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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What Goes Bump In the Night…….? Chapter II

(We join our regularly scheduled blog post, already in progress.)

While still young, I did succumb to more than one “devil movie.” The two most famous were of course The Exorcist and The Omen. While The Exorcist was one thing all to itself, The Omen was rather the flagship to a genre of ‘70s devil movies. While The Omen was creepy, mostly because of that chubby little kid, there was one titled Devil Dog, Hound of Hell. Now this sounds stupid, like a Drake’s cake gone wrong. But to the ten year old me who decided to watch it on either the “Five Star Movie” or “Drive in Movie” on channel 5 one Saturday afternoon, it was a little more than that.

Now that lousy movie “Devil Dog…” was one of those poorly shot, poorly produced, poorly scripted ‘70s horror endeavors where the film is so bad that it is dark during the day time. And I think it was this poor film quality coupled with a fairly decent devil story. Now, why were devil stories so effective? I think it can be summed up in that a) the devil (or Devil), is all consuming evil, way more evil than just a zombie or slasher, and b) the devil always came in the package you were least expecting: a little girl, a little boy, or, in this case, a little puppy. It is the destruction and the perversion of the innocent into something diabolical that really makes devil movies, and their related genre scary. The same effect can be applied to other stories of a similar vein, like Children of the Corn, and for its part, Pet Semetary’s Gage.

I won’t say much about The Exorcist, as it is like a 5 tool player in baseball (it scares for average, scares for power, etc…), except that a) some of the really scary parts are when you just see the shadows of the demons, and b) when Regan bends over backwards to scuttle down the stairs – whoa, that’s a bad 3 seconds of film. Why? Because it is friggin’ weird, and weird is scary.

A few weeks back B-Sol was good enough to do a post on Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and in particular, the Hell portion of the triptych. The thing is, while the Hell portion is obviously terrifying, the other two panels, one of Eden, and the other of Earth, are both so weird (and ahead of their time, for purposes of fantasy and science fiction), that they border on the scary. Scary in the sense of making no sense, the horror of a topsy-turvey world. In the Eden Panel, there are the naked Adam and Eve with a clothed Jesus (ok, nothing weird yet), but the surroundings are filled with never-before-seen animals, and a really strange castle in the center. The middle portion of Earth is even worse, with a multitude of nude figures with an enormous amount of oversized birds, fruit, strange vehicles, and in the far background, even stranger creatures and weirder architecture. And the Hell portion is, well, Hell. What is all the fuss? Well, what I am saying is that the weird can be scary, and this triptych is friggin’ weird.

A recent example as to the frightening nature of the weird is the video from The Ring. There really isn’t anything scary about it. But it is shot in that off-color, with strange set pieces (ladder against a wall, centipede running through a living room, the silhouette of the tree), weird sounds, and doesn’t make much sense. But there is a malevolence running through it that is expressed via its strangeness, which fills one with unease. Unease is the first level of fear.

Mr. Hungus cited David Lynch’s Lost Highway as an example of unnerving cinema. I agree, and put forth that another Lynch classic, Blue Velvet, while also not a horror movie by any stretch, is also disturbing as the characters are nearly alien in their various versions of madness. It has always turned my insides how the characters seem to choose to follow the wrong path at every turn, how it almost doesn’t make sense.

Weird first scared me when I saw the Beatle’s Yellow Submarine. While the Beatles are about the least scary rock band in history, Yellow Submarine, with the Blue Meanies, can scare any little kid. Why? In part because the story is really weird, with really strange creatures, and makes little sense, and also because the Blue Meanies are really weird as well, and in addition, they are cruel for cruelty’s sake. Now, I don’t think Yellow Submarine is scary as an adult, it does bring me to my next observation – cruelty is scary.

Cruelty has a tremendous effect on me. That otherwise normal human beings are capable of the most inhuman acts is the terrifying part of being human. Not to wax political, but we in America are often given to the illusion that all we have wrought is good because we are good, and only the bad people have done awful things. Things that the Communists did in Russia, China, or Cambodia. Things that the Nazis did in Germany, Austria, or Poland. Or the Japanese did in the Pacific.

What is lost in this worldview is that the awful occurrences did not happen outside the purview of good people, but rather despite them, or with their assistance. Horrible human acts by otherwise normal people are not impossible. Cruelty has, more often than not, been the norm. And it percolates just below the surface of all of us. All it might take is one act, or one person, one event to bring it all up, and terrible deeds will come to pass.

Torture porn, a genre of which I am not a great fan, attempts to use cruelty for this sake, to get at us under our skins. Like in Hostel, where there is systematic kidnapping/torture/murder, the scary thing isn’t the torture itself, but that people want to torture, to maim, to kill, and even videotape it, like in Vacancy. It is scary because we are all, in the right time and place, capable of some very awful things.

For instance, the most horrible scene of cruelty in the classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes not when Leatherface is chasing anyone with his saw, but when he suddenly appears from a corridor, smashes a fellow human on the head with a mallet, and then, while the body is violently twitching, drags it inside, and then slams the door closed. It is the casual nature of the act which reinforces the cruelty. On the other hand, over time, other slashers, like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, are rendered less scary in that they only do what they do but for no other reason than that’s what they do. They do not do it out of any cruelty – they are essentially knife/axe/machete wielding zombie automatons.

Sometimes annihilation comes from large groups. Being faced with the overwhelming force of a community bent on my own destruction, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is a form of group cruelty, in that it seeks the end of my person, if not my torture. The scary aspect isn’t that they are alien plants, but that it is everyone but me. Body Snatchers is about being the last free thinking man amongst the Nazis, the Bolsheviks, or the Khmer Rouge.

The Shining is a similar dynamic, but instead of human cruelty, or reeducation via seedpod, the overwhelming forces arrayed against the Torrance family is that of ghosts through the transmitter of a sentient building, the Overlook Hotel. But that malevolence is something more seething than apparent, and only is truly manifested in the third act of the film. But it is its cruel nature, wanting sacrifices of blood, that makes the Overlook such a scary hotel.

In that vein, I think we begin to return to the unseen. I wrote my first post about The Thing by John Carpenter, and state unequivocally that it was the scariest horror movie of all time. I think that the horror from this movie is that, like Body Snatchers, the monster lurks within, with other factors elevating the terror. This is no longer an anti Communist, anti-intellectual screed (as was its titular predecessor, as well as Body Snatchers). Rather, the fright is of the psychological nature, when the civilization of the men involved breaks down (fear of madness), when they realize they no longer know each other, or truly know themselves. What could be more frightening than not knowing if you continued to be you? Couple this with the thought that if in fact you are you, at best one of your colleagues is harboring a very slimy and malevolent monster under his skin. The isolation of each character, from himself, from his friends, and from the rest of the world, is total. Personally, I think I would have flipped my lid like the character Windows, and beat a hasty trail right to the arsenal (I often think how the shotgun would vitiate most horror movies plots, but probably not The Thing).

Well, that’s about it for now, gentle reader. As Mr. Hungus asked: What scares you?


Ricky Caldwell said...

Very insightful and a pleasure to read. Keep it coming!

B-Sol said...

I agree Ray, terrific stuff. Once again, you've done the Vault a great honor by your contribution!

Christopher Zenga said...

These have been great, Thank you to the vault for continuing to bring the highest level of quality to every post.

Later days,

Christopher Zenga

Anonymous said...

RayRay - Thanks so much for the positive feedback. I have to give it up to Karl Hungus, as he inspired my own introspection.

Karl Hungus said...

Woo-hoo! I'm influential!

Seriously though, terrific piece.

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