Monday, October 27, 2008
Horror, of course
Yes, it's the week of Halloween and so we will be doing the obligatory (but oh so fun) horror theme for this week's blog postings. The holiday has been nipped, tucked, and botoxed to death (an unintentional pun, but appropriate nonetheless) so that seeing a couple dozen Freddies or Jasons or vampires roaming around makes no one's hair stand on end. The last time I was frightened by a Halloween costume was when I was nine (a very convincing werewolf outfit and a wild imagination don't mix, by the way). Fleshy, original jack-o-lanterns are replaced with never-rotting, plastic ones that can be reused through the years—what evil spirits will be frightened by that? A haunted house is not a haunted house unless someone gets chased by the Texas Chainsaw Massacre guy at some point. Witches and ghosts are laughable. People, especially teenage girls thanks to Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer, actually want to be bitten by vampires. It's just not scary anymore.
So. What does this mean? It means that I'll be spending this week pondering the whole genre of horror fiction, horror movies, why they are no longer scary, and what makes that one in a million book or movie so terrifying. And if you have any suggestions for a post, I'm open to it.
It's funny how the topic of horror movies brings to mind first all of the ones that are completely hoaky and terribly done. Number one on my list (and on many lists, in fact) is Manos: Hands of Fate. Yes, the title of the worst film ever (horror or otherwise) is titled Hands: Hands of Fate, no joke. As a literature major with a keen interest in film, my first inclination was to try and theorize about the film. Is it parody? Am I just used to better special effects (this movie was made in the 60s)? No, to both. It's just a horrible movie. Confusing scene cuts; horrible lighting; terrible music; underdeveloped plot and characters; the worst script ever; chalk full of guns that never fire (to make a Chekhovian reference). As the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons would say—Worst movie EVER. And it's runner-up, which has clear ambitions to be first, is Cabin Fever. Let me qualify that I love Rider Strong. But no amount of nostagic crushing on Sean from Boy Meets World could bring me to apologize for that movie. The story was flawed, the acting was mediocre at best, the plot was unresolved, and, worst of all, the blood and make-up was completely unbelievable.
In the wake of Saw V being released (truly a crime against human intelligence and higher abilities), I know I'll be risking the wrath of the cult following the goriest of gorey movies has accrued over the past few years, but I'm not convinced that gore alone is the end goal of horror. That's why Freddy and Jason are NOT scary anymore. Do you see anyone leaving the theatre because Saw is just too frightening? No you don't. And why? Because the people are not actually frightened. They're grossed out and pleased in the way that watching human mutilation only can accomplish. But they are not afraid. You walk into those sorts of movies knowing that the body and severed limb count will rise every minute, but you don't go home and sleep with the lights on. What movies have done that? Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead (The black and white one only, and virtually none of its clones or progeny. I mean come on, a zombie baby? That's practically a contradiction in terms!), 28 Days Later (another zombie movie with relatively little gore, considering), The Ring, Pulse, The Shining, and Rob Zombie's rendition of Halloween are all examples of great horror films. After watching a horror film, you should never want to watch it again, not because it was terrible but because it was so good. I know there are plenty of people who disagree with me, but I was absolutely certain that seven days after I watched The Ring that I would die. Zombies are about the only thing about which I have an irrational fear but even most of those movies are laughable even to me.
But what makes these good examples of horror films so good? After all, Halloween, even Rob Zombie's version, certainly falls into the category of slasher films. What makes it so special? The focus is the story. They are not obvious excuses for violence against the human body. They attack the psyche by presenting realistic characters (stay with me here) set in extraordinary situations. Even Halloween rewrites the well-known story to present a sympathetic Mike Myers who has clear motivations, even for an insane mind, and a defined and explained history that takes away his mask only to reveal something even more horrifying because it's so much more human. And this coming from someone who, in general, does not like Rob Zombie movies; but in this instance, I must admit his mastery of the genre. The psychological aspect of these movies, including Halloween, galvanizes them as truly terrifying. They're enduring. Even the thought of them give us chills. That is the goal of horror—to touch some unconscious cord pulled so taut that it will alwasy shiver no matter how many times it's plucked.
But please, I invite disagreement. If anyone can give me another example of a movie that virtually throws blood at the camera (and it has to be explicit and not suggested—the latter type are better by far for the muffled violence) that also kept them awake at night or stops their breath every time it's even mentioned—in other words, actually frightened them—I'll send you a bag of Halloween candy or something. But you have to thoroughly convince me. Oh, and I would love to hear of any other movies that scared the bejeezus out of anyone. I'm a junky, a glutton for punishment. What can I say?