Monday, June 27, 2011

Tales Of The Hook Pt. 3

Let’s talk about monsters.

It’s a curious fact about monsters that the really good ones almost immediately cease to become scary. The same powerful iconography that allows them to so ably sum up our fears is the very thing that renders them almost immediately harmless.

Here for example is my current wallet, which I purchased at a head shop on 6th St. in Austin. Now it is impossible to know just what James Whale, Jack Pierce, and Boris Karloff had in mind when they created the screen version of Frankenstein’s Monster. But I think we can safely say that a logo for a wallet which until recently sat beneath a black light Bob Marley poster was not it.

They created a symbol so potent that eighty years later everybody knows Frankenstein's Monster, which is precisely the problem. After all as Lovecraft noted the original and most primal source of fear is fear of the unknown, and Frankenstein’s Monster is as far from the unknown as it is possible to get. He has romped with Abbot and Costello, he has sold us delicious berry flavored cereal, he keeps my Drivers Licensce and Credit Card safe. He is as they say an all right dude.

Cue also Bela Lugosi’s Valentino enthusiast and Lon Chaney Jr.’s terminal bad hair day. Part of the reason that any attempts to revive these old monsters (and I’m talking about them as characters in themselves, not the archetypes they represent which are eternal) so often ends in disaster is the simple fact that they have already been articulated. Bram Stoker’s Dracula has nothing really new to say about Dracula, so it is contented to be a simple campy overblown mess. It at least is an engagingly baroque campy overblown mess, which is more than one can say for the woeful Branagh version of Frankenstein, arguably the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Or for that matter the cheerfully incompetent Joe Johnson version of The Wolfman.

But the problem isn’t limited to this newest cycle. Witness John Badam’s inert version of Dracula that came out in the seventies, or the camp classic The Bride. It’s not just the figures of classic film who have been rendered harmless by familiarity. I hardly need to note how quickly the monster icons of the eighties became beloved mascots. The holy trinity of Freddy, Jason, and Michael and all the lesser saints quickly became safely ensconced in unplayable NES games, cereal boxes, attractions at Universal Studios not to mention their own misbegotten franchises which became less and less interested in playing their cash cows for something resembling actual scares with each passing entry. Perhaps the nadir/zenith of this absurdity came with the 1-900-Freddy line, a hotline that allowed children to call Freddy Krueger and have a little kvetch. This is the same Krueger we must remember who in his initial incarnation was a burnt demonic child molester so hateful that returned from the grave so he could keep hurting his victims. Now you can call him with your parent's permission of course.

(It should be noted that the attempts to resurrect the eighties monsters have resulted in just as little success as the attempts to remake the classic era ones, with dire fairly lifeless films the result. Rob Zombie’s Halloween being perhaps the exception that proves the rule. Though I am in the definite minority of horror fans here. Say what you will about the film it’s not the depressing fill in the blank school of filmmaking that the Platinum Dunes remakes of A Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday The Thirteenth were. )

It is also interesting to note how relatively little effort is needed to make something in the horror genre to make something iconic. Even a relatively minor figure such as Chucky or Pinhead whose films quickly sank into DTV ignobility are recognizable in the mainstream in a that most cult film figures simply aren’t.

Very few monsters escape this ubiquity breeds contempt theorem. If anything it seems to be increasing capable of swallowing not merely icons but entire genres (witness the current zombie meme, or sparklerific vampires) The only one who comes directly to mind is Leatherface, who despite any number of shitty sequels and unworthy remakes remains undiminished when he pulls open that metal door displays his rotting mask, and makes his animalistic gibbering as he beats his first unlucky victim to death with a meat hammer.  Arguably another candidate for sustained cultural potency would be Max Shrek’s Nosferatu. Though he has done everything up to and including appearing as a punch line on Spongebob, as sure a sign of cultural saturation as exists. There remains something so fundamentally wrong about his design, so feral and wizened. Equal parts terrifying and pathetic, that he remains the go to design whenever anyone gets it into their head to try and actually frighten someone with vampires again.

This all ties into what King brings up next. That ALL horror no matter how crude is fundamentally allegorically. Please note that I am not saying (and neither is King) that all horror is consciously allegorical, which is something else entirely. I’m certainly not saying that the makers of say Friday The 13th Part 3D (which is for the record one of my favorite bad movies) consciously decided to make Jason a figure of conservative moral pressure reacting against the drug and sexual freedom of the counter culture. Far more likely that Steven Miner and company figured that since their audience was young they had  better make their cast young as well, and given that their young audience enjoyed spending their time smoking pot and having sex then those would be two activities that they would be likely to engage in between their run ins with the machete wielding masked one.

But a fundamental allegory is impossible to avoid. The horror movie  invites us to be both the monster and the mob. To participate vicariously both in the rampage and the relief when the rampage is ended.

It is an odd truth that while it is rare that a horror film ends without at least some token destruction of a monster: the monster being decapitated, exploded, or otherwise dispatched, it is equally unheard of for a horror film to end without what King termed “An O’Henry twist down the mineshaft.” This is not the province of so called high class horror either take the classic boo scares that end the initial entries of Friday The 13th, Nightmare On Elm Street and Halloween. The enduring horror films send the simultaneous message that everything is back to the status quo and everything is not OK. Very rarely does a horror film end with evil unambiguously winning (The Wickerman, The Blair Witch Project) or losing (The Exorcist). Call it ten percent each. Probably the most representative example of this would be the ending of The Thing. In which the heroes dispatch the monster and then hunker down to die in the snow because, well you never know. Evil may have been vanquished, but there’s plenty more where it came from. Even the most mealy mouthed PG-13 remake will most likely end with a little disquieting jump to send their customers out the door thinking about a sequel.

As King points out even these horror films, the ones that are working on the most cynically mercenary, and purely physical scares, these “Tales Of The Hook” are without even trying to providing a certain amount of allegory and catharsis. As King puts it “We love and need the concept of monstrosity because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings.”

In other words we conjure up the monsters because they provide a contrast to the ideal of a quiet well ordered life. We dispel them to reaffirm the strength of said way of life. They are representations of the chaos that is forever lurking at the edges of day to day life. Personifications of the bad luck and chaos that stalks the world. The aforementioned drunk who swerves across the double yellow line, the spot on the X-ray, or the random murder. It is no mistake that their victims and audience are so often young and not yet accustomed to the various ways that life can kick one square in the ass, with little to no provocation.

If there is one thing that the oft maligned slasher movement in horror can be said to have brought to the genre it is the magnification of the random in the horror genre (I’m certainly not saying that The Slasher originated this concept. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time has been a staple of the horror genre forever, The Slasher just put this in the forefront of the majority of its films). The lesser movies in the genre often feel compelled to create a convoluted reason for the killer’s rampage (Prom Night), but the majority of the genre’s victims did little to nothing to deserve their fate.  The victims in slasher movies did not create a living being from the spare parts of corpses. They did not travel to the darkest woods of Transylvania or create a potion out of wolfsbane. Despite all the jokes about how smoking pot and sex lead to death in slasher movies these characters have done nothing much at all to deserve their fate. They cannot even be said to have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sure slasher characters have been known to take a midnight stroll into the summer camp where all those murders happened ten years ago tonight and begin to vigorously copulate (Because I don’t know about you but nothing gets my juices flowing like “site of a massacre”). But as the slashers have proven time and again they are more then happy to come to us.

It’s interesting to note that often one of the first things a slasher sequel will do is tone down this potent element of randomness. The quintessential example of this would be Halloween 2. In the original Meyer’s rampage is catastrophically random event to something with a reason. The twist of making Laurie Strode turn out to be Michael Myers sister smells of desperation to give the events some kind of reason. Any kind of reason. “Because,” you can here the woeful hack Rosenthal saying with a bit a flopsweat, “things like this don’t just happen without any reason.”

Yet the fact remains that things like this do just happen without any greater reason. They “just happen” every day and everyone who sits down in the theater knows this. It is however subconsciously why we are there.

Which brings us once again to the oddity we began with. The strange way that the monsters tend to become over the years quite chummy. As I said in my last post I believe that the great power of the horror genre is its ability to articulate the unspoken fear and dread that is present at any given time in a society and give it a shape and form that we can wrap our head around. Articulation it should be noted is a form of acceptance. And if we create monsters to help us deal with the faceless but all too real big scary forces that surround us everyday, then what is the ultimate form of that acceptance other then being able to laugh at the forms which frighten us.

The ability to turn Michael Myers into a plushie, or Jason Voorhees into a T-shirt, or yes Freddy Krueger into a 1-900 operator is an expression not of derangement, as most of horrors societal critics would have it, but of ultimate blessed sanity. The ability to take what frightens us in our cores and to completely disarm it, to turn it into a campfire tale, if only for a little while. Like the Danse Macabre itself it is a symbol that by accepting death we have conquered it. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Tales Of The Hook Pt. 2

Horror movies popularity is always cyclical by nature. Roughly speaking every ten or twenty years or so, when things get bad there’s a boom, followed by a bust when we a a society enter a sunnier more Paxish Romana stage. This is the point where I note that our latest “boom” has been not abated for the past ten years. (We’re not talking quality here just quantity. Regardless of what you think of modern horror there has hardly been a weekend for the past ten years or so when a horror movie hasn’t been playing in the theater). This is not accidental. I will hardly be making headline news if I note that the last ten years have been filled with some rather heavy shit. But we’ll come back to this. Though this text is meant to deal with the past thirty years of horror I think it’ll be worthwhile to trace the pattern back to the beginning that King sets and work our way back here.

King notes that horror films flourish in times of economic and political strain but not when out and out horror is present. So the thirties with its economic nightmare of the Great Depression produces one of the finest decades horror ever had, while the forties during which we were much more concerned about a country full of bloodthirsty nazi’s produced very few.

This is a useful thesis up to a point, and that point is that King plays very fast and loose with the idea of just what real horror is. Sure The Great Depression never produced anything as starkly faith in humanity eradicating as Dachua. But I will argue that for most people, watching folks who looked just like them starve to death on the side of the road was pretty fucking bad.

Therefore I’m going to differ from King here, and argue that it is not the degree of horror that lays the critical mulch for the horror film, but the tangibility of it. In the forties what ailed the world was a very concrete, tangible threat. There’s Hitler, there’s Tojo, there’s tens of millions of soldiers whipped into an imperialist mania the likes of which the world has never seen, now lets get cracking.

That is by no means a minor threat, but that is a threat that the human mind can wrap around.

Compare that to the thirties. Where the country went from its greatest moment of prosperity to the depths of poverty literally overnight. And why? Because some stockbrokers got overzealous and mislaid a few zeroes? Just as simple as that. No real reason. You’re living in a third world country now so have fun.  Why that’s enough to drive you crazy if you don’t have something to point your finger at. The image of the fat cat banker will only get you so far. There has to be something out there that caused this. Even if its only Boris Karloff with bolts in his neck.

I submit that it is the great strength of the horror genre that it makes the intangible tangible. That it takes the chaotic horror of the day to day and it forces it into a shape and source that we can understand. When the world kindly provides those fears and horrors a shape, our reliance on the horror genre weakens. When our anxieties are free floating, without a target that is when horror truly roams free (and I would argue that it is why our own peculiarly dislocative wars have made such potent fodder for horror films). Let’s take a quick look and see how this holds up.

We have already touched briefly upon the thirties, arguably the strongest decade for horror period. The classic Universal era, and also the era of the Freaks, The Raven, The Black Cat, The Old Dark House, and the appealing strange The Man They Could Not Hang.

The forties as we have already established provided a much more tangible threat to our society and far fewer horror films. An important exception to the rule being The Val Lewton films produced by RKO. Which are among the finest the genre has to offer. Particularly though not exclusively, the ones directed by Jacques Tournier. These films particularly I Walked With A Zombie, Cat People, The Leopard Man, and The Seventh Victim (and The Body Snatcher… and you know what? They’re all great. If you haven’t seen them you can’t call yourself a horror fan. I’m sorry but its true.) Combine the stylistic sophistication of the incipient film noir movement with a psychological depth unheard of in the Universal era (Particularly The Seventh Victim which tends to get left out of the conversation on Lewton films for some reason. There’s a film that is still ahead of its time. Something like The Last Exorcism doesn’t even touch it.)

The fifties once again provided us with a very tangible enemy in Soviet Russia, leading to an anemic horror field. It is worth noting that the sci-fi boom so popular at the time exacerbated the situation, and as King notes much of what would be classified as horror at any other time, such as the work of Richard Matheson, The Fly and The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, was lumped under the Sci Fi heading. But at the end of that decade we begin to see stirrings. Particularly from the likes of AIP, who began to intersperse their Beach Party and Flying Saucer cheapies with occasional creature features about monsters coming from somewhere or other and doing antisocial things. Normally presaged with the title I Was A Teenage Something Or Other. (One cannot forget William Castle who was also an early adopter. The Andre De Toth remake of House Of Wax another exception. It seems that sensation was the true key to getting a horror film made in the eighties.)

It is unlikely that even the faintest of hearts will find the AIP films frightening today, most of them are more along the lines of The Ghost In The Invisible Bikini than anything that might even incidentally scare someone. Only hardened trash cinema fans normally revisit them. But in our look at the evolution of horror they are not to be overlooked. Particularly in their focus on Youth culture. In this era these films focused on the youth for the simple reason that that was who the films where being marketed to. The vast majority of the AIP films were simple drive in fodder. Despite the fact that the fifties brought with them the first mentions of Youth Culture as a concept, as well as the specter of the juvenile delinquent,  the generation gap had yet to really crack apart.  It is important to note that most of these films end with the elder generation, usually a balding paternalistic man with a paunch and a bad mustache, side by side with the heretofore misunderstood kids attempting to repel whatever menacing antisocial thing has come to attack them. After all we’re all in this together.

To put it mildly this is not the message that horror films of the next two decades would send.

The sixties is really where we hit pay dirt. It was a time of social and cinematic upheaval. With a bomb at the beginning and the end of the decade. Arguably the two most important films in the genre’s history. I am speaking of course of Psycho and Night Of The Living Dead. Which together managed to change the face of horror forever.

Let us give credit to Hitchcock for having his ear so close to the ground. He knew enough not only to guess the tenor of upcoming decade, but what would disturb in it. It is bad enough that poor Norman Bates hacks up the unsuspecting folk who drop by his motel. What is worse is that he does it while wearing a dress, brazierre and panties. In a few short years having hair that was too long could earn you a royal asskicking if you happened to be in the wrong place. Yet in Psycho Norman not merely pushing the gender lines but snapping them. Norman Bates is in his simplest term, a walking talking murdering societal taboo. And the horror of the sixties, and by extension into the seventies was all about the breaking of taboos.

There are a few noteworthy works in between Psycho and Night Of The Living Dead. The Corman/AIP cycle was in full swing. Which produced Dementia 13, a Psycho ripoff that made a handy showcase for Francis Ford Coppala’s inherent knack for atmosphere. Another notable film was Peter Bogdanivich’s debut, Targets which took the Charles Whitman shootings as its source of horror (released two months before Dead). Another important one is the Vincent Price staring the Witchfinder General, a British production but notable for being one of the few horror films of the era to take its iconography from The Vietnam War. But on the whole most of the horror films of the time were a bit lazy. Several of them were simple throwbacks to the early Universal thrillers of the thirties and forties or attempts to ape the artistic and commercial success of the Hammer films of the 50's and early 60's, with predictably diminishing results, normally featuring a past his prime star walking around in a familiar cheap castle set. Take a look at the wildly incoherent, Karloff starring The Terror sometimes if you ever need a good laugh.  Though The Corman Poe films where a rare successful attempt as resurrecting the gothic style.

If Hitchcock sensed the tremors running through society then George Romero road them like a wave. And if the majority of sixties horror either sought to ape the gothic style, or presented the viewer with harmless monsters; Night Of The Living Dead took both of those traditions and ate them raw.

If the horror films of the fifties sent the message that beneath the superficial generational differences everyone was on the same team. The Night Of The Living Dead sent the message that everybody is not on the same team. There is a big horde of chaos that is besieging America and it’s going to break in any moment and eat you. The puny defenses you’ve put up won’t keep them out, because everyone inside can’t stop fighting. The black’s are getting uppity, who knows what is going on with the women folk anymore, your youth will end up barbequed. And your children? They will fucking eat you once you turn your back. The microcosm of America that the film presents is almost unbearably bleak. What goes on outside of the house is almost a relief when compared to what goes on inside of it.

Equal to the ferocity of the film’s message was its style. While most American Horror was aping Hammer, by trying to make everything look as opulent as possible, Night Of The Living Dead was made in stark newsreel black in white. Beyond the bleakness of the message, beyond the starkness of its violence there was the fact that when you left the theater the world you walked into didn’t look all that different from the place you had just seen on screen. The message of Night Of The Living Dead wasn’t as simple as, “We’ve met the enemy and he is us.” It was, “You’ve seen the nightmare and you are living in it.

When we come to the seventies we are presented with almost an embarrassment of riches. No wonder, in cinematic terms the seventies were all about reaping the discontent sowed in the sixties thanks to the loosened standards of modern filmmaking. But there was plenty of nightmare fuel besides. Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War which reduced ten years of bloodshed and horror (most of it broadcast directly into American living rooms) to a “Whoopsie Daisy”, Gas lines, recession. The stunning thing is just what a variety of horrors this produced. That something as baroque as The Abominable Doctor Phibes could be playing next door to the latest David Cronenberg film, the counter culture nightmare of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deathdream is nothing short of astonishing. There won’t be much of the seventies in this book since I will be trying to stick as close to the 1981 cut off date as possible. But I will just mention my own personal favorite from this era The Messiah Of Evil. It’s a true forgotten gem. A horror fan’s horror film, and man if you haven’t seen it you are in for a true treat (In the terms of Stephen King’s Horror fan as prospector metaphor, The Messiah Of Evil is the gold nugget that makes me kick up my heels and dance until the corn whiskey makes me pass out).

We’ve reached the point where the text proper is just about to begin so I’ll just touch on the next few decades briefly. The eighties had the specter of nuclear war, AIDS, and the urban panic, which led to the horror boom of the eighties. The nineties where a notoriously bad decade for horror and that makes sense when you consider that the biggest psychic threats that generation had to deal with amounted to the death of Kurt Cobain, the dotcom bust, a bad traveling salesman joke playing out in the oval office and the release of Reality Bites.

One hardly needs to list the array of things that have gone wrong this decade, though they haven’t always manifested themselves in the way you might think… But that’s for later. I will only point out that the time period this experiment seeks to cover amounts to two decades with an extremely high demand for horror with a divot in the middle where there is virtually none. I wouldn’t have it any other way, as this allows us to look at horror as both an unconscience reaction, and something produced for its own sake.

Now, lets take a closer look at some of those fears we are feeding… 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tales Of The Hook Pt. 1

So what do we talk about when we talk about Horror?

This might sound like an obvious question but it’s useful to define our terms before going further. Horror is defined by most as a subsection of The Fantasy genre (Though I prefer Neil Gaiman’s metaphor of horror and fantasy as sister cities with a few dark highways connecting them). At times it bumps up against Science Fiction as well, though the relationship between them has never been chummy. In the great family reunion that is literature Horror and Sci-Fi are cousins who try to never talk to one another.

There is bleed over of course; both Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi used their training as horror directors to give their big budget mainstream films a darkly powerful visual imagination. The Orcs and the comic book villains who crawl through their films are genuine monsters. Though neither their comic book or fantasy epics ever cross into out and out horror, there is a feeling of danger to them, of unpredictability. The fact is that at any moment they could do just that.

But that’s not really what we’re talking about. Let’s take two movies, one that involves demons, Lovecraftian beings from beyond time, clockwork monsters, and mad immortal monks. The other involves a mild mannered motel clerk and some missing money. The latter is a horror movie the former for all its trappings, is not.

We’re talking about Guilmero Del Toro’s Hellboy and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. While Del Toro’s film is an immensely entertaining movie, and one obviously head over heels in love with horror iconography, its focus is not on horror. Its focus is on Ron Perlman’s wisecracks and all the neat stuff that Del Toro gets to show. Psycho on the other hand, has no monster save a human one and will be scaring folks for as long as people care to go to the movies.

The point is that what makes a horror film is intent not iconography.

Let us for the sake of expediency define a horror film as a movie whose goal it is to horrorify the viewer. This may seem fairly obvious but actually it ends up being quite useful. Particularly we’re faced with the old, “Is it Horror, fantasy or sci fi?” question. Alien is a horror film, because its goal is to horrify you. Aliens is a sci fi action film because its goal is to show you neat battles between Aliens and Space Marines. Not much horror there. 
Of course there is some grey area even here. Something like Paul WS Anderson’s woeful Resident Evil scene is really just an action movie that uses zombies for its targets rather than something else. However unlike Del Toro’s action themed Hellboy its protagonists are helpless before the zombie hordes (at first Milla Jovovich underwent an unfortunate power creep) and I think one of the useful dividing lines between horror and fantasy is the amount of power the protagonists have to fight the horrors they are facing. Call an orc a monster and it could work its way through the roster of summer camp quite nicely. Face the same monster against Viggo Mortenson in chainmail, with a broadsword and he will have a much lesser rate of success. Or to once again point to the handy xenomorph, in Alien the unfortunate cast could do little but gibber in terror at the monster and run. In Aliens the space marines could unload clips of automatic weapons at them.

What about the line between those glossy thrillers so popular in the 90’s which somehow managed to be considered respectable fair for adults while always feeling so much sleazier than anything in the horror genre (say what you will about Friday The 13th, but it is upfront about its baseness). In one of his finer moments The Outlaw Vern threw up his hands on a tricky to define film and declared it “A Thriller about a slasher.”

Then there’s the fact that the majority of programmer horror fare doesn’t inspire anything like real terror. Once again I would argue that intent goes a much further than effect in proving genre. The lesser B-Movies and sequels may be the cinematic equivalent of a carnival spook house haunted by cardboard ghosts. But it behooves the horror fan to give the benefit of the doubt.

But for all the grey areas inherent in trying to define a genre (And really it would be incredible if there wasn’t some kind of bleeding around the edges. No pun intended.) let us define a horror film as a film whose main purpose is to inspire fear. A broad enough category to encompass both a chilly work of art like Don’t Look Now, and films whose main reason for existing is to inspire dates to lean a bit closer to one another.

A horror film can incorporate a sci fi concept for a nasty edge (ala Carpenter’s The Thing or Cronenberg’s version of The Fly) or set itself in space and still be a horror film. The other half of the equation is that a film can bring in all the Demons, Vampires, and assorted creatures of the night it wants. If the main purpose of them is to give someone something to aim a shotgun at, it’s not a horror film.

But what about the divisions in horror itself? King divided the genre’s effects into Terror, Horror, and Gross Out, a division that I still think is useful and we should touch on before proceeding into the dark woods of the genre.

Terror is defined by King as stories that work completely on the level of what the mind sees. In other words, stories in which we actually see very little that is out and out horrific happen. The quintessential example of this is Robert Wise’s often imitated never duplicated The Haunting. A film that creates fear out of pure inference.

I think this is an accurate definition as any but for my purposes I believe I will broaden it. While a great deal of terror is about technique, I think in this case what we’re dealing with content as well. Terror is simply put, horror on a spiritual level. In other words horror that strikes you where you live. Though I’m sure I would find it most unpleasant to have a hulking undead figure slam a machete into my face, It’s not really on my list of day to day anxieties. Compare that with Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, in which a man is literally haunted to death by his grief. Or to point to a film in our 30 year range look at Frailty which exploits religious paranoia better than any film I’ve seen (The Blair Witch Project would be another candidate. As would The Strangers, my personal pick for best horror film of the aughts. Even Paranormal Activity, which at its core is the story of tying yourself to a mentally unbalanced spouse).

These stories are rare, both in print and celluloid and for a reason. They’re really hard to do. It’s tough to not show anything and yet avoid the trap of “just showing nothing.” Furthermore it’s tough to film something that takes on day to day anxiety without the buffer of metaphor and not come off as preaching. But when these films hit, they hit big, usually becoming instant classics of their genre. When a horror film crosses over into the critical community, or becomes an unexpected mainstream hit it is usually one of these.

King defines horror, as a strain of “fear that is not entirely of the mind. Horror invites a physical reaction by showing us something physically wrong.”

Horror is the monster in other words. It’s Freddy Krueger’s burnt glistening face. It is the piteous mewling thing that Jeff Goldblum becomes at the end of The Fly. The shuffling crowds of Romero ghouls.

Unlike terror, which hits you directly where you live, horror is fear in metaphor form. The zombies in Romero’s films might be (depending upon the film) shuffling, moaning avatars of depersonalization, the underclass, or simply living, eating entrophy. But they are also on a textual level flesh eating ghouls.  The killers in Hostel might be representations of both the third world’s revenge and the upper class’s decadence (nifty conceit that Roth came up with, love the movie or hate it there’s a lot going on there) but they are also psychopathic killers. Clive Barker’s Cenobites might be cautionary examples of allowing ones appetites to run unchecked and warp and control a person. But they are also demons from beyond our dimension.

Instead of confronting us with what truly scares us directly like terror does, Horror hides itself behind a gruesome mask. But no matter how frightening the mask is, it is one we can bare to look at.

King’s last category is the gross out. Which hardly seems to need explanation. Go ahead pick your favorite. Jason shoving a steam room rock through someone’s guts. Tom Savini decapitations and disembowlings without number. Freddy Krueger going through the paces for whatever high concept set piece the filmmakers are putting him through this time around. Whatever nasty trap that Jigsaw has constructed in his spare time.  They are moments whose purpose is simply to make the hardened genre fan sink a little lower in their seat, and the more meek among us to feel like whoosping their cookies.

The gross out is horror subtext free. It’s one and only goal is repulsion.

One thing to note about the gross out is how non threatening. How unhorrific it really is. When fans gather around to discuss their favorite genre beats of this type, it is seldom with any feelings of real distress. As the Splatterpunks of the eighties realized there’s something almost friendly about this extreme gore. When you watch the hapless hero in Dead Alive strap a lawnmower to his torso to deal with the hordes of zombies, you’re more likely to feel admiration than real fear or disgust. (Not everyone feels this way as I watched Day Of The Dead with a non horror fan friend assuming she could watch the Tom Savini effects from a point of detachment. She still hasn’t forgiven me.)

(Not my brightest idea)

It should be pointed out that one of the exceptions to this rule is David Cronenberg, who has mastered the art of making the gross out an act verging on psychic violence. Watching, say James Woods grow a vagina on his chest only to probe it for a horribly organic gun, is grosser and stranger than anything in the folks behind the Friday the 13th’s series imagination. But I find it difficult to believe that anyone is going to giggle through it.

The striking thing to me is just how diverse of a genre horror really is. Having something with the elegance of Val Lewton or Mario Bava sit next to The Ghastly Ones on the video store shelf is like having The Goldberg Variations sit next to Gwar.

Of course to a certain extent all genres have this kind of flexibility. Let us not forget that nominally at least El Topo and Wagon Train share the same genre. Yet in horror this seems especially apparent. Here is a genre that can accommodate any plan of attack, any technique. Yet just as remarkable as these diverse modes of attack is the singularity of purpose. A horror film wants to with the single minded intensity of Michael Myers, go after you where you are weak. And it will do anything to get there. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An Invitation To Dance, April 20th 1999

Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s study of the horror genre from 1950-1980 is one of my all time favorite books. It is nothing so much like carrying a conversation with your favorite author wherever you go and believe me, for a long chunk of time I carried that book around with me more or less where ever I went. I’ve longed for King to write a sequel and now that thirty years have passed leaving a neatly mirrored chunk of time it seems the perfect time to do so.

Unfortunately as King seemingly has no inclination to do so (though as the excellent essay published in front of the new edition of Danse attests he has not run out of interesting things to say about the genre), the only way I will get to read such a book is if I write it myself.

Like it’s forefather Son Of Danse Macabre will attempt to articulate what I find so appealing about the horror genre, a predilection that most outsiders seem to consider a minor form of sociopathy at best, with a particular focus on the past thirty years. Right where Danse Macabre left off to today. Like Danse Macabre the focus will be on American Horror. Not out of disrespect or ignorance, simply because the net is wide enough as is. As a result foreign horror will only be discussed so far as the effect it has on American Horror, such as The J Horrror boom in the early aughts. This book will follow all of Danse Macabre’s nine part structure as closely as possible; with the exception of the chapter about horror on the radio for obvious reasons. I won’t be posting a chapter at a time, as that would be wildly unpractical at best. But the posts will be long, you probably won’t see one under 2,000 words. As a result there won’t be a post here every day like I try to have on my other blog Things That Don’t Suck. However, at the very least there should be something here a couple of times a week.

Two question remains. Why than call it Son Of Danse Macabre instead of something much less cease and desisty? (and just for the record I can only hope that this will be seen in the spirit of a very ambitious dollar baby) And if I am planning on turning this blog into a workable manuscript (unsolicited natch so if you’re interested drop me an email than why do it out in the open instead of writing it in private?

Lets tackle the second question first. The answer is that I want this to be, to a certain extent a collaboration. The horror blogging community is one of the most enthusiastic and I want to take advantage of that. I have an outline of things prepared to write about, but it’s hardly the end all be all. If you think something is important to the horror genre tell me so. And If you think I’m wrong about something then tell me that too.

To answer the first question, its simple, if I didn’t attempt to consciously play off of Danse Macabre any attempt I made would be dominated by it. I will be dealing with themes and ideas that King articulated in his text, and which I can’t remove from my frame of reference in considering the genre. By dealing with said ideas directly I hope to avoid simply parroting them.

But to be even more direct it was King’s book that first encouraged me to think seriously about genre fiction (before I even realized such encouragement was needed). To not just take the ghettoization of genre fiction as a given. In that sense I truly am the son of Danse Macabre.

I hear the musicians tuning their instruments and the lights are dimming. Won’t you join me for this dance? I’d like to show you some moves that my father taught me.


But I haven’t introduced myself. Which is necessary since though I am many things I am no Stephen King. Forty Years, four decades of frame of reference, and several million dollars separate us. King begins Danse Macabre with his story of his first encounter with real fear. That seems as good a place as any to get to know one another.

My first scare is also the first movie I can remember seeing. It came courtesy of The Bride Of Frankenstein and Boris Karloff. There is a shot early in the film, where a the old villager whose daughter was accidentally killed by the monster in the infamous flower scene has falls down into the quarry below the old windmill where the monster has supposedly perished. Leaving the old man treading helplessly in the water we cut to a low blind wall, from which a horrible hand reaches out from. Then the rest of the monster appears. That beautiful Jack Pierce makeup, the sunken haunted eyes beneath the jutting brow.

I screamed. Whatever was about to happen to that farmer was bad news and I left him to his fate. Running for my bedroom and hiding under my bed. Feeling an adrenaline rush I would end up chasing my entire life. It’s the type of moment that makes you not just a genre fan for life but a film fan for life.

Ah but that’s not what King was talking about. He wrote about the announcement of Sputnik brought horror out from the safe place on the screen and changed his role in it from that of voyeur to a participant.

Well I remember that one as well.

But first I feel a little more background is involved. After all when King wrote Macabre (and I promise that soon I will stop referencing him every other line. This is just to get the ball rolling) he was already a nationally known celebrity. I’m still the guy trying to teach your granny to suck eggs. And it’ll be to both of our benefits if we know whom the guy teaching the egg sucking is.

On the surface there’s not a lot of clues to why I would develop an affinity for the horror genre. But one thing that’s important to note is that the affinity has been with me for as long as I can remember. I had two somewhat overprotective parents, and I suppose the easy answer is that I desired horror because it was forbidden to me. But of course it wouldn’t have been forbidden to me if I hadn’t desired it.  One important difference between me and most horror fans, is that film wasn’t really my gateway drug. As I said, my parents were watchdogs and the only horror films I could rent with impunity before I was sixteen were The Wolfman and The Blob both of which I watched ad nauseum. (I was able to sneak in a few others, Scream was a memorable one, as well as John Carpenter’s The Thing thanks to my father’s Kurt Russell fandom), I would pour over the boxes at the horror section of the video store and two books which somehow ended up in the children’s section of the library. I can’t remember their titles, though I would give anything to know them. They were two pictorial histories of the horror genre. One dealing with classic horror films, the other other then modern day ones like Nightmare On Elm Street and The Exorcist. They gave detailed synopsis and big glossy pictures, and before I ever saw any of the films listed within they played out in my imagination and dreams.

It was the library, which eventually allowed me to start exploring my horror jones. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and to my parent’s credit having no desire to curb this attribute they gave me a bit of a freer hand choosing material as long as it was in printed form. On screen I had to sustain myself on Lon Chaney having a bad hair day and Steve McQueen fighting a jello mold in his hot rod. On the page I could get the real stuff. Uncut and pure.

It will surprise no one that the first name I latched onto was King’s. I snuck into the adult section of the library on a fourth grade field trip, picked up The Dead Zone and never looked back. I can still see the book, a musty old hardcover, with a face on the cover. Half of it in shadow half of it obliterated by a terrible carnival wheel. That was a book that promised dark things. And it delivered. Over the next four years I would slightly broaden my circle. I read some of Dean Koontz, though he disappointed me by rarely writing supernatural horror. (Later he would disappoint me for other reasons. Hi-ho!). I took my first curious sniffs of Lovecraft, Poe and James.

This was all warm up, making nice fertile mulch for the seeds of my horror fandom to grow in. The first real sprout happened in seventh grade. It’s a moment I think is important to me not just in terms of my horror fandom, but in who I am as a critic and to a certain extent as a person.

It was in English class and we had just livened up what was a fairly prosaic class with a reading of the old chestnut The Tell Tale Heart. The teacher was lecturing, “So as you can see class, the man’s guilt, drives him crazy. He’s so tortured that he begins to believe he hears the sound of the heart beating beneath the floorboards and-” (This was Catholic school they where big on guilt) Well wait a minute. That didn’t sound right. I raised my hand. “Yes.” The teacher said, somewhat exasperated.

“Well what do you mean?” I asked “That was the old man’s ghost coming back to haunt him. Making the sound of the beating heart for the narrator to hear.”

The Teacher looked at me over her glasses summoning the disdain that only a seventh grade English teacher can command. “Really Bryce? Really? You think the chopped up dead man’s heart started beating? Does that sound… likely?” The class started to giggle. Now would have been the time to turn beat red, sink down into my desk chair and mutter that “No ma’am that didn’t sound likely at all.”

Instead I said, “I still think it was the ghost.” Which got another round of laughter from the class and had the teacher scurrying on to get the conversation on a different track as soon as possible. But you know what, having gone back and read it as an adult, I still think it’s was the ghost. That unpleasant one eyed man back from the grave to give the murdering bastard who killed him a good sweat. I don’t care if some middle school English teacher finds it unlikely. As we will see as we go on, there are plenty of unlikely things that happen most every day. A great deal many of them just as unpleasant as the still beating heart of a corpse. As The Cowardly Lion so eloquently put, “I do believe in spooks I do believe in spooks.”

But why?

I was born into a lower (though firmly) middle class family, did most of my growing up in one of the most stable times in American history (and the rest of it in one of the most unstable though that is a different story). I had about as normal of a childhood as you can get. Siblings, dog, Catholic School for elementary, public school for highschool, parents stayed together. No traumas, save the usual ones. Not a lot of luxury but never any real want either. In short I was (and am) a middle class, educated, Catholic, white kid, living in America. If you look up the norm in the dictionary you’ll probably find a picture of me.

Except normal was never a word anyone used to describe me.

Not to put too melodramatic a point on it. But I have spent a great deal of my life; very alienated from the majority of people I meet. I say this not as a ploy to gain sympathy, I have no delusions about my own character, and part of growing up for me was realizing the variety of ways I have been off putting to various people and taking responsibility for my own mental state. But the fact that it was not always unmotivated does not change the fact that it was very much real. It should be pointed out that very little of this, for lack of a better term lets call it bullying, was physical (though some of it was), you couldn’t even call it verbal (though some of it was). Let’s roughly estimate that each of those was responsible for about ten percent, the rest was simply neglect. An inability to connect with other people, who might as well be closed circuits. Know me this much, but no more. Come to me this close. But no closer. Simply put I was and am an outsider.

It’s important to clarify that at this point I didn’t become a punk or a goth, or even a theater nerd as so many of the disenfranchised do in adolescence. These people are of course not outsiders at all. Just different types of insiders. I stood outside the fringe just as completely as I stood outside the mainstream. I was to all intents and purposes a good normal kid except that I wasn’t.

Which was fine. Lonely, but fine. Until the line between being an outsider and being a monster was blurred on the national stage. And suddenly being an outsider was very bad news indeed.

We were talking about the day that fear walked in weren’t we?

April 20th, 1999. That was the day fear walked in. When two kids wearing black trenchcoats came to school and murdered thirteen people.

Doesn’t sound very likely does it?

Klebold and Harris, Klebold and Harris. Those stupid, selfish, craven monsters. It scares me a bit just how completely the culture has both assimilated and forgotten by the culture. On one hand you can buy them as part of the most acclaimed True Crime novel in years. Tuck them safely away on your shelf, like pocket daemons, another bit of sociology to ponder over. On the other hand, there is my little sister, an intelligent woman, just six years younger than I, who asked when I made casual reference to Columbine in a conversation “What was that?”

What it was was some scary shit, particularly if you were a kid who was seen as crazy enough to pull such a stunt. Which as it so happened yours truly was. The highschool, always a dreadfully efficient system for watching for thy mutant went into overdrive. A kind of Autoimmune disease swept through the nations hallways. I looked like bad news to the white blood cells. And the worst part was I wasn’t sure that they were wrong.

Let me clarify. I am in no way condoning the sick acts that occurred on that day. Nor am I excusing. I am not, nor ever have been a violent person. I’ve been in two fist fights, the first on my own volition, the second I was pressured into an consider one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. What’s more I didn’t want to feel alienated, I didn’t want to rebel. I wanted to be a good kid. But I could understand. I could understand the deep reservoirs of anger that those two had drawn on. I could understand it too well.

I’d seen a monster and it had been wearing a face that looked very much like my own. Which was not a new idea to me, after all what is Original Sin except a very detailed explanation about why the monster is us?

This is all my very roundabout way of saying that different things scare me than scare King. His generation had the campus experience that verged on a moment of mass conscienceness. Mine grew up in an era ever more fractured by digitalization. He grew up afraid of Sputnik and The Evil Empire. I grew up scared of kids with semi autos opening up at school and cavemen with boxcutters flying airplanes into buildings (How’s that for unlikely Teach?) King grew up scared of being disintegrated by The Bomb. Physical death holds very little horror for me. It’s the death of free will and the disintegration of Identity that keep me up pacing at night.

Yet underneath the masks (or if you prefer it masques) of time culture and experience, the face of fear is the same. It is that bedrock immutability that makes horror so inescapable. So primal.

No matter what clothes he has on our dancing partner is always the same. Lets take a closer look at him shall we?