4.18.2008

Oh, the Horror!!

I love Horror movies. Always have. I honestly don’t know where this love comes from, as I hate real-life violence. I can’t stand needles, don’t like the sight of blood, and pain hurts me.

But sitting me in front of a horror film… I’ll be a happy camper. I like the adrenaline rush, the “what would I do in that situation” after-thinking, and I love watching it with a date that gets scared. I don’t mean that in a sadistic-I-like-people-to-suffer-in-fear kind of way. It’s actually a more practical reason. When a lovely young lady is scared in a movie theatre, ideally, she grabs onto your arm, squeezes up against you, and buries into your shoulder… coming to YOU for protection. In a testosterone kind of way, that’s a neat feeling… being a protector. She wants to cuddle up to me? I see that as a win-win situation… and I wish it happened more often. A good horror movie can do that.

Even though… well, face it. Most of the horror films and stories out there… suck. Majorly. There’s some wonderful diamonds in the rough… but strictly speaking… putting something in the “horror genre”, usually means you’re in for horrible effects, bad story, abysmal script, and embarrassing acting.

Yet, in the entertainment industry… Horror is a near-guaranteed moneymaker. The general consensus seems to be that its got an automatic built-in fan base, and as long as you put “Boobs and Blood” in a movie… it will sell. Personally, I think that’s half-right.

Sure, there’s a built-in fan base. I’m one of them. But it does take more than “Boobs and Blood” to make a good horror movie. Then again, those that are putting in the boobs and blood… aren’t exactly going for “good” in their pictures. Rather, they’re just going for something that will sell. Sadly, we keep buying. To be honest, when I was 13, I loved the whole “Boobs and Blood” thing… if you were a young boy just entering puberty, you would too.

But I’m about 20 years beyond that now… and I like to think my tastes are a little more discriminating.

For one… I hate nudity in films. ANY kind of film. Not because I’ve gone conservative, far from it. I always have been and always will be a big fan of the female form, in all its variations. If I’m in the mood to see nudity? There are plenty of films made for an audience old enough to rent them from the back room (or hell, just find it on the Internet for free). As a bonus, they don’t even TRY to have a plot to bog it down, and they show more naked body than any horror film would be allowed to. Or if I’m dating someone… I can see it in person (which is even better). If I want it… I can find it. Don’t bother going out of your way to throw it into a horror film. Most of the time… the filmmakers seem to be going out of their way to throw it in.

If it doesn’t make sense to the story… I don’t want to see it. I’m giving anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours (on rare occasion, more) to get involved in a movie’s story. Don’t bog it down with useless crap. Get on with it… and don’t say you’re “slowing it down a bit” so people can catch up. I don’t think people are that stupid. Treat them as if they’re intelligent, and they’ll like you more. This also applies to love scenes… rarely have I seen one that actually makes sense to the plot and story. Frankly, if I’m being chased by Werewolf-Zombie-Vampire hybrids, the last thing I’m doing is getting an erection… no matter how attractive my leading lady is. No, I’d need a few days and some therapy before I even think about that. But that’s just me…

So take out the sex/nudity, please. You should only keep it in if it makes sense to the plot and, more importantly, *drives the story forward*. If it doesn’t directly push you into the next scene, why is it in there? Take it out and make the movie a few minutes shorter. I’d much prefer that, as it lets me get on with my life. And if you do find a reason for a character to be nude? Think about something first: Does it really need to be *shown*? If you’re looking to be a little “sexy” with the scene, or show a little sensuality to the character… its usually more effective when you *don’t* see everything. Implication holds so much power in these instances. I don’t care how much of an “artistic statement” you think you’re making with it… it can be done without showing every nipple… and will often times be more effective for that. Every movie scene that I’ve heard be defended by a director saying it’s “vitally important” to the story… really hasn’t been. And every actress in those scenes that was agreeing with the director… “Really, it was artistically important for me to give him a real BJ on camera”… I just want to pull them aside and gently say, “Darlin, you’ve been conned.”

As for blood and gore… well, if you ask my Mom, she’d tell you that’s what I live for. She seems to think that if I’m watching a horror movie, I must *obviously* be loving it for that very reason. On the contrary… I respect and prefer the horror films that don’t use a lot of blood and gore, or use it very sparingly. If you spend an hour of a film effectively building up the tension and story, when you finally DO show a little bit of blood, it becomes so much more effective.

When I watched the first Saw movie, I was impressed and pleased to see that it wasn’t as gory as the reputation made me believe. It actually had a decent story, and was effectively done. Sure, there were some extreme parts… but I think it could have been a LOT more visceral than it was. I applaud the filmmakers for that. In fact, whenever I look at one of the big franchises… and actually watch the very first one, I’m often surprised to see it’s not as extreme with its blood effects as the sequels. Rather, they all rest on a pretty unique idea (especially for the time it was made), and do it pretty well. It just seems that any sequels automatically lose that novelty, simply by rehashing it with “bigger and more” opportunities for the squeamish to cringe.

Take A Nightmare on Elm Street. The sequels are VERY silly. Mostly because Robert Englund is majorly hamming it up with puns and over-the-top silliness. Granted, the scripts are nothing to shake a stick at. But each killing he performs tries to go too far out-of-the-way to be a unique and imaginative one, and ends up being a little too silly. Watching that schtick makes it easy to forget that the very first movie… was actually really unsettling. Essentially, he was just jumping out and saying “Boo”, then killing in a straightforward manner… it was the unique places he was jumping *out of*, that made it different and ultra-creepy. Plus, you never saw him clearly and well-lit. The sequels, you saw every little scar and ripple on his skin, every burn mark on his sweater. The original… you rarely saw it. He either was obscured by the dark, or moving too fast to be seen. The silhouette of him became much scarier than any gross make-up that would be put on him… because when you have to imagine it… when your mind is forced to fill in the blanks that you’re not seeing… that’s what makes people’s hair stand on end.

The old classic movies really knew this. Granted, the ratings board and system was very particular about what they’d let people get away with… and it wasn’t much. But when you look at the classics… Dracula, all the Frankenstein movies, The Wolf Man, The Mummy… the filmmakers managed to do quite a lot with very little. One of my all-time favorite movies is The Haunting… the original B&W one from the early 1960s. It has no blood, no flashy special effects… just atmosphere and story all the way through. It’s freaking brilliant. (Please, avoid the remake at all costs)

Yet, I think if I were to pick a point where Horror started to go wrong… it would be at the tail-end of the period where those Universal Classics were made. After a while, they started mixing and matching. Sounds like a good idea on paper… Wolf Man was popular… Frankenstein was popular… let’s put them together and be TWICE as popular! Let’s add in Dracula, too! Hollywood Gold!

That idea may have worked for Chocolate and Peanut Butter… not so much in this case. I don’t think the Monster-Mash movies ever really worked, frankly. Sure, I love The Monster Squad… but when it comes down to it, the idea behind it doesn’t exactly mesh. (That movie in particular isn’t a horror, it’s a kid’s adventure movie. A supernatural version of The Goonies) Mainly because of the Frankenstein Monster, and Dracula. You see, a major part of the story and existence of Dracula owes itself to the notion that “God exists”. Crosses repel him, Holy Water hurts him, etc… so for that to actually make sense, it must serve as concrete proof that God does indeed exist. No problem, right? Well… then you add in the Frankenstein Monster… whose very existence is concrete proof that God does NOT exist. Which was the point of the story. (If only God can create life, the fact that a scientist created life himself invalidates the notion of God… therefore, there is nothing man is not meant to know, and he is answerable to no one but himself, with no ill consequences when we’re gone. Essentially… it’s the fear of “No Hell”) One is solid proof of God existing, the other is solid proof of God NOT existing. In either story, we’ll go along with it… that’s our suspension of disbelief (no matter what religion you are). But mashing the conflicting arguments, and saying that both are absolute fact… doesn’t make sense. And as an audience, we’re lost. We can’t be scared in that instance, because subconsciously, we’re too confused. At best, the Monster Mash movies are more “adventure-thrill-rides” than actual horror movies. Excuses for neat special effects and some referential in-jokes.

That’s a reflection on the nature of Horror as a whole… where a lot of movies and stories seem to go wrong, I think. They don’t play to the metaphor. In too many ways, we’ve lost the meaning to many of the classic monsters and fears.

One of my biggest annoyances in horror concerns Vampires. Too often I’ll hear interviews about a Vampire Movie where the actors or the directors talk about how “Vampires have always been metaphors for Sex”.

I want to track them down, tie them to chairs and beat them severely about the head and shoulders screaming why they are certifiably WRONG in that. Vampires have not “always been about Sex”. If anything, Sex was only briefly introduced just over 100 years ago, and only gained real prominence in the last 25 years.

Look at what we call a “Zombie”… a walking corpse trying to eat people. (Technically, that’s not a Zombie. A zombie is a Voodoo slave… and not even really dead.) But 1,000 years ago… that image was what they called a Vampire. This was due to a little thing called The Black Plague. It rotted your skin, made you pale, deathly-looking, and when you were kicked out of your town because you were going to infect everyone else, you shambled over the countryside, trying to get help. To others, you’re a disgusting-looking monster trying to eat them. Hence, the origin of “Wampyre”. Now, this directly ties into the age-old methods of Vampire dissuasion… Garlic is healthy for you; An old home remedy for curing sickness and “whatever ails ye”. If something medically mystified people back then, they turned to their local priest, who brought in God to cast away the evil demonic sickness… hence, crosses and holy water and most anything connected to God, are now vampire-fighting weapons.

Vampires are metaphors for Disease. That’s how they are ingrained into our subconscious. Look at some of the vampire literature from the Victorian era… where it started to really bloom. People want to make Dracula into the “definitive sexual example” of vampire fiction. Now, I love that book… I won’t argue its greatness. And yes, there are sexual ELEMENTS… but you also need to look at them in context. In 1898, in England at the time (where the book was written), there was an outbreak of syphilis. It was considered to be on an epidemic proportion. Syphilis… can be spread sexually. So now the images of rape and (very heterosexual) intercourse are a bit on the obvious side. Again… a symptom, not the origin. One of the side-effects of Syphilis? Insanity: Renfield is in an insane asylum, not to mention Jonathan Harker feeling like he’s going insane and trapped in Dracula’s Castle. Look at the symptoms of syphilis, and the events of the book… you might realize a whole other angle you’ve never seen before. Especially when you see that Dracula is moving around in the daylight, and other normal vampire stereotypes aren’t exactly fitting to the book. Those were all elements that Hollywood inserted in… often just “making them up”.

Side note: H.P. Lovecraft… long considered one of the greatest horror writers of all time, suffered from syphilis. Most, if not all, of his stories deal with extreme insanity and his characters are always going crazy. Cause he himself was.

There is a slightly earlier vampire tale, by Sheridan Le Fanu, called Carmilla. Some have pointed to that as being “obviously” a metaphor for sex. The story of a young female vampire seducing a young girl. Plenty of lesbianism to go around… eat that, blog boy! Not quite. Yes, the homosexuality is abundant… but remember that it was written during a time where homosexuality was considered a *disease*… and a curable one at that. Sorry to spoil it… but it’s got a happy ending, with the vampire being vanquished, and the young heroine surviving, and going on to lead a normal life, evermore.

Fast forward to the early 1970s… to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. Written in 1973, published in 1976. Right around that time, in the medical community, a little something was starting to pop up. Wouldn’t be given full publicity until the late 70s, early 80s… but groups of people were already starting to be affected. This little something would eventually be called HIV/AIDS. And the largest demographic group being affected? Gay men… especially in the San Francisco area, the largest hub of Gay Culture imaginable… where Anne Rice was living and writing her books. “Gee, I wonder why there’s so much Homoeroticism in these stories… Hmmmm?” She has even said that the character Claudia is based on her daughter who died of leukemia in 1972. Again.. disease.

1987… Near Dark, the first “southwestern Vampire movie” (before it became a trend). The Vampires are shown as people “from the wrong side of the tracks”, the kind of people that are often considered “a disease on society”. That one, is a very neat twist… and works wonderfully.

Disease. Do I need a pie chart to make it clearer?

Werewolves are also metaphors for disease… but in a different way from Vampires. Vampires are physical diseases. The common “condition” associated with Werewolves is “Lycanthropy”. And Lycanthropy IS an actual medical disease. It’s not a person who turns into a wolf… it’s someone who THINKS they’re turning into a wolf. It’s a mental disease. One of the earliest illustrated depictions of a “werewolf” is of a farmer who “turned into a wolf and ate his children” while his shocked wife looked on. But the man… doesn’t have a snout or tail. If you look closely, he’s just on all fours, with an overgrowth of hair and beard, with his kid in his mouth, chomping away. Definitely not normal… but look at the circumstances. This was from back in the day where a large portion of the world was not civilized. This depiction is just a farmer out in the middle of nowhere… probably only makes the long slow trip into a village maybe once every 4 months, and his only company is his wife and very small children. The guy just went stir crazy… he was seeing the SAME people every day, cooped up… effectively cut off from civilization. It’s called Cabin Fever… and some people do just snap and kill their families. Sometimes, they just lose it, and think they themselves are wolves (one of the animals they were seeing on a frequent basis, and fighting off)… hence, the mental disease of Lycanthropy.

An American Werewolf in London… in my humble opinion, the best werewolf movie there is, puts a lot of focus on the main character’s feelings of going crazy. His dream sequences, which truly are maddening, are the scariest parts of that movie. Even the classic Universal picture The Wolf Man spends a large part having Lon Chaney Jr. say, “I’m going crazy! I’m mad, I tell you!” Dog Soldiers, deals with special ops soldiers fighting off werewolves. Makes for great action… and gives you a nice appreciation when you think of the condition “Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder” or “Shell Shock”, which you see these characters are definitely going to have when they’re through… if they survive, that is.

The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde… its metaphor? Alcoholism. That one may be hard to see at first. But notice how Dr. Jekyll drinks his “formula” and becomes a different person? Yet, he feels he can control it? So, he keeps drinking the formula, becoming Mr. Hyde… then soon, he needs the formula to STOP from becoming Mr. Hyde, that’s when he realizes he’s in deep doo doo. Bring that basic explanation to any AA meeting, and I’m willing to bet you get a lot of knowing nods.

Godzilla… the original movie was a Japanese Horror film. His metaphor? He’s the walking embodiment of nuclear terror. From a country that was still recovering from having Fat Man and Little Boy dropped on them, causing mindless destruction in its wake. So that movie freaked the living hell out of them. Can you blame them?

We’re missing the metaphors these days. Too many movies and books are churned out without giving us those hooks that really connect us to it… and that’s what really scares us.

A few years ago, I picked up a book… a Vampire book. It looked interesting, it had won the “Bram Stoker” award the previous year, and had a lot of praise written on the back. So I got it, and read it. That book… was the biggest pile of SHIT that I’ve ever read in my life. Narrative-wise… it was atrocious. The very beginning and the very end of the book were one plot… which the entire middle had NOTHING to do with. I only fought my way to the end of the book, hoping to the Almighty that it would redeem itself with a great ending. Nope. If anything, the ending was the worst part. Some interviews praised it for its “honest sexuality”… so an elderly man’s fantasy about a pubescent-girl’s body is “honest”??? I seriously thought the guy was rubbing one out while he was at the typewriter. I don’t call that “honest sexuality”… I call it pathetic masturbation fantasies. Useless references to incest (added nothing to nowhere)… introducing “major characters” 4/5 of the way through the book… casually doing away with the creepiest villains of the story with nothing more than a “oh, I killed them” side note… languishing too long on the uninteresting parts… and all-too-quickly-glossing-over of what would have been the most interesting parts. I hate that book and author with the fury of a thousand suns… and no longer have any faith in the “Bram Stoker Award”, because they apparently give it out to utter crap. When I found out that this was one of the author’s last books, and he had died about a year earlier… I felt bad… because now I couldn’t personally lambaste him for being the worst hack I’ve ever read. I really hope that guy didn’t die of natural causes. I won’t even honor it enough to mention its name on this blog. My blood is actually boiling, and I read this several years ago.

I really hope that’s not what the world of Horror is heading towards. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the current “Torture Porn”… and frankly… You’re preaching to the choir.

While I did enjoy the first Saw… it was novel and different. Anything after that… is old hat. So, I don’t even need to see the movies whose only selling point is the extreme violence. That’s not a story. (Same reason I didn’t see The Passion of the Christ… I already knew the story, and the violence isn’t an attraction, so why bother?) The gore IS the story, not a tool for the story. Now, I could be wrong on that… maybe there are very intelligent metaphors that inspired those stories, I don’t know. Honestly… I haven’t watched them. But when the focus by the media and filmmakers is all about “look at the gross stuff we can do”… I have no interest to even look for a good metaphor. Gross-out stuff will only disgust me, but it won’t actually *scare* me.

I wanna be scared.

I’ve only been scared by one movie. I’ve jumped at a few, but only one that actually crawled under my skin and really frightened me: The Blair Witch Project.

It was the last movie I saw right before I moved to California…. I saw it with my best friend. The entire theatre was packed with young folk aged 16-19… the age group that you’d definitely consider to be the rowdiest, loudest and most obnoxious theatergoers of all.

The place was so silent, you could hear a pin drop. Love Blair Witch or hate it… most people hit one of those extremes… it was definitely original. It’s worth seeing it for the marketing campaign alone… And that experience of seeing it was one of the most unique ones I’ve ever had in a theatre.

Why did it scare ME so much? Possibly because all the stupid crap those characters were doing: Finding old graveyards, exploring old condemned houses in the dark, etc… My friends and I have actually DONE that crap ourselves. I have seen an abandoned house in northern New Hampshire… that has black handprints on the walls. (No, it wasn’t the same house in the movie) Once the movie finished, I turned to my best friend and said, “You know… in retrospect, maybe we shouldn’t have done all that creepy, stupid shit through college”. She said, “yup”… and neither of us slept that night.

I think Horror can get better. For all the crap out there… we do find some really good stuff every now and then. Once in a while, a new classic will be born… one that really hits us where it counts, and makes us scared again… and then 1,001 bad knockoffs will instantly be born.

Which is probably the scariest thing about it. *shrug*

2 comments:

fritz said...

Interesting perspective. Thanks for the reminder on the origins of the zombie and vampire genres.

I wouldn't call the murder of Johnny Depp's character in Nightmare on Elm Street to be simple when it involved geysers of blood...but I do agree it was the most serious of the franchise, and more creepy b/c it didn't show much of anything while building the suspense.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

I hadn't been scared of a movie since I was a kid.

My Blair Witch Project was Ringu. I had to sleep with the door open and I covered up the tv.

~B