Short Form Terrors and Lifelong Horrors

Two unexpected films to creep you out this Halloween

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in Features • Illustrated by Camille Velasquez

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Horror, be it in film or literature, often works best in short forms, which is perhaps the most suitable setting for what is meant to be an unnatural medium. Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, believed that if you couldn’t read a terror tale in one sitting, it probably wasn’t much worth reading. If we play the word association game and throw out the phrase, “horror novel,” I think many people immediately call to mind Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But how does that novel function? It’s certainly not written “straight-through” — the form is that of the collage, of assembled scraps. A letter here, a cable here, a snatch of dictation there. Each is a story, after a fashion, as was the original first chapter — which has since become known as “Dracula’s Guest” — that is now read as its own autonomous piece. The meaning of Dracula comes together through the assemblage, and the relation, of the parts. But each part could nonetheless contain its own private, haunting streak. That each part does, is why Dracula remains undead as a conceit/project of its own, living the life eternal.  

There are no horror “epics” in the movies. There is the bloat of The Shining. And in the early days of cinema and through the 1940s, we have serials, where the likes of Bela Lugosi would star, but the serial was an exercise in padding, with the usual audience being children who wouldn’t mind the repetition, so long as they could gather with their friends on a Saturday afternoon at the movie house for the latest installment. Broaden horror, and horror loses part of its sting; it becomes less of a seeming lethal injection in a life, and more an unfortunate status quo. The latter may have greater terror, but it’s also a terror that blends in, ceases to stand out.  

Consider the early Universal horror films. These are the works of the golden age, with the archetypes — the bloodsucker, the reanimated corpse, the man-turned-into a wolf — that endure to this day. You’re usually talking 70 minutes of fare. Get in, then depart. A lightning-strike attack to the psyche. Or, as Stoker noted: the dead travel fast.  

Efficacious horror is that way in “real” life, too. A friend of mine was recently speaking to me on the phone as he drove, then remarked that he’d have to call me back because there was a body in the street. Said body, which had been covered by the emergency technicians on hand, belonged to a motorcyclist, who had smacked into the back of a truck, as my friend went on to learn with the help of Google. A sheet blew away, and thus my friend’s eyeful of death. He brings it up from time to time. I made a joke shortly after the sighting saying, “Well, that’ll teach you that life is real, and buckle up, son,” but I understand that he remains haunted by the surprise of the image. The intrusion upon natural order and the status quo — and upon expectation of what one will experience in one’s day.  

Halloween art is at its apex when it taps into this spirit-vibe of the accidental and the incidental. I’m not advocating, of course, for the sampling of real-life tragedy, but instead the fictional — or the quasi-fictional, as we shall see — that adumbrates real-life emotions and truths. That’s the eldritch elision. Fear has its chief value as an instrument that makes us aware of stakes we might not have considered as we live our lives. Fear grounds us, because it offers perspective and perspicacity, with one of its staunchest lessons being that the “ordinary” can represent death itself. Or life-in-death. Fear is a life coach. It rallies us. Hopefully, its source will not be the actual death of us, but as hockey coaches like to say, fear is a top-level motivator. You might even conclude that fear — or the Halloween variant, which comes with that top layer of “all-in-good fun” — is a type of buddy.  

In this spirit and spirit, I turn to two short works of cinema — core texts of my annual Halloween viewing roster — that don’t officially present themselves to us as terror efforts, but which rattle our cerebral cortexes all the more for the horror they evince. I use them to remind and ground myself in what is the locus of terror. I think that helps me live better, by remembering that nothing is guaranteed, and to go about one’s life-controlling what one can control so that when something arises that is beyond our control, we have a better chance to endure the threat it presents to us.  

Ours is a safer, same-ier world than it used to be. Doesn’t it feel like everything comes with a label? Certainly, a warning label, if there’s any chance we might be offended, which I think is a concept that is now becoming accidentally synonymous with “surprised,” which is a shame because it diminishes the collective capacity for wonder, or just what people will allow themselves to be open to. If you are of a certain age, think about the instructional films you were shown either in school or after the day’s classes were done on the TV at home, as you looked after yourself. The world was presented in a way that was anti-helicopter parent; that is, not in a safety space-free manner, and closer, I’d say, to how the world is. You’re apt to recall those “shorts” with what can be a nightmarish pang, but they did shape a part of your life, and I believe they played a part in fostering wisdom.  

The nature film was a staple of this kind of experience. That’s because a nature film has a certain built-in cuddly premise to the neophyte. Expectations are set at a given level. The nature film, ironically, has a touch of presumed domesticity. After all, it’s not formal horror, but rather educational, yes? But that the nature film is not formal horror — and is certainly not labeled as such — I find that it can possess greater potency to horrify, and, thus, to provide the sort of life counsel/lessons of which I was speaking.  

The most effective nature film/work of cinematic horror that I know is the nine-minute production from 1945 by the French filmmaker, Jean Painlevé, who specialized in this creative vein, called The Vampire. Nature, as we know, can be brutal. Who cannot recall the voice of David Attenborough narrating some tense drama of one beast stalking another, and then the predator moving in — with the lightning strike — for the gory kill? Those nature documentaries, playing on TV, are how a lot of city and suburban children first came to know a brutal facet of the world — albeit from the couch, with Attenborough‘s dulcet tones to prepare and protect you. His voice was never raised, a cocoon was thus kept intact. The violence of said kill was akin to an explosion. The crack of the rifle in the air, but in bodily forms. Horror feels both more allowable and more verboten within the construct of the nature film. After all, the world works the way the world works. The horror, though, is usually on the explosive side. It’s not surgical, protracted, which is what makes this less-than-ten minutes long effort more ironic yet, because it’s also protracted in its fear, given that we’re accustomed to, say, the blink-of-an-eye bite of the cobra, the snap of the white shark’s teeth. Spontaneity over extension.  

Immediately, by the dint of its premise and the foreboding it generates, Painlevé’s film makes us ill at ease. A guinea pig is staring into the camera in all of its trusting opacity. Facing this guinea pig is a vampire bat. The scene is total calm. The guinea pig, being what it is, appears to want to play, as if here was some new buddy, and a somewhat furry one, too, which is perhaps reassuring if you are a guinea pig. One can’t imagine there’d be this same placidity were there a snake staring back at this humble creature.  

A narrator informs us of what is happening as it happens. The bat is clinical, fastidious. It uses its mouth to numb an area near the nose of the rodent with a salivary agent, and then, as if the vampire doubled as a barber, hair is removed from the area for better access. The guinea pig apparently has no clue what is befalling it, which makes matters more chilling. We can’t intercede. We also don’t know how gory the procedure of the blood-draining will be. The film is in crisp black and white, but as anyone who has seen a work like Hitchcock’s Psycho is aware, blood can be more visually disturbing within this starker coloristic medium. The darker side of the spectrum is corrupted to a charcoal-ruddiness, with the liquid life force asserting itself as this sinister, flowing shade hovering between the black and white polarities, which now seem to represent sickness and health.   

In Ed Wood’s insane — well, let’s face it, it’s batshit crazy — 1953 picture, Glen or Glenda, a raving Bela Lugosi — who remains our definitive human cinematic vampire — makes like he is the voice of fate, issuing directives.  

“Pull the string,” he declares, and then repeats the words, screaming them, commanding far-away figures to march along the paths of their destinies, lest they get rebellious and make a break for a helping of free will.  

One imagines that voice here, impelling what is a naturalistic union of life and death, predator and prey, the macabre symbiosis of host and feeder. Painlevé is a string-puller. He’s the imp of the perverse who orchestrated this set-up, but the director could also plead innocence.  

“What?” he might say. “This is what happens outside, off-screen. I have simply put it on celluloid and you have sat for me, as the guinea pig sits for the bat.”  

Therein is the horror. The passivity of the guinea pig parallels our passivity as onlookers. Something unfair is happening but also something fair. In one way, it’s so ordinary. So emblematic of broad daylight, as they say. The stage — if we might call it a stage — is well-lit. Horror has happened without meaning to, in the course of natural events, and on a small scale that feels larger-than-life because life at the elemental root is being altered.  

I saw this film for the first time in grade school. I don’t think there’s any way it’d be allowed now. It was the Halloween season, and I recall that I was doing what I did each year, giving a lot of thought to what I’d be, as were the other kids as well. We talked about it often. Halloween itself thrives on short forms. You think and plan and can’t wait to go out that night, but it’s all over in the proverbial eye-blink, is it not? The confections you receive are themselves sugary snippets. They’re not meals — you grab one on the fly a couple days later in the early portion of November, when Halloween, despite the build-up, is a memory, albeit one that will stay with you — longer than you might think possible at the time.  

There is also an intimacy to this scene, a manner of coerced trust without consent. The guinea pig does not rebel. Does not shake or stir, save to blink its eyes a few times, as if it might sneeze. These two creatures have a date together, but a curious variety, oriented around the construct of host and predator, and a feeding. The act as we watch it has the resonance of complicity. The guinea pig is not killed. For all we know, it may be no worse the wear after a few days. The vampire has gotten what it needs. So where is the harm?  

But that is the blood-sucking rub because we feel like we’ve witnessed something unholy, but also as it should be. I think that is the terror with the most sustaining charge, and what all of the best makers of horror-related work are after. Fear is natural, and it is threaded through a natural existence, the status quo, the quotidian, the organic way of things.  

That film rocked our world in school. We talked about it at recess, but you could tell that it made everyone uncomfortable, and we wouldn’t be talking about it again the way we did “regular” vampire pictures. We boys loved those. They came up a lot. We knew they were pretend. The sensation of the fear was real, certainly. Fear feels like fear. There are different kinds, but the presence of fear is noted by and carried out in the body. The Bela Lugosi-type of vampire film has an off switch, though. You rationally know that it’s a creation, a work put together by adults whose job it is to make you feel a certain way. The same cannot be said for The Vampire. There’s no off switch, even after the film is complete. Those nine minutes might as well be the same interval as however many years you’ll have on this earth. For here is the way of things. The way that reality intrudes upon peace. It’s what you’re going to have to face, maybe fend off, in your own life. The short form is the long game, and the game is human existence.  

The nature film could be brutal, but even at its subtlest and most unexpected, it still didn’t get at you like a commercial could, especially when they took the form of what’s called a Public Information Film (PIF). A PIF might resonate like a sneak attack in your home. They could last thirty seconds, or upwards of a couple of minutes.  

I like the appellation of “films,” as if Jean Cocteau was at work behind the camera, reworking his cerebral, poeticized aesthetic for your after-school edification. That first afterschool hour or so is a kind of holy period for children, of the secular variety. A time of decompression. A friend may be over and the conversations you have post-school, with no one around, always feel differently than the ones you had way back at lunch, regardless of if a lot of the words are the same.  

I recall one PIF that became a whole series about this fellow named Mr. Yuk. He was an entity in sticker form — stickers being big at the time — who was mostly all face, his expression conveying his extreme displeasure that he had just tasted something bad. Nay, Deadly! Or that he had some toxic potion himself with which to tempt you — drain cleaner or some such. Mr. Yuk’s thesis was “Don’t drink the poison in the bottles under the sink.” Made sense. You didn’t quibble much with Mr. Yuk, nor was he that menacing. Rather, you might have questioned his own choices if he had, indeed, imbibed some poison himself and lived to tell the tale just long enough to warn you.  

The English ghost story writer M.R. James had a story called “A Warning to the Curious.” Its gory, grisly ending aside, the title of the work also could double as a subtitle for many of these PIFs. They warn and guide; not many scare you as that proper horror film you still have nightmares about a fortnight after the viewing. You see enough of them and you come to know the drill, which is how one of them, above all, could break through that scrim of expectations and fashion what I think is one of the best horror films there is, though it’s never discussed that way.  

That film is 1973’s Lonely Water, a British PIF featuring the voice of Donald Pleasence who, some five years later, would become an American Hallow’s Eve staple as the doctor forever trying to round-up Michael Meyers in John Carpenter’s Halloween. He had featured in episodes of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone about a decade before, but he was one of those actors with an ability to be absorbed into whatever project he was a part of, even if he was the lead. I always felt he was more like a voice actor than a physically present actor, despite the fact that there he was, visible on the screen for virtually the whole time. A disembodied voice that just happened to be toted around by a man.  

Given that Halloween was his breakout role, one might not have known his work in the early 1970s. There were fewer associations with that voice. Lonely Water is 90 seconds long. That’s it. That’s all you need. I distrusted it at first because I never thought it meant to honor its premise. A nature film was at least, by definition, true to life. The participants weren’t up to no good, in the scheming sense, hard as it might have been to accept — as a child — that the seemingly cuddly creature had just bit off something’s head. Horror, as we’ve seen, doesn’t creep up with the nature film; rather, it is immediately present. Instantly manifested. 

By the same token, trust is what the PIF manifests in theory. Concern for one’s well-being. The idea that you’re in “good hands.” There’s a lesson to deliver with a PIF, and in the style of a Grimm fairy tale, that lesson can be intense. I remember seeing one PIF about domestic violence, in which a family is having breakfast, talking about how everyone’s day might go, before one of them stands up, pulls out a gun, and shoots mom, dad, brother, sister, in the face. Call it a short piece about hidden rage. Or mental illness. I don’t recall. The gist: you never know, so beware. 

Lonely Water is a nature film of a sort, given its riparian setting, and also a PIF, but it relishes how much it’s frightening you past the point of trying to help you. I rate it as legitimately sinister, which is bad if you’re a young kid, already rocked by nature films, but awesome for adults looking for arresting terror fare.  

Lonely Water lies to you, I’d say, because it didn’t hugely object to compromised safety, and rather seemed to relish potential danger. It frightened me as much as it did — and still commands my attention — because again, there is the believable component — on account of the PIF medium — only this time, it’s about malingering presences and those of them that wait around hoping we’ll fall. Be vulnerable. After all, that’s so much of life, right? We all know people who are this way, a living version of the cooingly demonic figure that Pleasence portrays. I find that this short film embodies them, or as I have come to know them.  

Pleasence narrated stories for children that were released as albums in England in the 1960s. One might have grown up with him — without knowing it was him — as a trusting voice. In Lonely Water, he is the vocal representative of Death. Further, he’s Death in a hoodie/cowl, as if on loan — but colorized — from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. This Death delights in children wading into shallow water that, frankly, looks absolutely fetid, to retrieve a ball, or just for hijinks, and then becoming snared by roots or parts of machines that people have thrown away, and thus meeting their riparian end.  

The tone of Death in the short is orgastic. Or maybe I should say, pre-orgastic/eruption. A ‘bater’s breath of bated breath. The short plays out in daylight. Again there is that power of the sun to put us off our guard. The clock doesn’t strike midnight, we don’t expect to see ghosts flitting about, but voyeuristic death is on the scene. He does this play-by-play of what various children are up to, which is disturbing enough on its own. But you know who Death really hates? The show-off. Narcissism seems to disgust our particular Reaper. One wonders how he’s bearing up in these social media days, but then again, he may be crushed because children are less likely to play outdoors, let alone by creek beds. Online bullies might be more his thing now.  

“The show-offs are easy,” Death tells us, sharing some tricks of his trade. “But the unwary are easier still.”  

Good to know. I have no idea who would play in settings like these. The river — which I don’t think David Attenborough would much appreciate — is bounded by what you’d have to call a dump. An actual dump. Everything is rusted, sharp, an orgy of Tetanus just waiting to happen. A potential death is thwarted in the film when a child who has elected to swim in this muck is come upon by some other kids who encourage him to get out, and then help him do so. Death gets pissed. 

Pleasence tells us that he’ll be back — a proto-Terminator exit line — but what a jolt this must have been, and remains now. A viewer readies themselves for Night of the Living DeadFrankensteinHouse on Haunted Hill, or whatever the filmic selection is for Halloween. There are trappings that stem from expectation. But go about your life, and you know that horror is often the thunderbolt that encroaches on the otherwise ordinary mid-week afternoon and the phone rings with news that operates around the same premise as Lonely Water and The Vampire.  

“Sensible children,” Pleasence states, the susurration of his voice a kind of ghostly pizzicato of your spine as if he’s intoning a response during the Black Mass. Aggrieved sufficiently that Death tosses aside his cowl, the children chance upon it to warm the boy who is now out of the water, before one of them says to leave that disgusting old thing, thus insulting Death’s sartorial sense for further insult.  

Of course, now that we’ve focused on these two films as works of horror, they acquire a variant of “official” status because of the critical probing. They may be intentionally slotted into your Halloween viewing rotation/program alongside the regular retinue of creepers, ghouls, blood-suckers, reanimated bodies, just as they’ve featured in mine for years. Love them well, register their ostensible intentions, but beware what they really bear. And prepare for it elsewhere, as best you can.  •

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Colin Fleming’s latest book is Meatheads Say the Realest Things. His fiction appears in Harper's, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, and Boulevard, and his writings on art, film, music, literature, and sports run in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes. He has three books coming out in 2021: an entry in Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; a story collection with Dzanc called If You [ ]: Fantasy, Fabula, Fuckery, Hope; and a volume looking at 1951's Scrooge as the ultimate horror film from Auteur; with a novel called Musings With Franklin: A Novel Told in Conversation That You Can Drink To to follow. His op-eds appear in USA Today, New York Daily News, The New York Times, LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He's a regular radio guest and maintains the voluminous Many Moments More blog on his website colinfleminglit.com, which ranges in its explorations from ballet to film to sports to literature to music to art to nature to unique workout routines in historical structures while exposing the corruption and discrimination — and plain bad writing — rampant in publishing, and documenting what it truly means to endure and grow. Sometimes there are posts on Twitter @colinfleminglit

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