Tag Archives: horror movies

The Urban Legends of Halloween

The piece originally appeared on iHorror.

John Carpenter’s Halloween is one of the most revered horror films of all time, and in its wake came a surfeit of masked slashers attempting to replicate its success – most of them failing, more often than not.

There are a lot of components to Halloween which makes it such an effective film, from Carpenter’s piercing score to Dean Cundey’s eerie night-time cinematography to the terrifying, emotionless white mask Michael Myers wears – and all of it plays a part in creating a winning final product.

But the thing that makes Halloween such an enduring film – something these lesser copycats failed to realize – was Carpenter’s simple approach to the story. At its core, Halloween is an urban legend – more specifically, several urban legends rolled into one. It’s made up of the same stuff you’d tell around the campfire to spook your friends – a practice I’m sure has been around since campfires existed. In essence, Halloween is composed of the immortal substance that has terrified generations for centuries. Deep-rooted, primal fears that are utterly ingrained in our being. You can’t get much scarier than that.

These are the urban legends that make up Halloween.

The Creepy Old House

“Lonnie Elam said never to go up there. Lonnie Elam said that’s a haunted house. He said real awful stuff happened there once.”

This is what little Tommy Doyle warns his babysitter Laurie Strode as they pass by the dilapidated Myers house, for Myers is The Boogeyman, a tale as old as time. This is also a prime example of the urban legend theme that runs through Halloween, showcasing exactly how such legends are spread: by word of mouth.

So and so told me.

I know someone whose sister knows someone who said…

I heard it from a friend.

Think back to when you were a kid, racing through the neighborhood on your Huffy. Was there a scary house you and your friends avoided? Or maybe you stopped there just long enough in hopes to catch a glimpse of the witch or creepy old man who lived there? Of course. Every subdivision has a spooky house at the end of the block, one that youngsters warn each other to avoid. And how do the other kids know to avoid it? Well, they heard it from a friend…

The Escaped Mental Patient

The Hook” is possibly one of the most famous urban legends and you’ve likely heard one of its many incarnations at some point: young lovers on a secluded road hear a report over their car radio that a madman with a hook for a hand has escaped from the local sanitarium. Soon after, they hear a scratching at the car door. The horny boyfriend, desperate to get some action, tells the girlfriend not to worry – but she insists they leave, and so they do. The rejected boyfriend alleviates his tantrum by putting the pedal to the metal. Later, they find a bloody hook dangling from the handle of the car door.

It’s clear how the escaped mental patient aspect of this legend applies to Halloween, including the unforeseen danger lurking outside the car: who can forget the chest-clenching scene where Michael first breaks out of Smith’s Grove sanitarium and monkeys his way on top of the parked station wagon that’s there to transport him to trial?

But let’s not overlook the sex = death aspect of the hook story. The whole reason the teens in the tale survive is that, ultimately, they didn’t have sex. Purity is a generally agreed upon theme in Halloween – the teens who have sex and do drugs die, the ones who don’t (Laurie) live. I tend to disagree; I believe the real cause of the murders is irresponsibility – but I digress. (Also, the radio announcer alerting of an escaped mental patient, followed immediately by the listener’s death, is a scene directly from 1981’s Halloween II.)

Cars continue to play a big role in both urban legends and Halloween, such as in the case of…

The Killer in the Backseat

As the legend goes, a person (usually a woman) is driving home when a car suddenly pulls up close behind her, flashing its lights and honking its horn. Terrified, the woman races home, all while the mysterious car follows. She gets home, jumps out of her car, and runs to her door. Later, she discovers the car that was tailing her was trying to warn her…about the man with a knife crouching in her backseat.

Halloween‘s poor Annie Brackett isn’t lucky enough to have someone warn her about the killer hiding in her backseat. Instead, she’s allowed only a moment of confusion sitting in the driver’s seat, perplexed by the condensation that has formed on the inside of the car windows…just before Michael Myers springs up behind her with a knife. (It should be noted that the murderous backseat character in these urban legends is almost always an escaped mental patient.)

Cars aren’t the only recurring theme in both Halloween and many urban legends – so are phones.

The Babysitter & the Man Upstairs

Now we get to the nucleus of Halloween‘s urban legend roots: the babysitter in peril. While creepy phone calls had popped up before – most notably in 1974’s Black Christmas – it was Halloween that established a babysitter as the innocent victim on the end of the receiver. It’s so entwined with this particular urban legend that John Carpenter originally titled the screenplay The Babysitter Murders. Alas, the producer didn’t like it, and wanted it changed – but the theme remained the same. (It’s worth noting that director Fred Walton shot a short film, The Sitter, in 1977, which is based directly on “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” urban legend – and after seeing the success of Carpenter’s Halloween – decided to turn it into a full length film: When a Stranger Calls.)

The legend here actually isn’t as much a legend as it is a true story with a few embellishments. But the dressed-up version of the story follows a young female babysitter who receives numerous creepy phone calls from a stranger who keeps warning her to “check on the children”. Eventually, she calls the cops and they trace the call, resulting in the memorable line: “Get out! The calls are coming from inside the house!”

Michael Myers doesn’t actually call and harass Laurie Strode about the kids she’s babysitting – in fact, the relation of this legend to the movie is restricted solely to the “maniac stalking the babysitter” element – but still, there is a lot of phone play in Halloween. At one point, Annie – chewing a mouthful of food – calls Laurie, who mistakes the muffled sounds for an obscene caller. This plays a pivotal part later in the movie, and results in our final urban legend, a crossover of sorts…

The Roommate’s Death

Lovable airhead, Lynda Van der Klok, has just finished making love with her boyfriend Bob, who has headed downstairs to grab some beer. He soon appears in the bedroom door frame again, this time fully decked out in a sheet with eye holes. Only, that isn’t Bob playing ghost – it’s Michael Myers. Lynda doesn’t realize this of course and sits down by the phone to call Laurie to see if she’s heard from Annie. By the time Laurie picks up on the other end, Michael has wrapped the phone cord around Lynda’s neck and is choking her to death. All Laurie hears on her is moaning and gurgling – which she mistakes for Annie pranking her, a callback to earlier in the film.

Laurie ignores the threat but later discovers Lynda dead. This is related to the urban legend “The Roommate’s Death“, which sees a pair of college roommates alone in their dorm for the holiday weekend. One roommate leaves to grab some snacks, the other stays behind. Soon, the roommate in bed hears scratching and gurgling at the door – a warning she ignores. In the morning, she discovers her friend on the other side of the door, dead – throat slashed by a madman.

Halloween is so successful in terrifying us because it consists of all those tales we’ve been scaring each other with since swapping stories on the schoolyard. Stalkers, haunted houses, and boogeyman in the closet.

You could argue that urban legends and horror films share a similar three-tiered structure: interdiction, violation, and consequences. That is to say, characters who ignore the warnings, then willfully violate the warnings, and ultimately pay the price. But one thing is certain: horror films share the same function as urban legend – they’re intended not only to scare but also to warn.

Just like little Tommy Doyle tried to warn Laurie that The Boogeyman really existed.

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(More) VILE VALENTINES!

Happy Valentine’s Day, you sick freaks!

When I started Camera Viscera two years ago (time flies when you’re droning on about horror movie memories from your childhood, huh?), I designed a few Valentine’s Day cards (“Vile Valentines”, I dubbed them) and posted them to the site, free to share, email, or print out and trade. That first run only consisted of 11 “cards”. They were neat, but unfortunately I made them very small in size. You can find them all HERE.

The next year, I decided to do it again even though the first batch barely made a blip on anyone’s radar (let alone, CV’s SEO). This subsequent collection proved to be much more successful, thanks mostly to several popular horror sites posting about them and sharing them. I made 16 of ’em that go ’round, and made them 2.5″ x 3.5″ – the size of actual valentines you could buy at the store. You can find those HERE.

And now, here we are, two years later – and I’ve done it again! The designs are similar to what I did last year, with a few minor tweaks. I’ve included all new horror icons – no repeats from any of the prior years – and I’ve upped the stack to the arbitrary number of 22! They’re big, they’re colorful, and they’re dumb – the perfect way to tell someone “I kind of tolerate you”! So share ’em, email ’em, line your bird cage with ’em — just enjoy them!

STUFF THAT SCARED ME: The Brood

Growing up in an excessively-permissive household – one where I was allowed to watch any movie or read any magazine I wanted without so much as a second glance  – was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it was (obviously) totally unbelievably awesome: while my friends were stuck watching kiddie fluff, Disney flicks, and PG-rated fare with their parents (how embarrassing), here I was – the envy of all other first graders – reading FANGORIA Magazine and watching horrific movies and TV shows via early-’90s HBO, all on my own. (You KNOW I never missed my Saturday night showing of Tales from the Crypt.) Continue reading STUFF THAT SCARED ME: The Brood

Criterion Horror Films!

title

When I think of The Criterion Collection, I think of high art. I think of pristine celluloid and perfectly framed shots sandwiched between thick, black widescreen bars. I think historic, I think epic, I think intelligence. Nose-in-the-air type stuff.

What I don’t think of is ooze, satan-worshipping, hyper-violence or James Woods sticking his hand inside of his own stomach. But believe it or not, all of those things (and more) can be found under the Criterion umbrella! It’s like going over to the class valedictorian’s house and seeing that they have a Basket Case poster on their bedroom wall.

David Lynch, Brian De Palma, Guillermo del Toro, David Fincher, Danny Boyle, and Paul Verhoeven all have Criterion films to their name (and David Cronenberg has four, wow!)

Here’s a short list of some of my favorite Criterion horror flicks. The list is actually much, much longer – and you can find all the titles on the Criterion site as well as their Wikipedia page – but I thought this little list would be a good place to start.

dln

I often preach the greatness of this 1973 Nicolas Roeg shocker. Though not outright labeled as one, it feels like a giallo film – due mainly to the mysterious, raincoat-shrouded character Donald Sutherland hunts around the canals of Italy. Solid flick with plenty of twists and freaky revelations.

hausu

The first time I saw this film was in a theater packed full of horror fans, and I’m pretty sure I was half in the bag. The main thing I took away from the viewing was how funny the film was – not only by my own drunken interpretation, but also the uproarious laughter from the crowd. The bizarre imagery, the bits of dialogue lost in translation, the goofy score – what a funny, weird film! However, it wasn’t until last year, when I saw the Criterion analysis of the film, that I came to realize how truly horrifying it is. I suggest watching the film without any insight, and then rewatching it after viewing the analysis.

lamb

Pecker-tucking, cannibalism, airborne semen, the c-word, fat jokes, and Tom Petty’s “American Girl”. All in a Criterion movie! This is definitely one of the more understandable entries on this list – after all, Silence of the Lambs did win five Oscars the year it came out. But that just brings up another great milestone: a horror movie sweeping the Academy Awards!

video

As mentioned above, Cronenberg has a staggering four films on the Criterion list. That’s more than Bernardo Bertolucci, Miloš Forman, or Stanley Kubrick! Cronenberg’s other films on the list include Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, and the amazingly gory Scanners. It’s nice to see body horror, exploding heads, and utter mindfuckery get the kudos it deserves from such a distinguished company.

tom

This film was so controversial when it was released in 1960 that it effectively ruined director Michael Powell’s career. If that’s not enough to get you to watch this movie, I don’t know what to tell you. I love this flick! It is often compared to Psycho, despite beating that film to the theaters by two months. With wide vocal support from both Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese, this movie is one of the great proto-slashers. At one point, zomfather George A. Romero was rumored to be remaking it, but so far nothing has come of that. Watch it!

hunter

This is another film that I totally understand its place in the Criterion Collection. It’s beautifully shot in stark black and white, casting ominous shadows over dark secrets like a flawless film noir should. And Robert Mitchum is perfectly terrifying as the murderous con-man trying to swindle a pair of farm kids out of their dead dad’s hidden loot.

baby

I can understand why waifish middle-class debutante Mia Farrow would be so appalled at discovering she had been incubating Satan in her womb for the past 9 months (spoiler!), but can you imagine if Rosemary had been played by one of those Old Milwaukee-fueled dudines from Heavy Metal Parking Lot? She’d be stoked! As previously mentioned, it’s nice to see devil-worshipping be presented in such a highfalutin way.

saloBased on the synonymous book by the Maquis de Sade, this movie features all sorts of stuff your grandma would probably frown at: sadism, graphic violence, sexual depravity, and forcing little kids to eat platefuls of boom-boom. So naturally it should wind up in the Criterion Collection, a list self-described as “important classic and contemporary films for film aficionados”. Just what I love: artful smut!

Sure, this list loses some of its oomph when you realize both Kevin Smith and Michael Bay both have films on the Criterion list. Kinda makes you wonder who was behind the wheel when those decisions were made. But look: any collection that features The Blob (1958), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and Fiend Without a Face, and is intended for only the most discerning of film snobs — that’s a pretty dang alright list in my book.

Dr. Jose’s Top 10 on Halloween Love

your-choice-dr-jose-horror-top-tenHalloween Love was gracious enough to ask me for a Top 10 list of horror movies I love – but to provide ones I wouldn’t instantly spit out when asked for a list. Maybe the tertiary ones, the ones that are sitting under a thick layer of dust in my cobweb-filled cranium. The ones that still blow me away even if I don’t immediately think of them.

So go, read! And follow Halloween Love on Twitter and Facebook! Don’t be a dummy, all the cool kids are doing it!