In one of the most memorable scenes from “Apocalypse Now,” Marlon Brando, shrouded in shadow, hisses out (amidst other drug-fueled demagogic babblings) that “Horror has a face . . . and you must make a friend of Horror.” Brando’s Colonel Kurtz (and at this point in his career, Brando’s Brando) is crazy. Like, really crazy. But he’s got magnetism in spades, and the question lingers.
Well, I’ve missed Halloween by three days (a biweekly column pretty much forecloses the possibility of perfect timing) but I feel some compulsory obligation to write about Horror, especially since a certain TV columnist in last week’s Phoenix, after summarily slamming recent silver-screen scare-fare, had the audacity to insinuate that television may be taking over the ghouls-and-gore market. The problem is that this aforementioned columnist, however misplaced his faith in the telly may be, is absolutely right about the Hollywood Horror machine, which of late seems to produce naught but schlocky carelessness-cum-commodity (“Paranormal Activity 3”). Over Halloween, “Paranormal 3” brought home significantly scanter bacon than did “Puss in Boots” — which, earning over $34 million, actually scored the highest Halloween weekend ever. Truly frightening.
Further substantiating the creative poverty of domestic Horror is the highly lucrative, highly lazy and highly cynical system of the remake. Scary movies for which contemporary critics go gaga are increasingly foreign releases: “[Rec]” (2007), “The Orphanage” (2007), and “Let the Right One In” (2008), among others. Acting on some insatiate hunger for tastelessness (and perhaps, ahem, money) American directors proceed to shamelessly and artlessly remake these films. “Quarantine” (2008) is a remake of “[Rec]” and “Let me In” (2010) is . . . well, pretty intuitive. If J.J. Abrams or somebody does “The Orphanage” in the next couple years, I may stop watching movies — I might even start watching television.
So as much as I’d like to instigate a “Media Columns War” — I’ve been meaning to all semester — Horror is neither a necessary nor remotely sufficient raison de guerre. To defend the past couple years’ output would be to fight a losing battle, a short and silly one at that.
Instead, I’d like to ask why Horror still fascinates, long after its tropes have become so ostentatiously recognizable as to coalesce into self-parody (the “Scream” franchise says it all) — and whether there’s any profit to being a Horror junkie.
Which actually (confession) I’m not. I love “Alien” and tolerate “The Evil Dead,” but most Horror leaves me with a strange taste in the mouth. On Monday, to “prepare” for this column I watched a recent gem called “House of the Devil” (Ti West, 2009) which despite its terrific cinematography I can only kinda sorta recommend, so disturbing was its culmination: satanism, bloodletting, and pizza. Strange taste indeed.
So why do we continue to watch those things that most alienate, terrify, and disgust us? More significantly, why do we endeavor to collaborate in the processes of dehumanization necessary to the “slasher pic,” or the infinitely more alarming “torture pic” — processes whereby senseless murder becomes sensorial stimulus, and corpses become somehow more assimilable to our enjoyment than their living counterparts? I mean, the reality is that at the movies, it’s all fantasy — the semblance of life, the semblance of murder, the semblance of survival. But why, then, are horrific fantasies so resonant?
Stephen King, in a fun but rather frivolous essay straightforwardly entitled “Why We Crave Horror Movies” contends wink-winkingly that “we’re all mentally ill; those of us outside the asylums only hide it a little better.” Elaborating with giddy disingenuity, King says that “I like to see the most aggressive of [scary movies] — “Dawn of the Dead”, for instance — as lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.”
Well I guess I find this funny enough, but thoroughly unsatisfying — and not merely because I wish to preserve my sanity, to sequester it from a world where Wes Craven, Rob Zombie, and George Romero knowingly play zookeeper to some dank and gator-infested dungeon six feet underneath the American psyche. A collective “Id” in need of diversionary meat strikes me as pretty fatuous.
No, what I find unsatisfying, or perhaps just extremely unsettling, is the idea that the particular misogynies and sadisms of Horror cinema are pacifying rather than provocative — that they actually quell rather than catalyze fantasy — that the unspeakable “Human Centipede” (2009), for example, soothes the sociopath. I don’t know how seriously to take King’s essay, yet either way I’m at a loss — because in the end people pay to watch (and to own, and to share) “Human Centipede” and “Hostel.”
I cannot hope to meet Mr. King halfway with a comprehensive rethinking of Horror’s entrenched fascination, so instead I will end in defense of my favorite scary movie, Nicholas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” (1973). In the first five minutes, John and Laura Baxter (the inimitable Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) lose their daughter Christine, who drowns in a pond outside their family home. What ensues is a ritualized acting out of grief, the supernatural constantly reminding the Baxters of what they’ve lost, refiguring Christine’s death with visual repetitions (a child’s ball floating in the canals of Venice, glimpses of a red mackintosh similar to the one Christine wore when she drowned).
Avoiding ghoulishness, the ghost story in “Don’t Look Now” is more the telling of a present haunted by pasts and futures — how grief and death circulate about, and exceed, moments of the everyday. It is very possibly the most beautiful Horror movie ever made.
Can we forgive an entire genre its manifold dehumanizations when it occasionally catalyzes human emotions beyond rage and fear? Well no, probably not. But I do want to suggest that Horror — in seeking to interrogate outside the parameters of normality and naturalism — provides a very powerful way of viewing our families, our homes, our pasts and futures, our exhilarations and especially our losses, as fundamentally exceeding ourselves.
Nolan is a senior. You can reach him at email@example.com.