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Archive for October, 2010

Mark Gatiss’s ‘A History of Horror’

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

This is a very brief rundown of my thoughts on a largely excellent series…

Parts One and Two were, I thought, heartfelt and exhaustively-researched. I thoroughly enjoyed the material on Hammer (I’m not old enough to remember Hammer in its heyday, but I have a place in my heart for the best of the studio’s output) and agreed with the premise – that horror was hugely influenced by the studio during this era. The interviews, observations and exclusive footage were just wonderful.

I was delighted to see a mention for Blood On Satan’s Claw during this episode – and likewise  Witchfinder General – two period horrors which introduced a consummate nastiness missing in earlier British films.

Part Three was more problematic for me. I certainly agreed with a lot of its choices; certainly Night of the Living Dead has had a huge influence on modern horror, even spawning a new subgenre, and Rosemary’s Baby set the bar very high for occult/secret society paranoia flicks. My personal opinion on Psycho is that it’s a good film, but overrated, but regardless – lots of the films mentioned were credible and important.

I think my major problem is with the rushed (and frankly incorrect) conclusion of the series. The sense of Gatiss’s conclusion was thus: there were lots of good horror films in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Since then there have only been isolated examples of good horror. But surely all of the films Gatiss mentions as great horrors of the 50s-70s stood alone to a large extent, hence their ability to revolutionise the horror genre or otherwise go the distance? Films certainly don’t have to derive from large studios to have merit. Indie horror has created some absolute fucking gems in recent years! I can only assume that time and money forced this somewhat trite dismissal of later horror – a dismissal which ultimately doesn’t make sense, especially in omitting a decent mention of Argento, Fulci, Ossorio, Franco, and other contemporaries of the big-budget 70s films (love them or loathe them), whilst declaring that modern films tend to go in for lazy torture porn unfairly ignores those films which emphatically do not. To say ‘you get the odd good film’ is equally true of the earlier periods of film history, and it is a shame to allow nostalgia to warp your appreciation of/understanding of a still vibrant, creative and innovative genre. ‘Torture porn’ is something that I bitterly complain of in modern films (see last post), but there is a wealth of non-torture-based horror out there, and some of these films will be the classics of the future – though largely ignored now, just as some of Gatiss’s favourites were in their day.

A Modern Cliché

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

I recently attended the 2nd Bram Stoker International Film Festival in Whitby, North Yorkshire…if you want a full appraisal of the festival, please check out my report on the Brutal as Hell website (and seriously, if you aren’t already reading this site – get it together!)

One thing which struck me there – in terms of the presence of new horror clichés – is the phenomenon of people being tied to chairs. I’d estimate around two in every five films involved this already-hackneyed motif. And how? Where did this come from? Have you ever known anyone get tied to a chair? It’s possible you have, but I maintain that the whole thing’s pretty unlikely.

Having created the endurance horror genre (I am again deliberately shying away from the ‘torture porn’ tag as I have some issues with describing these films as ‘porn’) I think filmmakers needed a slow scene – a focus for the mental suffering of their main characters, and a moment of excrutiating pause. In terms of camera-work, it also makes sense to have a character suffering in one place – perhaps with a great deal of harm being inflicted on them, but happily static and easy to record. This is, however, a pretty lazy way to handle the same theme over and over.

If you doubt what I’m saying – come on, how many people do you know who own a length of rope? Perhaps that’s a bridge too far…okay, do you know where to buy rope in your town? If you bought some, could you co-ordinate an attack on your would-be enemy’s house and find an appropriate place to tie them up? Can you even tie knots?  Does it not seem strange to you that this plot device is now routinely rolled out in so many horror films, often with little explanation, and just as if there is no other way to communicate dread and power imbalance in cinema? My heart sinks when I see this happening in films, and they often lose me after this point…

There are variations on this theme – sometimes the bad guys use strips of fabric instead of rope, and sometimes victims are cunningly tied to pillars or similar instead of chairs – but all in all, if Bad People target Basically Good People then someone’s going to get their wrists chafed.  It’s become part of the horror lexicon in recent years, so just as there’s a Maniac at the Window and a Last Girl, there’s a Twat Who Has Been Tied Up, even if the mechanics of this procedure are beyond the logic of most of the films – realism or not!

Be aware, filmmakers – there are others like me. If we see a character tied to a chair in your films, we may just assume you’re a tad lazy and unimaginative. We may even start with the knowing giggling. Think of a different way to communicate the idea of powerlessness which doesn’t depend on the presence of decent hardware stores and planning capabilities. After all, this schtick is often in so-called realist horror films, but you’d as well depict a monster rampage in the Home Counties as depict a wave of villains who were once apparently Boy Scouts.

Why horror?

Monday, October 11th, 2010

As I suggested in a recent post here, horror movies have long had their detractors. Links have repeatedly been suggested between violence in film and violence in real life (anyone reading in the UK will remember the Bulger case, and how the phantom of the murderers’ viewing habits was raised yet again after their recent releases) and for many, the possibility of copycat crime is still very real. Hell, Blockbuster Video even disposed of the horror genre in their stores altogether in the not-too-distant past – replacing it with ‘thrillers’ or something similar, and even insisting on their own cuts to movies in order to agree to stock them. Horror became the genre that dare not speak its name.

Blockbuster’s prudishness aside, things seem vastly better in the present day. Horror is thriving. Enforcing outright bans on films is made tricky by the presence of torrent sites (rights and wrongs of not-paying-per-view aside) even in those far rarer instances when the BBFC get it wrong, for the BBFC of today is a far more tolerant animal than the BBFC of the 1980s. We also have a burgeoning DVD and Blu-Ray industry making releases, re-releases and remasters easily available, aided and abetted of course by the internet, with its wealth of sources and (ahem) a large online community of vocal fans.

All this said, the possibility of censorship and outright bans has never gone away. Horror movies still fill certain sections of the population with bemusement and sometimes outright disgust. The insinuation remains that there must be something wrong with people who want to watch this kind of thing…well, allowing for the fact that ‘horror’ is a huge genre which is growing increasingly broader, I’ve always been a passionate defender of horror films, and a believer in adults having access to any material they wish: we know the difference between fantasy and reality, after all, and as such horror should be just as permissible as any fantasy medium. And so on, ad infinitum.

What my defence of horror doesn’t do is to explain my own interest in and passion for horror movies. Okay, I want the genre to be accessible to all adults and I don’t believe for a second that the genre can be blamed for crimes, or similar. That’s all established, but it says nothing about my tastes, and it now strikes me as strange that I’ve never really took the time to consider something so integral to my personal life. My usual glib response – that I was born very close to Halloween  – doesn’t quite cut it, does it?

So why horror? Why do I, or you, or we, variously enjoy sitting through depictions of torture, murder, agony, fear, unequal threat, malevolent supernatural forces, unstoppable foes, psychological trauma or insanity?

There is a good deal of academic study which suggests reasons for the enduring appeal of horror, both in literature and in film: writers like Julia Kristeva and Judith Halberstam, to name but two, are theorists on the subject. However, this ain’t an academic essay, and although I may overlap with existing theory in some places, the following thoughts are things which make sense to me, as a horror viewer.

Firstly, I think horror is a safe arena, a place to play out dimensions of human experience which have been largely excised from everyday life, or which remain a real, unwanted danger if they haven’t. Death itself, for instance, has largely disappeared from the domestic sphere. We have industries and protocols for dealing with the dead where once the deceased would be laid out at home after being nursed at home, and would be washed and dressed by (usually female) members of the family. But even though death has been co-opted by officialdom, it’s there still – as are all the experiences and feelings surrounding the subject. There seems to be a part of the human psyche which needs to reacquaint itself with death and suffering – perhaps satisfying some manifestation of the ‘forewarned is forearmed’ idea, or at least playing with mankind’s morbid fascination for its own limitations. People will crane their necks to look at roadside accidents on account of this morbid streak; horror movies allow people to safely and harmlessly explore dangerous, tragic and unsettling events without actually gawking at real tragedy. It’s a vicarious means to explore human concerns which – especially for Westerners – we routinely repress or remove.

Death and suffering never leave our sides, but there are other pressing concerns played out via the medium of horror films which do change over time: Communist paranoia gave us the horror of soulless automata and the in-group/out-group anxiety of films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers; mindless consumerism gave us Dawn of the Dead and They Live; corporate corruption brought us Alien. As the mindless consumerism motif gave way to the AIDS panic, the contagion aspect of zombification was brought to the fore – now zombies were virus-carriers, and they could chase you. Again, horror films reflect and refract current social fears, ramping up the impact with allegorical monsters, fantastical situations and an emphasis on humans attempting to make sense of their situations – and to survive. By engaging with current concerns and fears through a responsive medium, people can try to make sense of the world they live in. That ‘torture porn’ has been so prevalent in recent years suggests that modern times are difficult times indeed, and that people feel significantly disempowered…

But that is only part of the puzzle. As much as horror fluctuates according to what’s going on in the world at large, it would never have its enduring appeal if it didn’t also entertain us! People like stories, have done since time immemorial, and for millennia stories have made no distinction between the gruesome and the uplifting. Think of the fate of Prometheus in Ancient Greek myth – punished for stealing fire from the gods by being bound to a rock, where an eagle pecked out and ate his liver every day – only for it to grow back in time for a similar fate the following day. To return to my first point, death and suffering were part of everyday life and this was amplified in traditional storytelling. Stories have always been ambiguous, and it’s only in relatively modern times that we’ve trimmed away all the disconcerting parts of tales. To illustrate this, let’s remember that Cinderella’s ugly sisters hacked off their toes in the original story, in their efforts to wear the slipper…

Perhaps, then, it is horror’s detractors who are aberrant, and, in promoting a sanitised version of the world, deliberately misunderstand human nature. Like all good storytelling, horror balances the gruesome with drama, humanity, catharsis and black comedy; there is pain and suffering, and there is also redemption and solidarity in abundance. Horror works because it works with human concerns, is responsive to change, and permits vicarious experiences in a safe, entertaining format where – if it’s a good movie – a good story is married to a willing suspension of disbelief. It’s not just children who need or like tales, and as a horror fan, I still like the imaginative world woven around the genre. So, for me, THAT’S ‘why horror’…