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Terror in the Aisles
Poster by John Russell
Text by Darren Banks
‘Terror in the Aisles’ (1984) is not only a documentary about horror or simply
a compilation of clips but also a peculiar mockumentary and meta-film. ‘Terror’ uses
a mixture of montage, voice over, hosts that break the fourth wall, actors playing audience members enacting aside narratives; all hoping to map out a potted history
of horror that explores peoples’ excitement in being scared. Cutting and pasting imagery from about eighty films made between 1935 and 1984, ‘Terror’ produces new cinematic forms re-adapting narratives without the foreboding shadow of Copy-write law. And it’s not even Art!
From the very opening of ‘Terror’ we are being shown the mechanics of cinema, literally the mechanics, as the camera pans around a 35mm projector we are led through the architecture of cogs and wheels through which the film rhythmically flows. As we watch the film being fed through the projector, we can hear a phone ringing and unnerving music playing in the background. As the phone is answered the camera focuses on the upside down film image within the projector lens and then follows the dust particles in the light of the projector beam. On the cinema screen we see the famous clip of Carol Kane talking nervously on the telephone from ‘When a Stranger Calls’ (1979), from the films’ notorious opening sequence. The camera then fades from the screen to the eyes
of an intrigued movie audience, a voice fades in, it’s Donald Pleasance (Dr Loomis) he proceeds to talk us through the sensation we are likely to feel when watching a horror film:
“As you watch the screen your heart starts to beat faster, there’s a fluttering in the pit of your stomach, your throat is dry, your palms are damp suddenly a chill runs down your spine, you clutch the person sitting next to you…. You tell yourself it’s only a movie.” (Terror in the Aisles, 1984)
During Donald’s introductory voice-over the camera pans across the cinema audience and surprisingly finds Donald himself sitting within the anxious crowd. Comically Donald takes his own advice and repeats out loud “it’s only a movie”, he then turns to the camera and says “but sooner or later it’s time to go home”. The film then cuts to Laurie Strode walking towards the Myers' house, the opening credits begin as a tense and cleverly constructed montage emphasizing the home, victim and intruder set piece.
Ok lets step back a little what did Dr Loomis say? I mean Donald Pleasance. Obviously the first section of his tagline “it’s only a movie” is taken from ‘Last House on the Left’ (1972), which interestingly isn’t featured in ‘Terror’. More interestingly, is the way in which the Last House’s tagline is remixed to create a new hybrid tag “it’s only a movie, but sooner or later it’s time to go home”. This splicing of sound and image sums up the whole film, it sets the scene for the bombardment of images and creative editing that makes up ‘Terror in the Aisles’. This reconfiguring of cinema makes me think ‘Terror’
is a significant mainstream relic before its time pushing the limits of found footage.
Using a methodical structure ‘Terror’ takes on a series of themes visualized through
a myriad of film clips, to try and create a kind of flowing visual essay.
The main themes include: revenge, suspense, the unknown, victims & villains, sex, people in trouble, the devil. However, sometimes these themes get lost due to the films insistence on fast paced visuals and cheap scares. Its use of fast cuts, jump cuts, transitions and blending film fragments, suggests an altogether different kind of cinema something more in-tune with the Surrealist’s. In parts ‘Terror’s’ ethereal imagery and nonsensical film arrangement creates a stitched together quality, transforming itself
in to a poetic artifact, de-realizing reality in a kind an anxiety soup, a never-ending nightmare, an automatous ghost train. The reality of editing and visual language takes over; thank god the hosts Donald and Nancy Allen (Dressed to Kill) are on hand to wake us from our waking sleep “Pardon me while I have a strange interlude” (Animal Crackers, 1930). Rare for a horror documentary, ‘Terror’ was released theatrically in the US by Universal Pictures in 1984. It’s all about the self-referential: by mirroring the cinema experience, it becomes cinema within cinema. By actually showing the film in the cinema auditorium, a fourth dimension is created, a theatricality, which gives a to nod to1950 b-movies where audience participation was central. We the audience become aware of
our own physicality and the materiality of cinema, we are made to feel like we are in-the-know, both within the film and within the audience. This layering or awareness
of the materiality of cinema makes me think of Slavoj Žižek talking about ‘Possessed’ 1931:“We get a very real, ordinary scene onto which the heroine’s inner space, as it were, her fantasy space is projected, so that, although all reality is simply there, the train, the girl, part of reality in her perception and in our viewer’s perceptions, as it were, elevated to the magic level, becomes the screen of her dreams. This is cinematic art at its purest”.
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(Slavoj Žižek , Perverts Guide to Cinema, 2006)In ‘Possessed’ we are watching
awoman watching the moving windows of a train in the same way that we are watching the moving frames of a film-reel. A similar construction is used in ‘Terror
in the Aisles’, but with an added comic self-awareness of the narrator and therefore the audience in their complicity in the construction of cinema. ‘Terror’ actively exposes the line between reality and illusion through dumbed down psychoanalysis, rationalizing what horror film is and why people love it.