It’s a Horror to Know You: JDC Burnhil, author of Nightbird Descends!
1. What is the first film that ever scared you?
That all depends on what you consider a film (and yes, that is going to be my excuse for giving multiple answers.)
The first filmic thing I can remember terrifying me is just a short film they used to play on our local PBS station between shows, fairing early computer graphics (moving ellipses of the kind that might make a simple screensaver now) with the piano tune “Music Box Dancer.” Every time it would come on, I would run to the other room, breathless with fear, hiding until it was over. Why was it so terrifying? Even now I can’t give a rational answer; it was something about the crisp, cool precision of the tinkling piano notes, matched with those geometric images so distant from anything my young brain had yet learned to process as “natural” that just sent me toddling away as fast as my legs would take me, convinced I had just barely escaped alive from my brush with the uncanny.
Later my father, wanting someone to watch his favorite TV shows with, discovered to his chagrin that his youngest spawn was a wuss: the closing credits of “Star Trek” with the eerie high-pitched theme song and the terrifying still of the huge-headed alien, pushed panic responses in me, and as for “Doctor Who” airing on PBS, they were in the middle of the Tom Baker era when the serials had names like “Horror of Fang Rock” and featured terrors like Mr. Sin, a pig-faced ventriloquist dummy that came to life with no one touching it and chased you into sewers occupied by rats the size of buses. But even if those weren’t disqualified, as TV rather than film, it somehow seems wrong to give them pride of place when I, ahem, barely saw them.
I really have to fast-forward a few years, to a school assembly just before a holiday, where the principal thought it would be a wonderful treat to give the students a movie to watch … Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Despite all the creepy things that happened in the movie, such as the first appearance of the sinister Mr. Slugworth, I managed to keep watching … until the point where piggy Augustus Gloop, having tumbled into the chocolate river due to his greed, was helplessly sucked up a huge transparent tube and away from sight. At that point I could not control my terror any more, and I had to wait out the rest of the movie back in the classroom. My best friend even left the movie and came to the classroom to reassure me that it was okay, Augustus Gloop was okay, he wasn’t really dead, but I would not believe him: as far as I was concerned, we had seen Augustus Gloop erased from existence in the universe before our eyes. Everything he had been before, everything he might have done with a life afterwards; these were all gone, sucked into oblivion up that transparent tube, vanished from all he had loved and all that had loved him. Even finding out later, as an adult, that yes indeed Augustus Gloop and the other children were okay (or so Willy Wonka said, and if you can’t trust a candymaker who starts off your very first meeting tricking you into thinking he’s crippled and you’re about to see him fall and be hurt, gosh, who can you trust??) didn’t erase the power of that memory, that vivid cognizance that yes, you could be a living part of the universe one minute and the next minute, just a lifeless clog moving slowly through a pipe.
2. What is the last film that scared you?
That all depends on what you mean by “scared” – okay, okay, I won’t overuse that. If we defined “scared” as “scared enough to have troubled sleep afterwards,” I would have to go back to The Blair Witch Project. It’s a shame that the backlash against the movie’s hype, and its sequel, and all the awful imitators that followed, have erased the memory of what an effective film it really was. Being lost forever, never coming home – the movie tapped into some childhood fears that I had no idea still burned with such intensity, and most of my dreams that night were an eerie replay of the three student filmmakers’ doomed journey.
Honorable mention to Lonely Water. I still can’t believe that there was no producer out there who saw these two minutes of terror on a television screen and immediately tracked down writer Christine Hermon and director Jeff Grant, forced large piles of money into their hands, and said “You make me a feature film. Now.” Imagine what those two could have done on a larger canvas with a larger budget.
3. Name three Horror movies that you believe are underrated.
Hausu.You wouldn’t think a Victorian-era artist with a career built on funny cat pictures would get much mention in discussions of a psychedelic Japanese horror film from 1977. The name of Louis Wain seems to always come up, though, and for good reason. You see, Wain also suffered from mental illness, and while the cats that made his career are jovial, whimsical fellows “playing human” in amusing ways, the cats he painted during his troubled periods range from those who stare at the viewer with clearly sinister intent, to phantasmagoric explosions of intense color and sharp-edged shape where only a keen eye can detect that the idea of ‘cat’ once figured in its genesis.
There is, of course, Hausu‘s plot element of a painting of a cat (which may be the witch-cat itself) that we get to see in both “ordinary cat” and “demonic cat” incarnations, and this is why Louis Wain always seems to come up. Even beyond that, however, Wain’s sad life story is echoed in important ways by the remarkable trick that Obayoshi’s film pulls off.
Hausu starts in an atmosphere of artifice amplified to eleven: one of the moments I found most jarring in the early part of the movie is when the girls walk past a painted backdrop of blue skies and smiling people, and as they turn the corner, it’s revealed to actually be a painted backdrop, even within the girls’ world. That cloud of kitsch, carefully built up, is the camouflage within which the shape of horror lingers, and from which it slowly emerges to claim each victim. From among Wain’s jolly, furry fellows emerge, in time, the feline demons of his madness. From out of Hausu‘s deliberately stagey acting and all its camera tricks and its characters who don’t even possess any name but their single identifying trait emerges, in time, a chilling story of the dead, grieving past devouring the innocent future.
Messiah of Evil. I recently read a review of this film which complained that it was too slow-moving. That’s enough for me to call this one underrated, and I have to wonder if the reviewer somehow missed what was going on, or perhaps didn’t have the cultural background to process it. After all, when was the last time you heard someone complain that a telling of the Nativity story was too slow-moving? and that’s just what this movie is about, a dark Nativity. An unlucky girl comes to a small town in California in search of her missing father, and quickly discovers that she’s come in the midst of the season of miracles and wonders that precedes the coming of The One Foretold. Except this One Foretold is not bringing a new light of hope to the world, but a terrible shadow, and the miracles and wonders are less in the “babies quickening in the wombs of women thought barren” mold and more along “bleeding from your eyes as you become a cannibalistic zombie” lines. Slow-moving? Please. When there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, “slow-moving” just means the suspense is dragged out longer.
Phenomena. This isn’t my favorite Dario Argento film; that honor belongs to Suspiria, which is in all honesty the better film. However, this one just doesn’t get the love it deserves for all the things it does right. I love the bonding between Jennifer Connelley’s boarding-school misfit and Donald Pleasance’s avuncular entomologist. I love the wonderful moment when Jennifer’s tormentors at the school stand perplexed at her declaration “I love you all,” perplexed until they realize she’s not talking to them … I love the terrifying last act of the movie, where Jennifer has fallen in with exactly the worst possible people, and must exert every bit of physical strength and inner courage she has to get away from the horror.
4. Name three horror movies that you enjoy against your better judgment.
Pieces. Oh, I just love Pieces to pieces. It’s so bad, but it never fails to make me feel better when I watch it. Its acting is terrible, its plotting irredeemable, its sense of taste atrocious … but for all that, I love it so much that after my very first viewing I knew I had to own my own copy. Whenever I get down and start wondering if there’s anything actually good in the world, I try to think of Lynda Day George’s line delivery of “Bastard! … Bastard!! … BASTARD!!!” and it cheers me up to no end.
I’m thinking of making it my ringtone.
The Curious Dr. Humpp. Director Emilio Vieyra’s film Feast of Flesh is actually significantly better than this one, and the grotesque mask of its mysterious killer certainly lends a certain horrific touch, but all things considered Feast is more of a thriller. Dr. Humpp is more of a horror movie, with two mad scientists (one of whom is but a brain floating in a tank) and monstrous servants (one of whom simply walks around in nightclubs and stores, with a blinking light in the center of his forehead!) kidnapping people for perverted experiments in draining life-force-slash-sexual-energy.
Now, since most of the footage of those sex experiments is actually new footage inserted into the movie by the North American distributor, and the same distributor gave it a dub audio track written on the philosophy that “matching lip movements is far more important than correct grammar or accurate word usage or sounding natural,” it’s certainly not a great movie. But it can be a great movie to just sit back and absorb, like a celluloid fever dream, and I dare anyone to say there isn’t something hypnotic and haunting in Vieyra’s visual compositions.
Axe. A 1977 regional horror by Frederick R. Friedel that moves slowly but can really reward the viewer who invests their imagination. The true horror is not the criminals who come to the farmhouse but lies with those who are already there: Lisa and her paralyzed grandfather. We get only brief glimpses of the blood and chaos that goes in inside blank-faced Lisa’s unstable mind, but dwell on it a bit more than the movie does and the movie becomes that much more chilling. Now imagine that her grandfather knows what we the audience know about how fragile Lisa’s grasp on sanity is, and knows that this poor insane girl controls his fate entirely, every minute of every day. That’s some horror for you.
5. Send us to five places on the Internet!
Thrillbent – Some brilliant creators including John Rogers (creator of the excellent pulp TV show “Leverage“) and Mark Waid (writer of the seminal graphic novel Kingdom Come) reinventing digital comics quite successfully.
Danbooru – Frequently (almost always, considering the ads) NSFW archive of mostly fan art for Japanese media. Thought-provoking to see just which moments and details capture fans’ attention, and inspire their creativity.
Good Bad Flicks – One of the best video-format B-movie review shows out there. Cecil Trachenburg understands a very important principle many others don’t: listening to someone bitch about a bad movie is not automatically better entertainment than the bad movie itself.
The B-Masters Cabal – One of the longest-running B-movie reviewer supergroups on the web, in existence for over twelve years with over forty themed “roundtables” under their belts.
Bantam Street – Home page of Bantam Street Productions, most famous for the straight-faced spoof of 50’s sci-fi B-movies, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. Their blog features frequent movie reviews by Robert Deveau, “The Doomed Farmer” (the role he played in Lost Skeleton.)
W. Wonka’s establisment freaked me out bad too, on account of Violet Beauregarde’s transmogrification into the Human Blueberry. (I loved the original Roald Dahl book though.)
I still have the odd nightmare from the Tom Baker-era Doctor Who story “Seeds of Doom”.
Music Box Dancer