Out of Sight: Why movie monsters are always best left with an air of mystery.
I remember looking through the book that sat on my father's shelf, aged roughly four or five, and being absolutely captivated by the pictures inside. They showed monsters and ghouls and otherworldly beasts that I couldn't quite fathom. Some where black and white stills, some were glorious technicolor, and many featured Christopher Lee, but it was in that moment, and every moment of staring at that book before and since, that I knew I was a horror fan. My dad, perhaps ironically, is one of these "I hate horror" people, who finds anything even remotely scary far too much to watch. I'd go so far as to say he'd struggle to muddle through Monster House.
So, it's funny that it would be his book, and his influence on me, that would lead me so dramatically into the realms of horror. He once recounted to me, during a trip away to Butlin's, the entire story, almost scene by scene, of Brian De Palma's Stephen King adaptation Carrie. So traumatised I was by the unsettling image of a hand reaching suddenly from a grave to grab the wrist of a mourner, that I barely slept. Yet the concept stayed with me, and Carrie became a film I just had to get my hands on, just to see if it lived up to the hype I had created around it.
Sadly, it did not.
Now, don't get me wrong, I love Carrie. I think it's an excellent film with some brilliant acting and wonderful filmmaking going on, but it couldn't quite match the horror that I had created in my own head. And a similar scenario plays out with almost every single one of the pictures from that book, burned into my mind like a brand on the side of a cow in the old west. Forever terrifying, the films these beats inhabit just don't quite conjure up the same sense of dread. And yet, despite having seen Hammer's take on Dracula I don't know how many times since then, the image of Christopher Lee led on the floor, his skin peeling away as he comes into contact with direct sunlight, is far more terrifying as my memory as a four year old than it is in the film proper.
Perhaps this comes from the fact that I could only imagine what terror these insidious forced would unleash as a child. The internet didn't exist then, at least not in the form it does now, and so I could hardly just hop online and take a look for myself, and there was no way my parents were going to let me watch The Blood on Satan's Claw aged four, so I just had no way of knowing what the movies featuring these sinister creatures were. Instead I had to make it up myself.
And I remember often making it up. Crafting entire narratives around the strange snake-thing with the bulbous eyes that peered out at me from page 37 (turned out that was The Reptile, a Hammer produced film from 1966), or the man trapped in a bed with a human hand for his only light source (Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man, as represented by a black and white, poor quality photograph), it could potentially be that that book alone was not just the foundation for my love of horror, but also for my love of writing too! And many of those ideas have stayed with me - indeed my most recently released short film, The Body, is a reworking of concept drawn from "the book of terror" (the image, if you must know, is of Joan Crawford getting ready to bash her in her husband's brains during the, now iconic, first segment of Amicus' Tales from the Crypt).
Often times the trouble with the films themselves, and I'm not saying I didn't enjoy them, I'm just saying that they often didn't quite live up to the terrifying events of my imagination, lay with the monster itself. The pictures, often grainy and black and white and not entirely clear, never gave a clear indication of what the monster was or entirely what it looked like. In my mind they lurked in shadows, unseen and preying on the helpless, but in the movies proper they often leapt out into the open, sometimes spoken, and very rarely had that pure sense of mystery.
A very specific example of my disappointment came from Freddie Francis' 1975 horror The Ghoul. The entirety of information available to me here was a black and white image of Alexandra Bastedo cowering against a wall, a look of pure fear on her face, and the subtitle: Image from 1975's The Ghoul.
Such a delicious title, and the horror on Bastedo's face, led me to create a devilishly nasty creature in my mind, all dripping and oozing and monstrous. The film, for the most part, keeps the titular villain hidden, and when I was watching it the tension was almost unbearable. But, in the last act, when we finally get to see it in all its glory, it's a... bald man. My brother and I were rolling about on the floor, laughing, and all sense of tension had been popped like a balloon, instantly removed.
And this trend of revealing the monster has carried on into modern horror too. Sometimes it works, sure, like in Aliens where we get to see the Alien Queen before Ripley destroys it, but more often than not it's a failure. The newer interpretations of Doctor Who are especially guilty of this, building tension through mystery for the first act and maybe into the second, but then defusing all of it in a mad rush to show off some make-up effects skills. And, to be fair, it isn't that these make-up effects skills are good, it's just they're never as good as they were in my head.
More recent examples include James Wan's Insidious, which, although far from subtle, manages to sustain a genuine sense of unease throughout most of its run time, only to lurch unevenly into a bizarre, and pretty stupid - let's be honest, final act where Darth Maul chases Patrick Wilson and his kid around some smokey corridors, or 2017's The Ritual, starring Rafe Spall, which is genuinely absolutely terrifying, until it turns out everyone's actually just being picked off by a giant stick insect.
I'm not arguing for never showing your monster, I'm just arguing for not showing your monster as much; Jason is scarier with the mask than he is that goofy looking zombie face, and Freddy is freakier appearing as weird, surreal dream monsters than he is Robert England in a fedora. Even John Carpenter's The Thing, which has lots of graphic and strange creations on display, never actually shows us the alien creatures form. Instead we get twisted amalgamations of flesh and faces and weird spider legs.
Ultimately, the lesson I learned from a stream of slight disappointment at movies I'd wanted desperately to see since before I could articulate it is that what you don't see is always going to be more frightening than what you do. It may not be the most original of lessons, as I'm sure almost everyone is already aware of that fact, but then... if they are, why do they keep showing us so damn much of the monsters?