Bringing Home the Horror

It comes by way of the Television [Poltergeist (1982)]

Fright film fans have an innate desire to "own" that which they obsess over. Thanks to the ever changing face of home theater technology, and the genre's link to same, they can easily satisfy their creepshow cravings.

Die hard horror and science fiction fans, like myself, are a breed apart. Being part of our eclectic subculture usually requires an urge for elevated doses of film every week. In addition, we often tend to get together at online forums or genre conventions to exchange information and to discuss the structure and genesis of a variety of narratives and texts. And equally important, we are also assiduous collectors of all type of movie related merchandise such as books, magazines, posters, toys, soundtracks, and DVDs.

Without a doubt, fandom is a rather complex cultural phenomenon, so it should not be surprising that it has received considerable scholarly attention during the past few years. The academic community appears to concur that the behavior of fans can be better understood as a thriving desire to achieve a type of symbolic ownership of their favorite characters and movies. Interestingly, as with any other market, the allegorical possession of a cultural product is negotiated through the exchange and acquisition of an associated cultural capital.

Such an intellectual asset can take the form of extensive and profound knowledge of the specific film, actor, character, or filmmaker. Alternatively, it may also be represented by the possession of related tie-ins and collectibles. Therefore, in a purely metaphorical sense, the greater the fan’s knowledge and size of his personal collection of memorabilia, the more the movie belongs to him.

Of course, for a fan, the ultimate form of symbolic ownership is to have the film itself readily available for contemplation, enjoyment, appreciation, dissection, and analysis. While for many years this was a utopian situation, thanks to modern home entertainment technology, it is now a dream come true. For instance, DVDs allow us to watch our favorites whenever we want, or revisit our preferred scenes multiple times. We can also capture frames to illustrate essays or personal web pages, and no less important, we can display our DVDs as trophies in a prominent niche inside our homes.

At this point it is important to recall that commercial digital storage technology for consumer electronics just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Indeed, back on 17 August, 1982, ABBA’s The Visitors was the first commercial CD manufactured in the world (even though CDs were not officially introduced to the public until November of that year). No one can possible doubt that the huge cultural impact of CD technology eventually paved the way for the creation of our beloved DVDs.

It sounds implausible today, but before the introduction of the TV in American households during the ‘50s, the only way to see a film was at a movie theater. Of course, the exceptions to this situation were those few who were solvent enough to afford an expensive 35mm projector. Beyond that, those relying on broadcast programming soon saw how severely limited it was. Thankfully, a great breakthrough came during later in the decade, when Universal Studios re-packaged some of their classic monster movies such as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Wolfman (1941) into a Shock Theater package. These movies were then distributed for syndication to TV stations across the country. For the first time in the history of the genre, a large number of fans were able to watch these forgotten gems from the comfort of their home.

In retrospect, it is impossible to ignore the deep impact that Shock Theater had on horror culture. Indeed, younger generations who weren’t even born when these timeless fear flicks were originally released suddenly were able to discover an entire gamut of terror narratives that otherwise would have been inaccessible. In other words, Shock Theater helped to awaken and disseminate the interest for the history and structure of our beloved genre. Arguably, it stands as a crucial building block in the transformation process that turned fright into the entertainment business behemoth it is today.

The only drawback to network scarefests was that shock addicts had to accommodate their schedules to that of the stations in order to watch any of the Shock Theater offerings. Ironically, the first step towards a more flexible home entertainment system was born in 1932, just as the Great Depression was ravaging the United States. In this year, Kodak released the 8mm film format. Much cheaper than 16mm or 35mm, the 8mm system was targeted for home movies and personal use. However, it was not until the early ‘60s that the use of this technology became widespread across a large number of households. It was also during these years that magazines such as Famous Monsters of Filmland marketed select horror films in the newly minted format. Some of the classics advertised included the Universal masterworks and a few science fiction epics from the ‘50s. For the first time in history, fans were able to watch their favorite flicks at will.

Well, not really. The projector and films were still relatively expensive, which made them luxury items not easily attainable by the working class. Also, in spite of their elevated cost, most titles were only available in a significantly shortened form. Some clocked in at a mere 20 or 30 minutes. To make things even worse, the 8mm format did not have a soundtrack, so these movies had to be enjoyed without sound. In 1965, Kodak improved the film stock with the aptly named Super 8 format. It featured increased quality but still lacked recorded audio. It was not until 1973 that Super 8 was slightly modified to incorporate a magnetic aural track.

Even so, the few films available were hard to find and exorbitantly expensive. In rare cases, one could buy the 4 or 5 reels that made up the entire film, but at the end of each reel one had to go through the obnoxious and rather time consuming process of rewinding and exchanging them. And there was still the issue of running time. Most available films were presented in a truncated edition. This was the way that I first watched The Exorcist (1973) on a rainy day around 1980. It lasted less than half an hour. Therefore, while Super 8 improved the home entertainment experience, it remained a problematic, expensive, and ultimately unsatisfactory technology.

It is important to note that during these years, from the ‘60s to the ‘70s, there was an enormous demand for horror film magazines. Besides the iconic Famous Monsters of Filmland, other publications such as Cinefantastique, and Castle of Frankenstein, started to appear on the store shelves. Arguably, with the lack of an affordable home theater technology, the need to symbolically own a movie had to be displaced towards the possession of some of its images on the printed pages of an illustrated magazine.

Kinda scary TV [The Ring (2002)]

The truly revolutionary step in cinematic science was the introduction of affordable video cassette recorders (VCRs) and the large number of unedited films that eventually became available on this format. While the magnetic video tape technology was originally developed in 1956 by Ampex, the home unit was eventually produced and marketed by Phillips in the mid ‘70s. By the early ‘80s, this product had successfully penetrated most American households. Perhaps not surprising, the repercussion of VCRs in American horror culture was immense. First of all, fans were finally able to watch their favorite films, at will, in complete and uncut editions, and at a relatively affordable price. And perhaps more important, VCRs opened the doors to a large number of foreign films that otherwise would probably still remain unknown in the country.

Indeed, companies such as Sinister Cinema specialized in obscure films from Spain, France, Italy, Thailand, Mexico, and the rest of the world. Rather suddenly, fans had the opportunity to appreciate obscure entries in the oeuvres of horror luminaries of the caliber of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, or to discover the work of less famous directors such as Amando de Ossorio and Jacinto Molina. Bordering with the gray market, several of these companies took advantage of the fact that most of these little know foreign titles were officially considered to be part of the public domain in the US.

Similarly, the huge demand for horror videotapes in the United Kingdom dramatically increased their importation from all over the world. So many titles arrived from overseas, that video stores were literally flooded with gore feasts in the vein of Zombie (1979), Make them Die Slowly (1981), Evil Dead (1981), The Driller Killer (1979), and Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Because of the grave concerns voiced by the public regarding the obscene and violent content of these flicks, the British government imposed the strict Video Recording Act of 1984, which officially banned hundreds of horror classics. This censorship law would eventually be known as the “Video Nasty” agenda. As a consequence, the rental, distribution, and importation of the videotape versions of The Exorcist, Straw Dogs (1971), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) were strictly forbidden in the UK until the late 1990s.

Horror magazines would also co-evolved with the advent of videotape. Indeed, illustrated monster magazines during the ‘80s lost most of the momentum they had carried for over two decades. After all, fans now were able to posses their own personal copy of a favored creature feature to watch repeatedly. The new generation of horror publications such as Fangoria, Gorezone, and Cinefex shifted much of their content to the detailed examination and dissection of the sophisticated special effects utilized. Gorezone even featured a “Make-up Lab” in its grueome pages. Thus, for a fan, these journals became a highly valuable complement to their tape collection.

In was also in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that another influential home entertainment technology was introduced to the market by MCA and Phillips: the Laserdisc (LD). Resembling a 12 inch CD, the LD offered an improved picture and sound quality over a videotape. It also had a much higher sticker price. In spite of its appearance, the LD did not store digital information. Rather, it was an analogical optical medium. Yet an undisputable advantage of a LD was its random access capability, which did not require rewinding after each viewing. On the other hand, each side of an LD lasted only one hour, at the most. Thus, some films required several discs and the user had to manually flip and exchange the discs during each viewing.

Because of the elevated price (about $50 for a catalog title) and the misguided marketing strategies involved in their distribution, the technology did not have a big impact in the US. Interestingly, LDs became a strong format in Japan and other regions of Asia, where they were even more popular than tapes. While quickly becoming a home entertainment system adopted almost exclusively by hard core film enthusiasts, companies realized the untapped potential of “special editions” of popular movies, instances where a variety of bonus features could be included on extra discs. In this regard perhaps the most novel feature of LD technology was its many audio tracks. They permitted the inclusion of audio commentaries specifically recorded by the director and other members of the crew. Thus, contrary to popular belief, the presentation of a movie with multiple bonus features was not invented with the DVDs, but with the advent of LDs.

It should not be a surprise that the horror genre was predominant in these special editions. Arguably the four most lavish special editions ever produced on LD were Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1990), and Dawn of the Dead (1979). But perhaps more important, several horror classics were only released totally uncut and in widescreen in this eclectic format. For instance, the LD of Argento’s Suspiria (1977) was probably the first official release of this masterpiece in its intended aspect ratio. Similarly, the only way to fully appreciate the gruesome aesthetics of The Beyond (1981), the way Lucio Fulci had intended, was through an extremely hard to find Japanese LD (in the collector’s market it used to fetch well over $500, but I was lucky to find it for only $150 back in 1996).

Still, the high cost of discs and players impeded LDs from becoming a disruptive technology. However, the next generation of home theater technology would completely change the way we watch movies. Mostly developed by Toshiba, the DVD was commercially introduced in 1997. The initial success of DVDs was arguably in the way it combined the advantages of tapes and LDs. That is, DVDs had exquisite sound and picture quality, presented a variety of special features of interests to fans, and had a really affordable price.

The impact of DVDs on horror culture has been equally immense. The bonus content presented has displaced the appeal of many horror film magazines. Indeed, DVDs often present in-depth information about the making of the flick and as a consequence, several genre magazines have become redundant, obsolete, and superficial. The unquestionable evidence of such a shift is obvious at any of the many genre conventions around the country. While during the ‘80s and ‘90s the dealer’s room was full of tables with magazines and books, now it is nearly impossible to find old issues of Famous Monsters, Cinefantastique, or even Fangoria. In addition, because of the poor sales, many publishers are finding extremely difficult to stay in business. In a way, the DVD has managed to kill the horror cinema publishing industry.

On the other hand these horror conventions host dozens of DVD sellers with thousands of available titles. It is important to note that most of these items belong to the gray market. While there may be a couple of tables selling official releases, the vast majority offer movies, old and new, that remain unreleased or are long out of print. Some of these titles include Island of Lost Souls (1933), The Keep (1983), Death Ship (1980), and Rawhead Rex (1986). Sometimes the sources for these “boots” are foreign DVDs that have been re-recorded in a region free and NTSC format for enjoyment on American players. And quite ironically, many other come from old videotapes and LDs. Quite expectedly, the quality control and reliability is often completely nonexistent. But in any event, the important point is that nearly every single horror film ever made appears to be obtainable on DVD.

Furthermore, some horror movies have been released multiple times over the past 10 years, and each one of these stands as a completely different edition. For instance, Dawn of the Dead has been released at least five times in the US: the director’s cut, the original theatrical cut, a special edition of the director’s cut, the Italian cut, and a nice looking multi-disc special edition with plenty of extra features. In addition, die hard fans of this flick can also catch two British and the two German editions that contain a different set of extras. There’s even a rare German boot with a version longer than the director’s cut. Thus, any well respected fan of Romero’s classic must have multiple Dawn of the Deads in their collection (and yes, I am one of them).

Another important feature of DVDs is that they offer efficient and inexpensive distribution strategies for independent film companies. Also, modern digital recording technologies have dramatically reduced the production costs of low budget horror. As a consequence, over the past few years we have been literally flooded with hundreds of homemade scary movies released straight to DVD. Personally, while back in the ‘80s and ‘90s I used to keep myself up to date by watching nearly all the genre films released on video, it has now become completely impossible. Clearly, besides the time and money necessary to rent or buy such an overwhelming amount of DVDs, there is also a quality issue involved. You see, for each decent flick, we get about 10 outright duds.

As technology inevitably transitions into the next generation of home entertainment with two competing high definition formats, we are left to wonder as to their impact on horror fandom. Clearly, in terms of quality, convenience, and cost, watching a movie at home is progressively becoming more attractive than actually going to the theater. Today, several horror film magazines struggle to survive, and they may well completely disappear in the near future. Or maybe these publications will ultimately transition into some sort of digital format. In any event, it is impossible to deny the strong bond between home entertainment technology and horror culture.

Really scary TV [The Ring (2002)]

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