A random series of Halloween movie posts: The Haunting (1963), Pet Semetary

As I said last time, it’s October, so I want to talk about some horror movies.
I spent some time trying to come up with some kind of structure or overarching theme for the movies I want to write about, and realized I don’t have one. It’s just that these are some movies I a) enjoy a lot and b) have things to say about that are a little more in-depth than “I like them”. My goal is to post once a day between now and Halloween, possibly with one, possibly with more.

Tonight we have a double-header of two of the first that came to mind: The Haunting (1963 original) and Pet Semetary.

The Haunting

I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw The Haunting. I’m pretty sure I was in high school, because I already knew it and loved it when I was in college, but it can’t have been too early in high school because the dreadful remake came out in 1999 and I started high school in the fall of ’99 and there was a buffer period in there where I had heard of the remake but had no idea there was an original (I remember seeing the trailer for the remake and being fascinated, but I never got around to seeing it, and having watched it as adult I can safely say I dodged a bullet there). So let’s say it was junior or senior year.

Whenever it was I first saw it, it was a revelation. I was already the kind of horror movie fan that prefers spookiness and suspense to blood and gore, but after The Haunting, I was done for. You can keep your knife-wielding maniacs and your grotesque monsters, your slick CGI ghosts and even your creepy clowns–for my money, I’ll take Eleanor and Theodora in a room at Hill House, clutching at each other while some unseen force pounds on the door and tries to get in (a scene that always makes my heart beat faster no matter how many times I’ve seen it). I’ll take Nell thinking she’s gripping Theo’s hand in the dark, only to realize Theo was across the room the whole time. I’m always terrified and enthralled by stories about haunted places where the real haunting, the real danger, comes not from any being or event but from the place itself–I love House of Leaves, I love Stephen King’s short story 1408 (I was underwhelmed by the film adaptation of 1408, but I expected to be, because the story is such a doozy). With the number of times I’ve watched The Haunting now (…it’s a lot), Hill House is practically an old friend, and yet it still scares me more than a lot of things have scared me. That’s why I keep going back.

And why should I resist going back when I have such entertaining company to do it in? Dr. Markway, who for all his handsome-professor charm and ability to hold court on the subject of the supernatural (or the preternatural) is no match for Hill House. Shallow, hapless Luke, who in a different kind of horror movie might be the first to die, but who lives and learns just how bad an idea it is to mess with Hill House. Beautiful, wonderful, cruel Theodora. And Eleanor–poor Nelly-my-Nell, who I can’t help but root for in spite of her flaws and how plainly doomed she is even on a first viewing. Terrified of the house and yet drawn to it, disturbed that it knows her name and yet longing to belong somewhere, to something or someone, and if Hill House will have her, well, who is she to resist it?

I know I can’t resist it–I’ll keep going back to Hill House, because it’s the perfect place to spend a spooky October evening. Just remember that no one will come if you need help, in the night, in the dark.

Pet Semetary

I was going to open this one by pondering what it is about Pet Semetary that makes me love it so much, but in thinking through the rest of what I had to say about it, I realized that’s a dumb question because I know exactly what I love about Pet Semetary. Certainly there are reasons not to love it–it’s corny in some moments and painfully overwrought at others, and the protagonist is such an idiot (STOP MESSING WITH THE FORCES OF LIFE AND DEATH, LOUIS, IT IS REALLY OBVIOUSLY NOT WORKING OUT) I can’t garner much sympathy for him, I’m just sorry he had to drag his wife and kids into his stupidity. Even the best character in the movie, Fred Gwynne as Judd (I love him so much, it’s like if Frankenstein’s Monster was your folksy grandpa) gets in on the painful stupidity act, showing Louis the magic burial ground and THEN telling him about how everyone/thing you bury there comes back all icky and wrong.

And yet. And yet I keep coming back to Pet Semetary, so many times that I finally bought it on DVD. It’s partly my affection for Judd (in spite of his terrible advice-giving) and for Stephen King’s Maine, the setting for so many of his stories that I’ve read and loved (even dour Missy Dandridge always gets a smile from me in her brief time onscreen, because she’s such a Stephen-King-Maine character. It’s partly that I can’t resist a movie that has both an evil undead cat AND an evil undead toddler. But in my most recent viewing, I realized what really keeps me coming back–it’s that under all the corniness and the magic burying grounds and the scalpel-wielding undead toddlers, Pet Semetary taps into some stuff that’s very real, and really scary. What’s more terrible than a murderous undead toddler? A tiny bloodstained shoe rolling and bouncing down the road. A tiny coffin with its lid knocked open during a family brawl (sidebar: how much of an asshole do you have to be to pick a fight with your son-in-law DURING your grandson’s funeral)? When Gage finally makes his scalpel-wielding, bloodthirsty appearance, it’s good creepy fun, but we’ve already been exposed to the real horror.

And then there’s Zelda, probably the single most terrifying thing in the whole movie. And yes, her appearance and voice seem calculated to be AS TERRIFYING AS POSSIBLE, but as with Gage, there’s a deeper horror here, and it’s that there’s nothing at all supernatural about Zelda’s terrifyingness. She’s not a ghost or a ghoul or a monster–she’s just a woman who was so ravaged by a terrible disease that her sister was terrified of her and relieved when she died. I have a feeling Rachel wouldn’t need Judd to tell her that sometimes dead is better. I think she’s known that since she was a child.

So that’s Pet Semetary: a hefty dose of some of life’s real horrors wrapped up in creepy, corny shenanigans, with a protagonist you end up wanting to get it, an undead cat, and a dash of folksy wisdom delivered by Herman Munster. And really, what more than that do you need to love a horror movie?

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