Friday, December 30, 2011

New Year's Contest: Win This Book

This blog began as a discussion of the ideas in my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films. Now you can win a free copy of this book, and all you have to do to enter the contest is follow this blog publicly.



Here's how it works. If you are already a public follower (member) of this blog, with your icon in the right-hand margin, do nothing. You are automatically entered in the contest. (My own icon won't be counted, of course). If you are not already a public follower of this blog, become one by clicking on the "Join this site" button in the right-hand margin, so that an icon representing you appears under "Members." If you are having trouble getting the button to work, send me a comment.

The opportunity to enter the contest will end at midnight EST at the end of the last day of January, January 31, 2012. After that I will hold a random drawing of all public followers. I will announce a winner and contact that winner for his or her mailing address, and mail one copy of Deformed and Destructive Beings to that address.

This contest is subject to all applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations governing contests.

Good luck to all, and Happy New Year.

George Ochoa

Friday, December 23, 2011

Remembering "The Omen"

My book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, is cited in Wikipedia in the "Analysis" section of their Damien Thorn entry. Specifically, they cite my examination of how the star power of Gregory Peck--who, in The Omen (1976), played the adoptive father of the son of Satan, Damien Thorn--contributed to the characterization of Damien as a potent deformed destructive being (DDB). Peck was associated with heroic roles, so when even he could not defeat Damien, and died trying, it was as if all his star power was transferred to Damien.



I was pleased to see my book linked with The Omen, because The Omen is one of my all-time favorite horror movies. I first saw it in the summer of its release in a movie theater in Queens that had the air conditioning turned way up, and I shivered throughout the film, uncertain whether the cause of the shivering was the movie or the air conditioning. I loved the elaborate Satanic murders, the vicious dogs, and especially the last shot of little Harvey Stephens as Damien turning toward the camera and smiling.

So enamored was I of The Omen at that time that I planned to write an essay, "The Exorcist vs. The Omen," in which I would prove that The Omen had outdone The Exorcist (released three years earlier) for the title of best horror movie ever made. I never wrote the essay, and now I don't think either of them is the best horror movie ever made (The Exorcist, by my reckoning, is No. 3 and The Omen is No. 24). I did film a silent Super-8 parody, The Omen: A Cheap Imitation, which was a companion to my earlier The Exorcist: A Cheap Imitation. This Omen parody was chiefly notable for my attempt to pick up a girl in the park who was walking her dog by means of the line, "I'm making a parody of The Omen, can I use your dog?"

The Omen has fallen somewhat in my estimation since then. Lee Remick as Damien's adoptive mother looks kind of lost, especially when she and Damien are surrounded by angry baboons at a drive-through zoo. (Animals generally don't like demons, vampires, or other DDBs.) The film seems derivative of The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, and its big-budget studio gloss keeps it from being as scary as it might be.

But then there are those murders. Every time Satan (always offscreen) decides that his little boy is in peril, he stages some kind of freak accident that kills the person who poses the threat. My favorite of these is when David Warner as the photographer Jennings gets beheaded by a sheet of glass. This sequence is beautifully edited. I analyzed it in Deformed and Destructive Beings, and it turned out there are no fewer than thirty shots in a single minute of screen time--two shots per second--to create the illusion of the sheet of glass spilling off a truck and slicing off Jennings's head. Wherever The Omen may land in my estimation, this remains my favorite screen beheading.

George Ochoa

Sunday, December 18, 2011

George Ochoa Facebook Page

I just started a Facebook author page and I invite anyone reading to visit. There isn't much on it yet, but I will try to make it grow. The link is facebook.com/GeorgeOchoaWriter.

Before I wrote Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, I wrote or cowrote thirty-four other books. Most of them had nothing to do with horror films, but occasionally they touched on the subject. The American Film Institute Desk Reference was a book I cowrote with my wife and frequent collaborator, Melinda Corey; it also had an introduction by Clint Eastwood, of all people. The book had a short section on horror, including a nice spread of Colin Clive as Frankenstein confronting Boris Karloff as the monster in Frankenstein.



A complete list of all my books is on the Facebook page, as well as other information about what I've written and the writers who have influenced me.

George Ochoa

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Response to a Pan

I was delighted to see that my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, had been reviewed in Rue Morgue #112 (June 2011). My delight persisted even when I saw the review was a pan. In part, this was because I subscribe to the writer's philosophy: "I don't read my reviews; I measure them" (this one measured 7 x 2 inches). But in addition, I knew that a negative review would give me more material for this blog than a positive one.



I'm not going to rebut every point in the review, because there are things I like about it. The reviewer, Justine Warwick, shows in a few places an understanding of author and book: "Ochoa is certainly a fan"; Ochoa makes some "interesting" and at least "mildly intriguing" points; Ochoa performs "some serious mental yoga"; "you start to wonder if Ochoa is not so much from an ivory tower as from another planet." Indeed, I have always felt as if I am from another planet, possibly Neptune.

However, I was alarmed, mostly for Warwick's sake, when she stumbled into the old reviewer's trap of one-eyed quoting. This is when, using one eye, you quote from a text to support a point while leaving out adjoining material that would undermine your point and that you presumably can't see because of your bad eye. Warwick one-eyed-quotes when, charging me with making "no acknowledgment of the cultural context" of horror film production, she quotes the following line from my book: "Ever since the story of Adam and Eve, there has been a notion that the first of a species must be male." But she leaves out the very next sentence: "It may be a backward patriarchal notion, but there it is." In that line, I suggest the cultural context of the notion--a backward, patriarchal culture--thus refuting her claim that I make "no acknowledgment" of cultural context. She would like me to add still more--such as that the culture in question is American and Judeo-Christian--but that doesn't help her absolute claim of "no acknowledgment" of cultural context.

This, however, is not my biggest beef with Warwick's review. My biggest problem is that she doesn't appear to know the difference between an argument and a proposition. Here is what she says: "his argument essentially falls at the first hurdle by being both too broad and a 'whole cloth' proposition." Do you see the slip in diction? According to her, my argument is a kind of proposition. But it is elementary logic that an argument is not a proposition. An argument is a group of propositions of which one is claimed to follow from the others. To weigh an argument it is necessary to examine the truth of the propositions and the validity or strength of the inferences.

Now with my book, this would have been easy to do, because most of the argument for my theory of deformed and destructive beings (DDBs) is made in Chapter 1. It's all of thirteen pages. But at no point does Warwick engage with this argument and say where the logical flaws are. I know, it's only a review, but if my theory is so wrong you'd think she could have found at least one objection to make to a premise or inference establishing the theory. To make room, all she would have had to do is cut one or more of her ad hominems, which have no logical weight, no matter how they are multiplied.

Instead, Warwick spends most of her time misunderstanding the rhetorical strategy of the book, although it is stated explicitly more than once. After Chapter 1, most of the book is not concerned with proving DDB theory, but demonstrating its usefulness--showing what "can be done with the theory" (as the preface states) in various areas of understanding the horror film. Had Warwick noticed any of these passages, she would not have talked about my setting out "to prove that every element of every horror film is devoted to presenting the DDB." After Chapter 1, I am not setting out to prove anything like this; just to show how interesting and fruitful the theory is. If it seems interesting--and Warwick admits it sometimes does--that is what I wanted to accomplish.

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

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Books That Shaped This Blog

Jon T posted a nice list of horror film books at Shocks to the System - Subversive Horror Films. It's made me think about the books that influenced my own horror film book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, as well as this blog.

The most influential books were not horror film books at all: The Complete Works of Aristotle and the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. From Aristotle the philosopher and Aquinas the theologian I derived the basic ideas about form and deformity, being and beauty that underlie my concept of deformed destructive beings (DDBs). A line of Aquinas' that I find particularly applicable to horror films is: "an image is said to be beautiful, if it perfectly represents even an ugly thing."

Also influential is a book I no longer have: Focus on the Horror Film, edited by Roy Huss and T.J. Ross. I found this book in my high school library back in the early '70s. A compilation of essays on the horror film, it was my first glimpse of the possibility that you could write serious, scholarly prose on something as seemingly flimsy as horror movies.



As I mentioned in an earlier post, the video guide The Horror Film: Over 700 Films on Video Cassette was useful in directing me to horror movies I had overlooked. David J. Skal's Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen showed me that a horror film writer could combine expert story-telling with scholarly acumen. This talent was even more evident in Skal's masterful The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror.

Once I decided to write philosophically about horror, NoĆ«l Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart was a helpful model. I didn't agree with his entire framework, but I liked how he talked. Although not a horror film writer, Richard Rorty was another philosopher whose way of talking I liked, particularly in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. I thought Rorty was instructive about the process of changing people's minds on any subject, even if the subject is monsters.

Rick Worland's The Horror Film: An Introduction was a concise, thorough primer on the genre that helped me fill in gaps in my knowledge. William K. Everson's Classics of the Horror Genre only went up through The Exorcist, but it discussed the older films with erudition and taste. Carol J. Clover's Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, which introduced the world to the term final girl, was a fascinating take on horror films from a woman's point of view.

Also influential were Horror Film Reader, a collection of essays on the genre edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini; Walter Kendrick's The Thrill of Fear: 250 Years of Scary Entertainment, which positions the horror film in the broader context of horror entertainment; and a marvelous reference book on the Universal horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946, by Michael Brunas, John Brunas, and Tom Weaver. There were many other books too, of course, but these were the main ones behind my book and this blog.

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

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Horror Plagues

I was watching the Spanish horror film [REC] (2007), and two things occurred to me: 1) how many horror movies I've seen where the story is told with a shaky camera from the point of view of a documentary filmmaker, and 2) how many horror films depend on a plague for the generation of the deformed destructive beings, or DDBs, who are the focus of the story. The shaky camera gambit is almost always annoying to me, but plague stories can be quite effective, and they are my subject today.



[REC] follows in a long tradition of horror plague films, which concern the transformation of people into DDBs as a result of some readily transmissible disease. The disease process is often vague. Vampires and werewolves, whose curse is usually transmitted through bites, appear to have some supernatural element, although their infectiousness might be due to something as a simple as a vampire or werewolf pathogen, such as the microbe that turns people into vampires in The Last Man on Earth. As the horror genre became increasingly informed by medical rather than supernatural explanations, biological accounts for the plagues became more common than spiritual ones. Rabies was the problem in I Drink Your Blood and Rabid; drinking water in The Crazies and Cabin Fever; blood in 28 Days Later; and parasites transmitted through sexual contact in They Came from Within (Shivers). The pathogens involved are often microscopic, although they can be larger. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the body-snatching organisms are large pods from space, causing an epidemic of people who are nice and tranquil but somehow not quite themselves.

Whatever the pathogen or its means of transmission, it spreads rapidly, turning its victims into DDBs who are, in many cases, capable of further spreading the disease. They are either physically deformed, psychologically deformed, or both, and they are destructive, either because they are violent or spread the disease, or both. The chill of the horror plague movie usually comes from the menace of the disease-stricken DDBs preying on a band of normal survivors, threatening to kill them or turn them into copies of themselves.

Plagues have been significant since the days of ancient Greek literature, when people ascribed epidemic disease to the anger of gods (as in The Iliad and Oedipus Rex). In the horror film, plagues often remain significant, pointing to some sort of causative social malaise that results in the breakdown of societyIn The Masque of the Red Death, the red death seems a metaphor for underlying social and moral corruption.  In Night of the Living Dead, the cause of the epidemic of zombieism is unclear, but military and government figures seem to be implicated in it, at least to judge by how quickly they run away from television cameras. In Dawn of the Dead, the zombies become a symbol for consumerism as they stagger around a shopping mall.

Even more profoundly, the horror plague film seems rooted in a deep historical awareness of how fragile society is, how quickly it can succumb to a sickness that comes out of nowhere and spreads everywhere. The Black Death of the Middle Ages is the most famous of these pandemics, but they have happened throughout history. Depending on the symptoms, healthy people can suddenly look like monsters and be avoided, literally, like the plague. Horror plague films are like home movies of episodes our species has lived through before, and will experience again.

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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

From Movie Star to Horror Star

The horror film has always been a somewhat disreputable genre, and its biggest stars have traditionally been in a ghetto. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, for example, were well known for their horror roles but always found it hard to get work outside the genre. However, the reverse did not hold. Mainstream movie stars have always been able to dip into the horror genre for a film or two--think Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense and Nicole Kidman in The Others--then go back to their mainstream careers. And movie stars who were aging or otherwise on the decline could always find a haven in the horror genre. This was what happened to Ray Milland.



Born in 1905, Milland was a major movie star whose credits included The Lost Weekend (for which he won the 1945 Best Actor Oscar for playing an alcoholic), The Big Clock, Ministry of Fear, the Hitchcock suspense film Dial M for Murder, and even a dip into the horror genre, with the ghost movie The Uninvited. But by the 1960s, the roles were drying up, and Milland made a decisive turn into the arms of American International Pictures, makers of cheap horror movies. Three films in particular stand out: X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963), directed by Roger Corman; The Thing with Two Heads (1972); and Frogs (1972).

These are not necessarily good films, but Milland is good in them. He brought to them professionalism, star wattage, and an interesting turn on his screen persona. Throughout his career, Milland played suave, intelligent, flawed characters (flaws such as alcoholism in The Lost Weekend, or attempting to murder his wife in Dial M for Murder). In his horror roles, Milland continued to project polished, articulate intelligence, but the flaws took over, particularly a cranky impatience with any lesser beings who stood in his way.

You could sympathize with Milland in these roles. In X, he was determined to perfect a formula for seeing through things; in Thing with Two Heads, he was a dying man who wanted to save himself by grafting his head onto someone else's body; in Frogs, he was a plantation owner who wanted to have a nice Fourth of July family celebration.

But something always went wrong. In X, his super vision became his downfall; in Thing with Two Heads, despite his bigoted attitudes, his head was grafted onto the black body of Rosey Grier; in Frogs, swarms of malevolent frogs, snakes, lizards, spiders, and other swamp creatures invaded his plantation, apparently in revenge for humanity's assaults on the ecology. Milland responded the same way in all three cases: through grouchiness. It was insufferable to him that pesky little things like race and pollution should get in the way of his calm ambitions. He became angrier, more insulting, more cutting. He fought the horrors the way a civilized person does: through sarcasm.

For his contributions to the horror genre, Ray Milland should be remembered.

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Ethics of "Cube"

Horror movies have a strong ethical component. By showcasing what the normal characters have to do to survive the deformed destructive being (DDB), they implicitly teach what are the correct ways to survive in the real world. The classic example is the Final Girl, who is usually virginal and thereby escapes getting slashed like her randy cohorts. The DDB acts as an ethical teacher, instructing us what not to do by destroying the person who did it and sparing the person who did not do it.

In my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, I list six ethical rules that are found with particular frequency in horror films:

1. Be conservative.
2. Do not commit sacrilege.
3. Do not have unmarried sex.
4. Do not get contaminated.
5. Beware of youth.
6. Be charitable.

It is the rare horror film that does not teach one or more of these principles. But there are exceptions. One of these is Cube (1997), a hybrid science fiction/horror film in which six people from different walks of life are stranded together in a giant cube consisting of interlocking rooms. The cube is essentially a maze, in which the object is to escape to the outside world while avoiding deathtraps that are liberally sprinkled throughout the edifice. Nobody knows who willed the cube into existence, so the cube itself is the DDB: an artifact that is deformed by virtue of having no sensible purpose for its construction, and that is clearly destructive. The six captives appear to have been selected for confrontation with this DDB because each has a skill that can be contributed to the good of all: one is a cop who knows how to lead; another a prison escape artist; another a mathematician who can make sense of the number scheme that governs the cube. A doctor, a designer of the cube, and an autistic man round out the six.



So, what do we learn ethically from Cube? At first it seems we are in for a conservative lesson about how important it is to work together. This is the point the cop keeps stressing, and from early in the movie he is the authority figure, the one who seems most practical, positive, and determined to escape. The characters do work together, but for most of them the result is failure. As for the cop, he ends up going berserk, attacking his comrades, sexually assaulting the female mathematician, and being killed for his troubles. So the rule "Be conservative," with its support for authority, does not apply in the world of Cube.

On the other hand, defying authority, as the prison escape artist does, also meets with a bad end: the escape artist is the first of the troupe to die. The doctor is charitable to the autistic man, and she dies, so "Be charitable" doesn't work very well. Neither do "Do not get contaminated" and "Beware of youth": they don't seem to apply to the cube. The cube designer gets killed, perhaps because he is a nihilist who is always ready to give up, thus violating "Do not commit sacrilege." But by that rule, as well as the rule "Do not have unmarried sex," the mathematician, a young, intelligent woman who resists the sexual advances of the cop and never gives up struggling to escape, is the chief candidate to live. She is, by all rights, the Final Girl. That's what makes it such a surprise when she is killed.

Only one of the six survives and escapes: the autistic man. He is a nice fellow, and is able to contribute his autistic savant mathematical skills to solving the puzzle of the cube. But what does his survival teach us ethically? It is better to be developmentally disabled than not? This does not seem an ethical lesson most of us can practice on a daily basis. And therefore Cube is ethically nihilistic. It teaches nothing about how to act; it only presents the horror of a world in which there is no way to act that is better than any other.

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

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Consistency of Lameness

Just as good horror movies across time share certain traits, so do bad horror movies. Over and over, no matter how many years go by, the makers of bad horror films repeat the same mistakes. It doesn't matter if the film is a low-budget independent with a no-name cast or a better-budgeted studio film with Hollywood stars. The lameness remains the same.

To make this clear, I have chosen two bad movies, one the ultra-low-budgeted The Body Beneath (1970) and the other the modestly-budgeted Vacancy (2007). Vacancy had Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale as a married couple, David and Amy, who wander into trouble in a motel in the middle of nowhere. Body Beneath (1970) features a cast most people probably never heard of as a vampire clan seeking to renew their bloodlines. Of the two, Body Beneath is worse, but is slightly redeemed by camp. Vacancy has some good moments of suspense, but overall is mediocre, without even the virtue of camp.




Here are five key characteristics that make these movies lame:

1. Lack of originality. The tradition of rural motels containing sinister occupants has been around for a long time, most memorably in Psycho, so if you are going to do it again you had better do something to make it fresh. Vacancy has a twist involving snuff filmmakers, but that is not exactly fresh either. Likewise, the vampire subgenre was already antiquated by the time Body Beneath came along, and to try to freshen it up that film introduced the idea of renewing bloodlines, which might have been interesting if it had made any sense. Instead, the film is so convoluted in explaining how the bloodline renewal would work that it loses interest before it can ever reach coherence.

2. Unimpressive deformed destructive beings (DDBs). A horror film is only as good as its DDB, and these are not good DDBs. Body Beneath features a talky, weak-looking lead vampire in a minister outfit, (Gavin Reed as Rev. Ford), plus a trio of lady vampires with bad blue makeup and a deeply cliched hunchbacked assistant. Vacancy has a total of three serial killers who are largely inept at killing the two victims at their disposal. Two of the killers wear creepy masks, but this is hardly enough to turn them into genuine threats.

3. Boring normals. The normal characters in a horror movie should be somewhat sympathetic, so that the audience cares about the peril they face. In Body Beneath, the main normal couple seems to be mainly interested in having sex, and the other normals are unmemorable. In Vacancy, the married couple seems to have no interest in sex, being too busy sniping at each other, and there are almost no other normals around.

4. Tone deafness. Vacancy has nicely scored beginning and end credit sequences that are reminiscent of Hitchcock--just the thing to set the mood if this movie were anything like a Hitchcock film, which it is not. Body Beneath is loaded with references to Carfax Abbey, making you think of Dracula, most of the adaptations of which are much better than what you are seeing here. Overall, Body Beneath and Vacancy feel like they were pasted together from such references to better films, yet with deafness to what makes a film good on its own.

5. Incoherent endings. Body Beneath ends with the sex-crazed couple turned into vampires--is that it? I'm not sure. Vacancy ends with the husband alive but wounded, with help on the way--or is he dying, and will help never come? I don't know. Worse, I don't care. The movies so thoroughly lost me I didn't even bother pressing scene selection to go back and figure them out.

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

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Natural and Supernatural

An interesting debate on Session 9 has been going on at IMDB. Session 9 (2001) is a movie set at an abandoned insane asylum, where a work crew led by Gordon (Peter Mullan) is removing asbestos. While one crew member listens to old psychiatric tape recordings of a killer girl who had multiple personalities, mysterious killings occur, which are ultimately traced to Gordon. At the very end of the movie, Simon, one of the multiple personalities, who had encouraged the killer girl to kill and who revealed himself on tape in psychiatric Session 9, is asked where he lives, and he answers, "I live in the weak and the wounded, Doc."



The debate on IMDB concerns the nature of Simon's existence. Some people on the discussion board think Session 9 is a demonic possession movie, in which a demonic presence named Simon who haunts the asylum possesses Gordon and makes him kill people, whereas other people think Gordon is just psychopathic and kills people for natural reasons. In the latter view, Simon was just a personality of the killer girl, with no existence outside the tape recording, and what he said about the weak and the wounded was just metaphorical. On the demonic side, one discussant makes a case for why "Simon was actually an evil spirit or entity." On the psychopathic side, another discussant writes, "To me this is clearly a movie about a man who has a mental illness."

My own view is that the film leaves the issue ambiguous, which is why different people come away with different answers. Despite the ambiguity, I do think the film leans more toward the idea of Simon as an actual demon, although the nature of Simon's comment--that he lives in the weak and the wounded--leaves it easy to see that he depends for his successes on human mental fragility. The movie need not be either/or--it may be about both an evil spirit and a man with a mental illness.

The significance of this issue for horror film history is that the presence of the supernatural is not always clear. Even a movie like Psycho, which apparently ties everything up naturalistically when the psychiatrist explains how Norman Bates came to murder various people, has a hint of the supernatural. At the end, Norman is shown locked up, and superimposed fleetingly on his face is the skull of his mother--as if she were really possessing him from beyond the grave.

Most horror movies are crystal clear about whether their deformed destructive beings are natural or supernatural. Jaws has a shark--period. Dracula has an evil being who lives for centuries and shuns crucifixes. But every once in a while the ambiguity can be great enough that audience members do not agree on what they have just seen. That is the case with Session 9.

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

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Horrors of the Black Museum"

If you've never seen it, Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) is a real find. Not as famous as other horror films of the period, such as Horror of Dracula and Psycho, it has the freshness that comes from basking in obscurity for 50 years. Plus, it is just plain nutty, with an abundance of horrific devices, and boasts an over-the-top performance from starring madman Michael Gough.



Gough was the type of English actor who excelled at clearly enunciated, hammy performances, and he does not disappoint here. He plays Edmond Bancroft, true crime writer, who decides to outwit Scotland Yard and sell books by committing his own murders and writing about them. That bare premise might not sound like a horror movie--more like a crime film or mystery--but the movie expands upon it in such a way that the film is clearly horror. For starters, the focus of the film is Bancroft, a murderous, sadistic lunatic who walks with a limp and uses a cane, and this focus on a deformed destructrive being (DDB) is what makes a horror film.  Then, Bancroft does not usually commit the murders himself (although he does some times): he has a lackey whom he hypnotizes into killing people for him, a la The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And the method of hypnosis is to give the lackey a serum that turns him into a lithe, hideous monster, a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And the hideout for the murderers is Bancroft's secret wax museum of crime and torture--his black museum--a la House of Wax. Thus, allusions to at least three horror films of very different bents are curled into the embrace of the mad Bancroft, increasing the horrific atmosphere.

The murders themselves are rococo, ornate yet vicious. One woman is killed by binoculars with spikes that pierce the eyes and jut into the brain. Another is guillotined in her own bed. An antiques dealer is killed by her own ice tongs. A doctor is zapped by a bizarre electrical device (yet another allusion, this time to Frankenstein), and his body is reduced to a skeleton in a vat of acid. The climactic deaths come at an amusement park, in an apparent homage to yet another horror movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

The psychosexual elements of Horrors of the Black Museum add to its interest. Bancroft's girlfriend, a blonde floozy, snatches away his cane and tells him off for being only half a man. He responds murderously, of course. Later, when his lackey gets a girlfriend and brings her to the black museum, Bancroft explodes with rage. It seems the museum is only for him and his lackey, not outsiders like women. The homoerotic energy and misogyny are intense. Naturally, the lackey's girlfriend becomes the next target to be scheduled for death.

Horrors of the Black Museum is hokey and hammy, and it is never as scary as, say, the shower scene in Psycho would be a year later. But it is a clever amalgam of ideas from disparate horror movies, stirred with enough originality to allow it to stand on its own.

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

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Shutter": Ghost in Love

As I noted in the post, Slasher Meets Angry Ghost, a staple of Asian horror is the angry ghost, who "harbors some kind of grudge against the living, and either kills them or makes their lives miserable until resolution is found." The nature of the grudge varies from film to film, and sometimes it is more complex than just anger. This is the case in Shutter (2004), a Thai film in which the ghost's anger is complicated by love.



In Shutter, a young photographer, Tun, and his girlfriend, Jane, accidentally drive their car into a girl one night and flee the scene. When they begin to be haunted by apparitions and weird photographic images, they speculate that they are the target of a ghost who is angry about having been run over. But when they investigate, they learn there is no record of a girl being hit on that road on that night. Whatever is going on, it is not as simple as a ghost who is angry about being the victim of a hit-and-run.

Inquiring further, Tun and Jane learn that the ghost is the spirit of a girl, Natre, who knew Tun in college. In fact, she knew him in the Biblical sense: the two had a romance. Natre was an unpopular girl, and Tun tried to keep the romance secret, and eventually broke it off. But he allowed his friends to rape her, and photographed them while they did so. Natre responded by jumping to her death off a roof.

All of this would seem to provide motive enough for Natre's haunting. She is, no doubt, still angry over the rape and being forced to suicide. But there is something more. Natre still loves Tun. She never stopped. So we learn that, in a Polaroid snapshot (the best imaging technology for photographing ghosts, because it is instant and supposedly can't be faked), Natre is sitting on Tun's shoulders. She has been there throughout the movie, every time he complained about his sore neck or was weighed in a medical examination as being abnormally heavy. She will never get off his shoulders. A wise man consulted in the course of the movie says the dead sometimes want to be near those they loved in their life. This is the case with Natre. She loves Tun, and therefore will haunt him mercilessly.

It is my theory that the focus of the horror film is a deformed and destructive being, and Natre certainly fits the bill--deformed by being a bodiless soul; destructive by hurting Tun and others. But what is most interesting about her is the nature of her destructiveness: love. She brings into a Polaroid-like focus the fact that love, although commonly thought of as a great thing, is actually the source of many of the world's ills. This does not mean we should necessarily abandon it for something else. Love, destructive as it is, is the only love we have.

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

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Of Trolls and Gremlins

In my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings, I lay out a taxonomy of deformed and destructive beings (DDBs), a classification scheme for everything from vampires to berserk sharks to aliens to demons. I include a category called "Weird Nonhuman Things Not Otherwise Specified." In that category fall all the horror movie monsters that are not human and that don't fall easily in any other category. Many of these are creatures from folklore, part of a long-standing tradition of horror movies adapting legendary beasties for their own purposes. I just saw two examples of this tradition back to back: the recent Norwegian film TrollHunter (2010) and the old standard Gremlins (1984). Both are more like horror comedies than outright horror, but they are instructive nonetheless.



TrollHunter is one of those supposedly-found-documentary films that usually irritate me because the shaky camera makes me nauseous. In this case, the shaking wasn't too bad, and the film was pretty good, telling the story of a professional troll hunter and the camera crew of college kids who tag along with him. A horror movie is only as good as its DDB, and this is particularly true when the DDB is folkloric, and you have to convince the audience that this creature, widely known to be unreal, is real. The task is even harder when, as with trolls, the creatures are associated with children's stories rather than horror. TrollHunter does a good job of presenting its trolls, depicting them as furry gray giants with mashed humanlike faces. They are only seen at night and in short bursts of light, minimizing the chances that the CGI work will look fake. They roar menacingly, eat prodigiously, have a characteristic stink, and carry rabies--all helping to make them fit for horror movie duty.

As good as it is, TrollHunter is a little too subdued. It is so concerned with making the DDBs seem real that it forgets to make them truly menacing. For example, the trolls avoid humans, which seems like plausible natural behavior that explains why we see them so rarely. However, it also means that you have to look hard for a troll encounter, and you can almost always get away from a troll just by running in the other direction. This makes for a slow pace that had me dozing off at key moments, such as when one of the college kids gets killed.



Gremlins is much livelier, and I never dozed off at any point. Here the folkloric beasties are based on the gremlins of World War II, legendary, mischievous goblins who wreaked havoc with airplane equipment. In Gremlins, the gremlins wreak havoc with everything in a yuletide small town, and are also murderous, making them suitable for horror. Realized through animatronic puppetry, the creatures are not so much realistic as fancifully creepy, resembling big-eared devil reptiles. Like the trolls in TrollHunter, which explode or turn to stone in sunlight, and like vampires, the gremlins are destroyed by sunlight--suggesting just how frequently folkloric beasties are associated with night.

Every time I see Gremlins, I wish it would be more horrific. It leans that way in places--microwaving a gremlin; gremlins swarming passersby like the rats in Willard--but there's always too much cuteness for full-fledged horror. The adorable furry Mogwai, Gizmo, supplies a rationale for the creation of the gremlins (they develop from his body when certain rules are broken), but after that I really don't need to see him again--yet see him I do.

Even so, Gremlins gave me more pleasure than TrollHunter, and not just the horrific aspects. There is a scene in Gremlins when legions of gremlins pack into a movie house and watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs--and are captivated by it. Scenes like this are so imaginative that they keep the movie going even when the horror flags.

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

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Horror of Birth

For the most part, people live in an illusion of physical integrity. Day after day, their bodies keep functioning, with nothing going in except what should go in (air, food), nothing going out except what should go out (waste products). This is an illusion because at any time the integrity of the body can be damaged or destroyed, and at least at two points it certainly will: birth and death. At death, the living organism is destroyed; in pregnancy, the mother is invaded by an organism that attaches itself to her, and at birth, both the mother and the child suffer the shock of disintegration from each other. Most horror movies are concerned with death, but fewer concern both birth and death. The French film Inside (2007) is one of these.



Inside is an ultra-gory fever dream about giving birth. Sarah is a pregnant woman who loses her husband in a car crash. Four months later, she is scheduled for induced labor on Christmas Day--Western culture's iconic day for giving birth. The main action of the film takes place the night before, on Christmas Eve. Sarah is alone in her house, having disturbing Alien-like dreams about giving birth, while the audience gets to see creepy womb-cam images of Sarah's unborn baby.

A strange woman in black, known only as La femme (the woman), shows up at Sarah's house and breaks in. Wielding a pair of scissors, La femme intends to cut Sarah open and take her baby. It later emerges that La femme lost her unborn child in the same car accident that killed Sarah's husband, but this plot detail is as mysterious as much of the movie. Supposedly there were no other survivors from the car crash; is La femme even alive?

The rest of the film similarly balances gory slasher images and disturbing dreamlike ideas. Sarah aims to kill La femme and instead ends up stabbing her own mother, who has come looking for her. Policemen come investigating and are picked off by La femme--but one of them is later resurrected, in zombielike form, only to attack Sarah blindly, as if she is the monster. Sarah burns off La femme's face with a makeshift flamethrower, yet La femme not only survives but has the strength to perform the bizarre C-section she has been craving all night. The film's conclusion suggests that La femme will now be the child's mother--though there is ambiguity about whether the child is dead or alive.

All of this makes for a film that is not your usual horror movie. It looks squarely at the most horrific facts about birth--the blood, the agony, the disintegration of flesh, the rival biological interests of the mother and child, the continuing psychological tension between them even after the child has grown up, the different social interests tugging at ownership of the child. To encapsulate all these horrors, the film creates a sort of birth demon in La femme--a being whose deformity and destructiveness are new in this form to the screen but as old as human regeneration.

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

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Twenty Things I Like about "Bride of Frankenstein"

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is my favorite horror movie. Here are just twenty of the many things I like about it.

1. The prologue with Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein
2. Boris Karloff's makeup as the Frankenstein monster, suggesting a singed and beaten appearance as a result of the windmill fire
3. Elsa Lanchester's Nefertiti cone of hair, marked by lightning bolts, in her role as the bride of Frankenstein



4. Dr. Pretorius laughing it up by himself in the tomb
5. Dr. Pretorius meeting unexpectedly with the monster in the tomb
6. The monster's sojourn with the blind hermit
7. The monster's speaking voice--gravelly, vaguely foreign
8. Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, still tortured by yet attracted to monsters
9. Valerie Hobson replacing Mae Clarke with a sexier and more hysterical Elizabeth
10. Dr. Pretorius showing off his tiny creations
11. The monster saving a shepherd girl by the waterfall, only to be shot for his trouble
12. The monster trussed up in a Christlike pose
13. The monster bound in a chair in the jail
14. The monster killing Dwight Frye for the second time in two movies
15. Dr. Pretorius's "only" weaknesses (gin and cigars)
16. Dr. Pretorius's toast to Frankenstein: "To a new world of gods and monsters!"
17. The musical theme for the bride
18. The bride's rejection of the monster
19. The presence of a self-destruct lever in the laboratory (who installed this, and why?)
20. The monster preparing to destroy himself, Pretorius, and the bride: "We belong dead."

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

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Five-Star Horror Movies

I have previously mentioned (in Horror for Grown-Ups) that my career as a horror movie fan has been uneven. From the late '70s through the '80s, I hardly saw any horror films. Starting around 1990, I decided I wanted to make up for lost time and see as many classics of the genre as possible. To assist me, I turned to a book called The Horror Film: Over 700 Films on Video Cassette (Evanston, IL: CineBooks, 1989). The book only listed films on VHS, because this was before DVD and Blu-Ray, but it was still pretty thorough, and even featured a foreword by Vincent Price.



My method of using the book to find classics was simple. The Horror Film ranked movies on a five-star system, with the worst movies rating zero and the best five stars. The book had an index of all its five-star movies. They were as follows:

The Black Cat
The Body Snatcher
Bride of Frankenstein
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Curse of the Demon
Dawn of the Dead
Dead Ringers
Eraserhead
The Evil Dead
Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn
Freaks
The Hills Have Eyes
The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus
Horror of Dracula
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
I Walked with a Zombie
King Kong
Martin
Night of the Living Dead
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Nosferatu, the Vampire
Peeping Tom
Psycho
Repulsion
Rosemary's Baby
The Seventh Victim
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Vampyr

Here were twenty-eight horror movies, by this account exceptionally good, some of which I had seen as a child (Bride of Frankenstein, Rosemary's Baby), many of which I had never seen. For years, this list was an aid to finding great horror movies I had missed. I would go into video stores and pull out my dog-eared copy of the movies I had yet to see, and walk out with an evening's viewing. This was before NetFlix and streaming video, so it wasn't always easy to find the titles. I found the last one on TV, on Turner Classic Movies, Peeping Tom, in 2005.

Having seen them all, I can say: what was the fuss about? This list contains a mix of movies I love (like Bride of Frankenstein, Psycho, and Texas Chain Saw Massacre), movies that I know are historically important but that I don't find gripping (Nosferatu, the Vampire and Vampyr), movies I think are overrated (I Walked with a Zombie and Martin), and movies I don't even think are horror movies (Dead Ringers, Eraserhead, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame). The list reveals an overzealousness on the part of the editors for the films of Sam Raimi and Val Lewton, an excessive taste for films that leaven their horror with social commentary (Peeping Tom), and a serious overlooking of certain films that had been released by the book's publication date and should have joined the five-star club--for example, The Exorcist, Jaws, The Fly (1986), Halloween, The Shining, and Alien.

Nevertheless, I am glad I spent a few years tracking down the five-star members of this book. It exposed me to corners of the genre (and even outside the genre) I might otherwise have overlooked, and it gave me something to argue against. Lists of five-star films, like all best-film lists, are highly subjective, though there are elements of objectivity that make it possible for agreement to take place and for disagreement to occur along rational lines.

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

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Bad Dracula

Back in May, in the post Good Dracula, I wrote about why I don't like most Dracula movies. Dracula 2000 (2000) is a perfect example. This movie stars Gerard Butler (in pre-300 days) as the Count, with Christopher Plummer as his nemesis Van Helsing, and has the novelty of transporting the originally Victorian Dracula story to the present (not really a novelty; Dracula A.D. 1972 did the same thing nearly 30 years earlier). The result is wretchedness.



There are so many bad things about this movie, I am going to focus only on a couple that are typical of bad Dracula movies. The main one is a stupid Dracula. According to this movie, Dracula is actually Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus, who was cursed for his misdeed by being turned into a vampire and who has been wandering the earth ever since. There are several oddities about this claim, not least that Dracula is revealed to be Jewish, a side of him never hitherto unveiled. But the really annoying thing is the same thing that has plagued all Dracula movies: the insistence that Dracula is centuries old, and even (in Dracula 2000) millennia old. How can this be when Dracula is so manifestly inept at surviving the ninety minutes or two hours of a typical Dracula movie's running time? In Dracula 2000, this king of the vampires no sooner is restored to life than he calls attention to himself with a blatant trail of corpses-turned-vampires and mad overacting, leading him to be pursued and easily dispatched in a rooftop climax.

Somebody should make a Dracula movie in which Dracula is pursued by generations of hunters over centuries, and the Count is so wily, so steeped in the wisdom of his many years experience, that he continually escapes them, and in the end it is uncertain whether he will ever be caught. Sort of like Dracula meets Zodiac. Honestly, if the Zodiac killer could elude capture for so long, couldn't Dracula?

Another major flaw of Dracula 2000 is the boringness of the normal characters. With the exception of Van Helsing, who at least has some age to him and is played by Plummer, the normals are a bland collection of young faces, none of them exciting, idiosyncratic, or deserving of sympathy. It is nice to see Jeri Ryan away from her Star Trek franchise duties, but the movie does nothing with her except make her another bride of Dracula. All this is typical of bad Dracula movies: normals who are boring and would make you root for Dracula if he weren't so stupid.

Some of Dracula 2000's inanities are peculiar to it, such as setting most of the action in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. New Orleans, OK, but it would seem from the movies that the only day that ever transpires in New Orleans is Mardi Gras. Wouldn't it make just as much sense for Dracula to turn up in New Orleans a week or two, or even a month or two, after Mardi Gras? Whatever the cause, Dracula 2000 ends up in a long line of bad Dracula movies.

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

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Of Sharks and Wasps

The deformed destructive being, or DDB, is at the center of every horror movie. The DDB is the monster that provokes horror and whose presentation is the primary purpose of the film. But there is great variety among DDBs. Some are undead, some living; some created by supernatural means, some through science fiction means; some human, others subhuman or superhuman. One particular pair of movies shows how different DDBs can be: Open Water (2003) and The Wasp Woman (1959).

Though the pairing may seem odd--the fairly recent indie Sundance hit Open Water and the old Roger Corman cheapie Wasp Woman--both are horror films. I say this despite IMDB's categorization of Open Water as a drama; horror is a better category for it, because a horror film is one whose primary purpose is the presentation of the DDB, and that is Open Water's purpose. The two films are also united by being low-budget, and by being about some sort of distortion between humans and their natural environment. In Open Water, the distortion involves sharks; in Wasp Woman, wasps.



In Open Water, a couple who are scuba diving on vacation are accidentally abandoned by their dive boat in the middle of the open ocean. The portrayal of what happens to the pair as they drift in the water is mercilessly realistic: they are dehydrated, hungry, tired, rained on, terrified, sniping at each other, stung by jellyfish, nipped at by little fish, and finally preyed upon by sharks. The realism of the film--based loosely on true events and shot documentary-style on digital video--may be what seems to qualify it as a drama. Most horror films, people assume, deal with fantastic scenarios. But the horror film has a long tradition of realism, going back to M and continuing to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Open Water is a horror film because the main focus is the DDB. The DDB here consists not only of the sharks, but of the open water in which the sharks are the top predator.

In the horror film, going off the main road is often the agent of destruction for normal people, and these two normals have gone way, way off the main road. They are deformed with respect to their environment; they are the wrong shape key for this lock. Conversely, the open water can be seen as being deformed with respect to the normals; from their point of view, the watery world around them, which is only maintaining its daily rhythms, is something freakish and disturbing. The open water is also highly destructive, qualifying it as a DDB.



Wasp Woman is a much more conventional horror movie. It begins with naturalistic pictures of bees and wasps, but quickly develops into a standard hybrid monster story--a film in which a human blends with another species and becomes sufficiently deformed and destructive to fulfill DDB duties (eg, The Wolf Man, The Fly). Here, an aging cosmetics queen takes injections of wasp serum to restore her youth, and the injections transform her into a killer with the head and hands of a wasp. The movie has not an ounce of the realism that marks Open Water, but it is campily entertaining. These two movies mark the difference between two strains of DDB--the naturalistic and the fantastic.

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

Friday, September 2, 2011

Not Very Afraid of the Dark

This summer's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a remake of a 1973 TV-movie that I haven't seen and can't comment on. What I would like to comment on are the new film's deformed destructive beings, or DDBs. A horror movie is only as good as its DDB(s), and the little creatures in Dark are a case in point. They are fascinating and entertaining, but not horrifying enough to make this a horror movie of the first rank.



As in innumerable haunted house movies before (eg, The Amityville Horror), Dark has a family move into a big old house that turns out to be haunted. But instead of being haunted by ghosts, the house is haunted by little creatures that live under the basement. Like rats and other vermin, they don't like light and mostly move around in the dark. They look sort of like rats, gray and hunched over, but also sort of human, walking around on spindly legs. There is a suggestion that they are evil fairies--they like teeth, and their taste for teeth may have been the origin of the legend of the tooth fairy. Their chief means of destructiveness is in abducting people to join them forever in their underground lair.

At times these DDBs are horrifying. When the little girl, Sally, peeks under her bedsheet and comes face to face with one of the creatures, the effect is powerful, raising sexual fears and terrors of contamination. But too often the creatures verge on being--cute. They have high-pitched voices with which they communicate with Sally. They scuttle about making mischief like the gremlins in Gremlins, who were also a little too cute for that movie's own good. They are well-realized, but the more we see of them the more it is clear they are CGI creations, which undermines the realism that is essential to horror.

Guillermo del Toro, who co-produced and co-wrote the film, has a fondness for horror films that are either not really horror films or are on the edge of horror. Pan's Labyrinth is a fantasy with elements of horror; Cronos is a horror film, but just barely, with a vampire who is almost too nice to be a vampire. Dark is definitely a horror film, but the horror it produces is limited by the cute fantasy aspect of its DDBs. In keeping with the title, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is unlikely to make the viewer afraid of the dark.

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

Friday, August 26, 2011

“The Amityville Horror” Redux

I have only dim memories of the first Amityville Horror (1979), and they are not pleasant ones. As I recall, the film was slow, boring, and insufficiently horrifying. Accordingly, I did not expect much from the remake, also titled The Amityville Horror (2005), and I did not get much. But what I got was at least superior to the original.

Like the original, the 2005 Amityville is supposedly based on the true story of George and Kathleen Lutz and their family, who moved into a Long Island house that soon turned out to be seriously haunted. This time around, the Lutzes are played by Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George, filling the roles previously handled by James Brolin and Margot Kidder.
Reynolds has a lighter touch than Brolin, which generally serves the material well. All the dark brooding stuff about child murder and torturing Indians can get too heavy-handed without a sense of humor. As for George, I can’t swear that she’s a better actress than Kidder, but I have a soft spot in my heart for George not only for her blonde good looks but for all the other science fiction/horror roles she has essayed—Dark City, 30 Days of Night, Turistas. She may be the Evelyn Ankers of her generation.
The Amityville remake is neither slow nor boring. It zips right along, with lots of creepy hallucinations to jazz things up. An apparition of a dead little girl, Jodie, is somewhat overused and overfamiliar from other movies, but still effective at times. The principal mechanism of mayhem is the transformation of George Lutz from kindly family man to homicidal maniac, and this is depicted without any tedious subtlety. Reynolds falls in love with his dank basement, obsessively chops wood, kills a dog: you know he will attack his family next.

What keeps the Amityville remake from being a really good horror film is that, like its predecessor, it is insufficiently horrifying. Neither Brolin nor Reynolds have it in them to deliver a homicidal father performance like that of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, still the benchmark for this type of film. And the haunted house material has been seen so often that something radically new must be done with it to make it freshly horrifying. Still, the Amityville remake merits praise for having topped its original—though not much praise, given the weakness of the original.
George Ochoa
Author

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Most Boring Film Ever Made

According to deanlamb's post on the message board at IMDB, the most boring film ever made may well be Monsters (2010). After just sitting through it--or rather, lying through it, because it made me want to stretch out and go to sleep--I am inclined to agree. Perhaps I am partly to blame. From the title, I expected a horror movie (let's see, Monsters--could that possibly have something to do with monsters?). It turned out to be a rather soft-core science fiction movie, in which very little is made of the aliens who landed on earth six years previously, and more is made of the social and political issues connected to them. Oh, and there is a very dull love story involving the two main characters, both humans.



So, I admit I am the wrong audience for the film. Still, it bored me so much that I did doze a lot near the end, and cannot see that I missed much. After one shot of the couple walking through jungle, I dozed and woke up to find--another shot of the couple walking through jungle.

Nevertheless, I hesitate to say for sure that Monsters is the most boring film ever made. There are so many candidates for this high honor. The 2002 Solaris. Wim Wenders's Kings of the Road. Woody Allen's Interiors. Heartland. My Brilliant Career. It's harder for me to think of a stupefyingly boring horror film, because horror movies at least usually have some moments of action, gruesomeness, suspense, or slime to keep things moving. But how about Lake Placid? That comes as close to being boring as a movie about a giant crocodile can get.

If you have your own suggestions about most boring horror movies, or most boring movies generally, please comment.

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

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Slithering to the Well Once Too Often

It is difficult to come up with an original deformed destructive being, or DDB. The DDBs that have already succeeded in horrifying audiences dominate the imagination and generate sequels and remakes; the ones that purport to be new tend not to be really new, but only slight variations on what has come before. Then there is a movie like Slither (2006), which blends together several DDBs that we have already seen before, making them newish by adding a coating of parody.



In Slither, extraterrestrials traveling by meteorite invade a small town and proceed to do several things lifted from other, better horror movies:
1. penetrate a human and make him a carrier of other aliens (found in Alien)
2. have weird, contaminating sex with tentacle-like organs (found in Rabid)
3. generate zombies who spread the disease (found in Night of the Living Dead)
4. shoot acid (Alien again)
5. grossly deform a couple of the contaminated humans (The Fly, The Thing, et al)
6. spawn offspring from an enormous queen (Aliens)
7. stock lairs with remains of dead creatures (in this case livestock and pets; it's humans in Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, and so on)
8. spread via little worm-like entities (They Came from Within)

So when you add it all up, Slither is less a new horror movie than a potpourri of other horror movies. It has some scares and shocks, but these are faint echoes of the scares and shocks from its predecessors, and even the echoes tend to be undermined by the air of tongue-in-cheek humor, a constant peril in horror comedies. Also, when Michael Rooker's character reaches full alien development, he looks sort of like Jabba the Hutt, representing a silly sort of pop culture reach in yet another direction.

The movie is not entirely a waste of time. It stars the beautiful Elizabeth Banks, always a welcome presence. And it does move along in a more or less entertaining way, if only faintly entertaining. But I am always hoping for something more: for that stroke of originality that says a new DDB is on the screen; for the horror that comes when the filmmaker proves that the new DDB is there.

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


Sunday, July 31, 2011

Unresolved Questions

Like any fan of horror movies, I have a number of unresolved questions regarding this genre. These are a few of them. If you can venture guesses as to the answers, or if you have questions of your own, please leave comments.

1. In The Wolf Man, Claude Rains ties up his son Lon Chaney Jr. and leaves him alone to force him to overcome his notion that he is a werewolf. Leaving aside the question of whether bondage in solitary confinement is a useful psychological tool, there is also this oddity: Rains ties him up near the window so that he can have a view of the hunt for the killer wolf. Now how good a view could Rains expect his son to have through a single window? Wouldn't everyone be sort of spread out, out of sight?

2. In The Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequels, why don't we ever see a creaturette? Where there's one creature, there tend to be others. It's called a population. Why does this creature need to turn to Julie Adams for companionship?



3. Just about everything in Exorcist II: The Heretic is confusing. Why is there a single big locust flying ahead of the swarm of other little locusts? Does Kitty Winn burst into flame, or did I dream that? And what's with the wacky helmets used to peer into other people's minds? Are those FDA-approved, or what?

4. At the end of The Omen, little Damien appears to have been adopted by the President of the United States. At the beginning of the first sequel, Damien: Omen II, it turns out somebody totally different, William Holden, has adopted him. Why did they change the story-line from movie one to movie two? Could it be that they realized that even if the President did adopt Damien, that would not ensure that Damien would become president, since, as a rule, American presidents are not selected on a hereditary basis?

5. In Hostel, is it really good surgical practice to care for a person whose eyeball is hanging loose by cutting off the eyeball? I just wonder.

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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ed Gein Double Feature

MGM has been kind enough to put together a "Midnite Movies" DVD double feature of two seriously strange serial killer films, Deranged (1974) and Motel Hell (1980). The former is the better of the two, but both are worth seeing--and the two have some odd connections.



Deranged is based fairly closely on the story of Ed Gein, the real-life body-snatcher and murderer who decorated his farmhouse with female body parts and had a severe mother fixation. Gein became the basis for the serial killers in Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and (as Buffalo Bill) The Silence of the Lambs. Whereas these better known horror films adapted the Gein story freely and all but unrecognizably, Deranged takes a pseudo-documentary biopic approach, including a narrator who wanders on and off the set. The killer is named Ezra (or Ez) Cobb, but the name is close enough to Ed Gein to leave no doubt as to whose story is being told. Many details of the true story are preserved, although there are differences, principally to make the main female victims younger and more beautiful.

The greatest asset of Deranged is the star performance of Roberts Blossom as Ezra Cobb. A character actor whose face is familiar without being instantly placeable, Blossom beautifully portrays a humble farmer who is by turns grief-stricken (over the death of his mother), elated, intense, lascivious, and at all times mad as a hatter. Especially creepy is his way of manipulating his lips and tongue. He is aided by a good supporting cast and a tone that manages to be both somber and blackly funny.

Motel Hell is also in the Gein tradition, but it takes Gein only as remote inspiration. For its ideas, it depends more on other Gein-inspired horror movies. Deranged is fresh in part because of its closeness to actual events; Motel Hell depends on Psycho (for the idea of a horrific motel) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (for the idea of a killer who makes food out of his victims). Yet Motel Hell (so named because the letter "O" has faded from the "Motel Hello" sign) has some original touches. In Motel Hell, Farmer Vincent makes delicious smoked meats out of people he plants in the ground up to their necks, like cabbages. He also slits their vocal cords so they can't scream--just make growling animal noises. The spectacle of a garden of people planted vegetatively is an interesting horror concept. All the more so because one of the victims is John Ratzenberger from Cheers.

Nevertheless, Motel Hell is too derivative, obvious, and slow-paced to succeed as a horror film. Rory Calhoun is competent as Farmer Vincent, but he doesn't achieve the sheer battiness of Blossom as Cobb. The main interest of Motel Hell is as yet another movie, like Deranged, in which the country is presented as a dangerous place to be.

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

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Giant Rats

One common category for the deformed destructive beings (DDBs) of horror films is the berserk biota. These are natural creatures gone crazy in some way, breaking free of their place in the natural order, often attacking humans. They may, for example, be magnified to giant size, or they may behave in homicidal swarms. In The Food of the Gods (1976), both are true--swarms of giant rats hunt people, like a cross between Willard and Tarantula.



The Food of the Gods is not a good movie, but it has its moments. Based loosely on H.G. Wells's novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, it tells the story of a pro football player (why is he a pro football player? we don't know), played by Marjoe Gortner, who happens upon an island where animals grow to prodigious proportions. A giant rooster nearly pecks him to death, prompting the immortal line of dialogue, "Where the hell did you get those goddamn chickens?" A swarm of enormous wasps kills his buddy. The island's only living resident, a nutty farmer played by Ida Lupino (in the tradition of aging movie stars relegated to grade B horror movies), fights off very big larvae.

It turns out that Lupino and her husband (introduced only to be killed) have been feeding their chickens with a mysterious food that enlarged them, along with any vermin that happened to take a bite. With the addition of a few more characters (including Pamela Franklin as something called a "female bacteriologist"), the island is stocked with normals to be attacked by the giant DDBs, principally the rats. The movie comes down to a giant rat vs. normal-sized human story, with the house boarded up in Night of the Living Dead style while the rats keep charging and getting rebuffed through gunfire, improvised explosives, and finally a burst dam.

The effects vary from nearly convincing to ludicrous; the flying wasps are particularly bad, appearing as ghost images because of some failure in the optical department. Live rats on miniature sets are the key effect, and, depending on the editing, this can work well. The acting is frequently wooden--with the principal exception of Lupino, who knows how to wield a hatchet--and the characterizations one-dimensional. An annoying ecology theme (nature takes revenge against pollution) is periodically raised, but luckily not much is done with this. The best contribution of the ecology theme to this horror movie is a frisson at the end, in which we realize that cows may have been drinking traces of the food of the gods and it may have gotten into their milk and--gasp!--a child is now drinking that milk...

For all its flaws, The Food of the Gods has a lot of monsters and bloody deaths, and for that reason alone deserves a look. It is also interesting as an example of the oeuvre of director Bert I. Gordon, who, in The Amazing Colossal Man and elsewhere, had done these magnified DDBs before.

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

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Twenty Things I Like about "The Exorcist"

In last Sunday's SundayReview, the New York Times published a welcome sight: a photograph of Linda Blair as the possessed girl Regan in The Exorcist. The photo accompanied an interesting article by Jason Zinoman, "The Critique of Pure Horror," but the photo itself was interesting, and reminded me of how much I like this movie. Without much effort, I can think of at least twenty things I like about The Exorcist:

1. Mercedes McCambridge's gravelly yet feminine voice as the demon
2. The scarred, puffy white makeup on Blair's face, with the green-colored eyes
3. Projectile vomit
4. Masturbating with a crucifix
5. Regan's head turning completely around



6. The black and white dogs fighting in the prologue in Northern Iraq
7. The Allman Brothers "Ramblin' Man" playing in the background in a bar scene
8. Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" theme tinkling mysteriously
9. The heroic priests
10. That very brief, almost subliminal, shot of a skull-faced woman interjected in the midst of Father Karras's dream
11. An angered Father Karras resorting to punching out the possessed Regan (this always got applause in the movie theater)
12. Regan's mother getting slapped in the face by the possessed Regan, with a resulting bruise
13. The hypnotizing psychiatrist getting his testicles crushed by Regan
14. The fallen leaves blowing through Georgetown
15. Kitty Winn understated but hot as Regan's mother's secretary
16. The entire rest of the principal cast, including Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, and Lee J. Cobb
17. Regan summoning a statue of the demon
18. Regan floating above her bed while the priests chant "The power of Christ compels you!"
19. The coda in which Regan kisses Father Dyer because she recognizes his clerical collar, and Father Dyer looks down the stairs where Father Karras got killed
20. The up-tempo music that accompanies the start of the closing credits

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

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Artist in "Color Me Blood Red"

I just had the pleasure of seeing the third in Herschell Gordon Lewis's blood trilogy. I had already seen Part One, Blood Feast (1963), and Part Two, Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), and these prepared me, to an extent, for Part Three, Color Me Blood Red (1965). I expected blood and gore, and got those. Laughably bad acting, cheap production values, ludicrous dialogue, and stilted direction were also expected and delivered, as were good-looking women wearing very little. A certain overall strangeness is also a mark of this auteur, and Color Me Blood Red carried on in this tradition. But Color Me Blood Red was distinctive in one way. It is a horror movie about being an artist, and a fairly accurate portrayal at that.



Color Me Blood Red is the story of painter Adam Sorg (Gordon Oas-Heim as Don Joseph), who, after being offended by a critic's deprecatory remark about his use of color, begins to add human blood to his canvases. At first it's an accidental drip of blood from his girlfriend's finger, then it's his own blood, in quantities. But it weakens him too much to use his own blood, and besides he needs more. He finally resorts to murder--first his girlfriend, then another girl--and paints freely with their blood. The result is critical acclaim and public demand for his paintings. No one knows his secret, but something about his paintings captures the imagination. Finally Sorg tries to kill one girl too many, and is executed by her irate boyfriend.

Red Smith once said, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." Apparently, according to Lewis, painting works the same way. In Color Me Blood Red, Lewis works out a metaphor for what is involved in all artistic creation--drawing material from yourself and from others (your blood, your friends' blood) until your art is genuinely original and alive. That it tends to destroy the artist and may also destroy others is the price one pays for accomplished art. Further, in the specific case of horror art, blood is part of the spectacle for which people pay to see, and even if that blood is fake, it is only of interest because there exists real blood that does sometimes get spilt. Lewis probably did not intend his audience to think much about these ideas, but they are present nonetheless.

The other blood trilogy movies are similarly intellectual in reach. Blood Feast involves Egyptian scholarship and religious fervor. Two Thousand Maniacs! delves into historic tensions between North and South. Yes, the trilogy is exploitational and the production values are low, yet the movies exercise a curious hold not only on the innards but on the mind.

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