The Horror, The Horror
In the 1970s, horror films comprised intelligent alternative cinema in a way the winking, blinking zombie that the genre is today does not. Ironic self-referentiality is simply not as scary as taking death seriously -- great horror cinema is always accompanied by a measure of genuine grief. While the 20-year-old films on display starting Sunday in the Red Vic's "Widescream" series (horror filmed in CinemaScope and other wide-screen processes), or the 1970s films mixed in with more recent product at the UC Berkeley's "All-Night Terror-Thon" on Friday, do not necessarily represent a range of Alpine peaks in horror-film history, many of them loom pretty large set against today's postmodernist potholes.
Interested viewers can see for themselves -- the UC's marathon gets under way Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. with works from such key genre filmmakers as David Cronenberg (1977's Rabid) and Larry Cohen (1974's It's Alive!). The former work is the dour Canadian's most apocalyptic, as the future auteur of Dead Ringers and Crash works out his favorite Sex=Death equation with a plague springing from Marilyn Chambers' armpit. Cohen, a witty schlockmeister on a mission from hell, goes further with the Birth=Death equation of It's Alive! -- the one about killer newborns rocketing around the delivery room. Sure, it's funny, but the issues it raises are also genuinely disturbing, something that can't be said for contemporary spoofs like Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness (1993, 1 a.m.) or Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (1992, 5 a.m.). Those films are put in their place by surrounding a deeply upsetting work from a quarter-century ago, Wes Craven's Last House on the Left (1972, 3 a.m.), an awful-in-the-medieval-sense (awe-ful) reworking of Bergman's The Virgin Spring. (William Crain's 1972 Blacula, at 11 p.m., is an unknown quantity.)
Last House on the Left was Craven's debut feature; in the years since he's gone on to be one of serial horror's worst offenders in terms of the ratio of jokes to deaths (creator as he is of both the Nightmare on Elm Street and now the Scream series). The real shift in the genre came at the end of the 1970s, with the best work of Cronenberg, Cohen, Craven, and others being supplanted by formulaic slasher films, the boring progenitor of which (1978's Halloween) being the film that made John Carpenter's reputation. The Red Vic's screening of Carpenter's The Fog (1980), on Monday, Oct. 27, provides a good chance to reappraise this once-promising newcomer. Set in Stinson Beach, with the stunt mother-daughter team of Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis taking refuge from a supernatural cloud bank, The Fog struck me as murky and moldy -- although no doubt it will look great, thanks to the Red Vic's commendable decision to dust off a wide-screen print.