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.
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films