Night terrors aren’t like normal nightmares. There is no imagination involved, no story. You wake up, and it’s just an overwhelming sense of dread, a feeling of a malevolent presence in your room, and a keen awareness that you are totally unable to move. I can’t say for certain how long they typically last, but I’d guess it’s less than five minutes. Once one ends and you regain your senses the adrenaline and paranoia last on a while. It’s a wholly unpleasant experience.
I can’t say for certain why I never watched horror films as a kid. I had easy access, getting HBO straight to my bedroom. I had friends who liked them that I could’ve connected with. Seeing them would’ve certainly helped me have more pop culture sensibility. But I avoided them. I wonder now if having those occasional night terrors might have had something to do with it; they might’ve been enough horror for me.
The Big Three of horror movies during my adolescence, the ones every other kid saw and talked about that I never did, were: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. As an adult, I easily got past whatever my horror movie block was, and finally saw Psycho, Peeping Tom, and Black Christmas, greatly enjoying all three. I watched Slumber Party Massacre, Scream, April Fool’s Day, Saw, Sleepaway Camp, Urban Legend, and more. There was no reason in particularly that I skipped The Three, it just happened. As I went through my Netflix queue with Halloween (the holiday) approaching, I decided to finally indulge my inner 13-year-old. I decided to finally watch them all.
Some thoughts passed through my head as I had my mini-marathon (which was actually over a period of 7 days), so I decided I might as well splatter them onto the wall to see what came out. I won’t spoil anything specific of the films, but obviously I’ll discuss plot points, and these are slasher flicks so there are always twists and turns that might be hard not to give away.
I’m a big John Carpenter fan. Almost as much for his minimalist soundtracks as the movies themselves. Halloween is a simple story about The Boogeyman, Michael Myers, his escape from a mental hospital and his one night of voyeurism and blood spilling.
Halloween is a deliberate film, building slowly to the kills. The themes presented aren’t too complex or subtle. In one sequence the concept of fate is brought up in a high school literature class, just to make sure we don’t miss it. Somewhat more obliquely, the story considers the idea of fear itself as bullies frighten a weaker child, people sneak up on each other for kicks, and young children watch old horror films in the dark. In fact, I found this concept of our modern need to frighten each other interesting, and I wish there would’ve been even more along these lines. A friend of mine asked the question recently, wondering if prehistoric man had the same fascination with fear, or if lives more fraught with physical danger than our modern ones would’ve needed less in the way of artificial fright.
In any case, after several teases and near-misses, Michael finally lets loose, proving to be a clumsy, slow, and incompetent killer. His only strengths appear to be superhuman strength and the ability to vanish when people aren’t looking directly at him. I could argue that his seeming ineptitude might have been a clever point, that as The Boogeyman his job is to instill fear, which is hard to do when a person is actually all-the-way-dead. Perhaps those half-hearted slashes with a knife were purposeful, designed to illicit one more “delightful” scream from his subject. I could argue this, but I don’t know for sure that was the intention.
I do know that 13-year-old me wouldn’t have picked up on any of that, and probably would’ve found Halloween boring and silly. The ending isn’t quite overtly supernatural, but it’s very close, and it would’ve been unsatisfying to a fussy young nerd like me. As an adult, I liked the movie quite well, being more patient, willing to suspend my disbelief, and see what the writer and director intend.
Friday the 13th
Like Halloween, Friday the 13th starts with a kill from the killer’s perspective. Unlike Halloween, the killer then continues on, ruthless and efficient, until the final act. Crystal Lake is a cursed campground, and the counselors only have one week to get ready before the kiddies arrive. The problem is that it’s Friday the 13th, and Jason wants these camp counselors dead, and damnit, they are going to die, quick and sure, one after the other. No stalking for hours like Michael Myers or gruff taunts like Freddy, no.
The movie briefly plays up a whodunit angle, but that is tossed aside as the killing just overwhelms everything. Everything, I guess, except the titillation, as the camp counselors find every excuse to be in their bathing suits or wholly-unsuitable-for-camp negligees. There is no moralizing and no subtext here, except maybe a stern warning that you should do your best every day at work.
The end brings a change in pace, where the killer loses some murderous steam in order for us to learn the big twist and why all these people are dying. The trade-off is a good one, in my opinion, as there is some genuinely creepy and frightening moments in the final chase.
I read that there was a bit of an outrage from critics when Friday the 13th came out. Having seen the gore, violence, and overt sexuality in other movies from even earlier, it’s hard to totally understand why. I can only guess that it’s because the movie is so unrepentant about its place as a freak show attraction, a pure spectacle aiming to please the lizard brain.
It might have all been too much for 13-year-old me. Not in a scarred-for-life way, but just off-putting and overly blunt.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
A demon named Freddy Krueger haunts the dreams of four kids, desperately trying to gross them out and possibly to kill them. Freddy comes across as a bully instead of a blood-thirsty sadist. He doesn’t really torture his victims, he just shows them freaky shit before he chases them for a while and dispatches them. The whole time he yells taunts and barbs that show the imagination of a young boy, “I’ll kill you! You’re gonna die!”
Nightmare is as subtle as a shillelagh to the noggin. We are presented with a classroom scene, just as in Halloween, a literature class about death. Afterwards we dive into commentary on child-parent relationships, especially those in broken homes, as a child literally puts her mom to bed, a child is literally imprisoned in her own home (with bars and everything), and then a child literally asks her daddy to please pay attention to her (or else she’ll die). I suppose the intended comment here could even be that the real nightmare on Elm Street was the divorce that caused this obsessive mother, distant father, and needy child, but I could’ve done without the heavy-handedness.
The kills eventually do happen, although there aren’t many, possibly owing to the special-effects heavy nature of each one. There are a couple of good holy shit moments, too. Really, A Nightmare on Elm Street struck me as almost closer to the epic fantasy films of the 80s, like Time Bandits, Labyrinth, or The Neverending Story. It’s obviously darker in tone, and involves a lot more blood, but the movie has a similar childish mentality and sense of the world. It’s a fairy tale covered in viscera and boogers.
As a kid who loved those other movies, I’m guessing I would’ve really like A Nightmare on Elm Street, too. It was, I should point out, the most popular movie with my peers as well, judging by the number of Freddy-themed folders and binders I saw in class.
So that’s a quick tour of The Three. Overall, grown up me enjoyed Friday the 13th the most. I appreciated its genuine creepy moments, something the other two were mostly lacking. I think young me would’ve preferred A Nightmare on Elm Street, predictably.
A wife and husband, friends of mine, who preferred Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street respectively, warned me against the sequels of any of the movies. I have to admit it is very tempting to waste some time watching at least the second installment in each series. I’m assured by every source I’ve sought that they’re all simply awful. For the time being I suppose I’ll let it go, and move on to another genre. Zombies, perhaps. Or haunted houses.
So did I miss out by waiting to watch them? Maybe. I heard plenty of stories of the movies, the events and holy shit moments relayed in hushed tones. I got to be the kid the other kids got to impress by having had seen an R-rated movie. The Freddy versus Jason debates went straight over my head. I don’t think seeing them would’ve stunted my growth, but also I’m glad I waited because, hey, I wrote an article.
Mostly I’m glad to finally feel like I’ve earned my final suburban adolescent boy merit badge.