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Spooky Cinema
By Scott Nicholson

The Halloween season often is accompanied by chilly nights, but local video stores see horror video rentals heat up this time of year.

Terry Hisle, manager of Movie Gallery in Boone, N.C., said the spooky season knocks the dust off some old classics as well as ushering in a swarm of new releases. “People are getting movies that have sat on the shelves for six months,” Hisle said. “The ‘Halloween’ series gets real popular, and for some reason the zombie movies get real popular right now, too. The distribution companies send us a lot of horror movies.”

Stephen Susco, screenwriter for The Grudge and a number of other horror and science fiction films, believes horror remains a perenially popular genre because it touches emotions that other films don't. "I think horror films remain popular because fear is a constant in the human experience," Susco said. "Each one of us has fears in our lives, many--if not most--of which are impossible to overcome. To see a horror film is a kind of exorcism. Our own fears are temporarily supplanted by what we're experiencing in the story. And at the end of the two hours, the lights will come up, the fear will be over.

"It will have been vanquished, or at least put behind us," Susco added. "Seeing a horror film with an audience is a kind of group catharsis -- and the human psychological need for this will, in my opinion, always be present."

Lucas Church, a clerk at Grapevine Music & Video in downtown Boone, said new releases such as “Saw,” “Land of the Dead” and “Undead” are renting well. He sees a shift in the tastes of horror audiences toward more explicit imagery. “Horror now is mostly gore and brutality,” Church said. “It’s above suspense. There does seem to be more of that (graphic) nature than five years ago.” Church cited “High Tension,” a video whose cover features a blood-splattered man running a chainsaw, as typical of modern horror. He said the more stylized horror, such as in “The Ring,” is the modern equivalent to the “Friday the 13th” and slasher films of the 1980s.

Church enjoys zombie movies, and would recommend any Romero film, including the original “Dawn of the Dead.” Zombie movies surged in popularity in the last couple of years with a “Dawn of the Dead” remake and “28 Days Later,” but Romero’s new release “Land of the Dead” was a box-office disappointment. However, it’s getting a second life in video release, and many horror films find their only audience in the rental market.

Church said the spate of low-budget horror movies results from the intention of the filmmakers. “Horror movies don’t require known faces and known actors,” Church said. “They don’t require expensive settings. Something like ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ uses a dilapidated house, a van, and a road. Everyday environments lend themselves to that kind of story. People can identify with them more because it’s like everyday society.”

Church said while there are some iconic images from classic horror films, such as Jack Nicholson’s maniacal mug on the poster of “The Shining” and killer Michael Myers’ mask in the “Halloween” series, modern films don’t focus on identifiable imagery. “They’re not really lending themselves to characters,” he said. “They’re not character-driven, they’re concept-driven.” Horror fan Rex Lefler said he was introduced to the genre by sneaking into his brother’s room to watch them because his parents wouldn’t allow him to watch. While he likes zombie movies, he also has a soft spot for “cheesy,” horror, low-budget films with poor production values.

April Hicks, a clerk at Movie Gallery, said most modern horror movies recycle the same plots over and over, so she tries to seek out something different. With a variety of sub-genres, such as ghost stories, gory movies, humorous or campy horror, vampires, or slasher flicks, she has a lot to choose from.

Hisle said a lot of Japanese horror movies are popular, and those are influencing their American counterparts, who often remake the movies or use them for inspiration. Hisle mentioned “The Eye,” “The Grudge,” and “The Ring” and its sequel as popular Japanese movies. Thrillers with suggestions of the supernatural, such as “Hide and Seek,” are also popular seasonal fare. Hisle prefers science fiction-flavored horror movies like the “Alien” series starring Sigourney Weaver, or the recently released “Alien vs. Predator.” Others he has enjoyed include “Jeepers Creepers” and its sequel and “Land of the Dead,” the latest in the zombie series made famous by director George Romero.

Hisle said remakes of old favorites also stay checked out, which in turn creates interest in the original releases. “We see interest in the old versions when a remake comes out,” Hisle said. “The distributor will send us all-new copies of the original movies when a remake is out. ‘The Amityville Horror’ is popular right now.”

Susco's favorite films are "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "The Thing," "Poltergeist," "Alien," "The Haunting (the 1963 version)," "The Shining," "Phantasm," "The Omen," "Night of the Living Dead," "Nightmare on Elm Street," "Hellraiser," and "The Exorcist."

Brian Cappella, a clerk at Fat Cat’s in Boone, said those low production values can create interest in the films and make it easier for people to make their own horror movies. “Horror’s kind of a cottage industry,” he said. “Practically anybody can come up with a scary story. There’s one out called ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill Except...’ and it looks like somebody took a camera out on the (Blue Ridge) Parkway and shot it. But it makes me want to watch it.” Cappella’s favorites are the “Evil Dead” series and David Cronenburg’s “The Fly,” though he admits that most modern horror is either gory or funny.

“There were some girls in the other night looking for something that was actually scary,” he said, adding that Fat Cat’s focuses more on off-beat, less-mainstream horror films. “There’s not much of that.” Cappella believes the broad range of sub-genres is the result of movie studios trying to expand their audiences, though some purists don’t like to mix humor and horror. A trend of humorous horror, in which the filmmakers make conscious references to genre conventions and expectations, has remained popular, with last year’s “Shaun of the Dead” being a fan favorite.

With a wide range of viewing options, being scared is no laughing matter. From “Scooby-Doo” to “The Exorcist,” from “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” to “The Sixth Sense,” horror movies will continue to occupy a space in video stores, and sell plenty of popcorn as well.

--copyright 2005. Originally published in The Watauga Democrat, October 2005. Contact for reprint permission.

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Scott’s Horror Flicks to Die For

* Night of the Living Dead-- George Romero’s original zombie masterpiece, shot in black-and-white. While masquerading as a munchfest, it also makes a serious social commentary.

* The Exorcist-- Demonic possession comes in and out of style, but this story of a priest battling for the soul of a young girl will make you leave the lights on.

* The Haunting-- Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House,” this black-and-white haunted-house movie uses the power of suggestion to build frights.

* Session 9-- Filmed at a former mental institution and using authentic historical elements, this film invokes claustrophobia and unease throughout, with not a single giggle.

* Bubba Ho-Tep-- Elvis and JFK battle a centuries-old mummy at a rest home. Sounds funny, right? It’s also poignant, creepy, and entertaining.

* Rosemary’s Baby-- A woman discovers her husband, as well as the neighbors in her new apartment building, are taking a rather unhealthy interest in her pregnancy.

* The Devil’s Backbone-- A Spanish ghost story set at an orphanage, though the ghosts turn out to be far less frightening than the adults.

* Texas Chainsaw Massacre-- Falsely billed as a “true story,” this movie implies psychotic slaughter with a surprising minimum of actual on-screen gore.

* The Ring-- Available in the original Japanese version as “Ringu,” this is a horror movie in which there’s literally no escape from either the past or the future.

* Carnival Of Souls-- In the black-and-white original, a woman begins losing her senses, and maybe more, after an auto accident.

* Dead Ringers-- When identical twins like to play doctor and date the same women, it’s the perfect prescription for unease.

* Psycho-- Norman Bates has entered the popular consciousness as a cultural icon, but it’s not his fault: Mommy made him do it.

* Freaks-- Controversial because of its use of actual 1930s circus freaks, it’s a revenge story and a love story.

* Invasion of the Body Snatchers-- There are four versions of this film, but the original black-and-white and the 1970s Donald Sutherland-Leonard Nimoy versions both will have you afraid to shut your eyes.

* Silence of the Lambs-- Some may categorize this as more of a thriller, but then, I’ll bet those same people would never invite Hannibal Lecter to dinner.


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