Film Studies

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The Independent Culture
Last Saturday night, here in San Francisco, our four-year-old and our nine-year-old planned strategy. The kid was dressed as a '49er, the older brother as a werewolf with a screw in his arm and a raw, rubber heart that had burst through his shirt. This year, this Hallowe'en, they were ready for the big one: they would trick-or-treat in the Sea Cliff district, the posh residential area west of the Golden Gate, where the wind and the fog come in fit for The Hound of the Baskervilles. They would hit Robin Williams's house, famous for its inventive treats.

So we drove to Sea Cliff, and all the way there were bands of fairies, spirits, ghouls and Scream masks - and we never touched the Castro, the gay part of town, where there would be 100,000 partygoers on the streets in costumes that make Velvet Goldmine look like a Huddersfield Rep version of Mother Goose. It was hard to park at Sea Cliff, and the streets were as packed as if a football crowd had just got out. Of course, it was kids and parents, as well as a few teenage gangs - and the costumes went from Beardsley to Beowulf. The candy industry's stunning exploitation of Hallowe'en has now been matched by shops that will gear you up for the strange night.

The mood was cheerful and festive, and the throng at the Williams house was coming away with pretty, illuminated wands - trust Robin to save the kids' teeth, while adding to safety and visibility. There was a team of young women at his house like production assistants on a movie - giving out the goodies. But no sign of Williams himself. Of course, he could have been disguised as one of the ghouls. Jeffrey Dahmer and Adolf Hitler might have been prowling those streets, with their bloody jaws drooling. If you ever wanted to off someone spectacularly, Halloween is the night to do it. You could Norman Bates your own mother - the blood could wash away the crisp autumn leaves - and everyone would think it was an act, a stunt, part of the show. I know one nine-year-old who would find that pretty "cool".

This kind of knowingness prevails and pacifies in modern horror film, above all in the Scream pictures, and in that other modest franchise, the latest stage of which is called I Still Know What You Did Last Summer - with the unwitting footnote that we're still likely dumb enough to pay $7.50 to see it. So far, so good: you can maintain a world-weary smile for such follies. Now, let me tell you that, this Hallowe'en in America saw the opening of Bride of Chucky, the fourth in the Child's Play series. One review says it is "clever, inventive and ghoulishly funny!" But who's laughing in Britain after the uneasy knowledge that Chucky pictures may have inspired the killers of James Bulger?

Don't get me wrong. I concede the possibility that seeing Child's Play 3 played some part in that grisly event; I am prepared to credit the chance that years ago in the hinterland Lee Harvey Oswald saw that old Frank Sinatra movie, Suddenly, and never got it out of his head; twist my arm, and I'll even allow that Joanne Dru in Red River may have given me an absurd longing for women who talked and acted like hipsters. But I am not calling for the banning of any of those films - or any types of film.

Still, being out on the streets of Sea Cliff this Hallowe'en made me wonder how the day and its meaning have shifted. Sixty years before, Orson Welles spooked a lot of Americans with The War of the Worlds on radio - 60 years plus a day, actually. There were plenty of people who knew that was a sly, clever tease (a Wellesian genre), but some were so persuaded they packed up house and drove for the hills.

Hallowe'en was scary once - the way it is in what is still the best movie treatment of the night, the episode in which Margaret O'Brien dares to challenge the local ogre in Meet Me in St Louis. It is terrifying in Cat People (1942), when the bus comes into frame and the opening doors make their hissing sound. Do you recall the outrage, the sense of seeing something so visceral, so fantastic, it ought to be impossible, when the creature came out of John Hurt's chest in Alien? Or how at the end of Carrie, the whole audience jumped when the arm reached out of the cindery grave? Do you still see the blurred outline of a human form through your shower curtain?

Today, horror films have less kick, less shock - is that because no one knows how to deliver it, or because the teen audience is so blase about the game? Have we forgotten that Hallowe'en is about souls? I don't know the answer, but I regret the loss.

I'd like to see our nine-year-old decently shaken up - because that's a way of believing in movies. As it was, last week in Sea Cliff, he was the only chiller. In his werewolf garb, he went up the steps of one house where the owner sat with a tureen of candy and a handsome, composed black labrador. At the sight of my son, the dog shrank back into the safety of the house and the light of its TV.