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
The Evil Dead
Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn
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
Night of the Living Dead
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Nosferatu, the Vampire
Peeping Tom
Rosemary's Baby
The Seventh Victim
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

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
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
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
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
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films