Everyone is afraid of something; rats, spiders, the complete graphic evisceration of a nubile young virgin, confined spaces, vampires, 3 bean salad, Germans, ...the list goes on. Fear, and our emotional response to it, seems almost universal in it's appeal. Something in us likes to be scared, likes the rush that comes from being afraid, nervous and uncertain. For whatever reason, I avoid horror in cinema, but judging from the blog lately, I'm obviously in the minority around here.
I thought I'd try and trace the genesis of this current disinterest in the macabre by thinking back over the media I've watched since childhood to attempt to find the moment when I witnessed something so terrifying, so deeply disturbing, so visceral that I would turn away from horror forever. It stands to reason that something must have galvanized my decision to avoid the horror genre all these years, but what was it?
I recalled seeing “Happy Birthday to Me” at the Hanover Drive-In in 1981, a scary-as-shit birthday party from Hell B-movie that really got under my skin. I realized that, while instrumental in my detour around the genre in subsequent years, this wasn't the source of my disinterest in horror cinema. I'd have to go back further. Orca and Jaws freaked me out, but it turns out, I'm not all that afraid of sharks and killer whales. Well, a little bit maybe. No, it was earlier still.
I liked the old Universal horrors of the 30's, although they were hardly terrifying by today's sick standards. I'd watched most of them by the time I was 10 and slept like a baby on the nights they played on TV. I sneaked into a theatre with my childhood pal Greg Yeoman and watched about 20 minutes of the Exorcist before we got caught and were led out of the North Bay Odeon Theatre by an usher barely older than we were. They actually stopped the movie, turned up the house lights and led us out of the theatre. Yes, it was completely humiliating, but not the thing that turned me off horror forever. It was earlier still.
What was it then?.... I pushed back further – through that acid trip Wizard of Oz stop motion TV show that forever fucked my generation in ways that we're only now beginning to understand, past the episodes of the Twilight Zone with that giant-headed Rod Serling blathering on about strange events and earwigs, further back still to the sickly backgrounds of the earliest Spider Man and Rocket Robin Hood cartoons that still make me queasy 40 years on, and then I found it. The source. 6 minutes and 16 seconds of sheer, unadulterated, gut-wrenching terror. It's a 1956 episode of Gumby and Pokey, called Gumby on the Moon and it forever changed me. I was probably about 3 or 4 when I saw this sick little number and rewatching it all these years later took me back to a place I'd rather not talk about.
He said he was my Uncle, but that's another story.
This evil claymation short seems innocent enough – the triangle-headed Gumby, for reasons never quite explained, ends up on the moon being chased around by little orange moon-pylons bent on his destruction. Pokey, like all childhood friends (including Greg) is nowhere to be found right when Gumby needs him most (just like Gumby's magically disappearing/reappearing black utility belt). Mind-fuck synthesiser moon-music amplifies the tension, ratcheting it up until all you can hear are the screams of a little boy named Scotty. Gumby's dad, in a segment that still really bugs me, takes a ladder truck and shoots up to the moon, safely protected in a hampster suit, to save Gumby and bring him home. Somehow, the ladder both reaches (ridiculous, even to a four year old) AND ends up right-side-up on the moon too. Years of engineering experience tells me that somewhere along Dad's stupid ladder journey to the moon he would have had to turn around to go down the steps on the moon. This really annoyed me in 1966 and it hasn't gone away. A giant plot hole, to say the least but that notwithstanding, it doesn't get any creepier than this baby.
So...You can keep your French torture-porns, your Dario Argento, your Zomedies, Cabin Fever's and endless variations on Saw and Hostel. None of them matches up to the godless black horror of a little green piece of plasticine, his useless orange horse-friend (who obviously had better things to do that day than help his pal out in his time of need), and his physics-challenged Dad being chased around by vicious moon triangles for no good reason. THAT is terror. I challenge all of you horror-mongers to scope this 6 minutes and 16 seconds out and tell me I'm wrong. I'm not.
Tell me the little baby head trapped in the frozen emptiness of space right at the end doesn't leave you gasping.
You've been warned.
...if you dare.