerge before a single frame has transpired. What does a dated relic from the era of indie counter-culture have to offer us now? Aren’t we too desensitized to be shocked or dismayed? Does any of the material on screen resonate in any way, especially given how effortlessly its grim sensibilities have been upstaged by dozens of indirect remakes, sequels and modern interpretations through the years? In almost every conversation about the most prolific of horror sub-genres, the popular benchmark is usually spoken of in only passively admiring terms. Many, including self-appointed experts on the pseudo-politics of the walking dead, are inclined to dismiss it on the grounds of its amateur values, downplaying the matter for the favor of the more technically-competent – and challenging – endeavors. Perhaps they are the sorts raised in the shadow of the much more well-regarded “Dawn of the Dead,” which was the first of Romero’s zombie films to add the much-lauded sardonic cultural subtext to the ambitious flesh-ripping violence.
A plethora of fatal traumas attach themselves to dimwitted movie characters who dare to commune with the afterlife. Whether the opportunity comes from having paranormal ability, involving the talents of psychics or those ominous Ouija boards, the very act of drifting to the beyond and making contact with the dead has rarely proven lucrative, even for those who might do so for the means of plausible unfinished business. Yet such individuals hopelessly cling to the conceit that their experiences can be different than all which have preceded them, perhaps because the knowledge of existing ordeals and mistakes has compelled extra caution in the matter. Those are the sorts of people you rarely see in sequels to horror films – because unlike flesh-and-blood madmen who can be escaped or fought against, an evil force from the nether-world rarely gives up until they’ve claimed their target as a prize.
The key distinction between the original “Halloween” and “Psycho,” the movie it is most closely associated with, comes down to a need (or lack thereof) to understand the psychological motives of the villain. When it first caught audiences off guard in the fall of 1978, John Carpenter’s influential slasher was riding a new wave of reality-grounded horror films foreshadowed by the arrival of Norman Bates – ones that involved everyday people quietly evolving into the deviant madmen of old legends and bedtime stories. While it was always a given these individuals would become loathsome homicidal killers, now we were asking ourselves how we could not recognize the signs. Was there something in their genetic makeup that inspired the shift? A situation that destroyed their stability? Or gradual stressors no one else was seeing? Well before the era of criminal profiling made madmen of the flesh relatable, all we could do was study, ponder and then wait for the experts to assess the matter in pointed and revealing monologues. But the arrival of the Michael Meyers persona represented a startling shift away from the gray areas of movie villain psychology. When Dr. Loomis (Donald Sutherland), the man studying Meyers, is asked early on about what caused such a shy and quiet boy to murder his older sister in cold blood, his conclusion contradicts the very teachings of his profession. To him, there is nothing behind Michael’s eyes other than the dead and thoughtless conviction of a monster – a literal personification of evil, long detached from the human he once was.
It comes to our notice early on in Ti West’s “X” that his probable casualties are far from being conventional pop-up targets. They occupy space in the movie with a sort of cheery displacement, fully cognizant of the danger that comes with their situation without letting their behaviors be entirely dictated by it. The scene: six young Texans with a penchant for southern euphemisms gather in a van, drive out into the country and rent the spare house on the property of an elderly couple – one of whom always seems to answer the door while holding a shotgun. Their objective: to turn this rickety old acquisition into the setting of an amateur porno, populated by aspiring adult film actors who have tagged along for their own slice of fame in the new frontier of home video. The ringleader, Wayne (Martin Henderson), foresees all the obligatory elements of fortune in this undertaking, but what he and the rest of his entourage are not able to successfully predict is that they’ve wandered into yet another backwoods nightmare of violent mayhem. The surprise, this time, is that they don’t go down without at least holding their own intellectually against the morose and cynical hunters they are destined to confront.
25 years ago today, a young inexperienced journalist with a passion for gabbing about film took to the Internet on a journey to add his voice to the growing throng of web-based personalities, and yet another new amateur movie blogger was born. Eventually branding himself a “Cinemaphile” – that is, someone who prefers the experience of watching films in theaters instead of at home – he became tirelessly motivated by the panache of more experienced critics while he was formulating his own distinct voice, one that sought to add a little flair and wit to the mix while mirroring the values of an eccentric juvenile. Sometimes that aroused anger in readers, other times surprise and dismay. But it was all part of being in a fun and exciting new frontier, back when cyberspace was mostly in the grasp of computer nerds and the clap-backs came from genuine, hardcore film buffs. They didn’t just argue or dismiss a review, either. Some of them added enlightening contexts that were previously lacking, or at least had the patience to educate their target instead of just cutting him or her down to size. Those exchanges reflected the unspoken importance of criticism in a time when the validity of it was coming into doubt, just as the online world was allowing an entire generation of spectators to plug in and add their voice to a crowd of millions.