Friday, January 22, 2010

The Unholy Trinity

I grew up in an era rich in great horror movies.  From the mid 60s to the mid 80s the movie-going public was plagued with nightmares thanks to Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary's Baby, Halloween, and many others.

This obviously influenced my tastes, as all horror films I see have to be compared to great movies from this era and especially these three that I hold dearest to my dark heart-  

The Unholy Trinity of Horror:
The Exorcist
The Shining

I would stand these three films against any horror films ever made.  All three deeply affected the public when they came out and have stood the test of time to this day.  Two of them were made by two of my favorite directors of all time - Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott. My nightmares and waking fears continue to be dominated by themes explored in all three of these dark tales.
The Exorcist (1973) hit theaters like an ill wind blowing through town.  Reports ran rampant about people vomiting, fainting, even damaging theaters in an uproar.  At the film's premiere in Rome, a huge cross atop a sixteenth century church was struck by lightning and fell to the ground in the piazza across from the Metropolitan Theater where people were gathering to see the show.

Its themes of demonic possession and adolescent sexuality shocked the public in 1973, and continue to reverberate through today's horror films.  It didn't hide evil within allegory or psychology and was unabashedly graphic in its depictions of possession.  Evil is here and it lives among us - whether we believe in it or not.

Alien (1979) targeted the most primal dread that all animals share - being stalked by something in the dark.
It is bigger than us.
It is faster than us.
It is deadlier than us.
It wants to kill us.
It can't get any more basic than that.

But what makes Alien such a masterpiece is that Ridley Scott took a stripped-down grade-B pulp sci-fi horror story and enveloped it within an incredibly rich and detailed environment that elevated the horror film to the level of art.  He envisioned the Nostromo, the planet, the alien spacecraft and the alien itself (along with the tremendous contributions of H.R. Giger, Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, Moebius and others) with a level of precision and an eye for detail that bordered on fetishism.  And then within this densely realized background, he had his actors behave matter-of-fact - it was like watching cinema verite acting within the most fantastical settings you could imagine.

This unique combination - the mundane among the fantastic - suckered the viewer into a sense of familiarity and realism.  And once the viewer had accepted Ridley's vision of the future as being "real", he could then unleash the Alien and pour the horror down their throats.  Game over.

The Shining (1980) was Stanley Kubrick's only foray into horror.  He took the Stephen King book (which I consider to be his best and scariest) and enriched it with the Kubrick signature style.  Although some fans (me included) were initially put off by Kubrick's vision, in time his movie has come to be appreciated for its depth and complexity.

While the book was mostly a story about a troubled caretaker and the haunted hotel that engulfs him, Kubrick's version really honed in on the issues of alcoholism and child abuse.  At the heart of this is one of my greatest fears - that of somehow doing harm to my own family.  Kubrick helped to elevate the horror film to a respected level, since if the master allowed himself to work in this genre, it should no longer be relegated to the realm of drive-in movies and shlock double-bills.  Notably, this film made the first widespread use of the steadycam -especially the remarkable tracking shots following Danny as he meandered his way through the Overlook Hotel on his bigwheel.

The one thing that elevates these three great movies for me is that they all took their ideas very seriously and did not fall into the common traps of cheap scares, paper-thin characters or badly conceived monsters that plague so many horror films.

I was fortunate to grow up when I did and have these movies influence me at an early age.  My folks took me to see Alien when I was 13.  My best friend's mother took us to see the Shining when I was 14.  Thankfully I didn't see The Exorcist when it first came out (I would have been 7), but certainly heard about it and was scared even by second-hand reports.  If I had been born earlier, these three movies may have been Psycho, The Haunting, and Night of The Living Dead.  If I had been born later, perhaps Jacob's Ladder, Blair Witch Project, and The Sixth Sense.  But for me, I always come back to The Unholy Trinity when I want to know how it should be done... or I just want to feel like a 13 year old in a dark dark theater, crouching in my seat, peeking through my hands.


  1. I remember my first.

    It was The Thing. And it rocked.
    Good thing that horror movies are getting a revival now in the 2000 era.

    Seriously, the amount of horror released every year is quite astounding, and not all of them are slashers either!

  2. Interesting selection. I was never a horror fan, perhaps due to a weak-ish stomach, but I've been trying to see some of the genre classics recently. I saw the extended version of The Shining at IFC, and it was amazing, especially on a big screen.

    I find this movie tends to polarize both film fans and Kubrick fans. Its status as a genre film and an auteur staple makes its status unpredictable: most Kubrick fans think of it as one of his lesser films, except a few who really like how raw it is, and think of it as one of his greatest; most horror people dislike it (being fans of gore and shock cinema these days), but some, like yourself, see it as one of the best in the genre, probably responding (as I do) to its intense artistic vision and commitment.

    Anyway, cheers on the picks. Been too long since I've seen Alien, and I've never quite gotten up the nerve to see The Exorcist. Soon, maybe.

  3. Not a horror fan either, but love both directors, and into sci-fi...but I think another *key* factor in Alien, in addition to the texture obsession, is that Sigourney Weaver, in a part originally written for a man, is allowed to be 'normal' as in human, versus some tarted Hollywoodized stereotype of a 'normal woman' who happens to be human. But yup, game over.