October Round Table Interview #1: Your favorite weird fiction authors share the classic horror films that frightened and inspired them the most.
“The Exorcist. I saw it at age sixteen when it first came out, in 1973. It blows my mind that some people nowadays say it isn’t that scary, it’s laughable at times, and so on. Such viewers are jaded, spoiled by having seen so, so many movies that have reworked and overdone the kind of imagery, cinematic techniques, special effects, and subject matter The Exorcist introduced. Though I myself am not a religious person, I found William Peter Blatty’s story of an innocent child inhabited by a malevolent entity profoundly frightening. For a while after seeing the film, the face of Reagan in her full demonic state was so inscribed on my mind that I’d be afraid to enter my room for fear of seeing her on my bed, would even for a second project her on my bed. The movie (still my favorite horror film) and book (still my favorite horror novel) haven’t really influenced my own horror fiction in terms of plot or theme, but they have continued to inspire me in my efforts to create work that like The Exorcist feels shockingly transgressive but sophisticated and artistic at the same time. The Exorcist is pure class, to my mind, and thus the ultimate horror classic” - Jeffrey Thomas, author of Punktown and the upcoming novel The American from Journalstone. @punktowner
"Most of the horror films that have had the greatest long-term influence on my psyche are '80s and early '90s pre-CGI fare discovered through my horror fan father: I didn't see any of the classic Universal or Hammer pictures, for instance, until I was an adult. I was a college freshman when I first saw The Tenant (1976), which, along with its sister film Rosemary's Baby, shaped my view of big-city apartment life long before I ever experienced it. Nowadays, as a 12-year resident of the same Brooklyn apartment, I've had opportunities to write fiction inspired by my own occasionally bizarre or horrific experiences with solitary city living.
The Tenant was based on a novel by Roland Topor: an out-of-print copy with an intro by Thomas Ligotti is patiently waiting in one of my endless stacks of unread books, and a new edition has recently been published by Valancourt. Directed by and starring Roman Polanski, The Tenant was the last of his films before he became a convicted sex offender and thus the last of his films that should, from an ethical standpoint, have ever been made. The film is perhaps most notable in popular culture for its protagonist Trelkovsky's drunken monologue about whether his hypothetical severed head or headless body would have more “right to call itself 'me',” as sampled by Skinny Puppy in “The Choke” and yours truly in “Abject”. In this film, Polish immigrant Trelkovsky moves into a new apartment in Paris recently left vacant by the suicide of its tenant Simone Choule, meanwhile beginning a somewhat awkward romance with Simone's friend Stella (played by Isabelle Adjani of Possession (1981) and Werner Herzog's Nosferatu (1979), two of my other all-time horror favorites). Over the course of the film, he increasingly comes to believe his neighbors in the apartment building are conspiring to drive him insane, convince him that he is Simone Choule, and/or cause his death. The Tenant's potentially cliché "has he lost his mind or not?" plotline is elevated by a darkly-absurdist strain of Kafkaesque humor and a deliberate ambiguity about the true nature of the events and imagery throughout, creating a wonderfully nightmarish atmosphere, while its threads of paranoia, urban alienation, and identity confusion are backed by the greater real-world issues of xenophobia and gender dysphoria. There is, overall, a fear of sinister patterns repeating themselves, with the implication that succumbing to madness may be the only tolerable response to life in the modern world under oppressive conditions." LC von Hessen, author of works featured in Nightscript 6, Machinations and Mesmerism: Tales Inspired by E.T.A Hoffmann, and more. @LCvonHessen
"Psycho -- You'll never find a denser, more compressed, more tightly concentrated horror film than this. Every image is clamped in a merciless vice of significance, whose emissary is that ham-asshole psychologist at the end. It's a sensationalistic slasher movie with one of the most horrific screen murders ever filmed, where the victim is not a disposable character but a human being whose story engrosses you. You feel the hole in the world left behind when she dies. And yet the film is not about revenge or comeuppance. The murderer is not exonerated, but the film does not withhold compassion and understanding from him either. The horror goes so far beyond the violence; it's all compacted into the nightmare of introversion that is Norman's world. You can see his whole life in a single shot: the flat, horizontal motel, and the looming, vertical house. Bernard Herrmann's inspired score, a black and white score written exclusively for strings, is a horror text by itself. There's a passage called "the swamp," which opens with the three chords that always invoke an inescapable fate, and then meanders, dissolves, the music doubles back on itself and gets lost; the music performs mental disintegration in a way that genuinely frightens me. And then too there's the heartbreakingly poignant music that accompanies Lila's exploration of the upper floors of the house, the bedrooms of Mrs. Bates and her son. The boundless loneliness, the sense that life is moving on without you, it's there right from the start. It's what prompts Marion to steal, and to run. Norman Bates is a wasted human being, caught in his private trap. The whole film is a crystal of doom." - Michael Cisco, author of Unlanguage and the upcoming collection Antisocieties from Grimscribe Press. @MichaelTCisco
"When I was very young, my parents owned a 8mm film projector and a small collection of movies. The Lon Chaney silent film The Phantom of the Opera was one of them. I must have seen it a dozen times before I was even old enough to read its intertitles. The unsettling, stylish, atmospheric movie made a lasting impression on me, and I’m certain it paved the way for my love of dark suspense and gothic literature and my fascination with psychological horror and body horror. It’s been decades since I’ve seen the film, and I doubt I’d find it particularly disturbing today, but when I was six? Nothing was so frightening as the moment when Christine unmasks Erik. My parents told me later that I’d always cover my eyes during that scene. I felt a little embarrassed about that until I learned that some fully adult theatre patrons screamed out loud or fainted when they first saw the movie in 1925." - Lucy A. Snyder, author of Halloween Season. @LucyASnyder
"The question sparked a memory in me that I hadn't thought of in a long time. I was a child, probably somewhere in the 8 to 10 range, and was over at my friend David's house. Back in those days, the 1970s, weekend television was mostly old movies, and if you were lucky it was an old Universal horror movie. We were lucky that day and found THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON playing. Our imaginations were instantly fired up, and as soon as there was a commercial break we decided to go down to David's basement and look for weapons with which to fight the Creature. As you might imagine the search for the perfect weapon took some time, and when we finally returned to the TV room the movie was over. My disappointment was crushing, and yet we had so much fun anyway. THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON never frightened me as a film, but boy did it inspire little Nick's imagination to go to new and exciting places!" - Nicholas Kaufmann, author of 100 Fathoms Below and Dying is My Business. @TheKaufmann
"For me it'll always be Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1965), which my mother showed me in my late teens. Kwaidan's entire semi-lit production - shot on hand-painted sets - gives off a sense of unsettling unreal-reality, like the whole thing is taking place on a stage between two worlds (living and dead, real and unreal). That's the space I've always tried to brush up against, what I call the "half-light." Kwaidan is also an anthology, and it uses that format to tell four stories from the full emotional and tonal spectrum of horror. "The Black Hair" is viscerally scary, probably what most people think of when they hear horror; "The Woman in the Snow" is sad and tender; "Hoichi the Earless" is playful, exuberant; "In A Cup of Tea" is willfully opaque, eerie, bizarre. I really appreciate that acknowledgment that all of these approaches to ghost stories are valid and powerful in their own way." - Nadia Bulkin, author of She Said Destroy. @NadiaBulkin
"I'm actually not very well-versed in horror movies, and one film is to blame for that: The Birds. When I was in middle school, one of my friends had a Halloween party where we watched Hitchcock movies (she was an awesome next-level nerd.) Psycho didn't bother me too much, and The Birds was going fine too... but then came the scene where Lydia finds the farmer eyeless and dead in his chicken coop. At the time my family owned some bantam chickens, including the most vicious little rooster, and one of my chores was to feed and water them, so that hit me pretty hard. After that, I was convinced that I was too soft for horror movies for a long time. Completely missed out on the normal teenage slasher film phase and all of that. I recently started getting back into the film side of horror, cautiously at first, and nothing in The Thing, Event Horizon, Suspiria, etc. has scared me as much as that damn chicken scene!" - Carrie Laben, author of A Hawk in the Woods. @pinguinus
"During my freshman year of college, I took an introductory course in film—I thought it would be fun to watch movies for credit. Our professor was a wild-haired biker who wore an eye patch and frequently showed up drunk to class, and who loved to push his class of suburban New Wave babies out of their comfort zone. I’ll never forget the day the lights in the auditorium classroom dimmed and the opening credits to ERASERHEAD strobed across the screen. Deformed bodies, vast industrial cityscapes, sexual grotesqueries, a mutant baby (sperm?) comprised of rotting organs… when the lights came up, our professor pointed his wolf head cane at my terrified, mascara-streaked face and screamed “THAT’S what great art should do to you! It should FUCK YOU UP!” So yes, ERASERHEAD, which will never quite frighten me as much as that first showing, but which has become the most inspiring with the passage of time." - Livia Llewellyn, author of Furnace and Engines of Desire: Tales of Love and Other Horrors. @TheNuminous1
“But now the dream is over... and the insect is awake:”
On David Cronenberg’s The Fly
Although I spent my teenage years reading a great deal of horror fiction, much of it quite extreme in terms of its violence and gore (this was during the mid and late 1980’s, when first Clive Barker and then the Splatterpunks burst into blood-soaked print), I was far more timid in terms of my horror movie viewing. In this, I seem to have been the opposite of many if not most of my friends, who found it fairly easy to distance themselves from and thus dismiss what they saw in the theater or on TV, but had difficulty with what was projected onto the screens hung inside their skulls. For me, there was no comparison between print and film. Over the former, I could (in general) exercise a level of control I lacked while watching the latter. Indeed, during the early moments of a horror film, my anticipation of what was to come immediately shot to almost unbearable levels, which only the presence of another person, a friend or girlfriend, could keep me from acting on and fleeing the theater or shutting off the TV. (It’s a response I still experience, and probably always will.)
For this reason, until I was nearly thirty, the number of outright horror films I watched was relatively small. I could just about count them off on one hand: Psycho, Jaws, Fright Night, An American Werewolf in London, The Lost Boys, The Blob (the 1988 remake). And David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly. This last, in particular, stuck with me in a way that none of the others did. We live in an age of ever-accelerating remakes, to the point it sometimes seems the remake is already being discussed before the original film has been released. What Cronenberg does with the material of the 1958 film, and the story on which it’s based, is a lesson in the way(s) in which a remake can re-envision its source material, creating something bold and striking. As with so many great horror movies, Cronenberg’s Fly is intimate, anchored in both Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis’s performances. (As I recall, there was a move that year to have Goldblum nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Seth Brundle, which never came to fruition but which was richly deserved.) Perhaps the most significant change Cronenberg makes to the earlier story is to turn it into a story of transformation, rather than of the transformed. The focus is on a process of physical alteration whose apparent benefits (increased strength) are accompanied by less pleasant consequences (the loss of various body parts, starting with the fingernails Goldblum peels off with a kind of thrilled fascination). There’s always something worse waiting for Seth Brundle, and, once she realizes she’s pregnant, for Geena Davis’s character, Veronica Quaife. (Indeed, a nightmare sequence during which Veronica gives birth disturbed teenage me so much I had to stop the videotape I was watching and take a five minute break before resuming the film.) Every time you think Cronenberg has gone as far as he possibly could, he takes you further still, all the way to the movie’s unforgettable ending, which succeeds in evoking horror and pathos to a degree I’ve rarely encountered since. Perhaps more than any other of his films, The Fly is the one in which David Cronenberg allows his obsession with the mutability of human flesh to run amok. (One of the more fascinating details in the film for me is the way he’s able to suggest the weary humanity of the hideously mutated Seth Brundle with the character’s final gesture.) Nor does Cronenberg take anything back; there’s no retreat to a happy ending.
It’s in the ferocity of his vision that Cronenberg has continued to impress me, thirty-three or -four years after I first settled down to watch his movie in what I thought was the safety of my then-girlfriend’s living room. Oddly, it’s never occurred to me before, but what he does in The Fly reminds me very much now of Clive Barker’s stories. There’s the same concern with the body, the same willingness to engage with out and out monsters, the same determination to push a narrative all the way to the limit and beyond. Cronenberg, of course, played a serial killing psychiatrist in Barker’s Nightbreed; it strikes me as a shame he never tried his hand at adapting one of Barker’s works. What a film he might have made of “The Age of Desire” or The Damnation Game!
In the years after I watched it, I never failed to mention The Fly as a horror film whose absolute integrity I respected. My respect, though, was of a chilly variety, distinct from the more straightforward affection I felt for Fright Night or An American Werewolf in London. As my own fiction has progressed, however, I’ve realized that, on a level of which I haven’t always been aware, David Cronenberg’s movie has served as a kind of beacon, pointing the way toward the type of stories I want to write. Now, it squats atop my heart, twitching its head as its rounded eyes consider the flesh beneath it, rubbing its forelegs together greedily."
- John Langan, author of The Fisherman and the upcoming collection Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies. @MrGaunt
Stay tuned for more installments in our October Round Table Interview Series!
These interviews were conducted by Farah Rose Smith in September of 2020.