Monday, May 30, 2011

Dracula's Daughter Goes Both Ways

I first saw Dracula's Daughter (1936) on television at age twelve, when it made almost no impression on me. It seemed to me stilted and boring. In the years since, I felt as if I saw it many times, because it was always being talked about in horror circles as an example of the homoerotic strain in horror movies. Specifically, it was supposed to be a classic of lesbian cinema. But I never actually saw Dracula's Daughter for a second time until this morning, on Netflix instant viewing, and I was surprised to find that both my previous impressions were wrong. It is not boring, and it is not lesbian. It is lively and bisexual.

First, the liveliness. Dracula's Daughter is well-staged and moves right along, picking up where its predecessor Dracula left off and taking the story in a decidedly new direction. It tells the tale of Dracula's daughter, Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who is also a vampire but aches not to be one. This is an adult story-line, one in which vampirism is like an addiction that the vampire longs to resist, and perhaps at the age of twelve I was not ready to appreciate such a conflict. Holden's performance is strong, as is Otto Kruger's performance as her psychiatrist, Dr. Garth. Yes, this is the first movie I know of in which a vampire has a psychiatrist. The movie is not very scary, but it is creepy and interesting, with good comic relief.

Second, the bisexuality. Much has been made of a sequence in which Countess Zaleska, who is a painter, has her henchman Sandor bring a pretty young woman, Lili, to her studio to pose for her semi-clothed. Zaleska tries to resist the temptation to sink her teeth into Lili's neck, but temptation proves too strong and Zaleska digs in, ultimately killing her. David J. Skal in his book, The Monster Show, notes that this scene is "often cited as a 'classic' lesbian sequence," and taken in isolation, it is.

But Zaleska does not like only women. Her first onscreen victim is a man, and--once she realizes the futility of giving up vampirism--she tries to persuade the male Dr. Garth into joining her forever in the ranks of the undead. Further, she lives with a man--the henchman Sandor--and had previously promised him immortality. Sandor does not like it when Garth displaces him in Zaleska's affections. The movie comes down to being a weird love triangle about two men and a woman, not about two women and another woman.

Thus, as far as her explicit sexual orientation goes, Zaleska prefers men. As far as her taste in food goes, she goes both ways: she will dine from the necks of both men and women. There is a long tradition of viewing vampire attacks as sexual as well as gastronomic acts, and this view is justified, if only because the neck is a sweet spot sexually. In that sense, the moment Zaleska preys on Lili, she is implicitly stating a sexual taste for women as well as men. But since her taste for men is also present, and (at least explicitly) stronger, Zaleska is best considered not lesbian but bisexual.

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

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The DDB in "Psycho"

Readers of this blog may wonder why I prefer the term deformed destructive being (DDB) to the plainer monster. There are 2 reasons. One is that DDB packs into itself a theory of what horror movies are about, a theory I am trying to expound. The other is that if I used monster exclusively instead of DDB, people might be confused. A case in point is Norman Bates in Psycho (1960), a DDB who might not exactly be considered a monster.

When people talk about monsters, they usually mean something fantastic and physically deformed, whether it has a scientific origin (as in Frankenstein) or a supernatural origin (as in The Mummy). Monsters usually require hideous makeup or a weird costume, such as this outfit from The Creature from the Black Lagoon:

So common is this view of monsters that people will often distinguish between a monster movie, which features a creature such as the one from the Black Lagoon, and other types of horror movies. When such a distinction is made, a movie such as Psycho is usually not classified as a monster movie. Noel Carroll, in his book The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart, is not even inclined to classify it as a horror movie, because his theory of the horror film requires a monster and "Norman Bates is not a monster." Bates is not physically deformed--in fact, he is a good-looking young man--and he is not fantastic. Psychotic killers like him really do exist.

DDB theory explains why Psycho is a horror movie: because horror movies do not require monsters (in the sense of fantastic, physically deformed beings) but they do require DDBs, deformed destructive beings. The deformity of the DDB does not have to be physical. It can be spiritual (as with demons and vampires), positional (as with hybrid creatures such as werewolves), or just psychological. Norman Bates is an example of psychological deformity: he believes his dead mother is still alive and sometimes takes on her personality, with homicidal results. As long as an individual is deformed and, as a result of the deformity, destructive, that individual, like Bates, is a DDB.

I do sometimes use the terms DDB and monster interchangeably, because I don't agree that monsters have to be fantastic and physically deformed. But I prefer DDB because it is more precise.

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

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Form of Jennifer's Body

In this blog, I have talked about monsters as deformed destructive beings (DDBs), but I have not gone into detail about what I mean by that term. I will do so now, using a particular DDB as an example: Jennifer in Jennifer's Body (2009). As played by Megan Fox, Jennifer has a great body, even after she transforms into a demon, and it is hard to tell at a glance what is deformed about her.

St. Thomas Aquinas would have viewed the issue differently. According to him, Jennifer's body, impressive as it is, consists of two components: matter made actual by form. Form includes Jennifer's soul, which is invisible, but also the pattern of organization of her matter, such as two arms, two legs, two (notable) breasts, and so on. To look at her, Jennifer is well-formed, an excellent example of her species. The species essence is related to form: Jennifer's body is what happens when the essence of the human species (female variety) makes this matter actual.

However, Jennifer is actually deformed. She has been transformed into a demon, and a demon, however attractive on the surface, is a fallen angel, an angel whose good spiritual nature has been corrupted by rebellion against God. If you could look into the essence of a fallen angel, or demon, it would look something like this:

This is how Jennifer looks when she is not wearing her pretty face. Her mouth widens inhumanly, her teeth sharpen into shark's teeth, and her face is marked by decay. These are outward signs of her inward deformity. She is no longer attractive but repulsive.

Yet this is not necessarily a bad thing. DDB theory predicts that once a form has been sufficiently deformed, it may become a new form--in this case, the form of a demon girl. Because that form is new, it interests us, it makes us want to look and pay attention, because we have an inherent interest in being. New beings, however repulsive because of their deformity, are simultaneously attractive because that same deformity qualifies them as new types of being.

Our interest in the deformed being is intensified if the new form is inherently inimical to our human form. Such a being, by virtue of its deformity, is destructive toward us--a DDB. Jennifer is an example: the image of her with shark teeth is the image of her attacking one of her human victims. She lives by killing and eating people (preferably boys, though she goes both ways). We want to see these deformed and destructive beings precisely because they are new types of beings that would be inaccessible to us in real life due to their destructiveness. DDBs satisfy our hunger for being to a degree that would not even be possible outside of horror movies.

And that is why people like horror movies. They can see Megan Fox any time. But Megan Fox as a demon who eats people--that is a new type of being, for which one must turn to Jennifer's Body.

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

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Good Dracula

When I think of Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966), it occurs to me how few Dracula movies I really like. Billy the Kid has its moments of campy entertainment, but overall it is slow-going, with a Kid (Chuck Courtney) who can't even win a fist-fight and the once-impressive John Carradine reduced to having colors flashed in his face to express his Dracula mesmeric stare.

Maybe Dracula in general seems too weak a character for me. Always in evening clothes and terrified by things like sunlight and crosses, he is sort of foppish. He is dainty in his tastes, preferring only blood, and even though he is a successful ladies' man, he never actually seems to have sex with these women: he just nibbles at them.

Nevertheless, there are some good Dracula movies. To be precise, there are three that pass the most important test of movie likeability: I keep watching them over and over again. In each of them, a new and indelible version of Dracula is created that is strong enough to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the character. These good Dracula movies, ranked in order of quality, are:

1. Dracula (1931)--under Tod Browning's direction, Bela Lugosi creates an enduring Dracula who is suave yet creepy, deeply foreign, and possessed of the best Dracula stare ever

2. Horror of Dracula (1958)--an exciting, athletic version of Dracula, more sexual and animalistic than Lugosi's; achieved by Christopher Lee under Terence Fisher's direction

3. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)--a lush, romantic adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola, with Gary Oldman as the shape-shifting count; here Dracula is ruled by a transcendent love for Mina Harker

There are, of course, other Dracula movies worth seeing, such as the silent Nosferatu (1922). But the three listed above are the ones I find myself coming back to repeatedly, despite my overall difficulty with Dracula as such.

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

Friday, May 20, 2011

Mrs. Voorhees and Son

In a thoughtful and amusing guest editorial at Brutal As Hell, Jeff Martin argues why Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) could be the worst horror sequel ever. I myself think The Fly II deserves that title (and possibly the title of worst horror film ever), but that would be another post. My point here is to argue that far from being the worst horror sequel ever, Friday the 13th Part 2 is an imaginative follow-up to Friday the 13th (1980) that preserves most of what was pleasing about the original while taking the series in a new direction.

I am a latecomer to liking this series at all. When I first saw Friday the 13th years ago, I so despised it for what I took to be flat direction, imitativeness, sluggish pace, and weak characters that I fast-forwarded to the end rather than watching at the usual speed. Having just seen Ft13 again recently, it seems to have improved considerably. It is still not as good as Halloween, its most obvious source, but it has a crude simplicity and an elemental vigor. The combination of dark woods, moonlit lake, nubile camp counselors having sex, and assorted stabbings and slashings is effectively nightmarish. And there is much to be said for the deformed destructive being (DDB)--the slasher--who is revealed to be Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer). A mannish, middle-aged woman who holds all camp counselors responsible for permitting the drowning of her little boy, Jason, decades ago, Mrs. Voorhees is appropriately creepy, saying sweet things and carrying a knife. She ends up beheaded.

However, where Ft13 tops itself is in the frisson in which the final girl, Alice, is resting in a canoe on the lake when the boy Jason, who is hideously deformed, emerges moss-covered from the waters to attack her. The police tell her it was a dream; she protests that it was real. In a logical, scientific universe, she couldn't be right--how could a boy survive all those years underwater? But in the horror movie universe, her dream--even if it was only a dream--is enough to leave the audience with an extra jolt of horror and unease, an extra bit of appreciation for a DDB (this time, Jason himself).

In the opening of Friday the 13th Part 2, Alice, shortly after the action of Ft13, is killed by an adult Jason. This adult Jason proceeds to kill a new set of camp counselors who have come to the lake. Again there are the dark woods, moonlit lake, nubile camp counselors having sex, stabbings/slashings, all about as effective as in the first movie. The difference is the DDB: not Mrs. Voorhees and the dreamlike water boy, but a full-grown man who walks on land, maintains a shrine to the head of his deceased mother, and wears a hood for most of the film as he avenges her death on all camp counselors. When his face is revealed, he is as monstrously deformed as the child glimpsed in Ft13. He is Jason.

This is too illogical for Martin, who, in his editorial, points out that Jason is "a dead child." That is true, if we are to believe Mrs. Voorhees. According to her, her son drowned as a child, and dead children do not grow up, much less walk around slashing people. But let us not forget that Mrs. Voorhees was crazy. Maybe she was so consumed with grief for what she thought was Jason's drowning that she didn't realize the boy survived. And maybe the boy was crazy too--crazy enough not to go home. Maybe, as local legend has it (according to Ft13-2), he survived on his own in the woods as a wild man, only emerging to avenge his mother when she got beheaded. The boylike water wraith who figured in the frisson of Ft13 was only Alice's dream. By then, the real Jason was all grown up, waiting to kill Alice at the start of Ft13-2.

Admittedly, all this sounds far-fetched, enough so that Martin dismisses Ft13-2 altogether. "I have a lot of problems with Friday the 13th, Part 2," he writes. "The biggest problem is the fact that it exists."

I don't go that far. I agree that this much mother-son craziness is a lot of plot machinery to swallow as the basis for a movie. But Psycho based itself on a lot of mother-son craziness too, and succeeded well enough that few people minded. Ft13-2 is, clearly, not as good as Psycho, but it succeeds in its own way in presenting a new DDB--the adult Jason Voorhees. This DDB was so potent he featured in a long line of sequels, greatly outslashing his own mother. By introducing such a DDB while preserving what was good about its predecessor, Ft13-2 works as a sequel to Ft13.

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

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Tell Tale"

I asked my friend, the actor Tom Riis Farrell, what he'd been in recently, and he pointed me to a 2009 movie I'd overlooked, Tell Tale. It stars Josh Lucas and Lena Headey, and I finally saw it yesterday.

Tell Tale is an extremely loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, which shares in common with Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" one element: a murdered man's heart pounds loudly in the presence of his murderer. Beyond that, Tell Tale goes its own nutty way, telling the story of a heart transplant recipient, Terry Bernard (Lucas), who comes to realize that his donated heart came from a murdered man, and that the murder was connected to a ring of black-market organ traffickers. Terry's heart pounds loudly in his ears whenever any conspirator connected with the murder is nearby, and drives him to kill the conspirator. Thus Terry, possessed by the tell-tale heart, becomes a sort of avenging demon.

In several ways, Tell Tale is a pretty good movie, including engaging performances by Lucas and Headey (as Terry's girlfriend) and, of course, by Farrell, who plays a conspirator in terror of becoming Terry's next victim. The production values are good, the pacing is fine, the narrative interesting, the final frisson effective. But Tell Tale never becomes a great movie.

It isn't that the movie's too far from Poe's source material; most movie adaptations of Poe are remote from the source, and that needn't cause a problem. One of my favorite Poe adaptations, The Haunted Palace (1963), borrows not much more than the title from Poe and is really based on an H.P. Lovecraft novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

The biggest problem is that the central conceit of Tell Tale is kind of lame. The transplanted body part taking over the transplant recipient and making him homicidal is an old notion (see The Hands of Orlac, 1924), much more plausible in the days before transplants were common and we realized the recipients did not all become homicidal. Now the notion seems "cute," as one character tells Terry. Further, the horror movie in which the deformed destructive being (the DDB, here Terry) kills his victims selectively and serially to avenge some wrong seems to me to display a weak form of destructiveness for a DDB. It is too rational for a monster. I would much rather that the DDB killed unpredictably or on the basis of some more twisted logic.

Tell Tale is reminiscent of an old Karloff-Lugosi vehicle, Black Friday (1940), in which the recipient of a brain transplant becomes possessed by the donor's brain and takes revenge on the donor's enemies. It didn't quite work then, it doesn't quite work now. But just as Black Friday is worth seeing for some elements, including Karloff and Lugosi, Tell Tale is worth seeing for some elements, including Farrell.

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

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Zombie Evolution

I was watching the 1936 film Revolt of the Zombies the other day, and it occurred to me how much zombies have changed since then. The typical zombie of today, since at least Night of the Living Dead (1968), is a dead person who has come back to life with a hunger for human flesh. He usually serves no master, but is a freelance perpetrator of horror. His origins may be mysterious, but if they are spelled out at all, they are usually scientific (eg, virus, satellite) rather than religious.

None of this holds for the zombies of Revolt of the Zombies, a not particularly good movie that is nevertheless instructive for the study of zombie evolution. Revolt's creatures are living people who are called zombies because they have fallen under the hypnotic spell of an archaeologist, played by Dean Jagger years before he became the loveable retired general in White Christmas (1954). What is horrible about these zombies of the 1930s is that they have lost their wills, not that they are undead or cannibalistic. The mechanism for making them into zombies has to do with ancient Cambodian writings of a vaguely religious nature.

With so many differences, it is hard to believe that the same word, "zombie," should apply to both species of monsters. But both are called zombies, and with reason. The link between them is the transformation of personality from something recognizably human to something inhuman, an unnatural lack of normal human appetites, whether that lack is marked by a loss of will or a hunger for human flesh. To signify this shared inhumanity, both types of zombies have similar glassy-eyed stares. Also, you can shoot them both in the chest, and they won't die.

Most zombies before Night of the Living Dead were voodoo-related; Revolt of the Zombies stands out for having gone all the way to Cambodia for its zombie origins. Regardless, Revolt of the Zombies is more typical of the zombie movies of its time--with their will-less, obedient zombies serving a master--than of the zombie movies of our time. By introducing the idea of cannibalistic, anarchic zombies, Night of the Living Dead marked a great leap forward in zombie evolution.

Zombies have kept evolving since then, becoming faster and smarter in many movies rather than shambling and stupid. What they will become next depends on the next movie. Perhaps a reboot of Revolt of the Zombies?

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

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The DDBs of "Freaks"

In a recent comment, Jon T asked for my ideas on Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), and I am happy to oblige. Freaks holds a special position in deformed destructive being theory, or DDB theory, which is the view that the purpose of horror films is to present a DDB to satisfy the audience's desire to know being. In most horror films, the deformity of the DDB (or monster) is manufactured through special effects, makeup effects, or (in the case of psychologically deformed but normal-looking killers) acting and writing. But in Freaks, set in a circus sideshow, the actors playing the DDBs are actually physically deformed. Little people, conjoined twins, people missing arms or legs (or both), microcephalic people (aka pinheads), a bearded lady, a human skeleton, a half-man/half-woman--the variations are seemingly endless.

Part of the appeal of horror movies is the interest in deformity as such. People want to see deformed beings because such a creature represents a new kind of being, and being is interesting. At the same time, people are revolted by deformity, because it is a lack of the form that the creature ought to have. Johnny Eck in Freaks is billed as the half boy because half of him is missing--he is only a head, torso, and arms. This makes him repulsive, even as he is fascinating because he runs around on his hands as if he were a new species with its own kind of locomotion.

Throughout most of Freaks, the freaks are presented sympathetically. They are shown doing normal things--eating, playing, getting married--and treating each other kindly, so that one feels they are essentially human, like us (the audience of normals). But there are hints of something menacing about them, beginning with an early warning about their code: "Offend one, and you offend them all." When two normals offend them--the beautiful performer Cleopatra and her strongman lover Hercules, who try to kill the midget Hans for his money--the freaks take brutal revenge, killing Hercules and somehow transforming Cleopatra into a freak herself: a squawking, legless chicken woman. This is the destructiveness, coupled with and rooted in deformity, that is required for a horror movie DDB.

But these are no ordinary DDBs. These are DDBs played by actors who have the actual deformities presented. If all of the deformity in Freaks were presented through makeup and CGI effects, the film would not be nearly as disturbing. What makes it gnaw at the brain is the awareness that these are real human beings with these deformities, which opens up two new channels of feeling: pity for the actors' situation, and terror that we might somehow fall into the same situation. These feelings reinforce the sense of sympathy for the freakish characters and the sense of horror when they turn Cleopatra into a freak.

Freaks, then, provokes at least a double layer of feeling in its audience--reactions to both the actors and the characters. But there is more. Confined to a sideshow world, the freaks are representations of all that is abnormal, rejected, pushed aside by the normal world. In the Depression milieu that spawned the film, they might, for example, have represented the poor and destitute. In watching Freaks, the normal audience is made to side with the marginalized and abnormal--made into one of them, or "one of us," as the freaks put it--only to find that the freaks turn violently against the normal world. Thus, the audience sides with a subversive force that turns against the world of the audience. This subversion of self further reinforces the horror of Freaks, producing a triple layer of feeling.

There is still more that could be said about this startling film, but one note will suffice for now: Freaks could not have been made in the same way during the later period when the Production Code Administration enforced censorship (1934-1968). In that time, monsters had to be destroyed at the end of a movie. In contrast, the DDBs of Freaks succeed in getting their violent revenge against the normals, and go unpunished for it. The movie closes with the hint of a happy ending for Hans and his beloved fellow midget Frieda. The DDBs win in Freaks.

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

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Return of "Gargoyles"

There are some movies I've seen so many times I've lost track. Others I've seen only once, and I would prefer to keep it that way. And then there is the rare breed: movies I've seen only once and have wanted to see again for years, but have been unable to for one reason or another. Gargoyles (1972), starring Cornel Wilde and Jennifer Salt, is an example of that breed--or was until today.

I saw Gargoyles when it premiered as a TV-movie when I was 12 years old. It made a powerful impression, but 39 years passed before I got a chance to see it again. When Netflix recently made it available, I pounced. I am pleased to say that it holds up.

Gargoyles is a horror movie about a scientist and his daughter (Wilde and Salt, respectively) who come across some demonic reptilian creatures in a western desert. The creatures, we learn, hatch every 500 years or so, at which point they make war on humans and are usually beaten back into obscurity. They have been the source of the worldwide myths and legends about demons; in western Europe, they inspired the gargoyles that adorn cathedrals. With help from a local police chief and some young bikers, Wilde rescues his daughter from the gargoyles and defeats them--at least for the moment.

Gargoyles is intelligent, original, and scary, an achievement considering its origins as a modestly-budgeted movie of the week. It has an ingenious plot (how many TV-movies purport to explain the origin of a global folkloric motif?), likeable leads, good support (from, among others, a young Scott Glenn as a biker), and credible monsters. I emphasize the last point. A horror movie is only as good as its deformed destructive beings, or DDBs, and these gargoyles are good. Created by a team that included budding creature effects master Stan Winston, they are dark, muscular hybrids of human and reptile, mixed variously with birds, apes, bats, and things out of Bosch paintings. Though often in shadow, the gargoyles are seen clearly enough that we don't suspect the filmmakers of trying to hide something. The DDBs' workmanship is good enough to sustain even daylight scrutiny.

Everything else contributes to the presentation of the DDBs. The gargoyle sound effects are creepy; the electronic music sets a foreboding tone. The gargoyles move at a slightly slower speed than the surrounding actors, making the DDBs appear more surreal. The production design of the gargoyle hatchery, which contains eggs that are destroyed by fire, preceded by 14 years the similar design of the hatchery-destroyed-by-fire in Aliens (1986). Without being overly topical, Gargoyles hints at social themes--for example, by casting black actor Bernie Casey as the lead gargoyle, and having him intone about gargoyles and humans as if they were two races in conflict.

Gargoyles is not perfect. It is constrained by its limited budget, brief running time (74 minutes), and TV censorship that keeps it from fully exploring the gargoyle-on-woman subplot that is briefly raised. The gargoyle costumes sometimes fold like the costumes they are. But overall, this is a good horror movie that is worth tracking down.

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