The Horror

By Jonathan PennerOctober 30, 2011

The Horror
GOT TWO EXCITING BOOKS for the "LARB Halloween Roundup" I was supposed to write — Monsters in the Movies by John Landis and Dark Stars Rising by Shade Rupe — and amazingly, they made me think. 

I've written horror scripts, a book about horror, appeared in horror films, and have enjoyed a lifetime of imagining and collecting, but suddenly, now, I'm wondering: why am I so excited to get two more books? Just what is it with me and Horror?

And then, suddenly, I got sad. Sad! First thinking, and then sadness? Seriously? I should've let it go, but I couldn't. I rushed in. Jumped, really.

What follows is what I came up with. It's part review. Part exhumation.

First, the books. Dark Stars Rising is an anthology of 25 years of interviews, a series of "conversations from the outer realms," quite literally, now that some of Shade Rupe's early subjects, like Divine and Chas Balun, have long since died. Rupe persevered at the extreme edges of film and art journalism, and finally got this gorgeous paperback in print. His interviews with fellow margin dwellers like Jim (Deadbeat at Dawn) Vanbebber and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (of Throbbing Gristle), are funny and fawning, and well worth a look. If Alejandro Jodorowsky (who directed El Topo and stranger things) and Tura Satana (of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Astro-Zombies fame) are your bag, it's a treat.

Landis' book is also loving, but it's big, glossy and Hollywood-centric. A true fanboy and former director enfant terrible, Landis, at 21, years before making his great American Werewolf in London, debuted with Schlock, a monster monkey comedy he also wrote and starred in. (It's pretty witty.) With Monsters in the Movies, he has produced a granddaddy-of-them-all tome for your coffee table, with hundreds of wonderful photos, softball interviews with other filmmakers, and pithy captions loaded with juicy bits and trivia. The text is pedestrian and laundry listy, but it's a very fun stroll through a genre he obviously adores.

As I greedily pored through these two volumes, making notes, I remembered how important books like these were to me as a kid. Through our moving, Dad losing his job, my parents divorcing, getting hit by a car, Mom coming out of the closet, and that fucking babysitter, the books were, oh, only the most important things in my life. Horror movies, monster movies, gross stuff that was mine alone and got a big reaction whenever I shared any of it.

Ironic was that while I loved the books, they were about movies that were completely and totallyunattainable. Hard to believe but in the pre-digital age, you could not see these movies. You had to dare death by hitchhiking alone to revival houses, or pray for a re-release that might find its way to your town, or stay up until 3 am to catch Karloff's Frankenstein because recording off the TV hadn't been invented yet. In other words, these films only existed for me in my books — a few powerful images, bits of tantalizing story, shreds of trivia about the making or the makers. They hinted at a future full of dark seductive masterpieces, but more than that they promised a whole world of art and creative people OUT THERE where someday I could be. I spent hours visualizing these unattainable, fantastic films, and inventing stories about the talents behind them.

But we grow up, don't we? Some of us?

Only parts of me did.

During a junior year abroad in London, I saw that Taste the Blood of Dracula, a Christopher Lee Hammer film I'd only read about, was going to be on Channel 4 late one Saturday night. Thrilled, I told my friends this was a great picture, a classic, and insisted we all watch it together. A big group gathered with popcorn. I was not only going to finally see it after all these years, but I'd be sharing my passion with folks who hadn't known this side of me. To them I was outgoing, an actor, confident — not a geek. I dimmed the lights. Held onto my chair. I couldn't believe how excited I was. And friends, it was awful. The movie. The experience. Lifeless, bloodless, sexless crap. Cardboard inanities filmed in a back garden by a bored, tea-sipping hack. I was shocked and embarrassed and more, I was angered at my fucking books. They had betrayed me! Those books had turned me into a sap in front of my friends, and worse, much worse, they had proven themselves sycophantic and not at all discerning. To me they'd been history. Almost Gospel. Hell, I'd thought about Christopher Lee as Dracula for countless hours and yet, here he was, okay, cool looking, but christ on a cross, it was nothing like they promised.

After I got over myself, I realized it wasn't that the books had lied; their truths were just narrow. These were fan books for kids. Not critical history. Over time my own imagination had filled in the gaps between the stills, and made Taste the Blood of Dracula and all the movies I'd read about much bigger and better than they could possibly be in reality.

So I grew up a little, and as I saw more I came to accept that most of the movies I'd dreamed of were fun little scrappers made on the cheap, not the immortal masterpieces I'd assumed them to be because, you know, they were in books. And the books I saw differently too. They were to be handled without reverence and kept on a shelf. To myself. I was still hooked, just not so publicly, or so naively.

But why? Why was I, why am I, still a horror geek? All those books are still on my shelf, plus hundreds more. And most of the films. Why did these two newest additions, Dark Stars Rising andMonsters in the Movies make me so suddenly sad?

At eight years old, I found monster movies — this thing I didn't even know I was seeking — and I found them in a book. Maybe at eight we're all looking for some identity in the world, or some signifier. Well there was mine: Denis Gifford's tiny Movie Monsters sitting on a shelf in a Connecticut bookstore, waiting to grab me and change my life. My enthusiasm, my need for it was so great my parents amazingly coughed up the dough and it wasn't even near my birthday. (Honestly, a big deal). And then having memorized it, mere months later I discovered, at the stationary store under Grandma Lil's apartment, a magazine whose cover had something perfect — a frog sitting nonplussed, a dead human hand hanging from its mouth. Famous Monsters of Filmland #91[cover image here]. That was it, knockout punch. Laurel meet Hardy. Ginger meet Fred.

Famous Monsters was different, funny; not inappropriate or dirty, but GROSS and certainly not adult. On the schoolyard and at the dinner table my Famous Monsters spoke loud and proud. We were a team.

Pre-adolescents respond to monsters for various reasons; they're big and powerful proxies for kids who feel small and powerless. They're violent, angry, scared and scary. They're silly but serious and certainly abnormal. And like adolescents, they're smelly, oozy, and alwaystransforming. But finally of course, they speak of the darker parts of humanity that kids are starting to become aware of and wonder about. Death and evil. My beautiful son, now 16, used to ask things like "Why are angels good and ghosts bad?" or "If Heaven is in the sky, why do we bury bodies in the dirt, closer to Hell?" The pre-adolescent mind is full of big questions, and poised for monstrous answers. For all these reasons, the monsters themselves seemed like the answer. I'd found my thing. I embraced the scary. I befriended it. The monsters and I fell in love, and I didn't question why. I was home.

The rub? That home is still my home. Other guys give up their train-sets and whiffle ball, but I've remained a geek. I've explored the darkness. I've studied it, I've written it, I've made movies devoted to it. I've tried to consciously and unconsciously tap those currents of fear and desire. They're in the art I respond to, the art I make, and they're in me.

So I can't give it up like a ball or a bike. It's not a hobby. It's my circuitry. In the meantime, of course, I've realized monsters are kid stuff, a schoolboy crush compared to the orgy you're in for as an adult. The scales drop and you peer down into the darkness of your guts and your imagination. Scary and wet and where you want to go, where you're compelled to go. You seek out more and more visceral movies. You might tell yourself you're just a conscientious movie geek who sees everything, but you know it's a deep, deep itch you're trying to scratch. You hear Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the scariest and you dare yourself and go. You hear Cannibal Holocaust is the worst and you do the same (it's amazing, but don't see it; animals die.) Onward through Martyrsand A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede movies, collecting art and artists that are exploring the same dark impulses you are. David Cronenberg and John Waters and then darker; the Jorge Buttgereits, the real pornos; no longer the adolescents like Landis and George Lucas and Joe Dante, but the dirty birds; the Gaspar Noes, the Richard Kerns. You explore not just horror, but bodily fluids, emotional extremism, diving to the depths of identity and experience. You want to get to the bottom of it. To the unconscious, to touch the place where impulses come from. Before books or language. You want to get to the truth.

Jung says we spend the first seven years packing the emotional bag we'll carry for the rest of our lives, and the rest of our lives unpacking it. But I, like all dark divers, want to know already. What the fuck is at the bottom of the bag?

I've had these impulses since I was too young to own or name them. They must've been there already for me to feel such recognition and relief that day in Connecticut. I've had this solid state chip since I don't know when and it's set for darkness, but I didn't set it. I accept it, I enjoy it, but what I wouldn't give to reach back and pull that chip out. I wouldn't swap it, it's me, but I'm curious, you know? To see just what I was born with and wipe clean the fingerprints that dirtied it up later. Like his for instance. That Fucking Baby Sitter.

What made me sad of course was not remembering that day at 4 or 5; I've laundered those sheets many times since. No, it's that I suddenly realized, I'll never know what life would've been like without him.

Proust had a tray of pastries. I get a John Landis picture book. Talk about your banality of evil.

Yeah, I thought about dragging him out here onto the page. Raging and blubbering, and spilling the guts: how fun, how easy, to turn this into something offputting and wild. A little jolt and some filthy bits. Make a monster, here. BE a monster. But what's a monster get? A little sympathy. A lot of revulsion.

Who needs that? You and I deserve better.

In the end, horror's given me a hand for reaching deep into the bag. When it's good I pull out demons. When it's great it helps me face them down. Or at least helps me in the struggle to know how I feel. Along the way, the bag only gets lighter. But it never gets emptied.

I tell myself I'm deep or my arms are too short; that's why I'll never reach the bottom. But the truth is, I like having an itch and I love when I can scratch it. Laurel met Hardy, Ginger found Fred. And my monsters and I found each other too. Messy, often rude. Laughing and dancing, screaming together.

For life.


LARB Contributor

Jonathan Penner has written for movies, television, magazines, and blogs, and has worked extensively as an actor, screenwriter, and producer. His film credits include the cult classic The Last Supper, the Hamlet-inspired Let the Devil Wear Black and the short film for which he was Oscar-nominated, Down on the Waterfront. He is co-author with Steven J. Schneider of Horror Cinema (Taschen, 2008).



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