Experiments in Terror (2003)

One of the benefits of age is the ability to separate one’s personal tastes from the demands of art. I understand now why Henry James is considered by many to be America’s greatest writer, and I can graciously acknowledge his keen insight into the human condition rendered in elegant and portentous prose. I can also say that Henry James bores the righteous fuck out of me and I guiltlessly thank God that I’ll never have to read windy crap like The Ambassador or The Bostonians again.

My younger self, the eager would-be intellectual of my college years, would not have been so sanguine. Having fled the burbs for Athens, Georgia at the height of its cool years, I lapped up whatever my professors fed me by day and immersed myself in all the proper pursuits of the young hipster by night. Listened to the right records, saw the right bands, read the right books, had the right kind of existential angst.

The me of those days would have gotten into Experiments in Terror, a collection of six short experimental films from the 1960s through 2002, linked thematically by their attempts to achieve a certain horrific, dreamlike quality — six nightmares in search of an exit. I would have been rapt by the daring technical flourishes and swept up in all the unrelenting phantasmagoria. I also would most likely have been baked out of my mind on weapons-grade sinsemilla while watching it.

The me of today can still appreciate the efforts to create hypnotic and disturbing atmospheres. But horror is an incredibly organic genre; it evolves with its audience, which is why the Gothic frights of the ’30s, the aliens of the ’50s, and the psychological screamers of the ’60s and ’70s have, with few exceptions, lost their ability to creep us out. We find many of them quaint now, and horror should never be quaint. Similarly, this collection offers a few creepy moments, but the films remain so firmly rooted in their eras that the result is little more than sour eye-candy. It’s rather like being invited over to watch David Lynch’s home movies.

German director Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (1999) attempts to subvert the conventions. Taking footage from Sidney J. Furie’s 1981 groaner The Entity (one of the many ugly scenes of Barbara Hershey being assaulted by the poltergeist), the film processes and reprocesses it until it’s a spastic, strobey, noisy montage of triple-superimposed images and sputtering soundtrack. As Hershey bounces around her house trying to escape, Tscherkassky allows the film’s perforation holes to appear among the images, to create a metafiction wherein Hershey’s character is not only trapped in her house but also in a horror film.

Kerry Laitala’s Journey into the Unknown (2002) and David Sherman’s Tuning the Sleeping Machine (1996) also incorporate scenes from existing films into their experiments — snatches of noir in Laitala’s (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [1920]) and Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) in Sherman’s. Both directors wash over the footage with garish colors and disorienting jumpcuts to approximate “dreamtime.” But to what end? Why the multicolored lingering on the neon sign reading “Paramount” in Journey? Why the endless liquid imagery filling the screen in Tuning? Yes, these look like dreams, but terror is supposed to attack, not drift.

The titular heroine of Lloyd Michael Williams’ Ursula (1961) is also trapped in a horror film. Unfortunately it’s one of those scary-old-lady films that were a mainstay of that decade (to be fair, this film predates Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? [1962], Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte [1964], and Die! Die! My Darling! [1965]). Little girl Ursula, disturbingly voice-dubbed by a grownup, tears her pretty dress and oversleeps, to the chagrin of her psychotic mother, who punishes Ursula by chopping up her pets. Ursula goes insane in a slow parade of hallucinogenic film effects that call to mind early Mario Bava.

The Virgin Sacrifice (J. X. Williams, 1969) is a different case from the other films in this collection: the nine minutes here are all that remain of a feature film haunted by misfortune. Several deaths, a maiming, and a fire in the film lab hang over this production, the last claiming the negative, leaving only the film’s opening: a mute newcomer rents a room from two girls who startlingly resemble Marcia and Jan Brady; they casually let drop that they’re practicing Satanists (one of Anton LaVey’s crowd was the chief investor). Cut to yet another phantasmagoric montage, psychedelic effects swirling around naked people who appear to be alternately dancing and performing open-heart surgery.

In Williams’ case, the absence of context can be forgiven — one can only assume that the elements that make these scenes cohere ended up as puddles of celluloid goo. The other filmmakers cut their films adrift from context deliberately, in the name of “surrealism.” Therein lies the problem. Horror is about the surreal, but in the literal sense of the term. “Sur-real,” or “above and beyond real,” they induce fear with such overwhelming immediacy that it overrides reality. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) did this by unleashing Surrealist artist H. R. Giger’s indestructible and implacable monster on the helpless space crew. Clive Barker did it in spades with the Cenobites in the first Hellraiser (1987), beings from another dimension who play by their own horrific rules — Lovecraft cubed.

Both films are fine examples of surrealism in action, terrifying because they conflict with consensus reality. Most of the films represented in Experiments in Terror seem to confuse surrealism with abstract expressionism, which by definition exists in its own space rather than intruding on ours. We must come to it, and that ain’t horror.

Damon Packard’s Dawn of an Evil Millennium (1988) ain’t horror either. It’s comedy, though it takes a few minutes to get that across. In fact, it’s not a film per se, but a 21-minute trailer for an 18-hour movie about goofy-ass demons from Alpha Centauri battling each other in downtown Los Angeles for dominion of Earth by means of muscle-car chases, telekinetic duels, and gallons upon gallons of red- and purple-dyed corn syrup while law-enforcement types in bad wigs and fake mustaches attempt to stop them. The film riffs on Scanners (1981), Blade Runner (1982), Flash Gordon (1980), and numerous other films with all the cheesy posturing of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video. If you can deal with a steady flow of fake blood and ichor that would make a Fangoria reader cringe, it’s a hoot.

Working horror clichés for shits and giggles, Dawn is a nice segue into the collection’s archival material, all grade-A hunks of cheese. A trailer explaining the subliminal messaging, dubbed “Psychorama,” in Harold Daniels’ A Date with Death (1959), is followed by selections from director Jenni Olsen’s 1995 examination of camp in old movies called, appropriately, Trailer Camp. Huckster director William Castle plugs his film Homicidal (1961) with one of his trademark gimmicks, your money back if you’re too scared to watch the ending, followed by trailers for Cannibal Girls (1973), Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), and the best blaxploitation film ever made, Blacula (1972). The collection wraps up with The Haunted Mouth, a 1973 educational film by the American Dental Association in which Cesar Romero’s voice stars as plaque.

The best stuff in the collection is the funny, campy stuff. While it’s great that Other Cinema archives this work (every film should have a home, after all), this DVD set is most effective if you’re a 20-year-old Goth with access to really good drugs. Those of us with some mileage may just want to skip ahead to the part where the Joker tells us what he’s going to do to our teeth.