August 6th, 2005


Scary monsters and superfreaks

I know someone who refuses to watch horror films under any circumstances. He believes that any artistic merit they might have is outweighed by the danger of allowing those "poisonous images" into your head. The world is full of things to fear, he reasons, why wallow in the bad dreams of others?

I can't say I entirely disagree with him. I've never been a horror fan. I don't really understand why people enjoy being scared by, or, worse, desensitized to, images of brutality and death. On the other hand as a film fan I cannot ignore the horror genre. It was home to some of the great masterpieces of early film making, such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , and it was a large part of the cinematic renaissance of the 1970's. Since then horror has slipped somewhat into an abyss of commercialism and "teen scare" movies, but it remains one of the most cinematic genres. A Victorian novel of manners may be able to express the attitudes of that age better than any film, but it's hard for a book to match the raw visceral thrills and chills of what can be achieved on screen.

That being said it's important to differentiate between horror as art and horror as entertainment. As an art form horror can illuminate parts of the human experience that no other genre can touch on as effectively. For example in George Romero's famous "Of the Dead" series, human relationships and humanity itself are thrown into power relief by the inhumanity of the zombies. Romero makes a strong statement that humans are not defined by their physical makeup, but likewise they are not free of it. Again and again in the series we see good characters bitten, infected, and turned into murderous beasts with no hope of reprieve. Death is a brutal unavoidable force constantly smashing at the doors and windows of our lives, trying to get in, and eventually, it will. There is also great social satire in these pieces, but the commentary on human nature is what strikes me most.

The "Alien" movies use a different paradigm to comment on humanity. They are closely tied to tales of Pandora's Box, stating that in the unknown of space human curiosity and greed could have devastating consequences, even as they do here on earth. They also routinely pit faceless corporations bent on profit against actual people bent on survival and make a strong statement about how far the two groups' goals diverge from one another.

Good horror does that. It uses fear and horrific images to force one to confront the world around us and the dark aspects of humanity. Bad horror doesn't even try.

This is the distinction that my friend doesn't make. He sees all horror films as gore and scarefests aimed mostly at punishing audiences. Bad horror does just that. What's entertaining about a camera zoomed in tight on some poor dope's face as he wanders around towards his death? It doesn't take cinematic skill or talent to have things leap out loudly from the shadows and attack people. It's like an extended middle school prank. I've heard the argument that horror films allow us to experience our worst fears and leave them behind in the theater. To exorcise demons. I don't really believe that to be true. The monsters that plague us these days are often cinematic, and Freddie Kreuger has given people bad nights of sleep far away from the confines of Elm Street.

Ultimately the genre of horror is no different than any other. It can be exploitative or it can be art. One of the sad things about modern Hollywood is its abandonment of artistic horror for things like House of Wax . Those movies aren't much better than death porn, gruesome equivalents of the Roman coliseum. Somewhere out there, however, there are great horror films waiting to be made about things like detainment, unchecked power, and the depraved things humans are capable of when morality loses its grip. I just hope they'll be able to find the right audience when they come, one who sees on-screen bloodletting not as entertainment but as social statement, and horrific monsters not as mere fantastic beasts of amusement, but as symbols of what some people would look like if we could only see inside.
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