Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

The Horror, the Horror; or, I Said “Horror”, Not “Whore”

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 19, 2005

It’s that time of year again. What is it about October that makes it such a perfect time to watch horror movies? I know everyone says it’s Halloween and the various festivities surrounding it, but I have to wonder. Despite its pagan origins, Halloween has essentially become a children’s holiday, an excuse for the little ones to dress up and take candy from strangers. What does any of that have to do with our movie-watching habits?

I don’t know, but I do know that every October a semi-young film geek’s thoughts instantly turn to the scary stuff. Not that I don’t watch horror films during the rest of the year, of course. But around this time I generally don’t feel like watching much else, even movies that I’d normally be dying to see at any other time of year. Is it an annual tradition that accompanies the fall season slowly turning to winter? Or is it simple laziness on my part – “aw fuck it, it’s October, let’s watch another horror movie!” It’s not like any other genre has a particular month, like action films or documentaries or 4-hour Iranian yak-herder movies. Maybe every month should have a designated film genre, like March could be science fiction, August could go to samurai films, December could be Mexican masked wrestler movie month. What could be more appropriate for Christmas?

Seriously though, something just feels right about October and horror films, and I don’t think it has that much to do with trick-or-treating. It’s a good time to take leave of one’s normal standards and watch total crap. You can treat yourself guilt-free to such marginal entertainments as Monster Man and The Hazing (as I’ve done recently) without having to justify your tastes. It’s October, man! Serious films about the human condition can wait until next month! Why watch something critically acclaimed and life-affirming when Witchcraft 9 is on Cinemax at 3:40 a.m.?

The odd thing is, I wasn’t a lifelong horror fan. As a kid, I wasn’t really allowed to watch them (or you could say I was “strongly discouraged” from doing so) and in all honesty, I didn’t have much interest in seeing most of them. I grew up during the slasher era, in which virtually every horror film made was 84 minutes of a masked maniac running around slaughtering teenagers with farm equipment. Who wants to see that? Well, it turns out most teenagers do. But I didn’t. Yet at the same time, I could treat myself to the varied works of Charles Bronson, Sho Kosugi and Michael Dudikoff without reprisal – my parents had no problem with violence so long as it was “justified”. After all, they were “good guys” killing “bad guys”, so that’s OK, right? Right?

It wasn’t until later in life that I discovered the pleasures of horror movies, and I gobbled them up like a starving monk at a Vegas buffet table. Whether it was the classic Universal monster movies, Hammer vampire flicks, Italian giallos or low-budget zombie movies, I suddenly loved it all. I even grew an appreciation for a good slasher flick (or even a bad one, which is more likely). But only when I finally came upon the early works of David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, John Carpenter and one Mr. George A. Romero did I finally see the light. Dawn of the Dead was the real breakthrough (and I mean the original, heathens) – that was when I realized that horror could actually be more than just “killer/monster/psycho runs around and murders people”. Both a frightening vision of apocalypse and a brilliant social satire, Dawn was the movie that converted me once and for all. It took a long time to get there, but once you’ve seen Dawn of the Dead, you just can’t go back. It’s like hearing the Beatles for the first time – if you’re not a fan for the rest of your life after that, you’re just seriously misguided and need to be sent away for the good of humanity.

Yet at the same time, I’ve often felt like a lot of the diehard horror fans kind of miss the point at times. I cringe a little bit when I hear these people talk about “sweet kills” and “high body counts” and discuss excitedly how Jason, Freddy and/or Michael Myers are their “heroes”. Isn’t horror supposed to be, you know, horrifying? Isn’t the whole point that we’re supposed to be at least mildly disturbed by what we’re watching?

It’s a funny thing, but even though I consider myself a horror fan, I don’t take any particular pleasure in watching people get decapitated, dismembered or disemboweled. It doesn’t offend me, but it doesn’t get me off either. I accept it as part of the story – it comes with the territory. But that’s not what I watch these movies for. Nor am I particularly a gorehound either – I don’t mind it when it’s well done, but I don’t really need to see it either. I appreciate it more when it’s done sparingly, and for a reason, than when it’s just gratuitous. But then I also like movies like Dead Alive and Re-Animator, which are chock-full of gore. But that’s not the only thing going on in those movies either.

So why do I love horror movies so much? I think a large part of it is the atmosphere, the sense of dread and foreboding that the best ones are so great at. Not only are horror films free to be dark and twisted, they’re expected to be dark and twisted. What other genre can get away with that? I remember the stink people raised when 28 Days Later actually had the nerve to finish with – of all things – a happy ending! The fans were so disappointed that the filmmakers tacked on an alternate ending that was more suitably depressing! Is there a part of us that maybe wants to see things end in disaster and chaos? And if so, what does that say about us?

To me, horror films have always been about the inevitability of death. Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, death is always in our future – and it could come at any time. It could be 40 or 50 years from now, or it could be right around the corner. Horror films tap into not only our fear of death but also our subconscious awareness of it, and help us deal with it in a safe and unthreatening way.

Whether its antagonist is a psycho killer, vampire, werewolf or zombie, these “boogeymen” figures are personifications of Death itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the slasher film, in which the villains often don’t even have human qualities or personalities – they’re faceless automatons whose only purpose is to kill, over and over again. The recent films that tap into this most subversively are the Final Destination movies, in which the killer is literally Death itself, who doesn’t even bother to take human form. It just kills the people who are supposed to die, because that’s what Death is supposed to do. I don’t think Jason or Michael Myers are that much different – they’re just manifestations of the same concept. Their victims die not because of some grand design or master plan, but because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was their turn. That’s kind of fucked up, but isn’t death the most fucked up thing?

I know a lot of people think of Halloween as an “anti-sex” movie, but I think the truth is a little more complex than that. The more I watch it, the more I see it as a rite of passage film. Michael of course represents Death, but he also represents the insanity of adolescence. Some people survive it and some don’t. Laurie gets through not because she’s a virgin, but because she’s self-possessed enough to fight back and survive. Of course she’s freaked out (who wouldn’t be?), but she can handle it enough to get it together, whereas the others simply can’t. Laurie makes it to adulthood because she’s the strongest of them all, whether she knew it herself or not. She survives because she’s a survivor. (Of course killing her off later in Halloween: Resurrection kinda betrays that notion, but then again I prefer to forget that movie even exists.) This is generally true of all of the “Final Girls” in the various slasher movies – they live not because they happen to be virgins, but because they’re the one person there who can kick the killer’s ass. And even Death can’t stand in their way.

That’s what these movies are for the audience as well – they’re rites of passage for all of us, in a way. They allow us to face Death and survive, to spit in the face of the boogeyman. Through horror films, we can laugh at the death we all know is coming to each of us eventually, and enjoy seeing it vanquished, at least temporarily. That’s why those who cheer for the psychos are wrongheaded – no one in their right mind would root for Death. Just as in real life, we should mourn those who die young, and root for those who fight like hell to stay alive. Face the abyss, but step back from it as well. Don’t jump in. That’s what it’s really all about. That’s how you survive.

All right, let’s briefly cover the movies I’ve seen recently but haven’t had time to write full reviews for:

The Exorcism of Emily Rose – I was pretty amazed that the Sunday afternoon showing I went to was 99% teenagers. Screen Gems apparently did a hell of a job selling them on a slow-moving courtroom drama starring Laura Linney, Campbell Scott and Tom Wilkinson! How did that happen? Anyway, I thought the movie was OK but not much more than that. Despite the filmmakers’ attempts to take the subject matter seriously, it still comes off as pretty hokey stuff. Let’s face it, there will never be an exorcism movie as good as Friedkin’s, and maybe they should just stop trying. I would’ve liked to see a movie about the real case, which was based on a girl in Germany in the 1940’s – the need to Americanize and modernize it just made it seem generic. It’s decently acted and competently made, but it’s just hard to take this stuff seriously in this day and age. I believe Bill Maher said it best – “evil today isn’t Salem’s Lot, it’s Trent Lott.” Nice try though. **1/2

Lord of War – surprisingly good film, extremely underrated. Nicolas Cage hasn’t been this good in years. It’s actually a film about war that can be supported by both sides of the political aisle (unless you’re one of those people who thinks that selling illegal arms to violent dictators is a good thing). Strong film, well worth catching up with. ***1/2

Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride – slight but fun little animated movie. Amazing how Burton can take such normally disturbing things and make them not just palatable but cute. It’s not often you see the subject of necrophilia tackled by family films! ***

Serenity – I enjoyed the TV show, but I wouldn’t call myself a “Browncoat” or anything (we need a name like that for Veronica Mars fans). Still, I thought the movie turned out pretty well, even if I wouldn’t call it “the greatest sci-fi adventure since the original Star Wars”. Too bad nobody besides the fan base turned out for it, but I think these actors do have big-screen potential (particularly Kaylee – she’s so cute, especially when she’s horny). At least the fans got one last adventure, and an entertaining one at that. ***

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit – just sheer absolute fun. I love the fact that it looks like a cartoon, not some slick, overproduced CGI piece of crap that’s meant to look like reality. Cartoons aren’t supposed to look like reality! Really clever and very, very funny at times, never obnoxious or overbearing for a second. My nephew knew nothing of Wallace & Gromit going in, and he loved it too. Take your kids, take your friends, take your kids’ friends, take your friends’ kids. This is how you do an animated film! (I never saw Madagascar, so I was a little puzzled by the penguin short; since when do old Jewish ladies celebrate Christmas?) ***1/2

That’s it for now. I’ll be back soon with my review of The Fog remake (in one word: ugh) as well as many more reviews to come. Talk to you soon!

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