Critical Confessions 28: Why I Love Horror

How I went from scaredy cat to gorehound in several decades of distress...

True confessions time. I was not a fan of horror films growing up. As a matter of fact, it was safe to say that any genre title, no matter how well meaning or schlocky, frightened me to no end. I actually went to a slumber party when I was eight where the group decided to watch Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster as part of the "fun" and I could not sleep all night. Or the next. Or the next. Put another way, when Charles B. Pierce's "classic" The Legend of Boggy Creek played at our local movie house, it was peer pressure mandatory to attend. When I eventually made my way into a seat, I spent more time under it (or out of it, in the restroom) than actually witnessing the dread.

I'm not sure why terror touched me so deeply. I can say that I was always a very impressionable kid (and teen, and young adult...). There was no real suspension of disbelief between myself and what was up on the screen. I tended to believe everything I saw on TV and in the movies was real and happening. It's what led to my love of science fiction. I could instantly get lost in the worlds offered either between the pages of a speculative novel or on the small/big screen. But it wasn't just the fantastical that hit me hard. I have a vivid memory of crying my eyes out over Jackie Gleason's "death" in Gigot. The kindly deaf mute didn't actually die, but I had been so wrapped up in the character's story that I couldn't distinguish between possible reality and dramatic manipulation.

The same applied to horror. When I first heard that desperate, dire cry of the Bigfoot-like Fouke Monster, I was chilled to the bone. For days later, as I rode my bike around the wooded areas of my neighborhood, I could swear I heard the wail rising up from within the dark and foreboding forests. Then there was Night Gallery. Sure, it was lesser Serling, but I will never forget seeing Roddy McDowell's reaction shots as the painting on his mansion wall showed a coffin ascending from the family plot, the rotting corpse of his vindictive dead uncle climbing from the grave and stumbling to the front door before we heard the ominous "knock...knock..knock." Yes, I could tolerate the brilliant Darren McGavin vehicles The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, and adored the Kolchak TV series. But I never went to see a real honest to goodness serious horror film in a theater...

That is, until, The Exorcist. For those of you either too young or too oblivious to remember the year that film was released, William Friedkin's allegorical masterpiece of devil possession and the generation gap was the talk of every town. Back in 1973, movies didn't open "wide." They played various markets, sometimes staying for weeks as a time, before traveling to other parts of the country. For months, we in Michigan City, Indiana had been watching the nightly news reports, listening to exaggerated tales of people walking out, of patrons being violently sick and fainting, of Church officials condemning the final result, and perhaps most importantly, of sold out shows and alleged cinematic greatness. By this time in my life I was a fledgling cinephile. I was eager to experience everything the medium had to offer...everything except fear.

I figured that The Exorcist would be a good way of finally discovering a passion of scares. Since the film was rated R, and I was never going to find a willing adult to take me to see it, I had to formulate a plan. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was playing in revival in the theater next to where The Exorcist was playing, and I was such a regular at the establishment that I knew when and where I could sneak out of my screening, and into this forbidden film. Timed perfectly, I made it in as Fr. Karras was running around the track at Georgetown (having missed the entire Iraq archeological dig set up with Fr. Merrin). I quickly found a seat away from prying adult eyes, settled in to catch up with the case of actress Chris MacNeil and her odd acting daughter, and prepared for whatever this film had to offer.

Right off the bat, I could smell the slight aroma of vomit. Clearly, the news stories hadn't lied. Then I noticed more than a couple people shifting uncomfortably in their seat as the scenes with Ms. MacNeil and her daughter Regan arrived. I was nonplused...and then, the crucifix sequence arrived. For those of you who do not know it, it remains one of the most stunningly blasphemous and horrific moments in a genre film, modern or otherwise. It was beyond shocking. It was degrading and demeaning. It was practically soul stealing. My eyes were wide open, my mouth agape. I continued to watch in morbid disbelief...and then Regan rotated her head around to confront her mortified mother.

That was it.

From that moment on, The Exorcist frightened me like no other film before or since. I spent so much time cowering beneath the chairs in front of me that, when I finally revisited the film in the late '70s with a couple of my high school friends, it was like watching it for the first time. I remember the voices, the terrifying images of projectile vomiting and physiological transformation. I remember Fr. Merrin's arrival, an image straight out of the promotional material, and the confusion I felt when Fr. Karras sacrificed himself for Regan. For weeks, I heard the horrifying sounds of the movie in my dreams. I slept with the lights on. I shunned the more shadowy, spookier places in our house. The saddest part? I couldn't share any of this with my friends. If my parents found out I had snuck into The Exorcist, my fate would have been worse than that of any character in the film.

Yet it wasn't this experience that began my love affair with terror. Nor was it the moment during The Omen when I realized that a pane of glass could cleave a man's head clean off. Actually, it was a different kind of attraction that finally pushed me over into the realm of the dark and the dreadful. It was my future wife. When I met Angela, she was a pure horror nut. She loved everything, from the most ridiculous Roger Corman crap to the gorefests of Lucio Fulci. She was addicted to Dario Argento and sang the praises of forgotten gems like Deathdream and anything William Castle. I knew I was in trouble on our first date. We didn't go and see one of the typical date movies of the time. Our first film has been and will forever be...John Carpenter's classic Halloween.

From then on, it was a matter of mutual acceptance. She reluctantly listened to the punk and New Wave I was constantly crowing about. I, in the interim, learned to love A Nightmare on Elm Street and George Romero's brilliant Dawn of the Dead. She schooled me. She laughed at me. When spent many a possible passionate make-out session in different parts of her parent's house: me, avoiding the TV and VCR in the living room, her cozying up to another piece of euro-splatter. When I dared share these blood and guts fiascos with her, I soon learned that I liked the experience. It was kind of cathartic. It was like conquering a phobia, and then fetishizing it.

But it was Sam Raimi's horrific Evil Dead and its comedy cousin Evil Dead 2 which finally won me over. They were both so primal, so visionary, so tactile, that I was irretrievably hooked. I learned that I could love terror and still see the artistry underneath. Sure, I might not get much sleep at night, but I was addicted to such a discovery. Today, I am as big a fright fan as my wife, sometimes even more so. She's so jaded that, within moments, she can tell if a potential paranormal 'activity' is going to be worth her time (usually not). For me, it's still seems relatively new. I didn't spend my whole life loving the graven images of the undead rising from their tombs to consume the living. Today, I couldn't imagine my life without them.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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