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Thursday, February 12, 2009

An exploration of fear, what disturbs me.

Greetings once again Vault dwellers, it is Karl Hungus of karlhungus.com here, so do not adjust your set, I am now in control of the transmission. It's amazing how much excitement can be derived from exploring our own anxieties in this way, with a good Horror film, we come face to face with so many negative emotions, and come out thrilled at the end. The genre itself is a multi-headed beast, and there are so many different feelings it can stir, many films have to many different ways to scare, disturb, unsettle, sicken, repulse or otherwise tap in to our subconscious. I'd like to talk to you about my own fears and what strikes a nerve with me when I'm deep in the experience. For me, it's not always the things that go bump in the night.

One thing that's always sure to creep the bejesus out of me is Body Horror. Films like The Fly or Tetsuo will always unsettle me deeply, no matter how many times I've seen them, the physical transformation that the main characters go through set my skin crawling every single time. I don't quite know why, perhaps it's an innate or subconscious fear of disease, of something malignant that's going on beneath the surface, the notion of helplessness that our own bodies could betray us. Whatever it is, this frightens and sickens me very deeply.

Maybe it's not something innate though, maybe this is a fear that was set in early? In which case, Ron Howard has a lot to answer for, because the scene in Willow where the evil Bavmorda turned everyone into pigs was pretty horrific for a kid's film. Or it could be earlier than that, I remember watching re-runs of The Incredible Hulk as a child and hiding behind the couch whenever Dr. Banner turned into a green Lou Ferrigno.

I suppose that also has to do with why I find there are very few good Werewolf movies. An American Werewolf in London was the pinnacle merely because of the chilling and amazing shapeshifting scene, and I've never seen another that has effected me so much. I feel kind of cheated sometimes when a film depicts someone turning into a werewolf as a quick change, or where it will happen offscreen. AAWiL set the standard, and if it's not a horrifying change, it just isn't a proper Werewolf movie.

Now, I don't really believe in desensitization, at least not to a huge degree. What's scared me for many years before still scares me now. I don't mean that I'd watch Willow and be as freaked out as I was when I was just a wee nipper, but that Body Horror still effects me as it always has. British Sci-Fi series Doctor Who has had some pretty creepy moments, the episode Blink was one of the most genuinely terrifying things I've seen on TV in a long time ("Don't blink, blink and you're dead!"), it was creepy stuff. But it wasn't that episode that freaked me out the most, it was a later episode called Planet of the Ood, and towards the end, one of the characters was turned into a grotesque cthulhu-like alien lifeform. True to form, I was utterly creeped out and the scene left me with a knot in my stomach. I'd say the old fears just don't leave us.

One film that certainly left it's mark on me was Stephen King's Pet Sematary, it effected me two-fold. First of all, the scene with Rachel's sister Zelda, just looking at her had my senses screaming, it was horrific. I later found out that the character of Zelda was played by a man, because they couldn't find a woman skinny enough for it, and that made a lot of sense. I'd say it's because a man has a broader frame, this made the character look that bit more emaciated, the bony shoulders and elbows that bit more exaggerated than if it had been a woman playing the role. A recent horror film pulled the same trick (I won't mention which as it's a bit of a spoiler, but if you've seen it you'll know the film I mean) of having an extremely thin man playing a female character, and it still had the same unedging effect on my senses.

The other thing in Pet Sematary that effected me was the scene where Jud Crandall gets his achilles tendon cut. The very thought of it makes me wince, it really unsettles me, and no matter how many times I see a scene of tendon-trauma in various films, it's something that I have never gotten used to. That's another reason that I don't truly believe in the idea of desensitization, I just can't see myself ever getting used to violence to that particular area, it cuts through me and sets my teeth on edge. There's a scene in Hostel where one character's achilles tendons are cut, and we don't even see it happen, we see is a reaction shot and the aftermath, but to me that was by a vast margin the most disturbing scene of the entire film.

That's not to say that any old scene of body horror or scene of physical violence against the ankle area will make a good horror for me. I would say that to make a truly great horror film, it can't just contain something that will scare or unsettle you. Pet Sematary is a great film in its own right, even without the scenes I've mentioned, and I've seen elements of what scares me in other films and they've fallen completely flat. I think a film has to engage you first and foremost, and that's why The Fly or An American Werewolf in London are absolute classics. If it doesn't have interesting characters that you care what happens to, then the film will fail.

I know it's not exactly a popular choice, but Hostel: Part II was an absolute triumph for me, and I think Eli Roth is a far better director than people give him credit for. The whole bloodbath scene was something that left me absolutely shaken, it was one of the most downright horrific things I've seen in a film in recent years, and it worked so well because Roth starts off with the characters. It was because he wrote Lorna (played so sympathetically by Heather Matarazzo, who was by far the best actor in the film) to be someone we empathised with, not some cut-out cheerleader that nobody cared about. When the above scene finally comes, it has all the more impact because we're emotionally invested in the character. The gore itself was very disturbing, and just thinking about the sound of the blade against her skin sets my teeth on edge, but it's not why the scene has such impact, and seeing it again it doesn't get any less disturbing, simply because of the character of Lorna.

Violence and gore certainly isn't everyone's bag, but I think in the right context it can be extremely effective and provide for a truly powerful film experience. That's not to say I don't love the more traditional ghost story, because the likes of Don't Look Now and Ringu count as some of my all time favourites. There's simply nothing like a good horror that piles on the atmosphere and doesn't really on cheap shock-tactics to scare the audience. The Others and The Blair Witch Project were two films that built up the tension slowly, and they were truly fantastic horror films.

Atmosphere is one of the hardest things to put your finger on. David Lynch is one of my favorite directors by far, and you couldn't really call any of his film Horror exactly, yet some of them can be so wholly unnerving and disturbing, more so than many Horrors. Lost Highway (above) is a perfect example, so much of it can be greatly unsettling, and watching it can really set me on edge. A lot of the time I can easily see why something disturbs me, I can point it out and say it's that, but here I don't know quite what it is, whatever magic Lynch works just gets to me. It was the same with Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, something just had me on edge. Roman Polanski's The Tenant is another film that had me very unsettled throughout, much in the same way that Lost Highway did, something I can't quite explain, but very potent none the less.

I hope this has been an interesting read. It's been fun for me trying to lay out my fears, to relate what disturbs me, and what makes a powerful Horror experience for me. I'm sure that just as everyone has their own preferences when it comes to the genre, we've all got different things that will scare and disturb us, things that we've never gotten used to in films and things that can still freak us out. I'd love to hear from you, what is it that effects you most in a Horror?

What scares you?


B-Sol said...

Thanks for this terrific contribution Mr. Hungus! It's funny, but as I get older and more caught up in the responsibilities of "grown-up life", I find myself getting even more disturbed by graphic violence in horror movies than when I was younger. Maybe having more of an awareness of your own mortality, as well as having kids, does it to you, I don't know. I'm much more of a wuss than I ever was! I find myself often taking a nostalgic refuge in the classic horror of the '30s-'50s, when it seemed to be a bit more "fun" in a Forry Ackerman sort of way. I guess that speaks to the powerful impact these modern horrors can have on you, doesn't it?

gord said...

Seeing Zelda in Pet Semetary was one of the most scarring moments of my childhood.

Although I'm 22 now, Lynch's films still creep me out, especially Inland Empire. I have never been so on edge during a movie before, and the distorted faces scenes in that movie scare me every time.

Other than that, the only thing that really gets me in horror films these days is great atmosphere. I still would never watch The Haunting ('63) in the dark by myself.

Karl Hungus said...

Glad you liked it man.

I don't have kids so I can't really relate there, I'd be more scared of kids... Creepy little fellas! :p

I would say there's certainly nothing wrong with fun horrors, I'll gladly watch Army of Darkness over and over again.

Anonymous said...

I have yet to watch American Werewolf in London but vividly remember seeing the transformation scene at a friends house when I was only 6 or 7. Scared the crap out of me.
I'll agree with B-Sol, the older I get the more things seem to disturb me. I can say that nothing disturbed me more than watching August Underground Mordum. I was almost physically sick by the end of the movie and ruined 2 of my friends delicate pscyhe.

Karl Hungus said...

You know, I do think that as we get older, horror films can have a much greater effect on us simply because we have a more mature outlook, and can perhaps understand the situations depicted on a more serious level.

I know a lot of people in their teenage years would've watched horrors and pretty much refuse to let themselves be affected by them, as a show of bravado if you will, so they can say "Haha, that didn't scare me!"

A more mature person will let themselves go into the experience and open up to the fear.

B-Sol said...

Interesting note on The Haunting, gord. My son is a huge monster movie fan, and despite being only four he can't get enough of werewolves, vampires, Frankenstein, Godzilla, what have you. Well I figured since it was without any explicit violence whatsoever, that The Haunting would be fine for him. And wouldn't you know, after giggling his way thru all the monsters and hideous creatures, The Haunting was the movie that freaked him the heck out. Made him sleep with the light on--he still brings it up, poor little guy.

Alana Noel Voth said...

Hey B-Sol. Thanks so much for the post. I always dig when another writer gets personal.

Speaking personally, outside films, what scres me is being eaten alive by a snake or shark, drowning, but more than anything, I'm terrified at the thought of anyone hurting my son. Like, thinking of him hurt and hurting and calling for me and I get get to him. Jesus Christ.

That. Scares. Me.

Speaking about movies, "The Exorcist" scares me. I won't watch it. I can't stand what they do to that girl. In fact, devil movies, they generally make me uncomfortable, like Carpenter's The Prince of Darkness, that scared me.

"Inside" freaked me out. The c-section at the end. Holy Christ!

Although I don't like Paris Hilton, I didn't dig watching her character be decapitated in that wax movie because I think I was supposed to enjoy it, you know?

The scene in Hostel II, I'm with you on that.

I suppose, inventoring my list here, I'm scared by the amount of violence directed at women in films.

I saw a movie called Teeth the other night. Violence turned on men. Direct hit. Pow! That made me uncomfortable as well.


B-Sol said...

Thanks, Alana, I appreciate the love--but I can't take credit. This was a guest post from Karl Hungus, a long-time associate of the Vault.

Alana Noel Voth said...

B-Sol. Shit! Sorry. I wasn't paying attention, was I?

Karl, thank you for the post.


Anonymous said...

RayRay - Kudos, Mr. Hungus on a great post. You got me thinking about what scares me most.....hmmmmm, perhap food for another post of my own.

Well, done, man.

B-Sol said...

Hmmm, a response post from RayRay... I like it.

Christopher Zenga said...

Hey B and Mr. H,

you want a good ankle attack? EVIL DEAD, the pencil attack on Sherry in the cabin, solid gold! I find that films like hostel and Saw lack the "scare factor" Don't get me wrong, the sheer violence and goriness always creeps me out, but I don't get that "Zelda scare" from them. Hell, I will have Linda Blair's Devil possessed face burned in my mind forever, now that's fear!

Nowadays its ghost films that do it for me, J-Horror type ( The Ring, Shutter, Dark Water) there is more of a focus on overall atmosFEAR in these films, The threat is not a masked killer or a Werewolf, rather, in a ghost film the threat surrounds you, embraces you. It hides in the shadows and takes the form of dripping water, creaking doors or blowing wind. It's not what you see but what you experience. I want my skin to crawl DAY'S after I Experience a Film, I want to have nightmares for weeks.

My Daughter is quite a Fan of all thing Scary, she just turned 3 and loves my ZonBear paintings. One a week she will watch The nightmare before Christmas,Corpse Bride and monster house. We watch The Hilarious House of Frightenstien every day after work and she is just in love with goulies in general. Oddly enough she walked in on an episode of Buffy the vampire slayer called "Hush" and almost died. so you never know what will set them off.

I've told enough tales for today and the Librarian grows tired,

Later days,

Christopher Zenga

Karl Hungus said...

Thanks everyone. ;)

Well, Mr. Zenga. Yeah, the pencil attack in the Evil Dead was nasty alright. With regards to the likes of Hostel and Saw being "scary", I find that horror can evoke a few different feelings, and gore can often be repulsive, disturbing and the setup of the scenes can be unnervingly tense. It works different than a film with a powerful and frightening atmosphere, but can still be nail-bitingly tense in a different way.

I too am a huge fan of Asian horror though. My first contribution to the Vault was on this very subject; Asian Horror Cinema

I do find that a lot of the more recent ones are far too cookie cutter and by the numbers, they can be atmospheric, but with poor characters and an unoriginal story. Of course, I do keep my eyes open for any new Asian horrors that are coming out, there's still some absolute gold being produced.

Christopher Zenga said...

Hey Mr H,

New Asian cinema does lack the same pop as the classics, and the re-makes miss the mark soooo many times it's embarrassing. But I still have space in my DVD collection to new J-horror.(cant wait to see Tokyo Gore Police)

here is my must have list of a few films I just re watched for the hundredth time.
Dark water

Later days,

Christopher Zenga
Barrle Royal

tale of two sisters

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