How the Big Screen Killed Horror

I was a child of the 80's. First movie I ever went to see was Return of the Jedi. First horror movie? Friday the 13th. I watched it as a gawky pre-teen on a little TV set in my friend Robbie's mum's den, tucked away at the back of a big, creaky old house. In the dark, though we tried not to show it, we were sweating as some demented sicko carved up some teenagers. And my love of being scared was entrenched.

The years rolled on, and my appreciation of these fine, oft-misunderstood films began to grow exponentially. I tried to grab a cross-section at my local video store (the only place I could go at the time, besides the 3 channels on my parents television), I got sci-fi horror, monster movies, zombie flicks and slasher films. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, imps, gremlins and mummies. I enjoyed a lot of them, forgot others, and some were downright terrible. Only a scant few were truly terrifying.

One of those was Alien. Huddled in front a bad little black and white TV set while cold, dark wind whipped past the eaves of my parents' tiny house in the quiet suburbs. I was the only one awake in the house. I shouldn’t have been up, let alone watching a dank, claustrophobic horror film in the wee hours of a very cold, inhospitable night. But I was. My eyes bug-wide as I struggled with the stupid coat hanger antenna trying to maintain enough clarity to see the dreaded, horrible things unfolding on screen. I exhaled a breath I'd been holding for about 40 minutes as I watched Ripley drift off into cold darkness in the tiny escape shuttle, having blasted the beast into space. I didn’t sleep that night. Being trapped on a deserted, labyrinthine space ship with a vicious, insect-like creature became a genuine fear of mine.

Then life happened. Other movies happened. Alien faded from memory, it became "the other one" made before Aliens (which subsequently became my favorite film for a good couple years).

Years later I tried to recreate that night. There I was, on my comfy sofa, my brand new, shiny Alien DVD in the player, my Cheetos on the table. Even the wind seemed just right. I waited til the quiet dead of night before I let that eerie title card creep into view across my 52 inch screen. The titles gave way to the lonely camera tracking through a hibernating starship.

But wait. Something was wrong. It kept nagging at me as I watched Dallas and Ripley do their thing. I could make out everything, every bead of sweat on Sigourney's chin, every damp little crevice on the Nostromo. The movie was perfect. Except that I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t feeling trapped, and claustrophobic, huddling under a blanket with baited breath as I had all those years before. I wasn’t sitting there shivering, praying the reception would hold out long enough for me to see who makes it, if anyone…

That's it! I was seeing TOO much. In a last ditch effort to capture some of the tension of years earlier I turned the brightness way down. It helped a bit, but it made me realize something.

These days, the average movie goer sees a horror film on a giant cinema screen surrounded by people, or on a huge plasma screen or big screen TV in the comfort of home, with friends, among popping popcorn and fizzing soda. How do they expect to ever get scared? It's a sad fact (take it from a dedicated horror movie geek) that sometimes the best horror viewing is done alone. In the pitch dark. And often the less you see, the better. More is not always better. Bigger most certainly is not.

The big screen mentality has changed horror films forever. Now, they are made for the big screen. Gone are the days when you can get away with buying a Captain Kirk mask, spraying it white, bending it out of shape a little, then sticking it to the face of a demented psycho and have him carve up innocents for 80 minutes. And it's a damn pity too, because I, for one, would never tire of that. Horror films just aren't as scary as they used to be. Films like Saw, Hostel, and the endless remakes of Halloween, Texas Chainsaw, etc. These aren't necessarily BAD films, on the contrary there are many excellent examples out there, but the fact is, we see too much. Way too much.

Gone is the implied violence of a house full of bones and skin in the 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Replaced with graphically "realistic" torrents of blood. Cameras dive into open wounds, we linger on corpses, it all fills the screen and seldom is any of it left to the imagination. They're catering to the BIG screen. Problem is, it's much harder to desensitize yourself to your own imagination than it is to quickly get over the queasiness of seeing gallons of fake blood spilled over impossibly beautiful celebrity "victims". It all just gets boring. And that's pretty far from scary.

With implied violence (which was sometimes not even done intentionally - they just lacked the budget and/or technology to show it any other way) there is always an element of doubt in an audiences' mind. When you get to see a man being sadistically tortured on high quality film stock, then watch the actor the next night on TV, handing out a Golden Globe, you KNOW, beyond any doubt, that it is just…a…movie.

So there's something to be said, I think, for hanging on to that old, crap TV relegated to the basement or the spare room to make way for the 60 inch plasma or flat screen LCD. One night when you are alone, bring it out, dust it off, whack on an old horror movie that scared the living hell out of you when you were a kid. Because I tell you, on that tiny little black and white tv-that-could, all those years ago, with it's loose knobs and coat hanger reception, there was ALWAYS an element of doubt.