Don’t be afraid of the dark

  • Datum 14-04-2011
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How Neil Young grew up in horror. Filmcritic/curator Neil Young describes his ‘making of’ a cinephile along the ‘best of’ lists from the ‘dark’ days of his youth.

Children never need to wait till the end of a decade — or even a year — to compile ‘best of’ lists. I still have many of mine, like this ‘all-time top ten’ from April 1982: the omen, halloween, don’t be afraid of the dark, jaws, theatre of blood, the medusa touch, night of the lepus, horror express, blood on satan’s claw, salem’s lot.
Yes, they’re all horror films — even if you haven’t seen them yourself, the titles do sort of give them away. While I’ve always been pretty omnivorous cinema-wise, back then horror was by far my preferred genre. And the more ‘adult-oriented’ the better. Six out of that Top Ten were officially ‘X’ rated in 1982, and two (halloween and blood on satan’s claw) still carry the equivalent ’18’ rating nearly two decades on.
Unsuitable viewing for a ‘minor’? Maybe so — but not really so unusual, either then or now. Children have always been drawn to the adult, the mysterious, the forbiddden. One of my favourite comments about film is what Scott Meek wrote about Dario Argento’s suspiria for Time Out: "The thrills and spills are so classy and fast that the movie becomes in effect what horror movies seemed like when you were too young to get in to see them."
And the insatiably curious way I devoured horror films from 1977-85 — at home, being too young to ‘get in to see’ the ones in the cinemas — laid preliminary foundations for what’s since developed into my more eclectic cinephilia as a critic and curator/programmer.

Doctor Who
Looking back, I ‘credit’ three individuals for my precocious preoccupations. My mother Catherine Young has always been an inveterate movie-lover, watching pretty much any film on late-night TV, her only ‘no-no’ being subtitles. And in 70s-80s Britain the late-night TV schedules were dominated by horror/thriller fare. If I didn’t have school the next day, I could ‘stop up’ and watch them with her, regardless of content.
Then there was Robert Holmes, who ran legendary British science-fiction TV-show Doctor Who during the show’s mid-70s ‘golden age.’ Despite it being nominally ‘for kids’ and shown in a tea-time Saturday slot (just after the football results) Who under Holmes became notorious for horror-influenced imagery. One of my very earliest memories is his mummy-inspired Pyramids of Mars from late 1975, when I was four.
I seldom missed an episode, and such early exposure must have had a major impact on my budding tastes — as Don DeLillo notes in White Noise, the youthful brain develops "in response to stimuli." If I’d met Holmes (he died in 1986), I’d probably have said to him what Philip Larkin reputedly blurted out when encountering Cyril Connolly at W. H. Auden’s memorial service: "You formed me!"
As, in a way, did film-critic Alan Frank, whose 1977 hardback Horror Films, surveying 1896-1976, was the bible of my youth, subject of endless library re-borrowings (I eventually saved up for my own copy some years later). I’d pore over the copious illustrations — many of them large, and in full, gory colour — and read the text until I felt intimately equated with each film. As Terence Fisher says in the foreword, horror movies are "adult fairy tales — no more and no less."

Skull Island
My pocket-money purchased a small library of related volumes: Peter Underwood’s Boris Karloff biography Horror Man for instance; an exhaustive analysis of how the original king kong was made (using coloured wool, I constructed Skull Island’s jungle-and-river terrain in a cardboard box for a school project — to my teachers’ startled bemusement).
Occasionally I was disturbed by these late-night visions. Perhaps because the format had to favour atmospheric dread over actual violence, made-for-television fare was often the culprit: don’t be afraid of the dark, dead of night (1977 version) or salem’s lot, which seems to have traumatised an entire generation back in ’81. Of course, with only three channels to choose from, no VCRs and certainly no time-shifting Sky+, you knew most of your friends — and millions of others — were watching the same programme simultaneously (inspiring endless playground discussions the next day.)
Video was, however, imminent: my 1982 Christmas present was a top-loading Sanyo Betamax. Via VHS, I’d already seen the exorcist (via a samizdat copy), halloween 2 and an american werewolf in london at a cousin’s house. All of those went straight into my fickle ‘all-time’ top ten, to be joined in 1983 by don’t look now — which would stay right at the very top of the tree for nearly 20 years (my 12-year-old self knew quality when he saw it).

Chain saw breakfast
Kids watching horrific video wasn’t uncommon back then — I remember Jeffrey Nutter coming into school one morning, bragging about enjoying the texas chain saw massacre over breakfast — and the phenomenon quickly stirred up Britain’s infamous 1983/4 ‘Video Nasty’ furore.
As with the TV horrors, however, video was for me always a ‘watch with mother’ affair. Though no bohemian, she’s always had adventurous tastes — once proposing a Christmas-night VHS double-bill of blue velvet and taxi driver. She enjoyed both, though the former’s "baby wants to fuck" scene had me squirming in my chair.
Just as a trip to the cinema, until around the time of star wars, nearly always involved two movies for the price of one, video always meant double-bills in our house — each of us choosing one title from the local rental-shop. Mother’s selections in those first Betamax months included demented, a long-forgotten cheapie which one reviewer describes as "an unpleasant dish of graphic rape, topped off with seedy sex and nudity and finally dressed with a modest welter of brutality."

Making ‘films seen’ lists became my common practice in the early 80s — I still have records of all the horror/sci-fi films watched on TV in 1982 (total: 50), 1983 (151) and 1984 (149) — these the direct antecedents of the (hopelessly anal) lists I still maintain for more ‘professional’ purposes.
Those yellowing sheets are sellotaped into photo-albums, the ‘scrapbooks’ in which I assiduously arranged cuttings about horror films and associated genres from 1980 to 1985. Nine bulky volumes, weighing nearly ten kilograms. I began them in response to the biggest trauma of my childhood — much more jolting than anything the movies or TV could deliver.
My indulgent parents being by this stage well used to my horror-film devotion, I was of course allowed to watch all of the ensuing double-bills. And I was far from alone — internet nostalgia-forums are full of fond reminiscences from blokes in their 30s and 40s, many of whom have gone on to industry-related careers themselves (including fellow north-eastern-Englanders such as the league of gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss and dog soldiers director Neil Marshall.)
Indeed, I remember my mom and dad’s apologetic concern when they realised a 445-km trip to an East Anglia holiday entailed arriving during the showing of Hammer chiller paranoiac. I did manage to catch the whole of the ensuing captain kronos — vampire hunter, needless to say, despite its starting near midnight and my having just completed a six-hour bus journey.
The scrapbook photo-albums quickly filled. A 17-title Hitchcock season in 1982 — shown instead of Horror Double Bills, to my initially intense chagrin — led me to hand-compile a cross-referenced, 11-page, list of all the credited actors in Hitchcock film’s, plus a chart ranking the most-employed performers (Leo G. Carroll led the way on six), after I’d spotted certain thespians popping up in different movies.
Such painstaking but straightforward ‘statistical’ analyses came first. Only gradually did I develop what I now recognise as nascent critical faculties: awarding films marks out of five, or a score out of a hundred. This must have started around 1980-81, and my 1982 diary — which makes a point of recording Sight and Sound’s latest critical ranking — is peppered with brief ‘verdicts’. the magnificent ambersons: "better than kane."

The Horror Double Bills inspired what must have been my first ‘long-form’ piece of film criticism, a school-essay on Antonio Mercero’s unforgettably unpleasant short the telephone box (1972), which (along with a prosaic half-hour of cricket highlights) — had been screened as a ‘breather’ between Mark Robson’s isle of the dead and George Romero’s the crazies in July 1981. That’s a trio that contains the raw material for a thousand nightmares; possibly tough-going even for a professional critic/curator.
But I know now, as I think I knew then, that missing a minute of it would have resulted in genuine trauma. I probably haven’t changed that much. There was no ‘magical moment’ for me as a film-obsessed kid, I have to say — no cloud-parting epiphany when I was gripped with the feeling that I would one day make a kind of profession from watching and writing about cinema.
Such a goal would have been pure fantasy — to be a paid film-critic would have seemed about as plausible as Billy Elliot growing up to become a ballet-star in the mould of Adam Bourne (then again, I was born in Easington, where Stephen Daldry’s picture was filmed.) Film critics were people like Alan Frank, "born in South Africa, brought up and educated in East Africa," who spent his early years "writing a weekly school newspaper and broadcasting over the Forces Broadcasting Service." And cinema was always just something that was there in the home, provided, like food and a roof and a warm bed. In retrospect, things could never really have turned out any different. White Noise again: "It is all there, in full force, charged waves of identity and being. There are no amateurs in the world of children."

Neil Young

Neil Young is a film-critic and programmer/curator. He writes regularly for The Hollywood Reporter, Tribune and He programs or advises on programming for film festivals in Bradford and Edinburgh, Crossing Europe in Austria, IndieLisboa in Portugal, Tromso in Norway and Ljubljana and Izola in Slovenia.