Old vs New

A couple of blogs back, in my review of the final episode of BBC4’s A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss, I intimated at the end of the first paragraph that my tastes in horror have changed over the years. Thinking about it since, I have come to realise just how much they’ve actually changed, more so than I thought. Which, I happen to think, is a very good thing.

Wind back about 20 – 25 years ago. Then, I wasn’t much of a horror film fan, although I loved reading horror – Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell, TED Klein, HP Lovecraft, and Clive Barker were amongst my favourite authors. I absolutely revelled in the verbal bloodshed. Films, however, were a different matter. I was incredibly squeamish, and always had been. I remember a particular event, when I was around nine or ten, when one of the Sunday colour supplements ran a feature on open-heart surgery, accompanied by photographs of the operation. I distinctly remember feeling dizzy and nauseous after reading it, almost fainting in the process. My parents laughed, obviously thinking it was highly amusing.

Don’t get me wrong – I did watch horror films occasionally, but they were mostly the Universal/RKO Pictures ones. I loved all those oldies, principally because I owned all of the Aurora ‘Monsters’ model kits, with their glow-in-the-dark hands and faces. I was an avid collector of those things, much to the dismay of my parents, I should imagine. Even in my early twenties, my preferred horror-fare was print based, along with those fairly ‘safe’ b&w films.

Then, sometime in my mid-20s, a friend introduced me to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead film, championed by no less a figure than Stephen King himself. That first time I barely made it though the first twenty minutes, in part because of the expectations I’d gained from reading the video cover hyperbole. A couple of months later, I rented it out, and got a little further in this time, but still bailed out way before the end. Third time, some months later still, and I got through it all, and you know what? I loved it.

Then, of course, I wanted more – much more. And the more horror films I saw, the more horror I wanted to see. After a time, simple scares were no longer enough. I started buying Fangoria magazine on a regular basis, and I learnt about all these films that were available over in the US, the stills of which seemed to imply that much bloodiness abounded in them. Some of these films, I discovered, were almost impossible to get over here because of censorship issues, or those that were available were heavily cut. I was adamant that I would only see the uncut versions. Eventually I found a video search service that not only found them for me, but also supplied me with many of the banned films (including the so-called ‘video nasties’).

And so, that was the pattern of my film viewing for years thereafter. I went looking for more and more extreme films, just to push my boundaries. Then, no more than a couple of years ago, I started to tire of it all – in fact, I got to the point where I could barely watch any kind of film ( something which occasionally still happens today). Over the last year especially, my horror reading tastes have also changed – mainly, I think, after having become a book-reviewer, where I’ve come across the more subtle and imaginative takes on what horror can be. Additionally, I’ve started reading older authors (older as in beginning of last century rather than anything to do with a writer’s age) and reading them has given me a greater appreciation of how they were able to imply horror effectively, without recourse to gory pyrotechnics.

I think it’s got something to do with age and growing up, this whole shifting of tastes thing. Don’t get me wrong, I still think there’s a place for the Saw-type films of this world, but I have to say that such things no longer have quite the same appeal for me as they once did. Certainly, in the wake of Mark Gatiss’s recent series, I am inclined to go back to all those old films and watch them again. I think it’s also got a lot to do with the peculiar atmosphere and ambience, qualities that appear to be better created through b&w films than colour (that’s not always the case , of course, and is an entirely subjective opinion). Plus, the cut-away at the very last second in some scenes suggests something more horrific than that which was probably intended. I like having to use my imagination, rather than having it served up on a platter to me.

I’ve no doubt a certain amount of nostalgia for the old-style of film-making plays its part, too. In these days of CGI and ultra-realistic effects, it’s far too easy to make things look so real that it could be a documentary. You know, however, that it’s all done very cleverly with computer trickery, and that knowledge often blunts the enjoyment. It takes the fun out of it. Those b&w films can be genuinely creepy and horrific in a way that’s missing from modern horror.

I realise that today’s horror films reflect current concerns and are extrapolations of them, and therefore most definitely have a place. But I can’t help thinking that, even given that, I get far more enjoyment and a lot more spooky thrills from the old ones. Plus, in some ways, the lack of ‘sophistication’  in those oldies (but only in comparison with modern films – many b&w films of yesteryear were very sophisticated in their own way) lends them a certain charm. Some of them worked very cleverly within the range of the restrictions placed on film studios back then, bypassing them in surprising and innovative ways. I sometimes feel that present-day audiences dismiss them too readily out of hand, simply because a) they’re old, b) they’re shot in b&w and c) they don’t show things explicitly enough. Perhaps modern horror films (or maybe cinema in general) has taken the edge off of our ability to bring something to the viewing experience.

This new-found appreciation of more subtle horror will manifest in ways other than just in my film-watching and reading tastes – I’ll be doing much more than that. If things go to plan, then I’ll be more than just reacting, I’ll be returning the pleasure that stories and films like those old b&w ones have given me. Keep your eye out on this blog for more information as and when it becomes available – good times are ahead….

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