Lars Nilsen is a horror movie guy. He’s a movie guy in general — Austin Film Society’s lead programmer, in fact — but he’s been a horror movie guy since he was a little kid. He and I spent an hour or so talking in a completely empty AFS Cinema (spooky!) about his five or so favorite horror films. In honor of Halloween, here are some excerpts from that conversation, which have been condensed and edited for clarity. You can also listen to the conversation on "I Love You So Much: The Austin360 Podcast":
American-Statesman: How did you get into this stuff?
Lars Nilsen: My family didn't have a VCR until I was in my teens. So I relied on superstations, which would run packages of movies into the night. I would try to stay up and watch the horror movies. And if there was a book about horror movies, I needed it. I would get my parents to drive me to bookstores in adjoining towns just to look at sections that might have horror movie books. You would look at the stills, and those would almost be like the whole movie for me, the movie would come to life in my head. (When I) had access to a VCR and I was able to see all these horror movies, sometimes they were not as good as the movie I made in my head.
Why do you love horror movies so much?
I think that's one of the great mysteries of my life. I think all of this has to do with those movies being about death and sex. These are great mysteries we're always contending with in different ways throughout different periods of our life. When we're teenagers, death is practically just a nonexistent consideration for us. But sex is an emerging consideration for us, and all of these things are kind of going together. By the time I'm 80 years old, sex might be a nonexistent consideration for me, but death will be an enormously important consideration. They are the end zones of life, if you will, and that’s the world that horror movies operate in, that’s the field of play.
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What were your formative horror films?
"Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" was a real big one for me. Comedy led me to Abbott and Costello, and Abbott and Costello led me to horror movies. It’s them being very funny, and then Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man show up. That led me into an obsession with wanting to see the original Universal horror movies and getting into all the books. Later on, speaking of sex, watching "Dracula Has Risen From the Grave" was important. There was a big sex element to all those Hammer movies. (Editor’s note: Hammer Film Productions was a British studio known for blood-soaked horror movies in the mid-20th century.) You had Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, somewhat more explicit blood than you would see in other movies, and it was in this bright color. But they also had women wearing very low-cut dresses who wore a lot of makeup.
OK, let’s do this, Nilsen. Five favorite horror movies. Go.
"Cat People" (1942), produced by Val Lewton, directed by Jacques Tourneur and written by DeWitt Bodeen.
Nilsen says: One of the very first horror movies directed at smart adults. It’s not highbrow, but it’s like smart pulp fiction aimed at grown-ups. This woman named Irina, played by Simone Simon, goes to America. We know she's one of these people with this ancient strain where they can turn into great cats. She's scared to fall in love because the passions that she might find during the sexual act would make her turn into a great cat and kill the person she loves. It ended up being an enormous, enormous hit. You watch "Cat People" and you see the beginnings of what horror would come to rely on: set pieces, even jump scares, but also combining those with an atmosphere of creeping terror. It's hard for people to believe that a movie from 1942 could make people sort of jump out of their seats, but it really still will.
"Vampyros Lesbos" (1971), directed and co-written by Jesús Franco
Nilsen says: This is the most perfect boiling-down of the horror film as erotic fetish that I've seen. These bright comic-book colors, an incredible central lead performance from the really mysterious actress Soledad Miranda, who died shortly after the film was made. There’s all kinds of really interesting and unusual aspects to this film, not to mention the greatest original rock soundtrack that I can think of for any movie. It’s an incredibly cheap movie but really effective. I am not sure it is scary, but it does reach that place that it feels like the most awesome nightmare you can ever imagine, the Platonic ideal of a sex-horror film.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974), directed by Tobe Hooper
Nilsen says: What’s left to say about this thing? It’s almost a departure from (previous) horror movies entirely. It doesn’t build on where horror movies had been going. If the original "Nosferatu" was a symphony of horror (which was its subtitle), then "Texas Chainsaw" was a musique concrète symphony. That movie works on you. It almost goes directly to your nervous system. It’s about Austin in this really important way. We think of Austin at its best as this island of progress and enlightenment. All around this island is all of this regressive and reactionary stuff. Imagine how you felt in the early ’70s, though, with this progressive community and around this very, very dark shade of red. I also think Tobe Hooper didn't really exactly know what the hell he was doing. And I think that that really sort of played into it.
"Dawn of the Dead" (1978), written and directed by George A. Romero
Nilsen says: George Romero’s masterpiece and (special effects maestro) Tom Savini’s masterpiece, I think. It’s not a real deep reading to say that it’s about consumer culture, just because it takes place entirely in a mall. I also think it’s important to remember that Savini’s gore effects were inspired and informed by his time in Vietnam. He knew what it was like to see a head blown apart and what happens when a gunshot hits a body. When you're looking at these effects, it's not just make-believe. The Vietnam War had only been over for three years, so you have this guy translating that experience into this, which is also sort of riding alongside this critique of consumer culture, which arguably can't exist without war and death.
"The Howling" (1981), directed by Joe Dante
Nilsen says: The last one that I wanted to discuss takes a couple of these diffuse threads and kind of brings them back home. There’s the aspect of horror movies where it's just fun and it's a little silly, and that's okay. And it brings them together with this real visceral aspect, with set pieces and horror special effects. "The Howling" brings them all home into this really fun package. John Sayles did a sizable rewrite of the script. ... Dante was a huge horror fan, and it’s just the total package of all these tones.