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

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