Horror movies: Are you scared yet?

Almost anything will scare David Thomson these days - apart from those movies like 'The Omen' and 'The Da Vinci Code' that Hollywood is making. What's happened to the horror tradition that gave us Hitchcock's 'Rear Window' and Polanski's 'Rosemary's Baby'?
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The Independent Culture

Yes, I admit it, I'm a scaredy-cat with just about anything, except what passes these days for horror films. There I was with The Da Vinci Code in a semi-packed theatre, in such grave danger of falling asleep after two or three supposedly intense exchanges between Tom Hanks and Audrey Tatou that involved anagrams. And I had heard that there was an even lengthier scene coming up where Ian McKellen went into sardonic raptures explaining the plot. Well, having things explained by Sir Ian frightens me, and disturbing other theatre patrons with my stentorian sleep was a fearful proposition, so I left. Outside, in California, the air was balmy, the evening sun was still shining, and there were such exquisite colours in the long shadows that I felt better again.

And I would have let the moment of return of The Omen go, but my editor surmised that maybe fear knits up the ravelled soul in these troubled times, and then there was Mia Farrow.

Do you recall The Omen, the first one? It was 1976. Gregory Peck was the American ambassador and Lee Remick was his wife, the couple chosen to raise little Mr 666. Their first nanny removed herself through a spectacular hanging in order that another nanny could be hired to take care of the brat. Don't ask me why anyone as potent as Damien ever needed looking after, let alone the old nanny switcheroo. Still, in the first picture I do recall the tingle when the new woman on the job turned out to be Billie Whitelaw - not because it was now likely that nanny would be reading Damien bits of Samuel Beckett, but because Ms Whitelaw is a great actress who knew she was making piffle for once and who brought a really scary stare to the role, something that conveyed much more than the standard Norland training.

So, I thought I had to wait for Mia Farrow, because she was the new nanny this time, and whatever else you thought about Mia Farrow you had to allow that she had been at the heart of one of the scariest movies of the modern age. I mean Rosemary's Baby, which is still about the best inducement to "Just say no", if you find yourself getting into a situation where you might end up a parent.

Yes, that was 1968, which was a very bad year for the free world, even if something scared Bob Beamon at Mexico City into a long jump that defied your very eyes as you saw it. And there were all manner of things set up in that film to frighten the young couple - not least the fact that they were having to pay rent in the Dakota building, or that Mia was somehow married to John Cassavetes. I realise that the world (or some of it) would sooner or later come to regard Mr Cassavetes as a very great and independent film-maker, but there were deep-down alarm sirens going off inside me at any thought of being married to him. Then there was Ruth Gordon as your next door neighbour taking good care of you. But above all, of course, there was that lovely confidence we had that Roman Polanski knew how to do scary as well as anyone ever would, and if you wanted the proof it was in taking Mia Farrow, with her prison haircut, and making that wan face go anorexic just as her tummy swelled with pregnancy.

Mr Polanski had done it before, with Repulsion, when he'd taken one of the most erotic forces ever to go on film - Catherine Deneuve - and had her holed up in a South Kensington flat as her nightmares mounted, the food went off, and her decaying dreams started sprouting from the walls. Polanski was sadist and movie-maker enough to know that if you wanted to tighten the tension screws in a movie you got yourself a lovely woman first and then you built the pressure. It was like Hitchcock in Rear Window sending Grace Kelly across the courtyard to see if she could find the dead woman's wedding ring and then having Lars Thorwald make an unexpected return. And it was the brilliant, spunky Grace wiggling her hand to the camera to show that she was wearing the ring! And then it was Thorwald's hurt whale look directly into the lens and into our darkness. That's how you do scary at the movies - you have it as essential corollary to the illicit stealing of sight. (Do I dare look?)

I remembered Rosemary's Baby. I even remembered the year afterwards, 1969, when Mrs Polanski, Sharon Tate, was staying at the house on Cielo Drive, very large in pregnancy by Roman, and the Manson gang had come down out of the hills and done their own C-sections on everyone in the house. Somehow that sense that Roman was never going to lose his terrible closeness to violence was the most frightening thing of all. Of course, we were innocent in 1968 - the thought of one beautiful pregnant mother being chopped to pieces could drive us blank with terror then. Today, having seen so much that is so much worse, we are cool, and we laugh at horror and its feeble attempt to goose up. A few years ago, when The Exorcist was re-released, with Mercedes McCambridge's vile voice raucous and obscene and eating the vomit in the child's throat we laughed at the archaic effects and the memory of our own recent dread.

But still, I stayed with The Omen for Mia Farrow. She is 60 now, and Lord knows she has had a wild life, what with Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen. But the truth is out. At 60 in a bad movie with a dumb script she doesn't know what else to do except stop blinking and glare while her face lets itself be photographed. And I dare say the conclusions you will come to as she fails to blink, the thoughts you will have on the dieting and the other things she has done to stay looking so good, can give you the chills. But the most frightening thing of all is that Polanski and her odd affect in 1968 which seemed more mutant than real is all she had going for her.

The Omen is very silly. It always was, but in 1976 there remained a vestigial feeling that just having a child on screen could be horrifying if that child possessed satanic knowledge. Today, that burden only puts an impossible load on the actor playing the boy. The new Omen ends with the father's funeral, at which the kid turns to the camera and... smirks. Of course, in that instant of Hogwarts superiority, he reveals that he is just a kid, utterly unworthy of Satanic blessing or trust. The Omen has been re-made by a culture that can no longer imagine being scared by a story. The Blair Witch Project seems forgotten, and George Romero is still the poet of modern mall-scale horror because of his poetic intuition that he could show the drab populace slouching towards Bethlehem, and longing to bite into the privileged few who are saved.

Horror still stands and falls by the necessary vengeance - the profound urge to be famous - of those American failures who came down on Cielo Drive in 1969 and did their surgery. That desperate need for vengeance lurks in the faceless terrorists of 9/11 and it is the guiding force in all those demons who would wreak havoc on our corruption order. But this is too serious business for any modish sense of Satan. The Devil is just a ham actor now - we are so much more disturbing. We keep our fear in reserve for his loveliest children who have turned to murder as an alternative to anonymity, but who see it as a vehicle for charm. Horror dates so fast, it has to hurry onwards, like the wolf secretly dying of hunger but with a new inspired story about why he's waiting in our bed, warm and sexy.

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