Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Horrors of the Black Museum"

If you've never seen it, Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) is a real find. Not as famous as other horror films of the period, such as Horror of Dracula and Psycho, it has the freshness that comes from basking in obscurity for 50 years. Plus, it is just plain nutty, with an abundance of horrific devices, and boasts an over-the-top performance from starring madman Michael Gough.

Gough was the type of English actor who excelled at clearly enunciated, hammy performances, and he does not disappoint here. He plays Edmond Bancroft, true crime writer, who decides to outwit Scotland Yard and sell books by committing his own murders and writing about them. That bare premise might not sound like a horror movie--more like a crime film or mystery--but the movie expands upon it in such a way that the film is clearly horror. For starters, the focus of the film is Bancroft, a murderous, sadistic lunatic who walks with a limp and uses a cane, and this focus on a deformed destructrive being (DDB) is what makes a horror film.  Then, Bancroft does not usually commit the murders himself (although he does some times): he has a lackey whom he hypnotizes into killing people for him, a la The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And the method of hypnosis is to give the lackey a serum that turns him into a lithe, hideous monster, a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And the hideout for the murderers is Bancroft's secret wax museum of crime and torture--his black museum--a la House of Wax. Thus, allusions to at least three horror films of very different bents are curled into the embrace of the mad Bancroft, increasing the horrific atmosphere.

The murders themselves are rococo, ornate yet vicious. One woman is killed by binoculars with spikes that pierce the eyes and jut into the brain. Another is guillotined in her own bed. An antiques dealer is killed by her own ice tongs. A doctor is zapped by a bizarre electrical device (yet another allusion, this time to Frankenstein), and his body is reduced to a skeleton in a vat of acid. The climactic deaths come at an amusement park, in an apparent homage to yet another horror movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

The psychosexual elements of Horrors of the Black Museum add to its interest. Bancroft's girlfriend, a blonde floozy, snatches away his cane and tells him off for being only half a man. He responds murderously, of course. Later, when his lackey gets a girlfriend and brings her to the black museum, Bancroft explodes with rage. It seems the museum is only for him and his lackey, not outsiders like women. The homoerotic energy and misogyny are intense. Naturally, the lackey's girlfriend becomes the next target to be scheduled for death.

Horrors of the Black Museum is hokey and hammy, and it is never as scary as, say, the shower scene in Psycho would be a year later. But it is a clever amalgam of ideas from disparate horror movies, stirred with enough originality to allow it to stand on its own.

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

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Shutter": Ghost in Love

As I noted in the post, Slasher Meets Angry Ghost, a staple of Asian horror is the angry ghost, who "harbors some kind of grudge against the living, and either kills them or makes their lives miserable until resolution is found." The nature of the grudge varies from film to film, and sometimes it is more complex than just anger. This is the case in Shutter (2004), a Thai film in which the ghost's anger is complicated by love.

In Shutter, a young photographer, Tun, and his girlfriend, Jane, accidentally drive their car into a girl one night and flee the scene. When they begin to be haunted by apparitions and weird photographic images, they speculate that they are the target of a ghost who is angry about having been run over. But when they investigate, they learn there is no record of a girl being hit on that road on that night. Whatever is going on, it is not as simple as a ghost who is angry about being the victim of a hit-and-run.

Inquiring further, Tun and Jane learn that the ghost is the spirit of a girl, Natre, who knew Tun in college. In fact, she knew him in the Biblical sense: the two had a romance. Natre was an unpopular girl, and Tun tried to keep the romance secret, and eventually broke it off. But he allowed his friends to rape her, and photographed them while they did so. Natre responded by jumping to her death off a roof.

All of this would seem to provide motive enough for Natre's haunting. She is, no doubt, still angry over the rape and being forced to suicide. But there is something more. Natre still loves Tun. She never stopped. So we learn that, in a Polaroid snapshot (the best imaging technology for photographing ghosts, because it is instant and supposedly can't be faked), Natre is sitting on Tun's shoulders. She has been there throughout the movie, every time he complained about his sore neck or was weighed in a medical examination as being abnormally heavy. She will never get off his shoulders. A wise man consulted in the course of the movie says the dead sometimes want to be near those they loved in their life. This is the case with Natre. She loves Tun, and therefore will haunt him mercilessly.

It is my theory that the focus of the horror film is a deformed and destructive being, and Natre certainly fits the bill--deformed by being a bodiless soul; destructive by hurting Tun and others. But what is most interesting about her is the nature of her destructiveness: love. She brings into a Polaroid-like focus the fact that love, although commonly thought of as a great thing, is actually the source of many of the world's ills. This does not mean we should necessarily abandon it for something else. Love, destructive as it is, is the only love we have.

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

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Of Trolls and Gremlins

In my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings, I lay out a taxonomy of deformed and destructive beings (DDBs), a classification scheme for everything from vampires to berserk sharks to aliens to demons. I include a category called "Weird Nonhuman Things Not Otherwise Specified." In that category fall all the horror movie monsters that are not human and that don't fall easily in any other category. Many of these are creatures from folklore, part of a long-standing tradition of horror movies adapting legendary beasties for their own purposes. I just saw two examples of this tradition back to back: the recent Norwegian film TrollHunter (2010) and the old standard Gremlins (1984). Both are more like horror comedies than outright horror, but they are instructive nonetheless.

TrollHunter is one of those supposedly-found-documentary films that usually irritate me because the shaky camera makes me nauseous. In this case, the shaking wasn't too bad, and the film was pretty good, telling the story of a professional troll hunter and the camera crew of college kids who tag along with him. A horror movie is only as good as its DDB, and this is particularly true when the DDB is folkloric, and you have to convince the audience that this creature, widely known to be unreal, is real. The task is even harder when, as with trolls, the creatures are associated with children's stories rather than horror. TrollHunter does a good job of presenting its trolls, depicting them as furry gray giants with mashed humanlike faces. They are only seen at night and in short bursts of light, minimizing the chances that the CGI work will look fake. They roar menacingly, eat prodigiously, have a characteristic stink, and carry rabies--all helping to make them fit for horror movie duty.

As good as it is, TrollHunter is a little too subdued. It is so concerned with making the DDBs seem real that it forgets to make them truly menacing. For example, the trolls avoid humans, which seems like plausible natural behavior that explains why we see them so rarely. However, it also means that you have to look hard for a troll encounter, and you can almost always get away from a troll just by running in the other direction. This makes for a slow pace that had me dozing off at key moments, such as when one of the college kids gets killed.

Gremlins is much livelier, and I never dozed off at any point. Here the folkloric beasties are based on the gremlins of World War II, legendary, mischievous goblins who wreaked havoc with airplane equipment. In Gremlins, the gremlins wreak havoc with everything in a yuletide small town, and are also murderous, making them suitable for horror. Realized through animatronic puppetry, the creatures are not so much realistic as fancifully creepy, resembling big-eared devil reptiles. Like the trolls in TrollHunter, which explode or turn to stone in sunlight, and like vampires, the gremlins are destroyed by sunlight--suggesting just how frequently folkloric beasties are associated with night.

Every time I see Gremlins, I wish it would be more horrific. It leans that way in places--microwaving a gremlin; gremlins swarming passersby like the rats in Willard--but there's always too much cuteness for full-fledged horror. The adorable furry Mogwai, Gizmo, supplies a rationale for the creation of the gremlins (they develop from his body when certain rules are broken), but after that I really don't need to see him again--yet see him I do.

Even so, Gremlins gave me more pleasure than TrollHunter, and not just the horrific aspects. There is a scene in Gremlins when legions of gremlins pack into a movie house and watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs--and are captivated by it. Scenes like this are so imaginative that they keep the movie going even when the horror flags.

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

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Horror of Birth

For the most part, people live in an illusion of physical integrity. Day after day, their bodies keep functioning, with nothing going in except what should go in (air, food), nothing going out except what should go out (waste products). This is an illusion because at any time the integrity of the body can be damaged or destroyed, and at least at two points it certainly will: birth and death. At death, the living organism is destroyed; in pregnancy, the mother is invaded by an organism that attaches itself to her, and at birth, both the mother and the child suffer the shock of disintegration from each other. Most horror movies are concerned with death, but fewer concern both birth and death. The French film Inside (2007) is one of these.

Inside is an ultra-gory fever dream about giving birth. Sarah is a pregnant woman who loses her husband in a car crash. Four months later, she is scheduled for induced labor on Christmas Day--Western culture's iconic day for giving birth. The main action of the film takes place the night before, on Christmas Eve. Sarah is alone in her house, having disturbing Alien-like dreams about giving birth, while the audience gets to see creepy womb-cam images of Sarah's unborn baby.

A strange woman in black, known only as La femme (the woman), shows up at Sarah's house and breaks in. Wielding a pair of scissors, La femme intends to cut Sarah open and take her baby. It later emerges that La femme lost her unborn child in the same car accident that killed Sarah's husband, but this plot detail is as mysterious as much of the movie. Supposedly there were no other survivors from the car crash; is La femme even alive?

The rest of the film similarly balances gory slasher images and disturbing dreamlike ideas. Sarah aims to kill La femme and instead ends up stabbing her own mother, who has come looking for her. Policemen come investigating and are picked off by La femme--but one of them is later resurrected, in zombielike form, only to attack Sarah blindly, as if she is the monster. Sarah burns off La femme's face with a makeshift flamethrower, yet La femme not only survives but has the strength to perform the bizarre C-section she has been craving all night. The film's conclusion suggests that La femme will now be the child's mother--though there is ambiguity about whether the child is dead or alive.

All of this makes for a film that is not your usual horror movie. It looks squarely at the most horrific facts about birth--the blood, the agony, the disintegration of flesh, the rival biological interests of the mother and child, the continuing psychological tension between them even after the child has grown up, the different social interests tugging at ownership of the child. To encapsulate all these horrors, the film creates a sort of birth demon in La femme--a being whose deformity and destructiveness are new in this form to the screen but as old as human regeneration.

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

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Twenty Things I Like about "Bride of Frankenstein"

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is my favorite horror movie. Here are just twenty of the many things I like about it.

1. The prologue with Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein
2. Boris Karloff's makeup as the Frankenstein monster, suggesting a singed and beaten appearance as a result of the windmill fire
3. Elsa Lanchester's Nefertiti cone of hair, marked by lightning bolts, in her role as the bride of Frankenstein

4. Dr. Pretorius laughing it up by himself in the tomb
5. Dr. Pretorius meeting unexpectedly with the monster in the tomb
6. The monster's sojourn with the blind hermit
7. The monster's speaking voice--gravelly, vaguely foreign
8. Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, still tortured by yet attracted to monsters
9. Valerie Hobson replacing Mae Clarke with a sexier and more hysterical Elizabeth
10. Dr. Pretorius showing off his tiny creations
11. The monster saving a shepherd girl by the waterfall, only to be shot for his trouble
12. The monster trussed up in a Christlike pose
13. The monster bound in a chair in the jail
14. The monster killing Dwight Frye for the second time in two movies
15. Dr. Pretorius's "only" weaknesses (gin and cigars)
16. Dr. Pretorius's toast to Frankenstein: "To a new world of gods and monsters!"
17. The musical theme for the bride
18. The bride's rejection of the monster
19. The presence of a self-destruct lever in the laboratory (who installed this, and why?)
20. The monster preparing to destroy himself, Pretorius, and the bride: "We belong dead."

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