A conversation about Poltergeist today reminded me of something I’d been meaning to post about for a while. A couple of months ago I went through a Steven Spielberg binge – partly for this essay on his development as a political filmmaker, partly because, hey, Spielberg. But as I went back over his earlier work, it struck me just how much Spielberg’s filmmaking language owes to horror. Obviously, several of his earliest films – Duel, Something Evil, Jaws – actually are horror films. But I’m intrigued by how many of his other films rely on horror tropes.
Look at Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yes, it’s a throwback to old adventure serials and fantasy films, but it probably has more legitimate “frights” than most typical horror flicks. (Think of Satipo’s fate; or the entire Well of Souls sequence; or, Jesus, the big finale.) For all the wonder of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s really just a couple of degrees removed from a horror film: We spend the whole movie wondering if the aliens are good or bad; if they turn out to be evil, the whole thing turns and Richard Dreyfuss suddenly starts to look more like a possessed person. Even E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial relies on its share of jump scares; at the time it came out, I remember legitimately being frightened by much of it.
This is an element of Spielberg’s filmmaking that made quite an impression on me as a kid. But I’d forgotten about it in the intervening years. Seeing these films back then, for all the wonder and big emotions they inspired, I now recall that they also provoked a real sense of horror. A very safe kind of horror, to be sure: You jumped at E.T. suddenly popping into the frame, but you never quite felt the sense of helplessness and dread that you might in a proper horror flick. Obviously he’s not the only person to meld elements of horror into kid-friendly stories. There’s the example of The Brothers Grimm, after all. And one Walt Disney, who himself was a huge influence on Spielberg. But I do think Spielberg took it to another level, at times using the language of horror to tell non-horror stories.
Spielberg would go to that well again: In the Jurassic Park films (especially The Lost World, which feels like more of a horror movie than the first one), in War of the Worlds, in parts of Minority Report. And while he hasn’t gone in that direction of late, take a look at this teaser for his upcoming Roald Dahl adaptation The BFG (scripted by the late Melissa Mathison, who also wrote E.T.). In light of his earlier work, it starts to come alive with possibility.