Cinema Fearité presents 'Terror in the Aisles'
Learn about horror movies - and fear itself - with 'Terror in the Aisles.'
It’s Halloween this week, and Cinema Fearité is going to do something a little different. We’re setting the Wayback Machine to 1985 when I was a teenage horror fan. There’s a horror movie marathon on HBO made up of four 90 minutes movie, just enough to fit on a standard VHS tape at SLP speed. The lineup began with the original Halloween, which I had seen several times before, and then went to Night of the Living Dead and C.H.U.D., both of which were first time watches. But the real eye-opener was the final feature of the night, the documentary Terror in the Aisles.
Hosted by horror legends Donald Pleasence (the Halloween series, Alone in the Dark) and Nancy Allen (Dressed to Kill, Carrie), Terror in the Aisles is sort of a greatest hits reel of legendary horror movies. Pleasence and Allen address the camera from a packed theater while clips of scenes, both famous and obscure, are spliced in. On the surface, it’s a buffet movie for fans and newbies alike. But it’s also an insightful and academic deep dive into what makes horror work, and before long, it turns into a treatise on fear itself.
Terror in the Aisles was made by the writer/director team of Margery Doppelt and Andrew J. Kuehn, who cut their teeth making behind-the-scenes documentary shorts like Journey to Krull and Inside ‘The Swarm’. Terror in the Aisles reads almost like a college textbook for an introduction to horror class, with the hosts’ thoughtful commentary (written by Doppelt) providing context for iconic moments in horror history (curated by Kuehn). And there is no shortage of iconic moments. Terror in the Aisles has everything from the clown scene in Poltergeist to the head explosion from Scanners, from the opening sequences in When a Stranger Calls and Jaws to the chest bursting segment from Alien.
And, of course, it’s got the shower scene from Psycho. In fact, there’s a whole section of the film deservedly devoted to Alfred Hitchcock. The segment uses interview footage culled from Hitch’s 1973 biography The Men Who Made the Movies in which the master himself talks about his “Show them the bomb” philosophy, but Pleasence explains the theory much more succinctly when he tells the viewer that “you’re going to see something that’s going to scare you, but I’m not going to tell you when,” adding that “you’re being programmed to go nuts.”
Terror in the Aisles was edited by Bill Flicker (“Tales from the Darkside”) and Gregory McClatchy (Vampire at Midnight), under the watchful eye of Kuehn and clip researcher John J.B. Wilson (F*** You All: The Uwe Ball Story). The editing is masterful, displaying not only an understanding of how cinema works in general, but an encyclopedic knowledge of the included movies themselves. Similar scenes are intercut together and juxtaposed to display certain tropes and stereotypes, and it’s incredible to see. Who would have known that Night of the Living Dead, The Brood, and The Shining all share basically the same shot? The editorial department of Terror in the Aisles, that’s who.
Despite it being made up of existing movies that were all previously certified, Terror in the Aisles initially received an X rating from the MPAA. The British version of the film had to have scenes from Vice Squad, Ms. 45, and Dressed to Kill excised before the British Board of Film Classifications would allow it to be released. Furthermore, for television broadcast, some of the more violent scenes had to be replaced by tamer segments from movies like King Kong vs. Godzilla, The Car, and The Legacy. For a movie that was pieced together from other movies, Terror in the Aisles caused quite a stir with the censors.
Although the individual film clips in Terror in the Aisles all came with their own scores, the movie itself is held together by a soundtrack that was composed by veteran musician John Beal, who worked mostly on television shows like “Eight is Enough” and “Vegas” as well as composing for dozens of trailers, everything from Star Wars and First Blood to Deadly Blessing and Dead Again. The editing is frenetic and overlapping, so Beal’s score has to keep everything coherent and not have it jar the audience’s attention. It does all of that, but it also sets the horror mood with soundscapes that are period-perfect. Basically, Terror in the Aisles has a score all its own which rivals the soundtracks of any of the movies included in it. There’s even a predictably corny pop song called “They’re Not Very Nice” towards the end that Beal wrote for Larry Weiss to perform, interesting because Larry Weiss was mostly known as a songwriter himself with credits like “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Bend Me, Shape Me” to his name.
Terror in the Aisles was released at a time when Hollywood clip movies were all the rage. It was even released in Japan as That’s Shock! in order for it to cash in on the success of the That’s Entertainment! series of films. A planned sequel about Hollywood comedy movies called Rolling in the Aisles never materialized, and Terror in the Aisles sort of went missing for a while. The best way to (legally) see it today is as a special feature on the 30th Anniversary Blu-Ray release of Halloween II. But, as for me, I’ll always remember it as the mind-blowing last movie in the 1985 HBO Halloween Horrorthon.