I’ve been writing this blog for a while now and I always enjoy doing my Halloween specials every year. I really do love horror films and the horror genre as a whole, yet I’ve never really put much thought into how I became a fan of horror films… until recently. I’ve been reminiscing the last week or so on the movies I grew up watching and the flicks that scared me when I was younger. Right here, I’m going to try to create a history in words and pictures form, looking back at just how I became a horror fan. A little journey through my own personal history of watching horror films.
Now, I can’t be 100% sure of the first horror film I ever saw, but I do have vivid memories of moments of my life that are related to horror films and TV. Growing up, we didn’t get a VHS player until the late eighties. So if I did see any horror films before then, it would’ve been on a TV broadcast or at someone else’s house. One memory that instantly comes to mind as I write this, is staying with my grandparents at their house, I was maybe about five or six years-old. Nan would often let me stay up late-ish and watch some TV before bed (don’t tell Mom). I remember one Saturday night when the Spielberg classic, Jaws was on TV. Nan and Granddad must’ve let me stay up late to watch the whole film and I remember Nan going into the kitchen to make a bit of supper, she came back with strawberry jam sandwiches. It was the finale of the film when the shark was attacking the boat, and Robert Shaw’s Quint slid down the deck of the Orca into the shark’s mouth. The great white slammed shut it’s jaws, chomping down on Quint, a small geyser of blood spurts from his mouth as he gets eaten alive. It terrified me… until I looked away from the TV and over to Nan, with strawberry jam purposely dripping from her mouth, making me laugh to help take my mind of the horror I just saw.
I was around the same age when I first saw a scene in a film that both scared and mesmerised me. It was a sleep over at my Aunt and Uncle’s house, me, my two brothers and our two cousins. My Aunt and Uncle had a VHS player and would often rent out tapes from a local shop down the road, that’s how I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. As terrifying as the Nazi face-melting finale is in that film, it’s not the one that I’m talking about now. I’m talking about a dog’s head being split open.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my all time favourite horror films. There’s this one particular scene from that film is one that is burnt into my memory forever. That cute Vancouver Island wolf-Alaskan Malamute cross breed, played by Jed (he even has his own Wikipedia page) was adorable. Unbeknown to us viewers and the characters in the film at the time, that cute dog had been assimilated by an alien. Soon after finding refuge with the humans, that little doggie turns inside out. It’s an amazing piece of special effects work that I feel still holds up today. Yeah, it scared me as a kid, but I also found it strangely beautiful to watch too. It’s that moment before the dog becomes the full on The Thing, as it is transforming and the head splits open like a peeled banana that has really stuck with me all these years. That one specific shot only takes up a few seconds of a much bigger scene, but those few seconds are firmly ingrained into my mind. I have been fascinated with practical effects work in horror films ever since. That one scene and only few seconds of that one scene are the reason I’m so in awe of artists like Tom Savini, Rick Baker and Stan Winston. With Winston being the man created the dog scene in The Thing. Now, before horror fans start screaming at the screen that it was Rob Bottin who did the effects work on The Thing (he did), Bottin became overwhelmed with all the work and ended up in hospital with exhaustion, so help was brought in. That help was Stan Winston, who brought in his team to do the whole dog scene.
Poltergeist, that was another film I saw for the first time at my Aunt’s house on VHS. Aside from remembering my cousin, Sam, hiding behind a cushion for pretty much the entire film, there’s the face peeling scene which definitely had an impact on me. Still, as gruesome as that scene is, it’s nothing compared to that fucking clown doll. I was a kid when I saw this, the fact it happens in a kid’s (Robbie) room full of toys (some I had), helped put me in the shoes of Robbie. For weeks after, whenever I went to bed back then, I would check underneath just in case there were any killer clown dolls were lurking. Still, I blame the parents, why kind of mother and father buys something that looks that terrifying as a gift for their son?
I was still a young kid when I first saw one of the most iconic scenes in horror film history, from the man who directed a bread commercial in 1973. Just a few years after that simple ad, Ridley Scott would go on to direct one of the most seminal and ground-breaking horror films ever, Alien. I remember the first time I ever saw the infamous chest-buster scene in Alien. It was very late at night, probably early hours of the morning when I think about it. Everyone in our house was asleep… everyone except me. I had noted that Alien was being sown on TV and set the alarm on my wrist-watch to wake me up, I snuck downstairs, doing my best to avoid the creaky step, not wanting to wake Mom up. I slowly opened the living room door and flicked the TV on. The film had already started, I missed the first ten minutes or so. I needed a little company… just in case I got too scared, so I carefully tiptoed to the kitchen and opened the door so our dog, Ben could join me on the sofa. Me and Ben sat there watching Alien. I had manged to watch the face-hugger jump scare as it latched onto John Hurt’s face, that didn’t scare me… much. So I was pretty sure I could take anything this film threw at me. Then the dinner scene happened.
It’s the family atmosphere thing that really sells this particular scene. Everyone sitting around and enjoying a meal. They’re laughing and joking, John Hurt starts chowing down on some (I think) noodles. He coughs, splutters and starts to choke, Yaphet Kotto makes that quip about the food not being that bad, still maintaining a sense of humour. Then, it just all flips on its head. That jovial atmosphere suddenly ends as John Hurt lies on the table, there’s that first burst of blood followed by silence… just for a few moments. Then utter chaos, the blood sprays everywhere as the alien is ‘birthed’. To be honest, I didn’t even make it to the end of the scene. It was the early hours of the morning, pitch black dark and I was eight, maybe nine years-old with only the family dog to keep me company. I turned the TV off before the alien fully emerged, put the dog back in the kitchen and went back to bed, too scared to sleep. So anyway, Mom when you read this. I snuck downstairs to watch Alien on TV about 1984-85-ish.
As I said before, I can’t actually remember the first horror film I ever saw, or at least I can’t be 100% sure of what it was. I do have two very clear memories that I think could’ve been the first though. I don’t have many memories of my dad, long story short, he walked out when I was very young. But I do remember he used to have one of the old reel-to-reel projector things, before VHS became popular. I remember dad coming home one day with some film reels to watch, he said he had a film with Sylvester Stallone in it, my child brain then just heard the word Sylvester and I instantly thought of this guy…
The Sylvester film wasn’t a cartoon with a cat though, it was First Blood. Yes I know that First Blood isn’t a horror film. Still, I do remember dad setting up the projector, getting a white bedsheet and hanging it up on the wall as a makeshift screen and we watched First Blood. As I said, he had other films too and after First Blood, we watched another film, Carrie (at least I’ve managed to make my articles link this year!). I don’t actually remember watching the film if I’m honest, but I know I was definitely there while it was on. There’s this one moment that is practically fresh in my mind, it’s after the whole school prom and pigs blood thing. Carrie is already in the midst of her revenge as the school burns, she in on the street walking home when the school bullies Billy and Chris try to run her down in the car. Carrie does some of her telekinesis stuff and causes the car to crash. It was that moment when I remember my dad exclaiming: “Go on Carrie!”, cheering her along. That one line from my dad is one of the very few memories of him that I have, and it’s connected to a horror film.
I did say that I have two horror film memories connected to my dad, Carrie was one, the other? Some low budget horror flick called The Evil Dead. Now, being from England, The Evil Dead was a bit of a hot topic in the early eighties. I mean, it was part of the whole video nasties thing. Basically, there were a load of old geezers in charge of the ratings at the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) who brought in a law (Video Recordings Act 1984) which saw a lot of films either heavily censored or just outright banned. Mostly, the films caught up in this new law were horror films and one of those flicks was The Evil Dead. While never outright banned (it was censored), The Evil Dead was put under section 2 by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). This meant that while the film was not banned, anyone selling or distributing it could be liable to prosecution. Look, there a fantastic article that goes into great detail over the whole The Evil Dead video nasty thing right here. Point is that the film was incredibly hard to come by in the UK… but my dad got a copy, I don’t know how he got it or where from, but he did. I clearly remember the card guessing scene, “queen of spades, two spades, jack of diamonds, jack of clubs…” then possessed Cheryl turns around… scared the crap out of me to the point where no matter how long it’s been, if The Evil Dead is ever mentioned by anyone, then that is the one scene that instantly springs to mind.
Looking back on my childhood, and I used to watch some pretty messed up stuff. I mean, I’m still only around six or eight years-old when I would’ve seen these films, even younger in some instances. I’m not even in double digits yet and I’ve already seen some of the most famous and infamous horror films made. Hammer Horror films were another mainstay of my growing up. I used to love being terrified by the Frankenstein and Dracula movies. Hammer produced some of the finest horror films of fifties, sixties and seventies. They really treated the classic monsters with respect (mostly), and gave new life to a dying genre. Plus, they gave the world the most terrifying version of Dracula ever.
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were like family friends to me… really scary family friends. But it wasn’t just movies, Hammer House of Horror was an anthology horror TV show (obviously) from Hammer. Thirteen hour long episodes were made and all of them are worth watching, very dated and a little cheesy now yes, but still worth a view. But there is one episode that is lodged in my mind, The House that Bled to Death. A tale about a young family who move into a house where a murder took place some time before. It’s all a bit The Amityville Horror (another flick I saw as a kid) but with that very distinct British, Hammer Horror style. The house does its best to scare its new owners, which all leads to a child’s birthday party and one of the bloodiest scenes over on TV. Oh, and an ending that satirises the whole The Amityville Horror thing too. All you have to do is say Hammer House of Horror to British people of a certain age and they’ll know…
Amicus were another British production studio famed for their horror flicks. They were ever rivals to Hammer Horror for a while. They had a similar style, used a lot of the same actors and so on. But it was their portmanteau horror films where they really excelled. In fact, I did an article a few years back about those very films, looking at every story of every Amicus anthology film. Please excuse the poor formatting and overall presentation in that one, I was still finding my feet as a writer and all that back then. Anyway, those Amicus films were amazing. Particularly the original Tales from the Crypt, before it became a TV show, but after the EC Comics. This was a film I remember watching more than a few times as a kid. All of the stories are great, Poetic Justice being my favourite with the brilliant Peter Cushing in one of his finest roles.
When we did finally get our own VHS player, late eighties-ish, that was when a whole new world of horror opened up for me. My older brother would often rent out tapes and they’d always be a horror film or two in them. Plus, I didn’t have to stay up late or sneak down to watch horror films on TV anymore, cos we could just record them off the TV instead. I heard about Freddy Krueger long before I ever saw him, kids at school would talk about this guy who came after you in your dreams. It was the late eighties, the fourth film had already been released and Freddy had already become a pop culture icon by then. I wanted to know who this Freddy guy was that kids at school were talking about, so I asked my older bother to get a ‘Freddy film’ next time he went to the video rental store. He came back with A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, the scariest Freddy has ever been. I didn’t see the original film for a few years later, but that is what got me into slasher films. Shockingly enough, I hadn’t seen Halloween, Friday the 13th, etc up to that point, but now we had our own VHS player, I could and I did. Whether they were recorded (and heavily censored) from the TV or my brother rented them out, I got to catch up all those horror film I had previously missed. The late eighties and early nineties were when I went on a horror film marathon. Hellraiser, The Shinning, Return of the Living Dead, Phantasm, The Fly and so many more. I was soaking horror of films up like a sponge through the nineties.
Unfortunately for us here in Blighty, we still had old stick-in-the-muds running the BBFC and the whole video nasty thing was still very much going on. The shocking and brutal murder of James Bulger didn’t help either. Horror films were used as the scapegoat, particularly Child’s Play 3 and horror films were still being banned and censored all over. Then in 1998, James Ferman the director of the BBFC retired and so did his archaic rules. By 1999, many previously banned and censored films were being released fully uncut. It was twenty-four years since it was first released, but I finally got to see The Exorcist, fully uncut for the first time ever. I knew of the film’s infamy, I had seen images and a few small clips from the flick too, but I never actually got to see the film until 1999. I loved it and still think it’s the greatest horror film ever made. All the hype, all the stories surrounding The Exorcist helped build my anticipation for it and I was not disappointed one bit. Plus, I was twenty-three in 1999, which meant I could watch anything I liked without restrictions and I was old enough to go buy my own films too…and I bought a lot of horror films.
The new rules at the BBFC blew open the doors for so much more horror for me. Films I had previously seen that were heavily edited were now being released uncut. Infamous films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Cannibal Holocaust, The Driller Killer, The Last House on the Left and so many more began to fill my VHS collection. The first time I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I remember being a bit bored. I knew of the film, I knew of its infamy and reputation… yet I thought it was crap as I say there staring at the TV, it was more annoying than scary, especially with that Franklin character. Then it got to the dinner scene and fuck me. One of the most unsettling and disturbing scenes in a horror film ever.
I would sit there, night after night, just watching all these horror flicks that I had not been able to watch before. That era of the late nineties and early two-thousands was a horror haven for me. When I got my first DVD player, the first DVD I ever bought was The Evil Dead Trilogy, all films fully uncut for the first time.
But strangely enough, as much as I loved that period of discovering all these classic horror flicks, it was also when I began to fall out of love with the horror genre. Well, to be more specific, I fell out of love with modern horror. I remember watching Scream in 1997 and loving the whole meta-storytelling thing. Very clever and it did something pretty unique. Final Destination was another one that brought some new ideas to the genre… but then it all got a bit ‘meh’. I’m not saying there haven’t been any good horror films since, the first Saw was brilliant. But soon, everything was turned into a franchise and just became tired, the horror genre was dying. There was no originality in horror anymore, it got to a point where even if a film was new, I had already seen it before watching a single frame of film. I still loved the classics, I got more and more into sixties, seventies and eighties horror flicks, my collection grew and grew as I sought out more previously banned or unseen films. I got to re-watch those films that scared me as a kid and found a new appreciation for them, Jaws, Alien, The Thing and more. Watching them as an adult over a kid made me want to look into how the films were made. I grew a deep interest in all the behind the scenes stuff and that is when I really became a horror fan.
I recall staying up late one night and watching a horror film festival on Channel 4 here in the UK. The festival had been running for a week and they were showing classics and foreign horror flicks. Ringu came on, my introduction to Japanese horror. A much slower and tense style of storytelling and a sub-genre which had past me by. The slower pace of Ringu enthralled me and it was doing things in the horror genre I thought were unique. The ending with Sadako coming out if the TV genuinely scared me when I first saw it, the first time I’d been scared by a horror film since I was a kid. Even The Exorcist (as much as I loved it) didn’t scare me.
From then, I went on a bit of a Japanese horror crusade. I discovered Ju-On: The Grudge, Dark Water, Audition and Battle Royale. Yeah I know, that last one isn’t really considered a horror film, but for me it is. That whole set up of school kids being forced to kill each other to survive is pretty horrific.
Generally though, the modern horror films bored me, but those classics? I couldn’t get enough of them, the advent of DVDs and the extras, makings of, DVD commentary, behind the scenes documentaries and so on, really hooked me. I’d watch a classic like The Thing, then instantly re-watch it with the commentary on to hear the behind the scenes stories. I’d watch every single extra on the disc over and over. I grew this passion for how/why the films were made and that interested me more than the actual films themselves… and I adored the films.
Even now, my main attraction is horror films from sixties though to the eighties. There’s just something about that era that has never been bettered. Those three decades are where horror film was at its finest. If I ever fancy watching a horror film now, rarely will it be anything from the last two decades as they just don’t hold my interest. But I never tire of the classics, those flicks from my childhood that shaped me to be the horror fan I am now. I just watch, reminisce and smile.
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