18 October 2010

Horror For All!

As Stephen King pointed out in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, horror comes in three flavors: Terrify, Horrify, and Gross-out. Gross-out is self-explanatory, best represented by films like the Saw series (which will plague us for, hopefully, the last time with this year's installment), Turistas, and anything made by Herschell Gordon Lewis, the Godfather of Gore. Horrify is less obvious, but just as straightforward in concept; it refers to what's commonly called the jump scare, anything that's only really scary because it startles us with its abruptness and unexpectedness, playing on our flight-or-fight response hardwired into our very being by evolution itself. Terrify, lastly, is the hardest to describe as it relies neither on visual stimuli or instinctive reactions to make itself known. Rather, it works by what it doesn't do but makes you think it will.
One might think, then, that this makes for three different types of horror movies, one for each form of fright. However, in terms of horror movies, there's more like two, with Terrify serving as a kind of guiding principle for the other two to follow. In fact, Terrify is so vague as a principle that some of its best cinematic examples are not even horror movies. Films of the Gross-Out variety, on the other hand, tend to "preach to the choir" so to speak, while those of the Horrify ilk rise above the one-trick pony quality of their gory kin and tend to draw the bigger crowds.
What follows, in honor of having only 13 days until Halloween, is a list of films that favor the Terrify variety of horror, and only occasionally employ the Horrify strategy, but all generally steer clear of the Gross-Out ideology. In other words, these are horror movies that really anyone can enjoy; not many people like to get grossed out, but deep down, almost everyone likes to get scared on some level, even if only at one particular time, like a certain holiday.

This Oscar-nominated anthology based on Japanese legends collected and published by Lafcadio Hearn is as eerie as it is beautiful. Japan as a nation was something of a Johnny-come-lately when it came to color in its cinema, having been completely left out of the Technicolor era. That said, when they came on the scene, they hit the ground running, hitting their full stride by the time Kaidan (sometimes spelled "Kwaidan" due to the translational sensibilities of the time) reached screens. The sets look like sets, it's true, but what sets they are. Admittedly, I've only seen two of the four segments that comprise the film, but even just one of them is worth the price of admission and I'll probably be celebrating Halloween by checking out the other two. The two parts I saw were "The Woman of the Snow," where a happily-married woodsman admits a terrible secret to his wife, only for her to have one for him as well, and "Hoichi the Earless," where a blind musician is asked by a mysterious visitor to play for a most uncanny audience.

Not many would consider Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey to be a horror film, nevermind that most of the story involves a group of astronauts trapped on a claustrophobic ship run by a sentient computer with full control of the airlocks, life support, and (most importantly) any and all communications with anyone who might be able to do anything to help in case, say, said computer were driven homicidal by a small oversight in teaching it the difference between being asleep and being dead. In Andrei Tarkovsky's "Anti-2001" film Solaris, it's not the computer onboard that one should be weary of, nor even the enigmatic and alien ocean below, but of one's own demons within, or rather, what the aforementioned ocean makes of those inner demons. For reasons never fully explained, the ocean of the eponymous planet is able to make physical representations of people from the crew members' respective pasts. The trouble is, the ocean doesn't quite get many of the details right. It's not its fault, though; it's working from their memories... and consciences.

There's quite a bit of hate out there for this film, and, for the life of me, I don't understand exactly why. In a way, it's the perfect kind of horror movie; it takes a simple premise (in horror terms, a common fear) and runs with it. In the case of The Forgotten, the base fear that makes up the premise has to do with paranoia, the feeling that some unseen force has an agenda against you and you are completely powerless against it, coupled with the possibility that the whole thing may be merely self-delusion. In the film, Julianne Moore plays Telly, a mother grieving the loss of her son, the exact circumstances of which are not only mysterious, but ever-changing, from a plane crash at the age of nine to a miscarriage that many years earlier. Admittedly, the execution of the film's "What's real and what isn't?" motif is fundamentally flawed, but the performances keep you invested in spite of that.
My only beef with the film is that I've somewhat already seen it before, albeit in a rather unlikely place, the 5th episode of the 4th season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Entitled "Remember Me," the story centers on Dr. Beverly Crusher unknowingly trapped in a failed warp bubble experiment wherein members of the ship's crew sporadically disappear without anyone giving any notice or having any memory of them ever existing. It aired on the 22nd of October in 1990, fourteen years before the release of The Forgotten. The two share a similar premise, and both feature a strong female lead (both redheads, oddly enough). They even share a subtext in the form of romantic tensions between the leads and their male counterparts, Crusher and Picard in the case of Star Trek, and Telly and Ash in The Forgotten. I wonder if screenwriter Gerald Di Pego is a Trekkie?

I feel like I've talked endlessly about these "faux first-person footage" films and, for those of you that have endured reading those reviews of mine, it may seem a bit strange that I'd recommend one in any favorable light. Put simply, of all the Blair films out there, this is one of the best. Most of the scenes in the film are locked-off shots. That is, the camera is mounted on a tripod and left "unmanned" by any sort of camera operator. The angles favor function over flattery and certainly aren't intended to hide or obscure anything. Though seen as a weakness in comparison to other Blair films, this lack of ambiguity works in the film's favor and while we may never see the entity in question, there's certainly no question about what it is, what it wants, and how far it's willing to go to get it.

The fear of dying is arguably the most common and universal fear that plagues humanity. Almost all of our actions are dictated, driven, and motivated by the singular principle that we are mortal, and that mortality is fickle and unpredictable. Flatliners centers around a group of medical students obsessed with death, namely patients who have actually experienced it or situations not far removed from it, with one patient having once been declared legally dead for four-and-a-half minutes. The students, using their medical knowledge, endeavor to "explore" the great unknown by way of inducing near-death states of being. They each are revived, luckily and in the nick of time, each having a different and unique experience of "the other side." The trouble is, they don't leave those experiences behind when they come back. What's great about this film is that, because the fear it centers upon is essentially that of the unknown, it really doesn't matter what your personal beliefs are going in. I don't personally believe in the afterlife, but that didn't make the film any less terrifying. For me, the real moments of fear and tension are in the CPR sessions where the students bring each other back their states of near-death.

Part of the reason why this film seems to have such a wide appeal beyond the normal crop of horror fans is that it's really so unlike any other horror film to come before or since. Stanley Kubrick has never been one to work within the confines of genres, ignoring their far-too familiar tropes and cliches yet still staying respectful to them and not straying too far from the path. The Shining stands as a kind of horror psychology test, with different people seeing the film in different lights. For some, it's a ghostly, haunted house story of the most supernatural variety. For others, it's a psychological thriller about the effects of isolation, where . For others still, it may be both of these things, or neither. Whatever the overall interpretation, it's a textbook example of the best kind of horror movie, taking a simple premise and running with it.

I actually debated whether or not to include this one, and I'm not going to have that much to say about it, and what I do say will be the result of a mental strain to find the right words. Don't get me wrong, The Mothman Prophecies is an effective horror movie, but the way its horror works is so different from the other entries on this list that it stands as having an unfair advantage over them. Whereas the other films are ultimately works of fiction, though some more thoroughly researched than others, this film is only a slight dramatization of a book that chronicles and collects the accounts of residents of the otherwise-sleepy little town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, of a series of seemingly unconnected events culminating in an unquestionably tragic event not forgotten today. The film is well-made enough on its own merits, but having the backlog of lore, skepticism, and facts sets it above any other attempt in cinema to capture the essence of human fear. The fears are real because the people are real. Say what you will about what they believe they saw, but that makes it no less real to them, their fear of it no less real.
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