The Sarah of the Dead column: taking the sting out of old movies

Sarah might be terrified of the 80s, but that doesn't necessarily mean the horror movies were better back then...

Amityville Horror

The idea that no generation ever understands the culture of the one that comes after it is nothing new. Historians point out that even Emperor Augustus thought that the youth of his day were degenerates, and either every generation since ancient Rome has been more degenerate than the last, or the aging process screws us all up. Still, knowing that doesn’t stop people from pointing out that things in general were better in their day, and horror movies are no exception.

Recently, I’ve been catching up on some ‘classics’ I’d never seen before, after being repeatedly told that I couldn’t be any kind of horror fan if I didn’t know my genre history. See, although my favourite movie of all time was released in 1981, I’ve got a bizarre aversion to most 80s movies, possibly because I had The Last Starfighter, Enemy Territory, and something else equally dreadful but which I’ve happily erased from my memory forced on me within a short period of time. Most horror fans seem to remember most fondly the movies they watched when they were about 15, which puts me firmly in the post-modern Scream camp. And while the odd exceptionally good 80s horror movie can win me over, I’m not old enough to feel any particular nostalgia for the period and therefore can’t just gloss over its (many) faults.

But there’s more than just nostalgia and generational disconnect going on here. The thing is, with horror movies, much of the effect comes down to the element of surprise – both within individual movies, which are usually far scarier the first time you watch them than on repeat viewings, and with whole sub-genres, which get deathly boring after the tenth identical film in a row. Ring might have been terrifying, but by the time KM-31 had rolled around, the soggy dead girl trope was well and truly dead in the water.

(Sorry. Really.)

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I watched the original The Vanishing (aka Spoorloos, which is a great word) for the first time last week. And it was a bit disappointing. It’s a great film, there’s no denying that; it’s clever, and tightly written, and coherent, and generally doesn’t make you worry about the amount of coke the writer and director were doing at the time, which immediately distinguishes it from the vast majority of horror movies that get released nowadays. But the ending, which I’d heard so many people rhapsodising about, didn’t really work for me. It wasn’t that scary. Considering the villain of the piece had stated that what he’d done was the most evil thing he could contemplate, I somehow expected something … nastier. Maybe I’ve seen too many of the recent crop of torture movies, but the ending of The Vanishing just didn’t seem that evil. In fact, I just watched Creepshow a couple of days prior to that, and what Leslie Nielson was doing to his poor victims seemed a lot harsher.

I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, even though The Vanishing came out in 1988, but I know if I’d been spoiled, the ending would have been even more ineffectual (I’ve never seen Psycho properly, for example, but I’ve seen enough clips from it on TV that I’ll never be able to watch it properly). Still, that particular bit of nastiness has been used in other movies more recently, and I feel like I’ve already dealt with it – if that’d been the first time I’d encountered the idea that that could happen, maybe it would have been creepier, but as it stands, it was just kind of an anticlimax.

Which is sad, because like I said, it was otherwise a really good movie.

The other example I was going to use here doesn’t deserve that accolade. Last week, I read The Amityville Horror – the supposedly true story, written by Jay Anson. I actually saw the Ryan Reynolds remake of The Amityville Horror first. Didn’t think much of it, then I saw the 1979 movie and my appreciation for the remake skyrocketed. So when I came to read the book, there was nothing left to scare me. I wish I could have experienced it as people must have done when the book was first published: reading the story for the first time, without knowing it was all a hoax, without knowing what was going to happen at every step of the way. It must have been terrifying. But now, it’s just another badly written book. (And it is really, really badly written. That particular story has spawned a rubbish book and two shitty movies, and really doesn’t deserve to be remembered by future generations at all.)

There are probably other factors that affect the way horror movies affect you. Time of day, general mood, and company can all enhance or completely destroy a horror movie. Special effects date horrifically fast, so badly used CGI or prosthetics can also ruin the mood. But essentially, it seems that, at least as far as horror movies are concerned, familiarity breeds contempt. The next horror movie to scare me will probably have to have something I’ve never seen before…