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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Horror is honesty. 

That’s not to say horror is the TRUTH. Horror is HONESTY. These are two seperate things.

There are no pretensions in horror. There are no places to hide. It’s about stripping away your hiding places and becoming your naked, bare-ass self in the face of something bigger and badder than you. There are no defenses. Horror is about stripping away your shields and seeing what’s left.

Can “what’s left” survive the worst the world has to offer? When all the rules and conventions and parameters of society are stripped away, when it becomes nothing but primal survival (mental or physical), do we really have what it takes?

There is no room for the endless self-referential wink-fests that are Scream and its ilk in real horror. Those are dishonest movies. They wallow in the conventions of the genre and behave in such a way that they do not allow the viewers to have an honest thought or feeling about any of its characters or proceedings. No emotional attachment is invested; therefore no visceral shocks are possible. Nothing hits you in the gut. Nothing is memorable… the best these movies can supply you in the way of primal impact are the too-commonly-used jump-scares, as well as excessively messy and inventive deaths.

But you know what? Any schmuck with a digital editing suite can create a jump-scare in about 20 minutes. Show someone walking slowly. Introduce silence. Then quickly jump-cut with a screeching soundtrack… voila. You’ve just made a $15 million movie for Dimension Films.

The result of this trend is an obsession with mechanical one-upsmanship in horror movies. What was once perhaps the most intimate of genres, what people allowed to slip further into their reptile brain more than any other style of fiction, is now a laundry list of mechanical fetishism. And mechanical fetishism makes a spectator sport out of horror film; when we are keeping tally, when we are observing the story rather than experiencing it, we are disconnected.

This is a disservice. I’d go so far as to call it a sin.

I call the modern crop of slasher-horror movies “WB Stars in Peril.” The actors chosen are meant to provide a sort of emotional shorthand; WBSP movies put bland-but-known actors into key roles, so that the aimed-for audience of teenagers can instantly identify and empathize with the characters on screen. This provides the director and screenwriter reprieve from having to flesh out characters we actually give a shit about.

(Here’s what I don’t get: why are R-rated horror movies perpetually aimed at an audience that cannot see them without a parent or guardian? More and more you find studios chopping movies down to PG-13 so the “valuable” 15 Year-Old Dumbass dollar can be obtained, which of course neuters a good horror film of its impact. What the hell happened to making movies for adults? Are we really so certain adults are “done” with being scared?)

Name actors, no matter how small their name is, are a mistake; would we have cared as much about Cole in The Sixth Sense if he was played by a better-known child actor? Probably not. Recognizing name faces, name actors, pulls us out of the experience of the horror film. We again become detached. That’s no longer a scared teenage girl running from a psycho with a mask made of flesh; that’s Jessica Biel, and that’s how we know her and refer to her character. She is no longer the anonymous any-girl; she’s a fucking Revlon model.

Don’t even get me fucking started on the prolonged necrophiliac date-rape that is Dark Castle Entertainment. I used to think you were an ally back in the days of your Tales from the Crypt episodes, Zemeckis, but no more. That’s line-in-the-sand shit right there.

I think of Scream and its ilk, and its fetishism of function over form, and its total disregard for the visceral experience. Kevin Williams, Joss Whedon – these men do not see the forest for the trees. They’re too busy being cute and “playing” with conventions they do not understand the meaning of or use for.

I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s closing comments on Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho:

I viewed Hitchcock's "Psycho" a week ago. Attending this new version, I felt oddly as if I were watching a provincial stock company doing the best it could without the Broadway cast. I was reminded of the child prodigy who was summoned to perform for a famous pianist. The child climbed onto the piano stool and played something by Chopin with great speed and accuracy. The great musician then patted the child on the head and said, "You can play the notes. Someday, you may be able to play the music."

It’s too bad. What do you remember more from Silence of the Lambs? All the gore, or Lecter slithering his tongue? The guts, or Buffalo Bill fucking with Starling with his night-vision goggles? Do you remember the blood and guts or do you remember Lecter being wheeled out in straitjacket and mask? Do you remember viscera, or do you remember a chilling line of dialogue?

That is DREAD. The feeling of IMPENDING HORROR. IMPLIED menace, as opposed to “gratification” horror that is modern bloodsplattery. Horror that threatens knowingly, the kind of thing that lets you know you are in out of your depth, no one can help you… and as intimately as you know this, so does your predator. John Carpenter understood this concept and employed it perfectly in Halloween; that movie was 95% dread and 5% gratification.

The result is a dishonesty from filmmakers and a disconnection from audiences. I bet every single one of you has been in a good, suspenseful movie, only to hear some 17 year old jackass crack a laugh at a particularly tense moment, to prove how cool he is. Do I believe this is because we’ve all become desensitized to violence? On the contrary, I think we’re more pitifully equipped to cope with violence than ever; hence the faux-cool response meant to express detachment. Congratulations, parents of America: our children are completely incapable of expressing an honest emotion in public, even an emotion completely appropriate (yes, even paid for) to the situation.

The best horror is honest, and bare bones. Convoluted plots can work, but the question you must ask yourself is: if you strip away the plot and the window dressing, is the theme still alive and pumping? Is the engine of the story still intact? If so, we have good horror.

Look at Psycho, look at Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These are the godparents of the modern slasher film, which for better or worse is the forerunner of modern horror. (Both, along with Silence, were based in part on the same real life incident, as well.) Hitchcock kept his filming of Psycho deliberately low-budget and low-rent, preferring a general shabbiness to the slickness prevalent in modern horror. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the absolute antithesis of slick technique, and yet any five-minute stretch of it is more memorable, more nerve-frayingly horrific, than entire running lengths of horror films made today. The package of a movie, its presentation, should reflect the state of mind of the characters and, by extension, the audience. Movies that look like music videos simply cannot suck you in as effectively, though some modern movies (such as Saw) are starting to get the idea.

There’s a pretty good article in a recent issue of Esquire that tackles this very idea, as it relates to American remakes of popular Japanese horror movies. The remakes, according to the article, miss the basic point: the Japanese movies rely on some form of incoherency, of randomness, of uncertainty, to generate their horror. American remakes are too obsessed with creating mechanical plot point after mechanical plot point, dragging the audience around by its nose and forcing coherency and rationality where there ought not be any. Indeed, the absence of rationality is the source of horror for these movies; sooner or later, the remakes may realize the concept translates over the Pacific.

This is why the crop of horror video games doesn’t work, especially those “survival horror” games from Capcom. Naturally I’m thinking of Resident Evil, that cribs so heavily from Romero and yet fails utterly to grasp that Romero’s stories are simple and streamlined and very, very basic. Their plots take no more than a sentence to summarize. Horror video games, with some notable exceptions, concentrate too much on elaborate plot and melodrama; dread and fear are almost by-products, or interruptions for long cut-scenes of tedious revelation after revelation. And their scares are so often only the lame jump-scare.

Horror is honesty. Horror is the genre we allow past all our defenses; it is a story form meant to engross more than almost any other. As such, it requires consent from both sides: honesty from the storyteller, and honesty from the audience. Even humor, our last and most vital defense, becomes yet another tool for the horror storyteller to inform, to show, to bludgeon you over the fucking head with their truth.

Are you honest enough for horror?

(Some good reading:

An article from the New Yorker on Halloween: H20 and the evolution of the series and its audience.

Ebert reviews of Psycho, both original and remake.)

ADDENDUM: That's Kevin Williamson, not Kevin Williams. I don't know if I have a mental block or something, but I always fuck that guy's name up.

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