It’s vacation time! Time for me to put work worries behind, for lazy days staring at the surf, and for daydreaming about the day I can actually own one of these beautiful, overpriced monstrosities that sit upon the glorified sandbars just off the Jersey Coast.
It also has me thinking about all the wonderful horror movies that use vacation time as a backdrop or a plot element. I thought I’d share some of my favorites, after the break. (Warning, spoilers ahead!)
Blood Beach: This 1980 shlock-fest had the fortune to be released as cable began its widespread introduction into the America’s living room; and seemed to be in heavy rotation the entire first half of the decade. The plot is pure golden cheese as some sort of blood-thirsty creature that looked like an earthworm got busy with a Venus Fly Trap travels under the Santa Monica beach, sucking people through the sand, where it stores them for consumption later. As a newly minted teenager, Blood Beach was required viewing. I don’t remember much beyond the VHS cover of a woman screaming in pain as whatever lived below begins to pull her under, but that was more than enough to keep me off the sand most of that summer.
American Werewolf in London: Another movie with a heavy cable rotation in the early eighties, American Werewolf in London was John Landis’ incredible first foray into the world of horror (he would later direct an installment in the Twilight Zone movie, the Michael Jackson Thriller Video, and the wonderfully underrated vampire movie Innocent Blood). It starred David Naughton (or as I knew him them, the Dancing Dr. Pepper guy) and Griffin Dunne as two college students who are attacked by a werewolf while strolling the Scottish moors. David survives but is infected with the werewolf curse. Griffin is killed, but returns throughout the movie as an increasingly decaying corpse to urge David to kill himself and end the curse (werewolf victims are doomed to live as the undead until the werewolf who killed them is killed).
American Werewolf in London introduced me to Jenny Agutter (who populated my dreams for many years after), the concept of shower sex, (which also populated my dreams for several years after), and Rick Baker, whose special effects inspired nightmares for millions. The film flawlessly balances horror with humor (a scene in the movie theater with all of David’s victims suggesting ways to kill himself is particularly dark and hilarious), it went on to win the first Academy Award for Best Makeup.
Funny Games: Not everyone classifies this as a horror film, but I can’t leave it out just because the monsters haunting it are human. Originally released in 1997 out of Austria, the Americanized version retained the original director Micheal Haneke and cast Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet as two angel-faced psychopaths who amuse themselves by capturing and torturing a family (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and 12-year old Devon Gayheart) in their vacation cabin.
What raises Funny Games above The Hostels, the Turistas, and the other movies in the “bathe travelling teenagers in fake blood until we all get squeamish” category is the horror is deep and psychological. There is minimal gore and most of the worst violence happens off-screen, but it’s relentless and bleak, as it defies and tramples every trope we typically find in American movies. The plucky kid does not survive and get help, the heroic dad doesn’t uncover secret strength and save the day, and the dedicated mom doesn’t find a way out and gain revenge. They all…just…die, and we get to watch the hope fade from their eyes and wonder ‘what if’ that was me? What could I do?” Of all the movies on this list, it’s the only one I can’t watch again, it’s just too dark.
Open Water: Another movie with a minimal cast, Open Water was based upon the true story of The Lonergans, a married couple who were left behind in Australian waters by their scuba diving boat. The couple was never found, and the movie takes the approach of what might have happened.
The couple is adrift for days. As the tension ratchets up and their situation becomes more dire, they alternately blame and support, bicker and banter, and generally act like you’d imagine a couple trapped in an ocean full of deadly jellyfish, hungry sharks, and razor sharp coral would act.
Once again, the horror here is psychological, the realization that they are completely powerless to stand before the fate the ocean has lined up for them. The movie was shot on a shoe-string budget and uses real sharks to great effect, perhaps none more so as when the camera briefly dips below the water-line and you discover what you thought was a handful off sharks surrounding the couple (as if that’s not bad enough) was in fact dozens, perhaps hundreds of hungry fish. That’s the point you realize the utter hopelessness of their situation. That single shot gives me chills every time I see it.
Jaws: What can you say about Stephen Spielberg’s second feature film? (He had directed the Goldie Hawn vehicle Sugarland Express the previous year). Jaws was a phenomena when it was released in 1975. As the first true summer blockbuster, it changed the way movies were released. Beach towns reported drops in vacationers across the country, and hundreds of millions of sharks were killed (some species were nearly driven to the point of extinction) as shark hysteria gripped the nation. I watched most of the movie through a lattice-work of fingers (the severed head scene in particular kept me awake for months) and I still hear the infamous ba-dum, ba-dum John Williams theme every time I enter any body of water. Jaws is a horror masterpiece, often imitated and never matched.
The really crazy thing is Bruce the Shark is really the least interesting thing in the movie (and frankly, Brucie hasn’t aged real well). The real horror lay in that anticipation, those underwater POV shots, the feeling that no one was safe, that horrible moment when the character was jerked under the water to be replaced by a billowing red cloud.
Damn, I scared myself all over again. I think I’ll spend this vacation inside the house.