Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Outsiders

In a horror movie, the deformed destructive being, or DDB, is frequently an outsider, coming in from outside a community and wreaking mayhem--the shark in Jaws, the demon in The Exorcist, the alien in Alien. Sometimes, however, the DDB is a plural outsider, a group of outsiders. And sometimes, to add to the creepiness, the outsiders are us: they are, or are very close to, the community that seemed to be under attack.

For much of its running time, Dead & Buried (1981) plays like a murder mystery, with a sheriff (James Farentino) trying to figure out why strangers are turning up dead in his little community of Potter's Bluff. The town seems to be a peaceful place, yet the audience can see (as the sheriff cannot) that periodically large groups of the citizenry gather together to carry out brutal murders of strangers. The strangers are then mysteriously reanimated and become part of the town.

It turns out that the local mortician has discovered a way of reanimating the dead and has been practicing it for years. The entire town, as far as we can see, is dead--including the sheriff, though he did not know it. The DDBs in Dead & Buried are the entire town. Usually the DDBs in a horror film are sharply distinguished from the normals (the film's normal characters), but in this case they are the normals. This makes Dead & Buried an unusually disturbing horror film.

A more recent film, Insidious (2011), maintains more of a line between the DDBs and the normals, but it has them cohabiting in very close quarters. In Insidious, a family is preyed upon by weird apparitions and strange sights and sounds that seem to be related to their comatose boy Dalton. It turns out that all around them, in another dimension called "The Further," exist astral beings who are fascinated with Dalton because his spirit has been able to get out and visit them, and because his body is now up for grabs. Among these DDBs is a particularly dangerous being, a red-faced demon whose first appearance provides the film's best jump-scare. In the end, Dalton's father (Patrick Wilson) has to venture into the astral plane himself to try to rescue Dalton--with mixed results.

Insidious is less convincing once it is in the astral plane; it works better when the father and his wife (Rose Byrne) are in their house and the intruders seem to be coming through the walls. But throughout, it has the palpable feeling that the family is sharing the house with a horde of outsiders. As in Dead & Buried, this communal DDB generates the sense of a powerful swarming attack that cannot easily be repelled--if it can be repelled at all.

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

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