It’s a warm summer evening, and the storm clouds are threatening to turn the world into the cover of an 80’s metal album. But for now, the thunder rumbles in lazily from far enough away that you’re not scrambling to unplug your electronics. All is right with the world, but all would be way righter with the addition of a little horror. What do you watch?
There are times you crave the excitement of being scared straight out your gourd, other times when you want to be disturbed and nauseated to remind you that you’re still alive, but there are also times you need the familiar company of a dear old friend, even if it’s one that eats people.
For me, stormy summer weather demands Frankenstein. Or Bride of Frankenstein. Or Son, Ghost, or House of Frankenstein for that matter. Anything black and white will do, really. This, my friends, is comfort food horror. These are the films you throw on for the twenty-somethingth time just to soak up their atmosphere for a while. You don’t even have to watch them, really. You play them in the background just to set the mood. Maybe you fold laundry, or doodle in a sketch book, glancing up occasionally, but mostly just listening to it. It doesn’t matter; you’ve got it memorized anyway. Maybe you play it in bed and let its familiarity lull you to sleep.
There are different kinds of comfort food horror, and there are many reasons for watching them. What follows is an attempt to classify these staples of the fright-fiend’s daily diet.
The Horror Comfort Food Groups
What is it about old movies that is so comforting? They have a staged quality and theatricality that makes them feel dreamlike. Their sets, so obviously inauthentic, hint at reality rather than portray it, giving them a storybook quality. Our eyes are not fooled, but our brains fill in the gaps, turning the physical space of the set into the idea of the physical space of the story. The effect is that the space seems to exist on a separate plane of reality: that of imagination.
The performances, likewise, don’t resemble the reality we live in. The actors become otherworldly beings, their world resembling ours, but foreign to it. They too become the idea of the thing, existing on a Platonic level of ideals. The effect is hypnotic. If you let yourself, you can disappear into the screen.
Like all comfort food horror, you don’t watch the classics to get scared. You’re about 80 years too late to exist in a time when these archetypal monsters were fresh and frightening. But you might catch an echo of what was once scary about them. If you can project your mind backward to a time before The Exorcist, before Night of the Living Dead, before Psycho, you can reconstruct what it must have been like to watch these movies in the 1930s.
When I’m sculpting, I’m always looking at my hands. Hardly the time to watch a movie, non? Except it’s always time for horror. In these cases, you’re not actually going to see 90 percent of the film, so you don’t want to watch something you’ve never seen before. Essentially, you’re going to experience the film as a radio play, so you want something that relies heavily on dialogue, and you want that dialogue to be consistently entertaining. Horror comedies are just what the doctor (Giggles) ordered.
My go-to sculpting film, especially near Halloween, is Return of the Living Dead. I’ll admit, this one slows me down a bit because there are so many great visual gags and I’m always having to stop what I’m doing and watch. Especially the Linnea Quigley scenes. But the dialogue is off-the-charts wonderful, and since I’m usually sculpting something Halloween-themed, it sets the mood just right.
Shaun of the Dead is another enduring classic, with enough witty banter that Edgar Wright’s innovative visual style is almost beside the point. Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End often go back to back in my mancave. Cabin in the Woods is used frequently for listening purposes, at least until the blowout bloodbath finale, which I can’t tear my eyes away from. If I don’t want to look at the screen at all, I’ll play Army of Darkness and recite every line. As with the classics, these are films you don’t watch to be scared, but for pure entertainment value. Sure, you could throw on a comedy without dismemberments and geysers of blood, but why?
It’s the middle of the day on Halloween. You’ve taken time off work because anything less would be sacrilege, right? You’re putting the finishing touches on your décor and are getting ready to carve pumpkins. You’re going to be in and out of the room, but you want something to set the mood. Why on Earth would you put on one of the scariest movies of all time if you aren’t going to watch it properly? Well, because you grew up with it and you’ve seen it fifty-plus times.
John Carpenter’s Halloween comes to mind. It’s perhaps the most perfect slasher movie ever committed to film and a master course in building suspense. And undisputedly scary. Except that you’ve been watching it since you were ten, you know every scare by heart, and it’s just lost its power to frighten you. But you love it anyway.
For children of the eighties like myself, the decade is a treasure trove of great horror films that you’ve watched into the ground. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Phantasm, The Evil Dead, Re-animator, The Fog, Poltergeist, Creepshow, Demons, Hellraiser… I could go on. There are a select few I’ve intentionally avoided watching too often. These are generally the best of the best, movies like The Shining and The Thing. These are films I want to keep scary, so I don’t put them on lightly.
But we’re not limited to eighties horror. Newer movies can also fall into this category if you’ve watched them on repeat. I’ve probably watched You’re Next ten times since it came out, so it’s well on its way to “Ol’ Familiar” territory. Basically any film you can’t get enough of belongs here. If your eyes will be elsewhere while the movie plays, commentary tracks on old familiars are an excellent way to get your comfort food on while adding a layer of new experience.
So far I’ve talked a lot about flicks you throw on without paying complete attention to, but what about comfort food horror for those times all you want to do is sit on the couch, stare at the screen, and get sucked into another world? There are certain films with an atmosphere so seductive that watching them is like taking a trip to a favorite vacation spot. These are the movies you want to live in.
To plagiarize myself, The Lost Boys is where I want to go when I die. It was my first real horror movie, and to a twelve-year-old, it looked like a portrait of paradise. It’s summer in a new town with a permanent party on the boardwalk with carnival rides, live music, and a never-ending parade of gorgeous, stylish teenagers. Michael flirts with a drop-dead beautiful brunette who introduces him to a pack of motorcycle-riding badasses who hang out in an abandoned, underground hotel they have all to themselves. It’s the ultimate clubhouse where they can escape parents, authority figures, and other squares, and just do whatthefuckever they want. Also, they’re vampires. Even now, with my son the same age I was when I first saw it, the appeal has not worn off. I’d happily kill nightly to get to live in that state of eternal youth.
Hammer movies are practically all atmosphere and mood. Sometimes I just want to stroll through the streets of that quaint village in Curse of the Werewolf, or stay the night in that elegant castle in Brides of Dracula. The pace of old Hammer films makes them perfect for late night viewing in bed, knowing that you’ll be asleep a third of the way in. They’re like lullabies for monster kids.
Sick to death of society’s bullshit and just want to go where the wild things are? You could do worse than Nightbreed’s Midian. I suspect you’d fit right in. Perhaps you’re in the dead center of that great, grey beast February and desperately need it to be Halloween. Why not visit the town that does in best by watching Trick ‘r Treat? There’s a massive Halloween parade, every third house has professional-quality yard haunts, and there’s a clearing in the woods where the sexy werewolf girls get their ‘Ween on. What more could you want?
Meat(loaf)’s Meat(loaf) and Man’s Gotta Eat(loaf)
Now that I’ve said my piece about comfort food horror, it’s your turn. What categories would you add? What are your go-to movies? Where is your personal Santa Carla? Sound off in the comments.