Lorcan McGrane | A Cultural History of the Horror Film
Interview by John Patrick Higgins • Photography John Nutley
Following on from his recent Faculty lecture at The Black Box,“A Cultural History of the Horror Film”, I sat down with comedian and Film Studies lecturer, Lorcan McGrane, to talk formative horror film experiences and the state of the horrific nation, as I threw cooking lager down my neck and he vaped like he was smoking a fox out of its den.
Lorcan, how and when did you first get into horror?
I suppose I could trace it to a childhood love of dinosaurs, which led to watching TV reruns of the likes of King Kong (1933), The Land That Time Forgot (1975) and Valley of Gwangi (1969), still the premier cowboys versus dinosaur movie. My father would tell stories of seeing such films as The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) and Frankenstein (1931) and the Hammer Movies when they were coming out in the late 1950s. I found it amazing that these films would be on in the small rural Monaghan town of Ballybay. Before the current wave of cheap-to-produce reality TV, there was more repeats of classic movies, especially late night weekends on BBC2 and Channel 4. The video nasties ‘banned’ list gave a generation of fans a shopping list of horror films that they might never have heard of. I doubt that was the intention of the likes of Mary Whitehouse or Sir Graham Bright MP, who was convinced that video nasties affected dogs as well as young people.
There were also some great hardback, lavishly illustrated books on the subject like Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), Alan Frank’s Horror Films (1977) and more philosophical and critical works like David Annan’s Cinema of Mystery and Fantasy (1984) and Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies (1988).
Can you still recall from those stolen moments behind the sofa which films first gave you that frisson of fear?
I remember a weird sensation in the pit of my stomach when seeing The Creeping Flesh (1973) for the first time whilst quite young, especially the sequences of the flesh forming for the first time like big, slimy butcher’s sausages. There were other moments – getting to see the start of American Werewolf in London (1981) at the house of a school friend and there was a power cut just as Jack (Griffin Dunne) appears for the first time to David (David Naughton) which had us all terrified. By the time power was restored, Carry On Loving (1970) was on.
Horror seems to be endlessly mutable, that is its secret power. It is able to change to reflect cultural circumstances and offer a critique of its times. Is horror inherently satirical?
Hopefully yes! There’s nothing worse than a po-faced horror film. Horror films allow for great depictions of the breakdown in society and are expert in undermining authority figures of science or religion. I love the cyclical nature of horror and how it builds on its own history to the extent that there’s great movies about horror film history too. Personal favourites include Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993) and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).
I remember seeing The Exorcist upon its re-release to cinemas in the late 1990s, which was a big deal for a horror fan who had only seen a bit of a very fuzzy video bootleg, and being surprised by groups of teenagers coming in and laughing all the way through it. The sort of metaphysical battle between good and evil that was pertinent to a previous more religious generation was of little interest to them, the flares and boking seemed to be the main source of humour, amid my silent tutting at how lucky we were to being seeing it in the cinema again.
What is, push comes to shove, your all-time favourite horror film?
It would be a toss-up between Day of the Dead (1985) and Videodrome (1983). Day of the Dead has a great array of ambiguous characters reacting to the zombie apocalypse in very realistic ways, plus it has an Irish guy in it played by Jarlath Conroy who is quite content to stay in a static home in an underground bunker drinking whiskey and saying ‘Jaysus’ a lot, an understandable reaction to a zombie apocalypse. Videodrome is the perfect combination of philosophy, sexuality and special effects, very prescient too as we live through these over-stimulated times.
I find a lot of horror films from the last twenty years or so pretty boring – I’m no fan of witless gore or torture porn – but recently it seems as if horror is going through another period of renewal. I thought that The Babadook, It Follows and, especially, The Witch were excellent. Could there be hope for horror?
And if so, where do you look? It can be hard to keep up both with new movies and re-issues of lost classic and some not so classic movies from DVD labels like Arrow and Shameless. The Soska Sisters’ American Mary (2012) is probably the closest to the sort of philosophical body horror that I love and it is fitting that they are slated to direct a re-make of David Cronenberg’s Rabid. The Hatchet trilogy is a great deconstruction of the slasher movie as is The Final Girls (2015), and of course, The Cabin in the Woods (2012). Having turned 40, I have been enjoying recent films concerning terrible things happening at middle-aged dinner parties – Coherence (2013) and The Invitation (2015). Having to go to a dinner party seems terrifying enough for me, even before parallel dimension or cult shenanigans ensue. Finally, what is the most horrific horror film you’ve ever seen? Oh, it would have to the French-Canadian Martyrs (2008), probably one of my favourite horror films that I’m in no rush to see again!