Ginger Nuts of Horror
When I decided to write this one, the first thing I did was sit down and try to remember the first horror film I ever saw. That wasn't as easy as you might expect. My aim was to think of the first horror film that I sat and watched all the way through, from start to finish, and that was tricky because I'd seen patchwork approximations of horror films before then. I was raised during the era when parents still gave a damn about what their children consumed, so as a child horror films had to be viewed in secret whenever parents were out and a friend had 'borrowed' their Dad's copy of Nightmare on Elm Street or something similar. This was in the days before the internet and streaming TV, so unless you had a film on VHS, you weren't watching it (no-one was likely to be broadcasting horror films during the day on one of the 4 terrestrial channels.) I remember sneaking in as much of Alien, the original Fright Night, and the aforementioned Nightmare as was possible, but none of these were watched from start to finish before the age of about 12. I'd been allowed to watch the old Universal and Hammer horror films, because they were so camp and stupid (Note: as an adult I now love them even more) that not even my Middle-England mother thought they were genuinely damaging. I don't recall which of these was my first either, but given that nothing in them ever came close to scaring me, I never really thought of them as true horror.
As with many things in my youth, my first great experience of something came courtesy of my Grandad, Reg Jones. He decided when I was aged about 10 that I could safely watch a horror film with him, as I was grown up and smart enough to realise that it was fake. That doesn't mean he was going to subject me to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or any kind of Video Nasty. Rather the film in question this particular evening (I regularly used to go visit my Grandad, sadly no longer with us, to watch movies and TV series) was The Gate.
To those who haven't seen it, the Gate was a 1987 horror comedy film that was "sort of" about as close as you can get to a family-friendly horror film. You don't really get those anymore. It's either out-and-out horror or out-and-out Disney-style- kid-friendly. Children don't seem to be treated with quite the same level of respect and "they can handle it" approach that they were in the 1980's, but that's another article for another time.
The Gate is far from the most original story, more of a patchwork of the type of thing you've seen elsewhere a dozen times but not all in one place. Zombies and demons and portals to the underworld, all done with stop-motion Harryhausen-style effects. So what's the story?
Well basically a very old tree is dug up in a suburban back yard, and it turns out the tree was acting as a plug to block the door to some demon/goblin infested Hell-type place. Once the tree is gone they start pouring out and wrecking havoc when, as bad luck would have it, the kids are home alone. The creatures that come out of said hole were hardly particularly scary even at their time and for the audience they were aimed at, with the possible exception of the zombie who, when squished, turns into lots of smaller creatures (don't ask). But what made the film scary, particularly to me as a young child at the time, was the fact that it was so close to home. I lived in leafy suburbs, I had a tree in the back garden, I was sometimes left alone with my older sister in an evening whilst our parents nipped out somewhere. This could happen to us. That alone made it much scarier than the Hammer/Universal horror films, in which for the majority you had to be stupid enough to walk into a laboratory or a castle or a blatantly haunted mansion in order for the scary things to get you. The idea presented in the Gate was that they might already be here, right in your back garden, just hidden away from sight by something as simple as an old tree.
It's not a big leap to see how that very notion led me, in later years, to become a big fan of "Old World" horror. Lovecraft and Machen are arguably the best known in the genre, but any author who painted this view of ancient creatures that had existed before man, and still lurked within the darkness, was immediately of interest to me. It wasn't until I came across The Gate again in my adult years that I made the connection in my head and saw exactly where this love had started, and then it all came back to me.
The funniest thing about watching the Gate the first time, in hindsight, was how the film didn't scare me as much as the walk home afterwards. To get from my home to my Grandad's house involved a ten minute walk through a small jennel with woodland on either side. To let a 10 year old walk through such an area on their own, after dark, seems insane in the paranoid "pedo on every corner" world of 2015, but in the early 90s it was commonplace. Whilst lost in the film, I never felt particularly scared by any of it. But walking through the dark woods not long afterwards, where every shadow could be hiding one of those goblins or that zombie made out of tiny monsters, then things took on a new light. I didn't have to be in a haunted house or a cemetery for this kind of thing to get me. It could happen here, right in the leafy suburbs. I recall years later, a friend of mine telling me had the same experience after having watched the Blair Witch Project, but given that he was about 15 at the time I have far less respect for him as a result of this particular story! Girlpants.
And there it was, my first taste of horror. The kind that scares you and makes you think afterwards. The kind that lingers. The best kind, really. No-one wants to write a book that gets forgotten about the moment it's put down. Especially if you're a horror author. You'll want your words to stay with someone, the imagery you conjur up in their minds to be recalled at the worst possible moment to bring the terror right back again. The Gate was most definitely the first film that ever did that for me, and whilst it's been around 20 years since I've had anything resembling that kind of irrational unease, I can still remember it's potency. And I think it was that very feeling that got me into the genre, first as a reader, then much later as a writer.
In the clear light of day, and viewed in the context of a much larger experience of horror films, I don't think The Gate is a particularly strong film at all. The story can't really be described as particularly original, the acting isn't brilliant and even for it's time, the effects were looking a bit worn, but nonetheless this one will always hold a special place in my memory.
The moral of the story is don't dig up trees in your back garden because there might be monsters down there. Or more realistically, they might find the remains of your ex girlfriend.