Monday, July 4, 2011

Revenge and Horror

In yesterday's post, Kong in Love, I talked about sexual attraction (or love) as a motive for the deformed destructive being (DDB) in a horror film. Another common DDB motive is revenge. There is a key difference between these two. Whereas even simple animals can feel sexual attraction, revenge requires a certain amount of higher brain function. The revenger needs to be aware of having been harmed unjustly, to recognize and remember who harmed him, and to plan retribution accordingly. This requires a thinking DDB--insane perhaps, but rational. The mindless Blob just consumes everything in sight; the Abominable Dr. Phibes selects his victims carefully, according to a well-considered plan for revenge.

Because higher cognition is necessary to the revenger, humans rather than animals are usually the agents of revenge in horror films. (There are exceptions, such as Orca: The Killer Whale.) To be DDBs, these humans must be deformed in some way. Usually at least they are psychologically twisted, perhaps driven mad by their injuries, but they may also be physically deformed, such as Phibes in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, who has a face like a skull that he disguises with makeup to look like Vincent Price. In rape-revenge films like Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, the deformity of the revengers lies solely in the sadistic intensity with which they carry out their destruction of their tormentors.

As pointed out in my post on Tell Tale, revenge horror films have a potential flaw: the very rationality that is necessary for revenge might make the revenger seem too weak a DDB, as is the case in Tell Tale and the old Karloff-Lugosi film Black Friday. The revenger may seem less like a monster and more like an ordinary citizen acting with just cause. This problem can be avoided by making the punishments horrible and monstrously elaborate, like the castration of the rapist in the bathtub in I Spit on Your Grave.

DDB status can also be preserved by making the logic of the revenge twisted. Dr. Phibes takes revenge on the surgical team that was present when his wife died on the operating table, even though they tried to save her and were not responsible for her death. He also believes that God showed him the way to revenge by inspiring him to use the plagues of Egypt as a pattern for his punishments.

In short, the revenge film can make a good horror film, but only if it is sufficiently raw and bizarre. Think Carrie, in which Carrie takes revenge on a lifetime of bullying by killing everyone at the prom. Even better, think Freaks, in which the freaks punish a tormentor by turning her, ironically, into one of them.

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

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