For many people, horror films wouldn’t be the obvious choice if they wanted to feel in some ways uplifted. Horror isn’t about feeling good, after all – or at least, that’s not the usual verdict. It’s about feeling scared. Many people would perhaps be more likely to go for a period drama, a musical, a romantic comedy, or something of that kind: the type of film where, when it comes down to it, everyone eventually settles for something or someone and lives ‘happily ever after’. That’s the more normal thing to help a person relax, and probably the last thing which would pick me up.
Personally, if I’m going to revisit a film, it’s because it offers me something completely and utterly different than the everyday, and there are a number of films which I can happily watch over and over, coming out of the other side feeling…better. Good. I’m not talking about comedy horror. Nor horror in a cathartic way either, which I think relates to a different kind of horror film, but more as if I’ve had a pick-me-up. I want proper escapism, not realism – give me fantastic creatures, other worlds, stories which turn everything upside down, people who step outside the everyday forever, never to return. That’s the sort of thing which I find elevating, even if the ‘happy ever after’ motif is complicated at best, or even absent altogether. That’s another of the joys of the horror genre – it never seems to feel bad about ending things badly, if it’s part of the story. It has more leeway. It can take us on longer journeys and show us more interesting sights along the way.
Here are five horror films, then, which I would say are my ‘feelgood horrors’. If you’re a horror fan you might not share in these, but I’ll bet that you have a few of your own…
5: The Masque of the Red Death
This lurid and stylish film – one of the much-vaunted ‘Corman Poe’ cycle – is always solid fare for a rewatch, and has that nice circularity of being a debauchedly escapist film about a debauched escapist. Although named for the Edgar Allan Poe short story, this film cleverly splices another of his tales into the mix – one of the rather less-known stories, ‘Hop-Frog’, where a tormented jester wreaks vengeance on his tormentors. All of this fits seamlessly into the tale of Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) – presiding over a world that is decidedly unfair, a world where the rich and effete dance the night away whilst a virulent plague by the name of the ‘red death’ blazes through the surrounding countryside, killing many. Meanwhile, Prospero amuses himself further with a study in corruption, after taking an innocent young girl (Jane Asher) captive and attempting to bring her around to his way of seeing the world. However, belligerence, excess and even dedicating one’s life to the Devil cannot prevent death from literally stalking through the castle anyway. You can read this fluid, engrossing film as an allegory of course, or else simply enjoy it for its carefully-composed visuals and vivid colour – but it is justifiably one of Corman’s, and Price’s, finest works, and just as mesmeric now as it was when it was made in the middle of last century.
I think I first saw Nightbreed at just the right age. That is – younger than the age restriction, for sure, but young enough for the idea of a hidden, magical world to make a kind of joyous sense. Clive Barker’s imagination always seems to be to bridge the divide between childhood and adulthood, which is why it’s no great surprise to me that he’s written specifically for children, as well as older readers. His work is full of extraordinary creatures and places who under certain conditions can interact with the real world. When they do so, the resulting fallout is usually bloody and bewildering and yeah, okay, technically unsuitable for children, but in many ways Barker writes fairy stories (which themselves were rather more grisly in their earlier, unsanitised forms). The idea of Midian – a place where misfits are not just welcome, they’re integral – is also a very appealing idea for a weird kid, and though it’s easy to look at the film now and find faults with it (as did Barker) it’s still a gaudy, grisly realisation of a storybook staple. It’s a shame the original idea to extend this story across another two films didn’t come to pass as intended, but Nightbreed will always hold a special place in my heart: the wealth of ideas it contains makes it a real original and an ever-engaging story.
3: Dellamorte Dellamore
Dellamorte Dellamore – or Cemetery Man – is enlivening purely by virtue of its beauty. Shot on location in Italy, bathed in sunlight or moonlight, Soavi has played with contrasts throughout the film, making the beautiful town and cemetery of the backdrop for some strange, unsightly, perplexing goings-on. This has to be one of the most aesthetically-pleasing horror films I’ve ever seen, and one of the most charmingly oddball, too. In a pleasing kind of circularity, actor Rupert Everett – who was the inspiration for the comic Dylan Dog, upon which Dellamorte Dellamore was later based – was later chosen to play the character of the ‘cemetery man’ Francis Dellamorte in Soavi’s film. He’s by turns sardonic and vulnerable, as well as of course quintessentially British. In fact, lots of the inhabitants of this zombie-plagued town are non-Italians, something which adds to the oddball feel of the film, as well as allowing Everett to rattle out amusing sarcastic commentary in a way which works perfectly. He’s matched by his non-speaking helper, Nyagi, a comic foil in places, a friend in others, and the beautiful Anna Falchi as ‘she’, a woman who re-emerges throughout the film as a bizarre, unravelling love interest. Dellamorte Dellamore manages to shake together existentialism, Absurdist ideas and zombie horror in a charming fashion that always makes me feel good – even if the conclusion seems to suggest that nothing is real, nothing matters and life is an inescapable farce. Pretty good going, I’d say.
2: Cabin in the Woods
Cabin in the Woods has detractors who seem to feel that it somehow makes a mockery of the genre, but I really can’t agree with that. Scream had a far more sneering tone, in my opinion, and behaved very much as if a line could safely be drawn beneath the whole slasher genre as if it were a spent force. Cabin in the Woods is definitely self-deprecating; it teases us, but not only does it know its horror tropes with all the joy of a fan – it has tremendous fun with them.
Framing the story as an elaborate governmental set-up, instituted as a rite designed to keep the planet safe from slumbering gods is clever, and this allows Whedon to throw us little ideas (the merman) and lines (“Let’s get this party started”) along the way. There’s a wry sense of humour in the film, there absolutely is, but I didn’t feel I was being laughed at and I always feel that the film moves at a great pace with novel ideas and throws in, of course, that cameo at the end. Perhaps it’s more than a little unusual to suggest that a film where humanity is ultimately destroyed can really be ‘feelgood’, but you know what? Good characters don’t always have to go for the selfless option, and I think the film’s ending is a final moment of payoff in a film made up of many of such moments.
Lovecraft? Upbeat?! Surely not. Here we could argue that there’s a link to the last film I mentioned – the idea of ancient gods, older by far than humanity and more than able to destroy or subvert humanity at any given point. Could this idea really be uplifting – twice?
Dagon, directed by Stuart Gordon, is, like The masque of the Red Death not a straightforward adaptation of one story, but more of a spin on my favourite Lovecraft story, The Shadow Over Innsmouth – though relocated to Spain, to a town called Imboca. In the film, our American protagonist, Paul, and his companions are stranded at the village of Imboca by a mysterious storm, which forces them onto land. They try to seek assistance, but find the town’s inhabitants defensive, obstructive and… oddly deformed. The ‘last man in Imboca’ is able to explain to Paul what the residents are and what they will do, but for Paul/Pablo, it seems as if destiny has brought him to this place – and to the side of Uxía, played by the striking and almost unsettling Macarena Gomez.
Wicked cultists, deformity, blasphemy, sacrifice, conspiracy…not usually elements which gladden the heart, but I’d argue that Dagon does in fact have a happy ending. After losing so much and even trying to die, Paul is instead finally able to embrace his ‘destiny’, and the final scenes – accompanied by The Shadow Over Innsmouth’s closing lines – seem to indicate that after all, Pablo has accepted this. He and Uxia acknowledge each other, Pablo sees that what she told him is true, and they head into eternity together.
Sure, it’s not the wedding of the year – much less because these are two tentacled/gilled siblings with an ancient monster for a father – but they get to live forever, which means they don’t have to fear what we fear. To come back to Clive Barker, I think he said it best when he said “there’s a corner of all of us that envies [monsters’] powers and would love to live forever”. I think there’s much in this, and this surely figures in many of the films which I enjoy the most: Dagon puts its characters through the wringer and destroys most of them, but there’s a chink of hope at the end, which eludes every aspect of realism.