Horror has become a blanket term since probably the early 19th Century to the point that terror and horror have become more or less interchangeable. Somewhat unfortunate because there’s an important distinction to be made between them.In Vuckovic’s Horror Miscellany, Jovanka Vuckovic has a serviceable discussion of this, citing Ann Radcliffe’s essay “On The Supernatural In Poetry.” Vuckovic suggests that Radcliffe “regards horror as the fear of something that one is aware of happening or going to happen, whereas terror is a fear of the unknown.”
Here’s what Radcliffe said about the two: “Terror and Horror are so far opposite that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life, the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”
I like that, but I don’t fully agree. They work, instead, like two sides of the same coin, as Devendra Varma suggests in The Gothic Flame: “The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.”
In other words, we experience terror as Kirk creeps toward that back room in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We experience horror when Leatherface steps out and hits Kirk with that mallet. All of this brings me to, of all people, John Waters.
Waters is one of the reasons why, if you wanna find me at Naro Video (yeah, folks are linin’ up to do just that), you should start in the Cult section. Adore the man, I do. It’s as if the word louche existed specifically for him and for my hands down favorite movie of his, Pink Flamingos.
It’s no secret Waters was influenced heavily by William Castle and Herschell Gordon Lewis. He attests to as much. “Odorama” from Polyester is right out of the Castle playbook. In This Filthy World, Waters discusses Percepto from Castle’s movie The Tingler along with how the dog crap scene from Pink Flamingos came closest to creating the “childhood bedlam” he experienced in Castle’s House On Haunted Hill.
As for Lewis, try watching Blood Feast and Pink Flamingos back to back. I defy you to tell me there is no relationship. I would argue that even Divine’s wardrobe is a reference to Blood Feast.
But there’s another movie that Pink Flamingos shares a link with, and here we come full circle back to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Calm down. As much as I love John Waters, I’m not suggesting Pink Flamingos exists on the same level as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but hear me out.
Matt Barone argues There Will Never Be A Movie Scarier Than “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” While I don’t fully agree, he makes a number of spot-on observations, of which this is my favorite: “Rare is the horror film that can routinely give you the ultimate willies with each revisit, but even rarer is the horror film that feels like it should be illegal to watch.”
Like Barone, I have watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre numerous times, and he’s right. I can also say without reservation that Pink Flamingos makes me feel exactly the same way. Incidentally, so does The Bunny Game. In all three cases, I feel like I’m not only part of something culty and underground, but that I’m doing something wrong, breaking some kind of social taboo.
That, at least to me, is extremely appealing, much like when my friends and I would listen to George Carlin and Richard Pryor in someone’s basement, ever wary for the sound of parental footsteps. It wasn’t “bad,” like sneaking peeks at a stolen Playboy or Penthouse, so much as it was subversive.
I mean come on. Kidnapping, bestiality, torture, castration, cannibalism, murder, coprophagia. Pink Flamingos is an assault on the senses. Isn’t that what horror is all about? Or at least partly about? Sure, it’s shock schlock, but it’s also the escalation of these horrors that Waters uses to create terror. Where the hell’s he gonna go next?
Barone also quotes John Landis (from Adam Simon’s documentary The American Nightmare). Landis points out that when you’re watching someone like Hitchcock, “you are in suspense as the direct result of being in the hands of a master.” When you watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you feel more like “you’re not in the hands of a master—you’re in the hands of a maniac!”
When I watch Pink Flamingos, I feel like I’m in the hands of a pervert, someone who wants to do something that’s, at best, seamy and sordid, at worst, something along the lines of psychological molestation which, for me, is fine. On the other hand, for the purposes of this review, I watched Pink Flamingos and Texas Chainsaw Massacre back to back.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I feel like I need to take a long, hot shower.