I spent my teenage years in the company of serial killers, cannibals, vampires and witches. But enough about my family reunion (I kid, they were merely Mormons and sheep farmers). This week is Halloween, so I must confess a love of scary movies and books that dates back to reading my first Stephen King book in junior high.
That first King novel was “Misery” — in which a writer meets his No. 1 fan and her arsenal of torture tools. A budding writer myself, I was curiously jealous of this novelist’s ability to inspire such enthusiasm, even as the ultimate act of fandom devolved into an exhibition starring a blowtorch and axe. That book was followed in quick succession by “The Shining,” “Carrie,” “It” and several others. Much to my mother’s dismay, I also took an interest in horror movies and thrillers, in particular Thomas Harris’ Hannibal the Cannibal series (which reached its cinematic and literary zenith with “The Silence of the Lambs.”)
I was forced once or twice to beg for my parents to take me to see an R-rated thriller. Oh, how I wanted to see “Cape Fear,” Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of the 1960s film with Robert Mitchum. In his reimagined version, Robert DeNiro plays a sociopath seeking vengeance upon lawyer Nick Nolte and his family. That took might persuasion, but it was utterly frightening at 15. It’s still a wonderful (and somewhat underappreciated) movie now.
The thing about a great scary tale is the way it takes an everyday situation and shows how it can unfold into an event of unparalleled terrors.
Take, for example, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Imagine you’re spending a quiet day at home — cutting up corpses, pulverizing bones for gelatin, reupholstering the couch with human skin — when a van full of insolent hippies shows up at your door. You hide in your meat locker hoping these unbathed reprobates will simply go away; but then they decide if you don’t answer the door, they’re free to come in and invade your privacy and your property. What would you do?
Well, Leatherface just does what anyone defending his or her home would do: He fights back. A socialite shoots an intruder with a gun and nobody thinks twice. A mentally unstable man with a fetish for flesh masks decides to use a sledgehammer, meat hook and chainsaw to dispatch the infiltrators and they call it a massacre (I guess “Texas Chainsaw Self Defense” wouldn’t sell as well on the posters).
There’s a moment after Leatherface has brained one of the intruders and packed another away in a cooler when he looks out the window in panic that more will arrive to violate the sanctity of his home (and they do). Since the family are staunch opponents of gun violence, he was forced to improvise with common household implements to keep his family and property safe. I think we can all empathize with Leatherface’s situation. The fact the family doesn’t waste perfectly good protein only speaks of their moral superiority.
In the same way, much sympathy is elicited for the brilliant Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who is forced to endure incarceration, boredom and — the worst — bad food in supposed atonement for his unorthodox culinary tastes. Sure, a few lives must be taken to put on one of his esteemed dinner parties, but they are quite exquisite affairs marked my many courses of gastronomical invention. If it were up to vegans, those cow- and chicken-murdering carnivores would be locked away, too. Perhaps the good doctor is just ahead of his time in his ability to match organ meats and fine wines (Yes, it’s liver with fava beans and a nice chianti, but don’t forget that kidneys go well with sauteed wild mushrooms and an good shiraz.)
Horror movies are always big business at the box office this time of year. This year the low-budget ghost story “Paranormal Activity” and the latest grim installment of the big-budget horror bore “Saw” series are competing for blood money. But I think I’ll stay at home with Leatherface, Dr. Lecter and some other favorites instead. Of course, I’ll make sure the windows and doors are locked first then I’ll turn off the lights and get under a pile of blankets. Perhaps I’ll even encourage some stupid teens to make out in a car outside my complex as a tactical diversion should a homicidal individual be out and about in my neighborhood.
Then I’ll pop in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” to take part in a stylized vampire phantasmagoria ahead of “New Moon,” the “Twilight” sequel scheduled to hit theaters around Thanksgiving. Speaking of which, I heard that tryptophan-bloated holiday is due to get a proper cinematic slaughtering with an adaptation by Eli “Hostel” Roth of his fake trailer from the “Grindhouse” epic. Don’t you love it when fake trailers become real trailers? Of course, that brief gem was a wonderful satirical take on other holiday-based horrors as “Halloween,” “Silent Night, Deadly Night” and “Groundhog Day” (more of an existential horror film, with Bill Murray forced to relive the same day over and over). How it will fare as a full-length endeavor is anyone’s guess.
After “Dracula,” I’ll partake of some of these terror-filled tales: “Rosemary’s Baby” (which posits the frightening idea of your grandparents and their recorder-playing retired dentist friends as Satanists who crave fresh baby’s blood); “Psycho” (which shows the horrors — though maybe not so much as “Mrs. Doubtfire” —when a man decides to dress as a woman); “The Blair Witch Project” (which did more with piles of sticks and a lack of proper lighting than some films do with morgues full of bodies) and “The Wedding Planner” (this may be the scariest of them all: A romantic comedy with Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey).
Actually, I don’t think I could endure the terror of that last choice. But I should have plenty of choices to indulge in my lifelong love of fright.
Colin Powers is a Madison, Wisconsin-based editor and graphic designer. He has more than a dozen years of newspaper experience, including a stint as Life and Arts Editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer — where he also oversaw food and drink coverage — before its demise in March.