Horrorsville is a town I haven’t been to in a while. I’ve been avoiding it. Something bad has happened there ….
I’d been wondering recently why I had been avoiding it, why my horrorence (horror tolerance) had decreased so dramatically. If one were to put it on a scale it’s gone from about an 8.5 to a 1, or a 2 at best. As an over thinker, I started to think. I wondered if it’s because as you get older, thanks to an experience called life, you feel more empathy towards the idiots who go to psycho’s houses. You’re aware it’s probably been you at the psycho’s house once or twice – but you made the whole situation so awkward the psycho decided to wait for someone more breezy. By you, I mean me. Or is it possible that you can overload on horror? Can you watch so much you reach your limit and then BOOM in the middle of ‘Saw II’ – your threshold is reduced to zero. And you’re in tears. You had a horror quota, you watched too much so now you can’t even watch ‘I Am Legend’ without covering your eyes. Again, by yours, I mean mine.
But I think there’s more to it than that. Well, not more, just the fact that I don’t think it’s me. I think horror, generally speaking’s, got shit.
What right do I have to say any of this? Firstly, I am a girl or in horror films also known as – Victim 2 (usually second to go after the black guy) and on top of that, I’ve already admitted I’m a scaredy-cat.
But everyone is entitled to their opinion; providing it’s an informed one. So can I get a Craig David “REWIND” on this and I will tell you what right I have to say this …..
My first foray in to horror started at the Devonshire Film Mecca, also known as Spar in South Moleton – it’s where all the ‘industry’ people go. I rented out classics like ‘The Relic’, ‘The Exorcist’ ‘The Birds’ and ‘House IV – The Repossession’. Life was sweet, I couldn’t get enough. I got so scared the first time I watched ‘The Exorcist’ with my friend we ended up in hysterics – you know the kind of insane laughter you get when you have just been through a truly terrifying ordeal? The only other time I’ve laughed like that was in the South of France, after we got chased through a cornfield late at night by a group of men in a car. We ran back home after escaping, ended up in fits of hysterics and covered our faces in chocolate mouse. As you may have guessed there was something strangely fun about it, the fear, the risk and in turn the survival. I think they call it adrenaline. Like the rest of my species I am programmed to want more.
So I gorged. I grew to really appreciate the horror genre and it’s sub genres, the subtleties that split each in to their own little genre. I’ve broken a few of my (self-named) favourites down for your reading pleasure …
While trawling through amazons DVD selection I stumbled across a director called Dario Argento, recommended to me by Amazon (thank you Amazon – you are eternally thoughtful.) So I bought a couple of his DVDs and watched ‘Suspiria’. Which is cinematically very beautiful. The lighting, the framing, the music, the chiffon, it’s look is all very calculated, it’s not just there to make you scared, it’s there to make you want to frame screen grabs on your wall. Think Fellini with horror. This kind of film has it’s own official sub genre, known as Giallo, “Giallo films are typically Italian and are characterized by extended murder sequences featuring excessive bloodletting, stylish camerawork and unusual musical arrangements.” Though, ‘Suspiria’ adhered less to these rules than some of his other films like ‘Deep Red/Profundo Rosso’ and allowed it to get a bit more surreal, letting styling and music take over from narrative. Other great films like this include ‘Don’t Look Now’, based on a short story by Daphne DuMaurier it’s a British and Italian collaboration using beautiful imagery of a haunting little girl in a red coat in front of various iconic backgrounds in Venice and other locations (and also the reason for a minor freak-out of mine in Amsterdam at the sight of a little child in a red coat, after one too many hash cakes.) There’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, though not subject to the Giallo genre, written and directed by Roman Polanski it was always going to be a stylish horror. Based on Ira Levins 1967 novel it follows a pregnant Mia Farrow’s decent into madness as she approaches her due date of 26 June 1966 (6/66) and increasing suspicion that the baby inside her is evil. The shots of Manhattan, lonely prams and lingering shots on candles make for a wonderful watch, as it scares you shitless.
As an after thought, I would also like ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ added to this category if only for the wonderful and freaky stop motion skeletons.
Next came ….
Now this was a revelation. Discovering that horror can not only be scary, but funny too? Laughter and fear are two emotions that aren’t easy to combine simultaneously. People seem to assume that because something’s funny it’s not as good as something sad. People are stupid. It’s easy to make someone cry – watch the ‘Notebook’ for a step-by-step guide on how to do this. It’s much harder to make someone genuinely laugh and to do it while freaking them out is no mean feat. Comedy horror is traced to ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ not the film but the novel by Washington Irving all the way back in 1820. Through a shaky period of miss-balanced films between the 1920s and 50s, the 60s through to the 80s is where they got this genre down to a fine art. My favourites of the comedy horror genre vary in their artistic credibility but all do the job I think.
I was first alerted to this genre at very young age (7/8) and missed the satire in ‘Beware! The Blob’ it was to me at that point, just terrifying. A few years later I remember watching it again and seeing the funny side; I got the melodramatic acting and the futility of the giant red jam ball. But when I really felt I got this genre was when I watched Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Deads’ – the already great script’s are aided massively by the dead pan humour (and damn fine face) of Bruce Campbell, the ‘Evil Deads’ will in turn scare you and make you laugh and do it very well. Other wonders of comedy horror are courtesy of Peter Jackson (director of ‘Lord of the Rings’) who in no way compromised the gore fest in ‘Bad Taste’ or ‘Brain Dead’ – a classic moment is when someone’s boil puss goes in to custard, which the freaky mother proceeds to eat – it is also, somehow, funny. Then came Matt Stone and Trey Parkers ‘Cannibal! The Musical’ I mean, the title gives the game away. Loosely based on the adventures of Alfred Packer on his trip from Colorado to Utah, in which 5 of his friends were left dead and partially eaten. The story adapted and sung by two comedy geniuses is well worth a watch.
My all time favourites of this genre are ‘Toxic Avenger’ and ‘Toxic Avenger 2’. Smoke a doobie with these bad boys and you’ll laugh harder than you did at Braveheart. Need I say more?
It’s all got a bit boring now with zombie comedy (sorry Simon Pegg, it’s just not very good …) Out of the hundreds of detritus in recent history from this genre two comedy horrors have emerged that have done the genre justice. These in my opinion are the first “Scary Movie’ and ‘Zombieland’, with Bill Murray’s cameo among the best I’ve ever seen.
There’s a fine line though with comedy horror, as those two emotions are such juxtapositions as it is, it’s very easy to get just a little confused. ‘Meet the Feebles’ – a puppet, sex, gore fest, and the wonderful John Waters’ ‘Pink Flamingos’ – in which a transvestite called Divine eats dog shit … were just over that line.
Then there’s Horror Horror ….
The Japanese are really good at this, the original ‘Ring’, ‘Dark Waters’ and ‘Battle Royal’ are all triumphs of truly terrifying horror. Mixing twisted psychology, and often the paranormal with amazing effect. A possible reason for the Japanese being so good at this is that ghosts and spirits also known as Yokai (creatures in Japanese folk law varying from the evil to the mischievous) are engrained in Japanese tradition. And a good explanation as to why they are so masterful at possession, exorcism, ghosts and tension building. But it isn’t just the Japanese who were good at this, back in the good old days when they lacked CGI, having built the tension to a certain degree, they relied on your imagination. With CGI, like Frankenstein, they created a monster, and it’s a lazy one. There’s less need to build the tension and that aside horror should feel tangible, not computer generated. Forty years ago zombie horrors were pretty terrifying. Think ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in which it’s actors actually eat raw livers, which is pretty disgusting anyway, but put in to the context that they’re zombies and have just ripped this real raw liver out of someone’s stomach is really gross. Because of films limitations back then if there weren’t visual effects, there were sound effects (think Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and your own imagination. A very effective combination. Where I felt I’d maybe delved a little too deep in the horror horror genre was when I watched ‘Salo, or 120 Days of Sodomy’. As my mother always told me, know when to leave.
We are now entering a new(ish) age that goes hand in hand with good old CGI known as ‘Gore Porn.’ Can you guess what it is yet?
Let’s use good old-fashioned porn as an example – porn is basically a rom-com/chick flic lacking any of the (probably dwindling) subtleties and intelligence. Porn’s taken the sex element of a rom-com and run with it. And people love it. It’s the most carnal element of a rom-com, the easiest to compute. This is what ‘gore porn’ has done with horror, it’s taken the gore element, the most carnal, and run with it, leaving behind anything that would make it a worthy piece of filmmaking. And this is why I think horror’s got shit. It’s in your face, it’s obvious and it’s not very clever. But of course, people love it. You’ve got ‘Saw 1, 2, 3, 4’ and if that wasn’t enough you can have guts all over your face and watch it in 3D. Oh joy. There was Hostel – pretty much just ‘Saw’ in Europe, and Hostel II, which I wont waste my time going in to. Sorry Eli. Then I accidentally discovered a trailer for something called ‘The Human Centipede’ (100% scientifically accurate by the way, in case they hadn’t drilled that in enough in the trailer.) I was scarred by those 2 minutes of pure revulsion. What the hell kind of shit is this? Why the fuck do I want to watch a group of Americans go round to Bob the surgeons house and get their mouths and guts sewn to someone else’s anus until they’re in a long chain of shit eating (100% scientifically accurate by the way…) things. There’s no plot, it’s just gore. I don’t want to watch it. I’m eating. You want to see a mad science experiment go wrong that actually challenges you? Watch ‘Oh, Lucky Man,’ then come back to me and say that shit’s good.
But gore porn or not, what is it about horror that we enjoy? I remember reading a quote that said, “We don’t watch films to see the actors we watch films to see ourselves.” I really connected with that, I want to watch me be hilarious, make the same mistakes, blow up a building, marry Richard Gear; so why do we want to watch ourselves get torn apart and tortured? Is it the voyeuristic ability to toy with our natural relationship with life and death and laugh at things that in real life are just truly abhorrent? Why do we enjoy this? Is it like hiding behind the door and waiting for your friend to come in, you jump out and they scream in terror – you’re both fine so you laugh. “Haha I thought I was scared but I’ve checked my body for wounds and I’m fine. How hilarious.”
I thought I’d see what psychologists had to say about this …. They did of course agree. The logic being that “The hormonal reaction we humans get from responding to a threat or crisis is what motivates us to “like to be scared”. This is the same “fight or flight” syndrome which guaranteed our survival in more primitive times. At the moment we are threatened, we have increased strength, power, heightened senses and intuition. This increase in mental and physical capacity is commonly referred as an “adrenaline rush.”
No shit lady. Tell me more ….
“Basically, you can get this feeling defending yourself against a lion in the jungle or sitting in a theatre showing a horror flick.” It makes sense. I could relate to that feeling, it’s fun, because I won. Because I didn’t die, because I turned off the TV. This then lead me on to thinking “Is there anything else with which you can get this feeling, of being truly terrified and enjoy it at the same time, to be risking everything but kind of liking it?” Of course there is, there is love. You can be walking down the street, or if you’re really bloody happy, skipping down the street and the next moment you’re having your heart ripped out. So what happens when you merge these two most powerful of emotions. What happens when the person you love could literally rip your heart out?
Hello Romantic Horror:
… and all hail the immense force that is ‘Twilight’. They’re pale, they’re interesting, he’s troubled, she’s troubled, they love each other, but he might eat her. Oh God it’s so dangerous. She is literally risking everything to be with him. And people love this, by people, I mean ladies. Because? Well, I think women have a slightly masochistic attitude towards love (thank you childbirth) so when this girl is risking not only her heart but also her life by loving this man there is something so wonderfully absorbed and romantic about it. I, unfortunately found the whole thing a little OTT, too many swirling steady cam shots and too much emo/manga rock music.
A film I think combined these two emotions really well, and an exception to my ‘new horror is shit consensus’ was the Swedish ‘Let The Right One In.’ A story about two kids, a boy of about 12 and a girl, a vampire of about 200, they live in the same estate and they fall in love. It’s so wonderfully sweet but there are so many opportunities to get hurt. As with many good horrors ‘Let The Right One In’ doesn’t just thrust the paranormal on you, it doesn’t even just deal with the nuances of their troubled relationship, like ‘Carrie’ did very well it also focuses on bullying and everyday struggles. Things we can relate to, which as we’ve gathered, is very important in cinema. It’s a really interesting take on the sub genre, that is by no means new, but is definitely a new phenomenon.
Why then do I find myself unable to watch the majority of modern horror?
Because as you can see, it’s going through a phase, and with a couple of exceptions it’s a dumb phase, on a par with Lindsey Lohans post ‘Mean Girls’ career decisions. Horror has been through so many wonderful and bizarre stages I think it would be incredibly sad for it to end in Saw 3D or Twilight 4, it’s so lazy; when the art of horror and our confused relationship with it is anything but. We are however, unfortunately, simple beings, we enjoy easy things, we are naturally lazy, we strive to find the short cuts to the pleasure centres and with advances in technology, film making is becoming less precious and far more disposable (“let’s do it in post,”) it’s become far too easy to take a short cut and make a shit film.
I doubt horror would have ever become so popular if it hadn’t had to evolve from intellect and good story telling. As early as and earlier than Mary Shelly a decent plot has always been vital to a good scare. Do your adrenal gland justice. Watch ’The Fly’, go the long way round.
So as a plea to any film makers considering making a horror, please hear my cry because I would like to start watching them again …. no more zombie comedies, no more gore porn, less surgeons, more thought. Please sit down and think about it for it a minute.
If it only takes you a minute to think about, don’t bother.
Great post, best so far. Really interesting read.
Excellent article! You’re becoming quite the writer, with an engaging way of looking both inward and outward without excessive narcissism.
You mention Argento, but not the film of his which to me showed in 1985 the disgustingly explicit futu…re of horror: “Phenomena”, which culminates in Jennifer Connelly flailing about in a tank of rotting body parts, heads, gore and participatory vermin.
Also, you probably are aware of how the appearance of AIDS was followed by an upsurge in films associating sex with death, of which the Twilight franchise seems to be the most recent…not that the Eros/Thanatos pairing is completely new…
Interesting blog entry, Keep it up!
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