Sunday, June 10, 2012

Where Did This Blog Go?

I received an inquiry recently about what has become of this blog. My last post was in April, and now it's June--this after maintaining a fairly steady output of at least one post per week for more than a year.

There are several reasons for this. The main one is that I am working on an entirely different book from Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, and the new book is occupying all my spare time. The new book has nothing in particular to do with horror or films, so it's not appropriate to discuss it here. One result of this project has been to take my attention temporarily off horror films.

Another reason for stepping away from the blog is that The Human Centipede II, the last horror film I watched (and reviewed in my last post), was such a terrible movie. After seeing that, I didn't feel like seeing any new horror films for a while. This is not a new phenomenon; the same thing happened back in 1989 when I saw the atrocious Fly II. It passed then; I am sure it will pass now.

I hope to return when my work on the new book is completed and my horror juices have been replenished. Until then, thank you for your interest.

George Ochoa

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Human Centipede Takes a Wrong Turn

I was a fan of The Human Centipede (First Sequence) and defended it against detractors. But the sequel, The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (2011), is a disappointment.


The basic problem is that the sequel is just a gorier parody of the original. The original was not particularly gory at all, using wit and suggestion to evoke the horror of the deformed destructive being (DDB), which was a combination of a mad scientist and his creation, three people sewn together mouth to anus to form a single digestive tract. In the sequel, there is no mad scientist, just a mad parking attendant named Martin, who is obsessed with making a human centipede of his own after watching it done in the original movie.

Since Martin, unlike the original mad scientist, is not a surgeon, he conducts his surgery with ordinary household tools and a whack from a crowbar as an anesthetic. In the spirit of excess, he makes his human centipede with twelve people, not three. The movie is much gorier than the original, showing all the details of the homemade surgery, from knocking out teeth to stapling mouths to rear ends. (I saw the unrated version and don't know what this all looked like in other versions.) This is slightly comic, and frequently disgusting, but it is never horrific. There was more to fear in the original mad scientist's speech and diagram of how he would do the surgery than in watching it done.

Then there is Martin himself. Morbidly obese, he is not much of a pleasure to watch, especially because we often have to watch him naked or nearly naked. Again, this is not horrific, just unpleasant.

The movie is in black-and-white except for certain brown splats on the screen that indicate the digestive system of the human centipede is working. This type of joke would go well in a scatological teen comedy, but it seems out of place here.

George Ochoa
Author
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

Saturday, April 7, 2012

God and Horror Movies

Just in time for Passover and Easter, here is a meditation on God and horror movies.


Not all horror movies explicitly involve God, but many do, such as The Exorcist. As pictured above, the deformed destructive being (DDB) in the film--the demon possessing the little girl Regan--is confronted by an adversary who is an authorized agent of God, a man of the cloth, Fr. Merrin. God stands in opposition to the DDB, and the divine agents are heroic, in contrast to the evil monstrousness of the DDB.

This opposition is widespread in the vampire subgenre. Dracula and other vampires are regularly confronted by vampire hunters wielding crosses, who are thus made de facto agents of God. The cross seems to be painful, fearful, even acidic to the vampire, showing his subordination to the power of God. Again, God is opposed to the DDB.

But the question left unanswered in all such stories is why God, who is supposed to be all-powerful, permits the existence of the DDBs at all. This is a version of the classic theological problem of evil, which has never been solved with sufficient finality to stop it from being raised again and again.

One possible answer that the horror movie offers is that God sends DDBs to punish wrongdoers. This is the apparent position of all such films, such as Frankenstein, in which a mad scientist transgresses against God's law (eg, by creating a DDB), and is punished for his transgression (eg, by having the DDB go berserk on him). But curiously, in such a film, the DDB stands in the position of agent of God--a punitive agent, but an agent nonetheless. Far from being opposed to DDBs, in such films, God seems to use them--even, perhaps, like them. And if he likes them, is it possible he is like them?

The horror movie begins to present the possibility that God is himself a DDB: that the universe itself is monstrous to its ground. This may be the ultimate scariness of horror movies. Only a few films go very far along these lines. Bride of Frankenstein suggests, with its Christ-imagery surrounding the monster, not so much that the monster is Christ-like as that Christ is monster-like. And Frailty suggests that God is ordering a serial killer to kill. Other horror movies are more content to maintain a simple surface opposition between God and DDB. But it may be that all horror movies in which God is involved have the potential to be interpreted more along the lines of a link between God and DDB.

George Ochoa
Author
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Horror Dialogue

Most horror movies are best remembered for their scary moments and scenes of mayhem, and these often occur with little to no dialogue. Nevertheless, horror movies have produced some fine bits of dialogue over the years, whether spoken by deformed destructive beings or by the normals they attack. Here are a few of my favorites.



"Be afraid. Be very afraid."
--Geena Davis in The Fly

"A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."
--Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs

"It's alive! It's alive!"
--Colin Clive in Frankenstein

"For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing."
--Bela Lugosi in Dracula

"Thanks for the bullet."
--Henry Hull in Werewolf of London

"Kill the brain and you kill the ghoul."
--TV announcer in Night of the Living Dead

"A boy's best friend is his mother."
--Anthony Perkins in Psycho

"What is the law?"
--Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls

"You're gonna need a bigger boat."
--Roy Scheider in Jaws

"What an excellent day for an exorcism."
--Mercedes McCambridge supplying the voice of Linda Blair in The Exorcist

George Ochoa
Author
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Thing, Again

Last month, I wrote about The Thing from Another World (1951), the first of three film adaptations to date of the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. This time my subject is the most recent of these adaptations, the 2011 The Thing.


I hate to criticize The Thing, because it has the pretty and winsome Mary Elizabeth Winstead in it, and any film that includes her can't be all bad. I've been following her career since she was playing a super-powered teenager in Sky High, and I keep waiting to see her break out into something I think worthy of her talents, such as the Greer Garson part in a remake of Mrs. Miniver. Anyway, this movie is not what I had in mind.

The key word here is derivative. The Thing 2011 is supposed to be a prequel to John Carpenter's The Thing 1982, but in all respects except continuity it is essentially a remake, and an inferior one. Once again a group of Antarctic scientists battle a shape-shifting alien that has been thawed out of ice. Once again the alien takes on the appearance of the scientists and a test has to be devised to find out who's who. Once again flamethrowers are the principal weapon against the thing. Everything good in it (aside from Winstead) is a copy of something that was done better in Carpenter's version.

Even the creature effects are not exactly better. They are more sophisticated, using CGI that was not available in 1982. But Rob Bottin did more with less in 1982, inventively using mechanical effects and puppetry to generate the deformed destructive being (DDB). The 1982 DDB was more innovative and more horrifying.

It is not that The Thing 2011 is terrible. It has some genuine jolts. Despite myself, when the creature first leapt out of the ice, I jumped sufficiently to spill beer on my basement sofa. (Beer is my favorite drink when watching a movie like The Thing, the basement my favorite location.) The Thing 2011 is a nice reminder of how good the previous versions of Who Goes There? were--and for that matter, how good a story Who Goes There? is. But it is, so far, the least of the line of cinematic incarnations.

George Ochoa
Author
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Handsome Mr. Hyde

It is coming up on the one-year anniversary of this blog (March 26, 2011) and of the publication of the book on which it is based, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films. To mark the occasion, I can't do better than direct you to Jon Towlson's positive review of the book in Starburst.

And now on to today's subject: Mr. Hyde, the evil creature into which the otherwise normal scientist Dr. Jekyll transforms himself by chemical means. The tradition in most film adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is to present Dr. Jekyll as handsome and Mr. Hyde as hideous (Fredric March's portrayal in the 1932 adaptation) or at least unpleasant-looking (Spencer Tracy's portrayal in the 1941 version). The idea is to take some good-looking actor and then, in special-effects heavy transformation scenes, slather on ugly makeup to turn him into a brute.

What never makes sense in these movies is why Jekyll would want to take a chemical to make himself look worse. In real life, as the cosmetics industry and fitness centers attest, people go to great efforts to make themselves look better, not worse. If they do end up looking worse, it is by accident of the aging process and behaviors such as overeating.

That is why The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, the 1960 Hammer Films adaptation, is so refreshing. Here Dr. Jekyll (Paul Massie) is a bearded, aging, rather plain-looking man who, when transformed into Hyde, becomes young, clean-shaven, and handsome. His low, weary voice becomes light and airy. And all this happens without the benefit of elaborate special effects. With a little editing, the camera simply cuts away from Jekyll (who, this time, is the one wearing the heavier makeup) and cuts back to Hyde.


Of course, Hyde is evil. He indulges in all sorts of wanton, lascivious pleasures, and he has a violent streak that issues in several murders. But at least one can figure out why Jekyll keeps turning himself back into Hyde. As Hyde he is youthful and good-looking, in addition to being able to fulfill any fantasy he desires. Hyde even has an interesting philosophy, based on "energy and reason."

The movie is not quite as good as I may be making it sound. No movie version that I have seen has fully captured the horror of Hyde in Stevenson's novella, including Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll. Even with the presence of Christopher Lee as a debauched friend and the lover of Jekyll's wife, the film is a little ponderous. But it is worth seeing if only because it presents a Hyde who makes physical sense.

George Ochoa

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Angel of Death

The primary purpose of the horror film is to present a deformed and destructive being (DDB), or monster. But not every movie with a DDB is a horror film. If the film's primary purpose is something other than presenting the DDB, then it is not a horror film. Even so, it can include a memorably horrific sequence in which a DDB is presented. An example is the Biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956).


The primary purpose of The Ten Commandments is to tell the religious story of Moses, not to present a DDB. Nevertheless, at least one sequence in this film is straight out of a horror movie. Moses has been demanding that Pharaoh let the Hebrew slaves go, and Pharaoh has been refusing. So God, through Moses, sends ten plagues against Egypt to persuade Pharaoh. The one that most strikes fear into the Egyptians is the one that works best as a miniature horror movie: the death of all the first-born children of Egypt.

The perpetrator of this plague is the Angel of Death, a luminous green mist that creeps and branches across the night sky as if it were a web being spun. Little by little it descends, and when it reaches the earth, it rolls with a sickly cast along the ground, leaving unharmed those who are not first-born but killing the first-born, whether they are adults or children. It also leaves the Hebrews unharmed; they are preserved by staying indoors and marking their doorways with lamb's blood, according to the instructions of Moses.

The sequence cuts back and forth between the Hebrews inside--who are terrified by the screams of the dying outside, even as the Hebrews partake of their first Passover--and the Egyptians dying in the streets. Not many deaths are shown, and there is no gore, but a couple of deaths are highlighted for emphasis: that of a soldier who is the first-born of the commander of the host, and Pharaoh's own little boy.

The metaphysics of the Angel of Death are not spelled out, but presumably, if this is his job, he is present whenever anybody dies. In that case, what is deformed about his appearance in this film is that he is not felling people at the usual rate or with the usual rationale; instead, by God's order, he is selecting, all in one night, the first-born of an entire nation, as a punishment and a means of persuasion. The persuasion works, and a defeated Pharaoh allows the Hebrews to leave Egypt. So the Angel of Death is not only a deformed and destructive being--a DDB--but a powerful one.

Cecil B. DeMille made many movies besides The Ten Commandments, but as far as I know he never tried his hand at a horror film. Judging by the effectiveness of the Angel of Death sequence, he might have done a good job of it.

George Ochoa
Author
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films