Sunday, June 26, 2011

Slasher Meets Angry Ghost

The Japanese film Carved: A Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007; original title, Kuchisake-onna) is an example of what happens when two horror subgenres mix. You get a new brew, which either brings new horror potential or degenerates into horror slop. The Evil Dead, for example, successfully mixed the demon and zombie films, whereas Jason X made horror slop out of mixing the slasher and space horror films.

In the case of Carved, one of the two subgenres undergoing mixture is that of the angry ghost. A staple of J-horror, familiar from such films as the original Japanese versions of The Ring and Dark Water, the angry ghost harbors some kind of grudge against the living, and either kills them or makes their lives miserable until resolution is found. The other subgenre, associated principally with American horror, is the slasher, an individual, usually masked or deformed, who wields a sharp instrument against a series of victims and is notoriously hard to kill. Examples include Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and on and on.

Carved condenses these two figures--the angry ghost and the slasher--into a single deformed destructive being, the slit-mouthed woman. The slit-mouthed woman, we learn in the course of the movie, was a child abuser who, in a struggle with one of her children, had her mouth slit open from ear to ear. After her death, she lives on in ghostly form, appearing as a woman in a raincoat with a hospital mask hiding her scars. She carries a big pair of scissors, abducts children one at a time, and mutilates or kills them. She is thus both an angry ghost and a slasher.

Carved is fairly effective in its merging of the two subgenres, combining the creepiness of the angry ghost story with the visceral shocks of the slasher story. The abundance of kidjep (kids in jeopardy) makes it somewhat unpleasant, especially when one child gets her face slashed in slit-mouthed style, but the movie puts some thought behind this. In several families presented in the story, mothers are abusive to their children, raising the spectre of a world in which children are at the mercy of their parents--which, after all, they are.

Carved is less successful on other fronts, such as maintaining interest in the two boring teachers who are pursuing the slit-mouthed woman, and in making sense of such plot elements as the slit-mouthed woman's possession of other mothers. Somehow, when you try to kill the slit-mouthed woman, you actually kill some other woman whom the angry ghost has possessed but whom you didn't notice before. How? I don't know. Still, overall, Carved does a nice job of welding its subgenres.

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

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Horror in "Black Swan"

In a recent post, I talked about how Super 8 was a science fiction film with horror elements that could have benefited from being turned into a full-blown horror film. Lest it be thought that I want to see every film turned into a horror film, consider Black Swan (2010). This is a ballet film with horror elements that is just fine as it stands. The horror elements work, but they are appropriately subordinated to the main purpose: the portrayal of what it takes to create art.

Nina (Natalie Portman), the ballerina at the center of Black Swan, is mentally deformed: she seems to have a mix of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, anorexia, bulemia, and who knows what else, as if someone had thrown the DSM-IV at her when she was a child. She has hallucinations and paranoid delusions, she self-cuts, is regularly in tears, and has a serious case of sexual repression. So she fulfills the deformed part of being a deformed destructive being (DDB), the type of being that qualifies as a movie monster.

However, is she destructive? She is clearly self-destructive, with all her cutting and self-driving, culminating in her stabbing herself fatally with mirror glass during a hallucination in which she thinks she is killing her rival (Mila Kunis). But she is only mildly destructive toward others--biting her director during a kiss; slamming the door on her mother's hand. She is potentially more destructive toward others, since she was willing to kill her rival. In another post, on Cronos, I argued that a vampire who is actually self-destructive but merely potentially destructive toward others counts as a DDB, and Nina is both, so, by that standard, she too is a DDB.

But, unlike in Cronos, the focus of Black Swan is not the presentation of the DDB as such. It is the presentation of an artist, a ballerina seeking to perfect her art. All the horrific things that happen are subordinated to that purpose. Plenty of images in Black Swan are lifted straight from horror movies: the appearance of swan feathers in Nina's back wound, like the fly hairs in Jeff Goldblum's back wound in The Fly; the transformation of Nina into a swan, like Goldblum becoming a fly; the peeling of flesh; the stabbing of Winona Ryder's cheeks; blood in the bathtub; malfunctioning mirrors; and so on. All of it is meant to show the struggle Nina suffers through on her way to delivering the performance of a lifetime--in fact, the last performance of her lifetime, as she dies on stage, having achieved the artistic perfection she sought. This is not a horror film, but it is a great ballet film, one that makes excellent use of a horror vocabulary along the way.

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

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"Hollow Man" vs. "The Invisible Man"

I just saw Hollow Man (2000) again, an entertaining but flawed entry in the invisible man tradition of horror films. To ascertain why this movie doesn't quite work, it helps to hold it up against the gold standard of invisible man movies, the original Universal version of H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man (1933).

Both films are about a scientist who develops a formula for becoming invisible, administers it to himself, then goes homicidally insane under the formula's influence as he tries futilely to reverse the process. Invisible Man portrayed the scientist as a lone nut traveling around with a chemistry kit, whereas Hollow Man updated the scenario to make the scientist part of a team with high-tech quantum equipment, backed by the government and the military. The update was plausible, but something was lost in the translation: the utter isolation of the scientist.

Both films have what, for their time, were state-of-the-art special effects. Hollow Man's effects are, not surprisingly, more elaborate and sophisticated, but they are not necessarily more effective. There is a crude wonderment about the way the original invisible man unwraps his bandages from his absent head that is not to be found anywhere in Hollow Man. On the other hand, the transparent man shots in which the hollow man appears to be running around without skin afford a certain degree of creepy pleasure.

Both movies have good casts, although Invisible Man has the edge, with Claude Rains in the mad scientist role vs. Kevin Bacon in Hollow Man's mad scientist role. Rains is able to project a psychotic grandeur while Bacon evokes more of a brat-pack brattiness. Elisabeth Shue, as a scientist with action-film moves, has more to do as the female lead in Hollow Man than the long-suffering Gloria Stuart as Rains's girlfriend in The Invisible Man. But for what they had to do, both actresses were competent. (Stuart gives the added enjoyment of letting us see what Old Rose from Titanic looked like long before she met James Cameron. She looked good, though nothing like Kate Winslet.)

So if the stories, effects, and casts are of more or less similar quality, what is the difference? The main difference is the directors. Invisible Man was directed by James Whale, Hollow Man by Paul Verhoeven. Whale was a master of the horror film, who developed many of the tropes and techniques that became part of the basic machinery of the genre. Verhoeven has made fine science fiction/action films, such as Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers, as well as erotic thrillers such as Basic Instinct, but at horror he is less accomplished. Some moments in Hollow Man play like science fiction, some like action, and some like erotic thriller, but not enough like horror. Whale knew how to concentrate his resources for the primary purpose of presenting a deformed destructive being, and Verhoeven did not. The hollow man is deformed and destructive, but he lacks the combination of awfulness and pathos that made the invisible man more than just your average monster.

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

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"Super 8": A Missed Opportunity

Super 8 (2011) has a monster, but it is not a horror movie. This is not unusual. The Cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jabba the Hut in Return of the Jedi, and Ernst Stavros Blofeld in You Only Live Twice are all monsters in their own way, but those movies are clearly not horror movies. For a film to qualify as a horror movie, the monster has to be present not just as one character among many, but as the fundamental point of the movie. A horror movie is a film whose primary purpose is the presentation of a deformed destructive being (DDB), commonly known as a monster.

By this standard, Super 8 is not a horror movie. (SPOILERS ahead.) Its primary purpose is to present a world in which Earth people (mainly some kids making a Super 8 movie) interact with an interstellar visitor. The visitor is deformed and destructive, but he is ultimately peaceful in his intent; he just wants to go home. By the end, humans and alien understand each other and make friends. All this makes it a science fiction movie, not a horror movie.

This is too bad. It is a missed opportunity. Super 8 is not terrible as it stands. The first half of the movie is fascinating to anyone (like me) who actually made Super 8 movies as a kid. It is accurate down to depicting the minimum three days required for developing a roll of Super 8 film. It engagingly captures the scrounging for locations that kids with zero budget have to do in lieu of building sets or flying to faraway shoots. But the second half of the movie, once the monster is loose, is weaker, although still enjoyable in a conventional Spielbergian flight-of-fancy sort of way.

The thing is: these kids with the Super 8 camera were making a horror movie. To be specific, they were making a Romeroesque zombie movie. Super 8 would have been much more fun, and more coherent, if they had been given what they wanted, and they had walked into an actual horror movie. The monster could have been the beast that was presented, or something worse. But it would have been more fully destructive, and it would not have been sent home peacefully in its spaceship at the end. It would have been destroyed or would have lived on in a chilling frisson.

Incidentally, the kids should have kept their Super 8 camera rolling all this time, and worked footage of the real monster into their finished film, presented over the end credits. As it stands in Super 8, the Super 8 motif is forgotten once the action heats up, and only resurrected in the end credit roll.

Whether Super 8 really would have been better as a horror film is hypothetical, of course. Unless someone hauls out their old Super 8 camera and shoots this alternate version, there is no way to compare the two. But something is lacking in Super 8, and it well may be horror.

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

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Universal's Frankenstein Monster

Of all cinematic deformed destructive beings (DDBs), my favorite is the Frankenstein monster as incarnated by Universal Pictures in their series of eight films from 1931 to 1948. I love his physical deformity--how the combination of flattop head and Neanderthal brow suggests something both futuristic and primitive; the supernatural strength; the bolts in his neck. Then there is his psychological deformity, brought on by the placement of an abnormal criminal's brain in his skull. He is spiritually deformed, because his creation is a blasphemous attempt to usurp God's prerogatives over life and death. And he is positionally deformed, because he is made up of dead body parts that are now living, and when the dead live, they are in the wrong position at the wrong time. A four-way deformity: now that's a monster.

The Frankenstein monster is not as sweeping in destructiveness as, say, Godzilla, who can level whole cities at a trot. But what the Frankenstein monster lacks in scale, he makes up for in individual attention. He kills close up, one at a time, and brutally. Perhaps the most appalling murder in horror movie history occurs in the first Universal Frankenstein movie, Frankenstein (1931), when the monster drowns the little girl, Maria, with whom he has been playing just a moment before, presumably because he thinks it's part of the game. The complete innocence of the victim, matched only by the utter confusion of the perpetrator, mark the monster as peculiarly destructive, and yet sympathetic. As played by Boris Karloff, the monster inspires pathos as well as horror.

The Universal series began with an excellent entry, Frankenstein, then topped itself with the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935)--in my opinion, the best horror movie ever made. Both films were directed by James Whale, who got better as he went along. Bride is satiric and rich, with suggestive images such as the crucified monster and the dual casting of Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the Bride. Karloff is great again as the monster, developing as a character and acquiring the power of speech.

After Bride, the characterization of the monster declined steadily, and with it the effectiveness of the series. Episode three, Son of Frankenstein (1939), had good production values and Basil Rathbone, and Karloff was still playing the monster. But Whale was gone, and with him the satiric edge and manic energy of the monster. The monster was comatose at times, at other times robotic, though there were a few moments of life in the portrayal.

Subsequently, Karloff gave up the role of the monster, and his successors never fully recaptured the character's potency, whether it was Lon Chaney, Jr. in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Bela Lugosi in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), or Glenn Strange in the final three entries, House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). In these films, the monster progressively had less to do and did it with less style, shambling around more or less by rote, competing for screen time with other monsters (beginning with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), and finally presented for laughs with co-stars Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Despite his decline, the Universal Frankenstein monster remains impressive not only for the first two films but for his whole body of work. For seventeen years, he was a constant of movie screens, and he has not left the popular imagination since. He is the standard for DDBs everywhere, and he has yet to be surpassed.

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

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"Teeth": A New Kind of Bite

It is amazing how many horror films are variations on the same old monsters. Here's the zombie again, there's the vampire, now a werewolf, then a demon, and so on. One of the reasons people go to horror movies is to see forms of being that they cannot see in normal life; yet rarely does a horror movie present us with a deformed destructive being (DDB) we have not already seen in other movies. Teeth (2007) should be given credit for presenting just such a novel DDB: the vagina dentata.

Teeth is the story of Dawn (Jess Weixler), a teenage girl whose vagina has teeth. Perhaps this deformity can be explained by her living next door to a nuclear power plant; perhaps it has something to do with the persistence in myth and folklore of the motif of the vagina dentata, or toothed vagina. But in any case, Dawn finds herself capable of fending off sexual assault by biting off anything unwanted that enters her vagina, whether it is a penis or a gynecologist's fingers. She can even use her power to avenge wrongs done to her: simply wield her good looks to lure in the offending male, and CHOMP!

With its explicit shots of bitten-off penises, Teeth is not a film for men made easily queasy. Nor is it a great horror movie. Though Dawn is clearly deformed and destructive, she is, strangely, not quite destructive enough. The men she attacks more or less deserve their fate; she does not make the crucial movie monster leap to attacking innocent people. Dawn starts the movie as a naive girl who embraces abstinence, and she never entirely loses that naivete, no matter how many phalli lie in her wake. This makes for a lightly comic tone rather than the fiercely horrific tone the movie could have had.

Nevertheless, Teeth is entertaining and, without making a big deal of it, suggestive of feminist and other social concerns. Above all, its DDB is something different. With respect to normal form, Dawn's fangs are not in the right place, but with respect to horror movie form, they are.

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

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Healthy Monsters

Although it is rarely noted, movie monsters typically have exceptional health. You would think that their bad habits--killing people, drinking blood, getting set on fire, living in dank places--would undermine their health, but they are usually more active and resilient than a high school athlete.

There is a reason for this. The horror movie monster, or deformed destructive being (DDB), is above all a being. To represent being, it helps if the DDB has certain traits, such as strength, immortality, and sexual aggressiveness, that together make him seem more alive--more real, energetic, and existent--than his victims. Health is one of these traits. Not all DDBs have it, but many do.

In a post back in March, I listed my top ten horror films. Herewith, an examination of the physical health of the DDBs in these movies:

1. Bride of Frankenstein. The Frankenstein monster takes a gunshot to the arm early in the film. Though it is never treated, he seems unhampered by it throughout the film.
2. Night of the Living Dead. Yes, the zombies are slow and shambling, but they are remarkably spry for being dead. Nothing stops them except a blow to the brain.
3. The Exorcist. Though the demon undermines the health of the possessed girl Regan, the demon himself seems to survive anything, including being punched out by boxing priest Fr. Karras.
4. King Kong. He is hale enough to break out of chrome steel restraints, tear apart an el, and climb 102 stories--all in one night.
5. Jaws. Fire as many harpoons-with-barrels into him as you like. The shark just keeps swimming.
6. Psycho. Though physically weak for a DDB, Norman Bates can maintain a motel all by himself, apparently without ever taking a sick day.
7. The Fly. Despite having what first appears to be a form of cancer, Seth Brundle is eventually healthy enough to be climbing ceilings and crashing through a window without suffering any glass punctures.
8. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. You would think their cannibalistic diet would infect them with prions or other nasty pathogens. But the family seems to be doing quite well, although the grandfather does appear prematurely mummified.
9. Halloween. No matter how many times you stab Michael Myers, he won't stay dead. That's a healthy constitution.

10. The Shining. Aside from his alcoholism, Jack Torrance seems in good shape. He does freeze to death at the end, but he leads his family on a vigorous chase until then.

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

"Chosen Survivors": When Genres Collide

Chosen Survivors (1974) has a wonderful premise that is dying to get out and be made into a good horror movie. Sadly, it was made into Chosen Survivors.

The premise of Chosen Survivors is this: hand-picked survivors of a nuclear holocaust settle into a secure underground bunker only to find that it is infested with deadly vampire bats. When I was a kid watching commercials for Chosen Survivors on TV, I was sure this would be a good movie. Somehow I couldn't convince my parents to take me, and the film passed into deep cultural oblivion, and it took until yesterday, 37 years later, for me to see it.

Part of the problem with Chosen Survivors is that it is not readily clear to what genre it belongs. I am reasonably sure it is a horror movie because, among other things, the blog Horror Movie a Day includes it as one of its entries. Also, Chosen Survivors ultimately focuses on the vampire bats and their destructiveness in a setting to which they do not belong (positional deformity), making this a movie whose primary purpose is to present a deformed destructive being (DDB); this meets my theoretical definition of a horror movie. More precisely, this DDB belongs to the berserk biota category, subcategory swarming, which also includes the birds in The Birds, the rats in Willard, and the piranhas in Piranha: small animals that become dangerous when grouped in large numbers to prey on humans.

Despite these affiliations to the horror genre, Chosen Survivors at times plays more like a science fiction film, the kind with metallic sets, blinking lights, a futuristic setting (here post-apocalyptic), and a lot of philosophical discussion about how we are losing our individuality and becoming machines. It is also a paranoid thriller about how the government is manipulating and lying to us. SPOILER: In this case, the nuclear holocaust turns out to be a hoax, a setup to an elaborate psychological experiment conducted by the government.

Because Chosen Survivors is not entirely sure of its genre, it suffers from jarring shifts in tone and uneven pacing. And there are other defects. The acting consists basically of shouting for emphasis; the script contains howlers like the rape victim who suddenly decides to lie back and enjoy it. The hair and costumes reek of the '70s, making the film look dated. Real vampire bats are used for close-ups, and these are effective, but for long shots of attacking swarms a fake-looking bat swirl is used, complete with matte lines around the actors.

So Chosen Survivors is not perfect. It is not the best post-apocalyptic vampire bat movie that could be imagined. But it is the one we have, and it has its moments. The bats flocking into bedrooms late at night; the bats tearing holes into people's faces; the spectacle of Diana Muldaur and Alex Cord lying in bed post-coitally and talking philosophy. All in all, it was worth waiting 37 years for.

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