Wednesday, October 3, 2007
I love October! Indian Summer and rich autumnal colors and the cool evening air and leaves cascading from the trees and the World Series and Trick-Or-Treating and splatter films and torture por--er, uh, ah....
I hate October. Or at least what has become an elemental part of it, when Hollywood whips out the cutlery and aims for the vital organ of choice. I detest previews in general and around this time of year I positively dread the coming attractions in both theaters and on TV of the latest incarnation of Saw an Alien and a Predator in a Hostel around Halloween on Friday the 13th along with the Living Dead, as if the prospect of Good Luck Chuck wasn't terrifying enough.
Stephen King once made a case that horror is virtually the only genre where you can consistently get away with an unhappy ending. This may be true as far as novels are concerned. My problem with horror movies, however, is that they never end--they mutate and spawn endless sequels, remakes, or remakes of sequels. A more intriguing argument is that horror movies are particularly reflective of our culture during times of war, but as the original Freddy/Jason/Michael Myers oeuvre came out in the late-70s and all through the 80s, I don't completely buy that one either. However one feels about the Reagan Era, Rambo and Ahnold are far more representative icons of that time period than a knife-wielding maniac in a hockey mask.
Horror is my least favorite genre for mainly two reasons. It is filled with women who, it seems, must be disembowled (when a well-aimed neg would do), and it is almost totally devoid of humor. Which is why, for its first few seasons at least, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was such a tonic in that it turned the "Mary Sue" slasher-and-the-bimbo scenario on its head and filled it with laughing gas. Similarly, the film Shaun of the Dead imported to its tale of zombies on the rampage the humor from a British comedy of manners and concluded (after the gore) on a surprisingly hopeful note.
A recent mutation of the genre--and the fraternal twin of its other recent offspring, what David Edelstein dubbed "torture porn"--is what may be called the "New Age" horror movie. The specialty of M. Night Shyamalan (who had been hailed as everything from The Next Hitchcock to The Next Spielberg, and not just by himself), the New Age horror film only pretends to scare you shitless; its real agenda is to soften you up for an addled spiritual message that carries all the conviction you'd expect from a faith healer. As quite a bit of the hot air has gone out of Shyamalan's sails following the diminishing returns of Signs, The Village, and The Lady in the Water, and considering the fair amount of grief I took whenever admitting I disliked his initial triumph, The Sixth Sense (and from guessing the "surprise" ending from the previews), I'm proud that I called him out for a charlatan from the start. Unlike most who dabble in the horror genre, Shyamalan's not a hack. He has a good eye for where to put the camera (though a tin ear to undermine it) and has enough evangelical zeal for his own hokey ideas that he will never be shy of True Believers.
Oddly, both misogyny and mirthlessness are both on display in perhaps what I consider the best pure horror movie, The Exorcist. But that film was adapted from a novel by William Peter Blatty which, whatever its flaws, had sincere spiritual convictions. (Incidentally, though The Exorcist isn't the most telling example, Blatty, as the screenwriter of A Shot in the Dark--one of the first Inspector Clouseau movies--and the writer-director of the metaphysically slapstick The Ninth Configuration, has a little-appreciated comic sensibility.) Moreover, the film contained director William Friedkin's recurring motif of the Self-Immolating Male, personified by Father Karras's plunge through the window at its climax. Kael was right that Friedkin's objective was to work you over; what she failed to grasp was that he was punishing himself even harder.
What do all of you think of horror films? What am I missing in terms of their appeal, and what are some of your favorites?