Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Laughably Bad Movie of Yucca Flats

There are good horror movies and bad horror movies, and then there are laughably bad horror movies. The laughably bad ones are so bad they make you laugh at their ineptness, and this in itself is entertaining. Paradoxically, then, they are so bad they're good. A time-honored example is The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961).

Running an excruciatingly long fifty-four minutes (but excruciating in a good way), Beast stars Swedish former wrestler Tor Johnson--a big, bald, corpulent mass of a man--as a defecting Soviet scientist who is accidentally transformed into a "beast" by a nuclear explosion at the testing grounds at Yucca Flats. His beastly makeup appears to consist of gravy poured over his face and dried. So much for his deformity; his destructiveness consists of strangling innocent people. This he does with curious infrequentness, as if the filmmakers periodically forgot this was supposed to be a horror movie.

It is essential to a good horror movie that everything in the film support the presentation of the deformed destructive being, in this case Tor. But in this movie, everything lets Tor down. The production values are not just poor--they seem to be aggressively attacking the film. For example, the film seems to have been made without a soundtrack, so that there is little dialogue and what there is is dubbed in offscreen or while people have their faces turned away. In place of dialogue, an annoying narrator keeps prattling in serious tones about "progress." An inexplicable scene of a woman's murder after a shower is inserted at the beginning, with no apparent connection to the rest of the story; it seems to exist just to echo Psycho and provide a brief glimpse of nudity. In a bizarre subplot, a law officer shoots from an airplane at a running innocent normal whom he has mistaken for the monster. At the end, a rabbit nibbles at the dead or dying body of the Beast. Why? Nobody knows.

A confession: I was dozing during parts of The Beast from Yucca Flats--the parts when my laughter turned to insurmountable boredom at yet more shots of the same drably filmed desert country. So I may have missed something that would have redeemed the movie. But I doubt it. In any case, it is partially redeemed by being so bad it's (inadvertently) good.

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

Spider-Man vs. Brundlefly

I am not the first to suggest a match-up between the superhero Spider-Man and the monster Brundlefly of The Fly (1986). The issue has come up on Comic Vine, for example, and at one time the Spider-Man of the comics did fight a villain called the Human Fly. However, unlike previous commentators, I am less interested in who would win than in what these two characters say about the movie genres in which we find them. Because movies are the art form under discussion, I will limit myself to the Spider-Man character as he appears in the movie Spider-Man (2002).

Superficially, Spider-Man and Brundlefly are very similar. Spider-Man results from a fusion of spider and human through an accident of genetic engineering. Brundlefly results from a fusion of fly and human through an accident of genetic engineering. Spider-Man and Brundlefly both gain similar powers: super-strength; the ability to climb on walls. They both have powers specific to the invertebrates with which they have fused: Spider-Man secretes webbing; Brundlefly secretes acid.

Where Spider-Man and Brundlefly differ is in their degree of deformity and destructiveness. Spider-Man is not deformed; he is a good-looking young man who not only remains good-looking after his accident, but develops a better body. Brundlefly becomes hideously deformed through a degenerative process that ultimately leaves him looking more like a fly than a human. Spider-Man's one slightly icky characteristic, the webbing that comes out of his wrist, is neat and contained. Brundlefly's acid secretion takes the form of vomiting, and is anything but neat and contained. Spider-Man could be destructive, but uses his powers to fight crime and save lives, so he is not destructive in the sense of destroying what shouldn't be destroyed. Brundlefly uses his powers to maim people and attempt to fuse himself genetically with his girlfriend and unborn child, so he is destructive.

From this analysis, it should be apparent how central deformity and destructiveness are to the horror movie. With a slight adjustment, the movie Spider-Man could be turned into a horror movie: if Peter Parker became gross-looking and used his powers for evil and tried to fuse genetically with Mary Jane Watson. And The Fly could have been a superhero movie if Seth Brundle had remained good-looking and secreted his acid more discreetly and used his powers to fight crime.

What is most amazing is that both movies are enjoyable. Movies are fantasies of choice, and some days I might choose the fantasy of the superhuman good guy, other days the fantasy of the subhuman monster. As long as both movies are well made according to the rules of their respective genres, both Spider-Man and Brundlefly can end up winning this contest.

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

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Low-Budget Bela

Horror is one genre where a little goes a long way. Unlike, say, the Biblical or historical epic, where a big budget is practically required for good results, in the horror genre a little money spent judiciously can produce a satisfying movie. An example is The Corpse Vanishes, a 1942 chiller starring Bela Lugosi.

The popular impression of Lugosi is that he was a pathetic, even tragic figure who descended from the heights of playing Dracula through drug addiction and cheap movies, to end up filming awful productions with Ed Wood. Some of this is true. But what is too often forgotten is how good his work was in many of those cheap movies, including The Corpse Vanishes. Made for the Poverty Row studio Monogram, Corpse is surprisingly entertaining, with a great deal to recommend it, including Lugosi.

To start with, Corpse has a wonderfully bizarre premise: mad scientist Dr. Lorenz (Lugosi) is murdering (or at least rendering catatonic) brides at the altar, then abducting their bodies to supply glandular serum to keep his aging wife youthful. He kills the brides with orchids he has hybridized to deliver poison through their scent. The movie gets crazier from there. Lorenz has three servants, one a dwarf, one a deformed brute, and one the other servants' mother, who is always trying to protect her sons from Lorenz's propensity to whip and threaten them. Lorenz and his wife sleep in coffins. Lorenz plays the organ. His house has secret passages. And on and on, all packed into 64 minutes.

The normals are a nosy female reporter, Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters), and her love interest, Dr. Foster (Tristram Coffin). Neither of them are good actors, but they put over their roles adequately, and fuse into the heterosexual couple that horror films of the period liked to leave as survivors at the end. In any case, the normals are always less important in a horror movie than the deformed destructive being, or DDB. That is Lorenz, deformed in virtue of his insanity and immorality, and destructive in virtue of his homicidality.

Lugosi is typically suave and sinister in this role, smiling with menace, making the audience believe he is what is presented: a man whose hobby is horticulture, who likes to sleep in a coffin, who will kill at a moment's notice, who keeps a dwarf, and who is devoted to keeping a mad old wife alive and youthful. The figure of this DDB makes the movie worthwhile. And all on a Monogram budget.

George Ochoa

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Horror for Grown-Ups

In his book, Dreadful Pleasures, James B. Twitchell argues that adults are not interested in horror stories and that their memories of such are entirely from their late childhood or adolescence. Indeed, there is a widespread impression that the core horror movie audience is teenagers, and that horror movies are therefore juvenile and not fit for grown-ups. This does not fit my experience at all.

It is true that I loved horror movies as a child, and that The Exorcist and The Omen, which I saw respectively at ages 14 and 15, were defining experiences of my adolescence. But after that, from the late 1970s through the 1980s--roughly from my late teens through my twenties--I was a very infrequent patron of the horror film. It might have been because I considered them juvenile and not fit for grown-ups. I saw The Shining in 1980 because I liked Stanley Kubrick, then hardly any new horror films until 1987, when I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors because it got a good review in the New York Times and I thought it might give me ideas for a dreamlike novel I was then writing. The point is, Nightmare on Elm Street 3 was not only the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie I had seen--it was the first slasher movie I had seen. I had been so out of the horror loop that from the birth of the slasher film in the 1970s until Nightmare on Elm Street 3, I had not seen a single example of this subgenre. No Halloween, no Friday the 13th--nothing.

It was not until 1990, when I turned 30, that I grew up and began to like horror movies again. By then I was a freelance writer, writing reference books about film, and as I researched film I realized that the horror film was a particularly fascinating genre. How could it be so fearful and repulsive yet also entertaining, even exhilarating? Horror movies were fun to see, and also fun to think about--their aesthetics, their ethics, the taxonomy of their monsters.

From this adult scholarly vantage-point, I made it my business to fill in the huge gaps in my horror education and see as many of the films as I could. Finally I saw Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Evil Dead II, and, of course, Halloween and Friday the 13th.

This project of watching and studying horror movies went on through my thirties and forties and continues now that I am fifty. Horror movies are for all ages, but they are a special treat for grown-ups old enough to appreciate them.

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

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Edge of Horror

My theory of horror films, discussed at length in my book, is that the primary purpose of horror films is to present a deformed and destructive being. This is obvious in a movie like Frankenstein, where there is a being (here, the Frankenstein monster) who is deformed and destructive and is clearly the focus of the story. But there are numerous cases on the edges of horror where the categorization is not so clear. Such a case is Cronos (1993).

Cronos is widely recognized as horror, both by those who like it, such as Bloody Disgusting, and those who don't, such as PelleCreepy. And it does have a plot that sort of sounds like horror: old man Jesus Gris finds ancient device that confers immortality on its user at the price of transforming him into a vampire. As Gris becomes a vampire through deforming makeup effects, he clearly qualifies as a deformed being. But he is not obviously destructive.

Gris does not kill to get blood; he scavenges blood where he can find it, from a nosebleed or wound. He is kind and generally nonviolent. However, it is clear that he is tempted to get blood more openly--he almost takes it from his beloved granddaughter, but holds back. And he is destroying himself through his addiction to the device; his visible suffering steadily increases as his vampirism gets worse. He is, therefore, destructive in two ways: potentially destructive with respect to others and actually destructive with respect to himself. He is a deformed destructive being whose presentation is the purpose of the movie. That makes Cronos a horror movie, although a peculiarly gentle and offbeat horror movie, in which the monster is almost preternaturally nice.

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

The Significance of "Dead Snow"

While there might be a way to make a serious movie about Nazi zombies, Dead Snow (2009) is not it. It is horrific and exciting, but also tongue-in-cheek, even camp. Yet even a funny zombie movie can contain a profound significance. The significance of Dead Snow is, to paraphrase Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to be eaten by it.

The normals in Dead Snow are young Norwegians all but devoid of historical memory. They are medical students, looking ahead to bright futures, enjoying the toys of their upper middle-class present, such as their snowmobile and their cabin in the snowy mountains. Their memory extends back only as far as Hollywood movies from the 1980s, such as The Terminator and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Their interests, like those of many horror movie young people, are largely confined to beer and sex.

A strange, older wanderer tries to warn the young people in the cabin about the danger around them by telling them a story about the Nazi occupation of Norway in World War II, and the peculiar fate of the Nazis in this region. The medical students are dismissive, and the wanderer dismisses them as spoiled brats. He is not far off. The kids go so far as to play with Nazi gold they find under their cabin. Then the Nazi zombies attack.

Like all zombies, the Nazi zombies wear hideous dead-person makeup, but it is even grayer and wrinklier than usual, as if they have been frozen in this wilderness for six decades. They still wear their Nazi uniforms and follow orders like Nazis. However, the key difference between them and the young people is that the zombies are true to the historical past. For them, World War II never ended. They remember and preserve the predatory dream they were fighting for, even if they are reduced now to nothing but eating Norwegians. The Nazi zombies are, in this sense, heroic. They demand that a younger generation remember what took place in the historical past--even if the only way to force them to remember it is to devour them. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to be eaten by it.

The Nazi zombies are, of course, not purely heroic. As zombies, they are horrible: deformed destructive beings. And as Nazis, they are the embodiment of evil. But the horror movie as a genre is always working contrapuntally, causing the audience to feel revulsion for the same creatures that are causing them delight, and making them think about the underside of whatever they claim to believe. The Nazi zombies are evil, but they are disciplined and wear their uniforms proudly. They remember what the young people have not even worked to forget.

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

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Horror vs. Comedy

Something about horror and comedy keeps pushing the two together. It's as if the same spot of the brain that screams at something could, under slightly different circumstances, laugh at it. Sometimes the scream and the laugh are simultaneous. This makes for a group of movies that are often called horror comedies, although it is more accurate to distinguish the horror movies with comic elements from the the comedies with horror elements.

I just rewatched a prime example of the latter, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). It isn't particularly scary, but it is hilarious, and it uses horror themes to get its laughs--psychopathic serial killers, a spooky house with 13 bodies in the basement, and a man who looks like Boris Karloff (but is actually played by Raymond Massey). I first encountered this movie in high school, when I thought it was one of the funniest movies I'd ever seen. Later I read critics who thought it was creaky and overplayed, so my estimation of it went down. Now that I am older and care less what other critics say, I've gone back to my original estimation.

You won't find Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) on's list of 25 Best Horror-Comedy Movies, but then this list doesn't make the distinction between comedies with horror elements (such as Arsenic and Old Lace, Ghostbusters, and Young Frankenstein) and horror movies with comedy elements (such as Re-Animator and Evil Dead II). The difference is whether the film primarily exists to present you with a deformed destructive being, thus tagging it as horror,  or whether it primarily exists to make you laugh, thus tagging it as comedy.

Either way, there are far too many movies that don't do either task well: horror-generation or laughter-generation. I am thinking of Zombieland, which was not very funny or very scary, but managed to become a hit just the same. Then there was the more artistically successful but still problematic Severance, which was a little too funny, enough so that the humor undercut the otherwise well-done horror. Arsenic and Old Lace reminds me of what can happen when the filmmakers focus on one category with the other used sparingly.

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

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Phagic Nightmares

Many horror movies are based on the idea of the normal characters (the normals) being eaten by the abnormal ones (the deformed destructive beings, or DDBs). These are phagic stories, tales of being eaten. This is true of zombie movies, and partially true of vampire movies, where what is consumed is only a part of the victim, blood. Berserk biota, natural non-human creatures acting strangely, are always munching on humans: sharks (most famously Jaws [1975]), anacondas, piranhas, rats, resurrected dinosaurs, man-eating plants, and so on. Alien monsters, such as the creature in Alien (1979), also seem to have a taste for humans. So do cannibals, such as in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

These movies suggest an insight into the nature of DDBs. Every species that has evolved has to procure food, and most species (aside from most green plants) do it destructively, by devouring some other living thing. Every species that has evolved is deformed with respect to its ancestors: it evolves through deformation. Therefore most species are DDBs, or monsters. Humans are no different. We are monsters to all the animals and plants we eat. A good horror movie would be set in a slaughterhouse, from the point of view of the cow. In fact, that movie was made, with humans standing in for cows: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Horror movies--at least the phagic ones under discussion here--are like recurrent nightmares we have been having since our evolutionary childhood, the prehistoric days when there were many more creatures around that could eat us. Even today, when there is little danger of being eaten, we know that we could be eaten: that we are no less vulnerable to teeth than the animals we ingest. And we know that we survive by eating, giving us cause for both delight and guilt. Unless we ever become indigestible or cease digesting, our phagic nightmares are likely to continue.

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

Sunday, April 10, 2011

When Was the Last Time a Horror Movie Scared You?

I mean, really scared you. It's easy to produce a startle response by making a loud noise on the soundtrack while having something jump at the camera. Similarly, it's simple to gross out the audience by cutting open an abdomen and revealing intestines or something. But neither of those are what I would call a real scare. A real scare is when you're so involved with the story that it matters to you what happens next, and you are in terror of what that thing might be--and of what it is turning out to be. It's the kind of scare that makes you have to tell yourself, "It's only a movie."

The earliest horror movie to scare me in this way was Night Monster (1942), a low-budget Universal chiller that I think was about a legless man who magically recovers use of his legs only to stalk around killing people. I'm not sure of the details because I was only about ten when I saw it, on one of those Saturday night "Creature Features" programs that used to air old horror movies. Night Monster scared me tremendously, but I've never been able to find a copy of it since then to verify if it would still have the same effect.

Other movies have really scared me since then--Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1974), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Jaws (1975) The Omen (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fly (1986), and so on. But the older I get the harder it is for a horror movie to do the job of really scaring me. I'm not sure that it's just because the movies have gotten worse. I think I've gotten more jaded, less able to involve myself in the lives of what I know to be fictional characters.

Anyway, the last horror movie to come close was the 2009 The House of the Devil. I don't remember the movie well, but there was a scene where the babysitter was wandering alone in the house of the Satanic cultists, and I had to tell myself, "It's only a movie." What a blissful phrase: a sign that the horror movie is doing its job.

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

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Molly Hartley" Needed More Haunting

Having just written about a good horror film (The Human Centipede [First Sequence]), I think it only proper to explain what I think makes a bad horror film. For that, I need look no further than the film I just saw last night, The Haunting of Molly Hartley.

I won't say this film is all bad. It had nice schoolgirl uniforms. Nor would I call it an incoherent, laughably inept mess of a film, such as Plan 9 from Outer Space. That would be rating it more highly than it merits. Laughably inept horror films at least provide laughs. The Haunting of Molly Hartley prompted little emotion at all, other than a strong desire to check my watch.

The Haunting of Molly Hartley, you see, was dull, and that is the worst thing a horror movie can be. The purpose of a horror movie is to present you with the illusion that a new form of being--a deformed destructive being (DDB)--has entered the world and is threatening to destroy you. That should not be dull. If it is dull, the horror movie is failing at its job.

Molly Hartley is dull for a number of reasons. The settings are bland, the dialogue is without crackle or spice, the acting is wooden, the plot is a copy of other copies of Rosemary's Baby, and at no point does anything surprising happen. Even when some hallucination or other pops out from behind Molly, accompanied by a loud noise, this is expected by the alert horror movie fan, because that is the sort of thing that happens at about this point in this kind of movie.

The worst disgrace of Molly Hartley is the lack of a strong DDB. Molly is supposed to turn into a demon or devil-servant or something on her 18th birthday, and we can expect that this makes her the DDB. But she is not physically deformed (aside from a scar daintily obscured by her decolletage), and although she is supposed to be spiritually deformed, she exhibits this deformity largely by adopting a mean schoolgirl manner common to the other mean schoolgirls around her. Perhaps this is supposed to be a comment on the banality of schoolgirl meanness, but it succeeds only in being banal.

Nor is Molly very destructive. She breaks a girl's arm and kills a couple of people, but her heart doesn't seem to be in it. Possibly actress Haley Bennett's heart wasn't really in it.

The greatest virtue of The Haunting of Molly Hartley is to clarify what makes a bad horror movie. This, in turn, makes the good ones scream louder.

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

Is "The Human Centipede" Good?

It has come to my attention that not everyone likes The Human Centipede (First Sequence). The Hollywood Reporter wrote, "It's hard to say whether Tom Six's horror film 'The Human Centipede' is more appropriately reviewed by a critic or therapist." Melissa Lafsky, the Horror Chick, titled her review, "Do Not See 'The Human Centipede' Unless You Are a Sick, Sick Puppy, And Even Then Reconsider." These are some of the kinder comments made about the film. Because tastes are subjective, I am not going to try to persuade anyone who dislikes the film to like it. But I am going to explain why I think The Human Centipede is a good horror film, even if it is not to everyone's taste.

To be a good horror film, a film has to fulfill the primary purpose of horror films, which is to present a deformed destructive being, or DDB. This satisfies the audience's desire to know a new form of being that would be inaccessible in real life (because unreal and dangerous). In most horror films, the DDB is a single monster, but every once in a while, the DDB is a composite of monsters. This is the case in The Human Centipede.

In this film, the mad scientist, Dr. Heiter, is, in Horror Chick's words, one sick puppy. Following a deranged yet logical plan, he captures and sews together three living victims into a single organism, arranged rectum to mouth, an organism crawling on its hands and knees--a human centipede. As far as anyone can tell, Heiter does this for the sheer pleasure of creation--the making of a new type of life form through the deformation of three existing life forms.

In doing this, Heiter is exceptionally destructive, killing an unsuitable victim and mutilating others to the point of robbing them of their species essence. Because he is insane and sociopathic, he is also psychologically and morally deformed. Thus, Heiter is a DDB--a deformed destructive being. But the thing he creates is also a DDB. Physically, it is lavishly and grossly deformed, in just such a way as to give rise to a new type of being. It is not especially destructive, except for an attack on Heiter. Yet its grandiose deformity, coupled with Heiter's bizarre destructiveness, make for an amalgamated DDB of considerable power. The human centipede has a head that is intimately connected although not physically attached, and that head is Heiter.

There are five aesthetic virtues that make for a good DDB--it has to be plausible, original, memorable, coherent, and horrifying--and the double-DDB in The Human Centipede is all these things. A horror film is only as good as its DDB, and since the human centipede is a good DDB, The Human Centipede is a good horror film.

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

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Stay on the Main Road!

The blog Shock Room has had enough of this subgenre of films:

"A group of friends/ colleagues/ rivals goes hiking/ mountain climbing/ snowboarding in a remote region best known for its unfriendly inhabitants/ war/ unpredictable weather and crosses paths with a serial killer/ mutant/ kidnap-victim-who-grew-up-to-be-a-freak who captures/ tortures/ prepares-his-victims-as-dinner and then kills or is killed by a lone spunky survivor named Chloe/ Zoe/ Joey."

This is a funny description, and I can see why Shock Room is ready to ditch the subgenre, but at least one strand of this description is never going to go away: that the monster dwells in a "remote region." This is so common among monsters that it is found in the most varied films. Dracula in the 1931 Dracula dwells beyond the Borgo Pass, where the locals warn you not to go; Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) is so far off the main road that you only find him by getting lost; the cannibals in The Hills Have Eyes (1977) live in a rocky wilderness that you are sternly warned against by the owner of the last gas station around, who admonishes, "Stay on the main road!"

In the horror film, staying on the main road symbolizes the world of normals, the people you know from everyday life, the ones who are civilized, polite, and won't eat you. But when you watch a horror film, that's not what you want to see. You want to see a new form of being--a deformed being, a being so dangerous that if you encountered him in real life he would destroy you. Such a deformed destructive being, or DDB, does not fit naturally into the scenery of the main road, the normal world. So he is necessarily of remote origin, and if you are going to see him, either he has to come to you or you have to come to him.

There are many films where the monster comes from its remote place of origin to civilized lands--Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) does so by bringing its pods from space to Santa Mira, California. In Mimic (1997), the monsters live among us: they are giant insects camouflaged as humans. But often, the horror film takes the main characters on a trip off the main road.

Final Girls

Carol J. Clover did us all a great service when she coined the term "final girl" for the young woman who is the last victim left standing at the end of a horror movie. The final girl survives when all her cohorts get stabbed, chopped, incinerated, or otherwise dispatched by the monster. She is often smart, lonely, plucky, resourceful, and virginal. The term "final girl" is the name of an interesting blog, and final girls from the past are still fondly remembered, as in this interview with Marilyn Burns, who played the final girl in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

My top five final girls:

1. Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween (1978)
2. Sigourney Weaver, Alien (1979)
3. Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
4. Heather Langenkamp, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
5. Marilyn Burns, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)