A Hard-On for Horror: Low Budget Excitement
(with a philosophical religious aside)
For Russ Ansley
It's difficult to know precisely where it all began, this love for that third world of films, the low-budget horror movie (and I prefer "movie" to "film" and will use that term from here on out), but I suppose for me it began in my living room, most likely when I was ten or eleven years old and not reading comic books or playing with my pecker, two favorite boy pastimes just above cussing when your parents aren't around, and poking at something dead you've found with a stick.
I had been exposed to horror before that time, but only in oblique ways, a moment in a fairy tale, ghostly anecdotes told by relatives, an animated corpse in the aforementioned comic book, the odor of a neighbor's outhouse, the Sunday-school terrors of the Bible.
Thinking on it now, I'd have to say the Bible is probably the strongest influence on my attraction to horror. God was always brutally bullying somebody in the Old Testament, showing far less patience than his minions. Truth to tell, you read the Old Testament, and especially if you're one of those who believe this stuff literally, you're bound to get scared. God comes across in the Old Testament as someone whose caffeine level should be strictly monitored.
In fact, Mr. All-Powerful-Know-It-All is most of the time just short of rabid. The old boy (and I suppose a case might be made for God as a female or an It, but I think it's pretty clear the celestial force as presented in the Old Testament is supposed to be male) is always putting folks, who'd rather be left alone to herd their sheep, up to tests, seeing if they'll stab their young'ns if he asks, getting mad when someone like Onan uses the jerk-back method during sexual relations and splatters his seed on the ground. An event that put God in one of his worst humors. God, the old voyeur, wanted that seed in the vagina where it belongs, so he slew Onan for practicing birth control. Maybe sent a thunderbolt up his ass, I don't remember.
Think about it. Guy shits in the woods where you can step on it, it's all right, but if he decides to practice a little birth control, squirts a load of sperm in the dirt, he's out of here. Get out the shovels and put him in the dirt.
Then, of course, there's this whole Sodom and Gomorrah mess. God wanted to give those cities the radiation burn right away, but Abraham, showing more patience and human understanding than God ever showed, suggested that if even seven faithful servants of God could be found in those shit holes, then God would spare the cities. Sort of bet, you see.
Course, God ultimately was right. Except for Abraham's emissaries, Lot and his family, the Sodom and Gomorrah folks were all of nasty disposition and motivation, with nothing but debauchery and each other's assholes, well-oiled, on their minds, and only Lot and his daughters were spared when God turned those two burgs into holes in the ground, though, alas, Lot's wife made the mistake of looking back to see if she could see how high the city blew, and God, ever hard-assed in his plans, having cautioned and denied the whole family the fun of seeing a city blow sky high, turned her into what would prove in later years to be a nice salt lick for wandering sheep.
Still, even if everybody in those two cities were assholes, you've got to admit, Abraham and Lot showed more agreeable dispositions, and if I had to choose between God and them as role models, well, I'd take the human beings. Course, if I get to be as powerful as God, maybe I'd choose his disposition, really get into blowing the hell out of bad people. Some of them defined as bad purely because they'd rather not get down on their knees every day and pray to a bully.
Course, now that I think about it, Lot had some imperfections. Way it worked, well, Lot, he went to his pad in Sodom, and he brought with him a couple of God's angels. They dropped in for lunch, I think. Anyway, so Lot is at his house, and he's trying to get these angels' soup just right—and you can imagine the tenseness of this if you've ever served your mother-in-law lunch—and suddenly there's a knocking on the door, and if the film The Bible can be believed—and would Hollywood lie?—here's this whole bunch of folks wearing paint and skins and looking slinky, and according to the Bible, these guys on the front porch didn't foot shuffle for a moment. They asked Lot to bring out those men they had seen strolling around town. These men, of course, being the angels, who, because they had removed their heavenly signet rings and were in disguise wearing human duds with their hair oiled and combed straight back, were not recognizable as God's helpers.
But, you see, these Sodomites, they wanted Lot to introduce them to these angels with the cute butts, because, ahem, they wanted to "know them."
This "know them" business is clever Bible talk for mount up and ride, spread the ole gap, drop anchor, hide the salami, lay some cable, roll some dough, toss the rope... Well, you get the idea.
So Lot, being sort of, you know, like, Father of the Year, said, "Hell no, you won't touch them dudes. But take my daughters!"
No shit. Check the Old Testament out. This guy is a guy we're supposed to hold up as some kind of role model. Can you imagine, the daughters are tense enough, what with trying to serve these angels and make them happy, keeping the make-up down to an acceptable level, trying not to let their feet slide on the floor, lest someone think they pass gas—remember, Onan got whacked for birth control, so who's to say where a fart, or even a supposed fart, will get you—and Dad, he comes back in from arguing with this rather rowdy crowd of men with boners looking for anything short of a hole in a wood fence, and Dad says, "All right gals, shuck your panties and hit the porch."
You got to figure, this fatherly attitude gave the daughters pause, that's what I'm trying to tell you.
But the angels, finally realizing they weren't going to finish their meal in peace, went out on the porch and blinded everybody, and then Lot and his family headed for the hills, Mama getting the aforementioned salt treatment, and a little later on, the daughters deciding, oh well, what the hell, why don't we get Daddy drunk and fuck him, did just that.
Is this family dysfunctional, or what?
The Bible is just full of charming folks, isn't it?
The New Testament is only a little less horrifying, what with its reformed approach in the person of a country-boy carpenter named Jesus.
On the surface, Jesus looks like a stand-up kind of guy, but you look at his life head-on, you begin to notice some defects. He didn't think things through. Maybe it's a parable, I don't know, but one example of his simple-headedness is displayed in the New Testament. Here we have a story about Jesus coming to this burg where there's a fellow full of devils living there. I mean, full of them dudes. He's popping to the eyeballs with them. Slobbering around, short on manners. Being Southern, this last part about manners deeply disturbs me. Nobody likes to have someone around that can't be invited to dinner and expected to behave, though come to think of it, I don't know a Southerner who hasn't got at least one story about someone dying at the table with a chicken bone or some such lodged in their throat.
Anyway, Jesus got on the job in an instant. He pulled those devils out of the poor infested soul and freed him. Course, then he had the devils to get rid of. You can't keep something like that under your hat, so J.C. spotted some innocent pigs wandering nearby, doing pig things, I reckon, and stuffed those devils into the pigs.
Think on that. You're some piglet cruising along, just eating what you can find, thinking a few minor pig thoughts, and the next thing you know, you need an exorcist.
But Jesus had a plan beyond merely finding a home for the devils. It was his intention they should die, and any pig hearing of this Biblical event for the first time is bound to lose the curl in his or her tail. It's that drastic.
What Jesus did, is he compelled the pigs—those pigs "He," his own merciful self, had infested with those devils—to run into a pond, lickety-split. And we're not talkin' the shallow end, neighbors, and this rushing head long into deep water is not part of normal pig activity. This was achieved by Jesus putting a heavenly hex on the pigs, something like that.
Anyway, the pigs ran into the pond, and the Bible says something like "and they were choked," drowned being a bit less descriptive. It's always important in the Bible that the right words for suffering are chosen, and this precision is something I admire, and this sort of descriptive writing puts God and his biographers clearly and cleanly in the literary arena sometimes described as Splatterpunk. It gives the pigs a less welcome title. Deceased.
I used to wake up at night after Sunday school and consider on those pigs. A cruel way to go, that, and pork chops wasted besides. Even the dumbest jackass amongst us, short of a sociopath, would have put those devils in a rock and thrown it in the pond. But not Jesus. As is the general case with the Bible, someone or something innocent needs to suffer, and if you think this doesn't bring us to movies, you're wrong. I've been sneaking up on those sonsabitches all along.
Scary mythology—Greek, Roman, and those of the aforementioned Testaments—fairy tales, the like, led to horrific pictures in my head, and later they attracted me to the more pleasant horrors of the movies, and the movies in turn sent me to the books, which were the source for many of the films I saw. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Invaders from Mars, Day of the Triffids, The Pit and the Pendulum among them.
Some of my earliest memories of low-budget horror, and horror/science-fiction movies, were presented to me by a long-haired, good looking witch named Evilyn, who came to me out of Shreveport, Louisiana, every Friday night, courtesy of the boob tube and a program called Terror!
Evilyn would come out wearing a slinky black dress with her black hair parted in the middle, and she'd say a few words about the movie of the night, then spring it on us.
Those movies ran the gamut, from the classic Universal stuff, The Wolf Man (a personal favorite), Dracula, Frankenstein, etc., to humbler non-Universal efforts such as I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Invaders from Mars, to William Castle extravaganzas like Thirteen Ghosts and The Tingler to Roger Corman's Attack of the Crab Monsters and Little Shop of Horrors. In other words, a smorgasbord of stuff ranging from the good low-budgets to the indisputable ass-wipes of the genre.
And brothers and sisters, I'm here to witness to you today, and say without hesitation, I loved them all.
Let me hear one from the amen corner.
Loved every goddamn one of them, from the classy Val Lewton stuff like The Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, on down to the slightly off-center ones like The Beast With Five Fingers and The Crawling Eye, on lower into the sewerish ranks of picture-show produce wherein trees from hell and rocks from outer space threatened innocent civilians who only wanted to marry and raise three kids in a little house next to another house and have a good lawn mower and a barbecue grill in their garage, along with a new Chevy of course.
And if Evilyn gave me my first dose of cinematic horror, the Cozy Theater in Gladewater, Texas gave me my second dose. Come Saturdays, I practically lived in that sticky-floored, roach-infested theater.
The Cozy showed all kinds of movies, but the kiddie matinees, and the main feature, were quite often men-in-monster-suit movies, apes on the loose, and good stuff like those Corman gems Diary of a Madman, based on Guy de Maupassant's "The Horla," and countless other films loosely—quite loosely—based (very loosely) on Edgar Allan Poe stories like "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Masque of the Red Death."
Drive-ins gave me my third dose of horror movies, and this dose, friends and neighbors, was as intense as a dose of the clap. Oh man, I loved drive-ins, still do, but now they're as scarce as intellectuals in the political system.
Admittedly my first drive-in experiences were courtesy of my parents and older brother and his family, and what I saw then was more in the way of Disney films, westerns, that sort of thing, and I loved them, too. But when I was in my teens, I began to go to the drive-in on my own, and that's when the real brain damage took place.
Most of the stuff I saw, and it was not all horror, was just downright bad. But thing was, this way, I was getting to see something I wasn't supposed to see in my living room, something my parents wouldn't want me to see, and finally, there was a certain mystique about the low-budget horror movies, because most likely, one of those dudes passed through town and I missed it, unless it came to a town nearby, I was shit out of luck, 'cause there wasn't any video, and the networks damn sure weren't going to show that crap on television on account of these movies weren't made for art, they were made exclusively as drive-in cannon fodder, produced for one reason only—to separate me, the movie goer, from my bucks.
To some drive-in goers, and I have to speak from a male point of view here, these movies were something to kill time with while pausing between necking with dates, a little breather while putting the clothes back on. Or if you couldn't get a date, you could sit with buddies and watch this crap while you lied about getting a look up Debra Jane's skirt in social studies.
(Let me pause for a historical point of importance. This optical event of boy-eyeball-on-girl-panty was referred to in Gladewater High School as "shooting squirrel." Write that down, you might need it on a Trivial Pursuit question or something.)
Another thing about the drive-in was it was sort of like a teenage guy itself. It liked dark private places, and it bragged, downright lied actually, about how well it could perform. Compare the lies some guys tell about all the tail they've banged to drive-in advertisements, and you'll begin to see what I mean.
Example: We'd drive on over to the River Road in Longview, Texas, and the coming attractions we'd see before the movies would turn out to be more stimulating than the movie we'd end up watching, which, of course, we'd come to see because last week's previews had turned out to be better than the movies we watched then.
To give you some idea of the kind of excitement I felt when participating in the drive-in theater experience, I'll use this excerpt from my novel The Drive-In, where I discuss a mythical drive-in theater, The Orbit, based on numerous theaters I had attended:
"Now you're ready. The movies begin. B-string and basement budget pictures. A lot of them made with little more than a Kodak, some spit and a prayer. And if you've watched enough of this stuff, you develop a taste for it, sort of like learning to like sauerkraut.
Drooping mikes, bad acting and the rutting of rubber-suited monsters who want women, not for food, but to mate with, become a genuine pleasure. You can simultaneously hoot and cringe when a monster attacks a screaming female on the beach or in the woods and you see the zipper on the back of the monster suit winking at you like the quick drunk smile of a Cheshire cat.
Yes sir, there was something special about The Orbit all right. It was romantic. It was outlaw. It was crazy."
Sigh. For al practical purposes, the drive-in is gone, replaced by cable channels and video. Both are nice, but I still miss being able to sit out under that Texas sky, and I miss the party, or picnic, atmosphere drive-ins had, and damn it, I even miss that foul mosquito coil you bought at the concession to ward off the little bloodsuckers. You were supposed to light it, and in theory the smoke in it had something in it mosquitoes hated, and they wouldn't come around. This bit of advertisement was in line with the drive-in previews. It lied.
You lit that thing and put it on your dash, about the only way it stopped a mosquito was if the ignorant bug sat on the coil and caught fire.
But, drive-in or no drive-in, the low-budget movie is still with us, and though I'm a bit more selective these days, the same attractions remain for me as before.
Other than nostalgia, why is this?
Hell, I don't know, not really, but let me venture a smidgen of academic analysis—just a little, because I don't want to throw up in my trash can here—and toss in a whole bean pot full of opinion.
The low-budget horror film is, on one hand, one of the most maligned forms of entertainment, and on the other hand, is often given a significance far beyond its worth.
As a sometimes writer of stories and novels of questionable taste, meaning fiction that is the equivalent of a dinner guest enthusiastically burping and farting at their host's table between asking why a better beer wasn't stocked for dinner and complaining about the lumps in the gravy, and yet being able to discuss Hemingway and Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor and the Doc Savage book where ol' Doc goes to Hell, films of John Huston and John Ford and innovative crap-maker Roger Corman, I am quite aware of these extremes.
Seems many people, knowing my love for low-budget horror movies, think I can't wait to see the next evisceration extravaganza, some exploitation flick that shows in detail how to gut a human being and preserve the body parts, and I must admit I always feel, to put it mildly, distressed. To these folks, any low-budget horror movie with blood and grue is the same as the next, but in my eyes, there is quite a distinction between Re-animator and Friday the 13th Part Six Million, or some of its more brain-damaged cousins that were the fodder of second-feature drive-in bills, and are now consigned to Made For Video, their packaging commonly appearing to have been designed by malicious children with crayons made of blood and soot and shit and smoke.
Some video packages, however, show a delightful lack of class. Take for instance The Dead Pit. This baby has a zombie and a button on the cover. You press the button and the zombie's eyes light up. My wife and I, while eating popcorn and watching this waste of film, would take turns pressing the button on the box when the theatric excitement slowed up or the back-lighting in the movie made you think of a disco-zombie-jamboree. Needless to say, time we turned that little buddy back into the video store, the battery-powered green light behind the zombie's eyes had grown a mite faint.
But to get back to my original point—from which I've strayed in the manner of a calf on a cattle drive—this confusion between good shit and bad shit is understandable. The difference between a bad low-budget horror movie and a good one is at times difficult to discern. The problem being a bad one and a good one share the same elements, and at a glance, the distinction between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Attack of the Radioactive Testicles from Mars, may seem slight.
The low-budget horror movie stands on the line of good taste and bad taste, and like a scarecrow in a high wind, flaps its arms and leans first in one direction, then the other. What gives the good film its power is its bravery, its willingness to let the wind blow it across the line of good taste, and into that part of the field that is less mannerly and sometimes downright rude.
Possibly that wind will blow off our symbolic scarecrow's hat and sail it into oblivion, tear out some stuffings as well, but the good movie is unwilling to let its support pole topple completely before the wind shifts and redirects it in the direction we call art, and when referring to these movies, or if you must, films, the word art more often than not will be spoken softly and with a cough.
And if we refuse to call bad acting and sloppy effects and stupid plotting art, we can at least say some of these movies, the ones that lost their hat and some of their stuffing, are at their best trying hard to be more than what they appear to be on the surface.
An example being Street Trash. You won't get me up on a soapbox expounding on how this little buddy is art. It's kind of a mess really. It rapidly loses its hat to the wind, as well as a large portion of its stuffing, and goes blowing hell-bent for leather over into the field of bad taste and just plain sloppy movie making. Still, at its core, I believe it has (cough) artistic intent.
You can feel it. It's clever. Street Trash has a sense of irony and satire, a desire to be more than a scarecrow in a high wind. But, like the Oz scarecrow, it needs a brain. But unlike the Oz scarecrow, it never gets one.
This aside, it never allows its base pole to come undone, though it does lean precariously far at times, and when the movie is over, Street Trash's symbolic scarecrow, minus hat and two-thirds of its stuffing, still has an arm and a leg and a head to nod toward the (cough) artistic side. It's a crippled creature, admittedly, but it's still standing.
It should be obvious by now that my feelings concerning the difference between bad and good is the ability, or inability, to negotiate the wind. Our movie scarecrows often lose their foundation and go flying off too far in one direction or the other, satisfying neither on an exploitative level or an artistic one.
What the good low-budget horror movie does is attract through exploitation. Then, with imagination, cleverness, and greater intent than to appeal to the lowest common denominator—or due to a desire to manipulate that low denominator with irony or satire or archetypal imagery, or through just plain ole accident—it becomes artistic, or shows artistic intent, which is not necessarily the same as becoming art, though at its very best, it can be that, too.
Fact is, any low-budget movie, even the good ones, should make the viewer wonder which camp it wants to be in. That of art or exploitation. That's part of its appeal, and part of the reason these movies are often underestimated, or, at times, overestimated.
Big Budget films generally announce which camp they're in early on. They want there to be no mistake. They either see themselves as art, or as a roller-coaster ride—one of those overworked advertising terms used to describe a host of "slick" movies that have less brains than our aforementioned Street Trash scarecrow. Big Budget damn well wants you to know which camp they are in before you view the first frame. It's a subliminal way of telling you not to expect much for your dollars.
Enjoying a good low-budget horror movie should be akin to being in love with a good-looking woman with a mysterious past, a past that might possibly include something nefarious. Like murder or voting for Richard Nixon. A little scrambling of intent is what makes the good low-budget movie interesting and thought provoking.
I'm not trying to say that Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre kept me awake at night pondering the meaning of it all. I've seen far too much attention given to the existentialist nature of these movies, and all I have to say to that is: Bullshit, pilgrim!
But these movies did address some rather primal fears for me far better than most of their filmic relatives, some sporting fancier credentials.
Saw, like only a handful of other movies, tapped a nerve with me that is more often than not better accomplished with fiction than nonfiction. It touched that part of my brain, the primitive part, that made me realize that at some point the difference between the loving husband and doting father and a fellow with a chainsaw and evil intent can be uncomfortably close. It accomplished this simply by making its villains a loving and loyal, if quarrelsome, family, and making their victims, if not murderous, less than loving. It takes skill to make a wheelchair-bound victim unsympathetic, but this is managed early on, and quite soon the audience is eager to see a helpless cripple get his, even if his only crime is assholism.
Night of the Living Dead's message is simple as well, but once again, primal. It shows that even the dead get no respect. It makes them a spectacle. Shows that once you're laid to rest in good old Mother Earth, you're going to rot and be full of worms. Not tidy. Once again, good manners have been breached. The director, George Romero, has put his finger on an often unspoken fear that many of us have. Your body is about as much a temple as a sagging, clapboard shithouse. Worse than that, the hero bites the big one in the end, pointing out an even worse horror: It doesn't matter how you live, who you are, there just ain't no thing as true justice.
And I must be truthful, the original Invaders from Mars, seen even now, is somehow more moving to me than anything Ingmar Bergman has ever done. Is this because Invaders from Mars is a deeply insightful film? I doubt that was its intent, and I hardly think one can call it insightful, and certainly, as art, it can't even hold—or light—a candle to Bergman's work.
But there's something there that speaks to all our childhood fears, via symbol, and speaks to them better than many serious movies that are trying to do just that. It may well be that it manages this simply because it does it unconsciously, has tapped into those most basic of childhood fears, the ones that age does not diminish and that pure intellect can neither embrace or define.
There are plenty of other cinematic examples, but it's time for the sum-up.
So, what have we discerned, class?
That Mr. Lansdale is full of doodoo?
Likely. Yet, while I have you trapped mid-paragraph, let me conclude with a summary as to why I, and people like me, have a hard-on, or stiff nipples, for this stuff.
1) It's primal.
2) For many of us it's nostalgic.
3) It's forbidden—less so these days, but that element remains.
4) It's something to do that's more interesting than polishing the silverware or vacuuming the carpet.
5) A few of us make our living from writing about this kind of stuff, because like the drive-in movies, we want to separate you from your buck, and I suppose if you're reading this—unless you borrowed it—mission accomplished. And you know what? It may not be any of these.
"A Hard-On for Horror: Low Budget Excitement" was originally published in 1992 by Borderlands Press. This later, expanded version appeared in Electric Gumbo, a collection of Lansdale's short stories published Quality Paperback Book Club. "A Hard-On for Horror: Low Budget Excitement" © 1992 Joe R. Lansdale.
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