Sunday, July 31, 2011

Unresolved Questions

Like any fan of horror movies, I have a number of unresolved questions regarding this genre. These are a few of them. If you can venture guesses as to the answers, or if you have questions of your own, please leave comments.

1. In The Wolf Man, Claude Rains ties up his son Lon Chaney Jr. and leaves him alone to force him to overcome his notion that he is a werewolf. Leaving aside the question of whether bondage in solitary confinement is a useful psychological tool, there is also this oddity: Rains ties him up near the window so that he can have a view of the hunt for the killer wolf. Now how good a view could Rains expect his son to have through a single window? Wouldn't everyone be sort of spread out, out of sight?

2. In The Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequels, why don't we ever see a creaturette? Where there's one creature, there tend to be others. It's called a population. Why does this creature need to turn to Julie Adams for companionship?

3. Just about everything in Exorcist II: The Heretic is confusing. Why is there a single big locust flying ahead of the swarm of other little locusts? Does Kitty Winn burst into flame, or did I dream that? And what's with the wacky helmets used to peer into other people's minds? Are those FDA-approved, or what?

4. At the end of The Omen, little Damien appears to have been adopted by the President of the United States. At the beginning of the first sequel, Damien: Omen II, it turns out somebody totally different, William Holden, has adopted him. Why did they change the story-line from movie one to movie two? Could it be that they realized that even if the President did adopt Damien, that would not ensure that Damien would become president, since, as a rule, American presidents are not selected on a hereditary basis?

5. In Hostel, is it really good surgical practice to care for a person whose eyeball is hanging loose by cutting off the eyeball? I just wonder.

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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ed Gein Double Feature

MGM has been kind enough to put together a "Midnite Movies" DVD double feature of two seriously strange serial killer films, Deranged (1974) and Motel Hell (1980). The former is the better of the two, but both are worth seeing--and the two have some odd connections.

Deranged is based fairly closely on the story of Ed Gein, the real-life body-snatcher and murderer who decorated his farmhouse with female body parts and had a severe mother fixation. Gein became the basis for the serial killers in Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and (as Buffalo Bill) The Silence of the Lambs. Whereas these better known horror films adapted the Gein story freely and all but unrecognizably, Deranged takes a pseudo-documentary biopic approach, including a narrator who wanders on and off the set. The killer is named Ezra (or Ez) Cobb, but the name is close enough to Ed Gein to leave no doubt as to whose story is being told. Many details of the true story are preserved, although there are differences, principally to make the main female victims younger and more beautiful.

The greatest asset of Deranged is the star performance of Roberts Blossom as Ezra Cobb. A character actor whose face is familiar without being instantly placeable, Blossom beautifully portrays a humble farmer who is by turns grief-stricken (over the death of his mother), elated, intense, lascivious, and at all times mad as a hatter. Especially creepy is his way of manipulating his lips and tongue. He is aided by a good supporting cast and a tone that manages to be both somber and blackly funny.

Motel Hell is also in the Gein tradition, but it takes Gein only as remote inspiration. For its ideas, it depends more on other Gein-inspired horror movies. Deranged is fresh in part because of its closeness to actual events; Motel Hell depends on Psycho (for the idea of a horrific motel) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (for the idea of a killer who makes food out of his victims). Yet Motel Hell (so named because the letter "O" has faded from the "Motel Hello" sign) has some original touches. In Motel Hell, Farmer Vincent makes delicious smoked meats out of people he plants in the ground up to their necks, like cabbages. He also slits their vocal cords so they can't scream--just make growling animal noises. The spectacle of a garden of people planted vegetatively is an interesting horror concept. All the more so because one of the victims is John Ratzenberger from Cheers.

Nevertheless, Motel Hell is too derivative, obvious, and slow-paced to succeed as a horror film. Rory Calhoun is competent as Farmer Vincent, but he doesn't achieve the sheer battiness of Blossom as Cobb. The main interest of Motel Hell is as yet another movie, like Deranged, in which the country is presented as a dangerous place to be.

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

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Giant Rats

One common category for the deformed destructive beings (DDBs) of horror films is the berserk biota. These are natural creatures gone crazy in some way, breaking free of their place in the natural order, often attacking humans. They may, for example, be magnified to giant size, or they may behave in homicidal swarms. In The Food of the Gods (1976), both are true--swarms of giant rats hunt people, like a cross between Willard and Tarantula.

The Food of the Gods is not a good movie, but it has its moments. Based loosely on H.G. Wells's novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, it tells the story of a pro football player (why is he a pro football player? we don't know), played by Marjoe Gortner, who happens upon an island where animals grow to prodigious proportions. A giant rooster nearly pecks him to death, prompting the immortal line of dialogue, "Where the hell did you get those goddamn chickens?" A swarm of enormous wasps kills his buddy. The island's only living resident, a nutty farmer played by Ida Lupino (in the tradition of aging movie stars relegated to grade B horror movies), fights off very big larvae.

It turns out that Lupino and her husband (introduced only to be killed) have been feeding their chickens with a mysterious food that enlarged them, along with any vermin that happened to take a bite. With the addition of a few more characters (including Pamela Franklin as something called a "female bacteriologist"), the island is stocked with normals to be attacked by the giant DDBs, principally the rats. The movie comes down to a giant rat vs. normal-sized human story, with the house boarded up in Night of the Living Dead style while the rats keep charging and getting rebuffed through gunfire, improvised explosives, and finally a burst dam.

The effects vary from nearly convincing to ludicrous; the flying wasps are particularly bad, appearing as ghost images because of some failure in the optical department. Live rats on miniature sets are the key effect, and, depending on the editing, this can work well. The acting is frequently wooden--with the principal exception of Lupino, who knows how to wield a hatchet--and the characterizations one-dimensional. An annoying ecology theme (nature takes revenge against pollution) is periodically raised, but luckily not much is done with this. The best contribution of the ecology theme to this horror movie is a frisson at the end, in which we realize that cows may have been drinking traces of the food of the gods and it may have gotten into their milk and--gasp!--a child is now drinking that milk...

For all its flaws, The Food of the Gods has a lot of monsters and bloody deaths, and for that reason alone deserves a look. It is also interesting as an example of the oeuvre of director Bert I. Gordon, who, in The Amazing Colossal Man and elsewhere, had done these magnified DDBs before.

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

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Twenty Things I Like about "The Exorcist"

In last Sunday's SundayReview, the New York Times published a welcome sight: a photograph of Linda Blair as the possessed girl Regan in The Exorcist. The photo accompanied an interesting article by Jason Zinoman, "The Critique of Pure Horror," but the photo itself was interesting, and reminded me of how much I like this movie. Without much effort, I can think of at least twenty things I like about The Exorcist:

1. Mercedes McCambridge's gravelly yet feminine voice as the demon
2. The scarred, puffy white makeup on Blair's face, with the green-colored eyes
3. Projectile vomit
4. Masturbating with a crucifix
5. Regan's head turning completely around

6. The black and white dogs fighting in the prologue in Northern Iraq
7. The Allman Brothers "Ramblin' Man" playing in the background in a bar scene
8. Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" theme tinkling mysteriously
9. The heroic priests
10. That very brief, almost subliminal, shot of a skull-faced woman interjected in the midst of Father Karras's dream
11. An angered Father Karras resorting to punching out the possessed Regan (this always got applause in the movie theater)
12. Regan's mother getting slapped in the face by the possessed Regan, with a resulting bruise
13. The hypnotizing psychiatrist getting his testicles crushed by Regan
14. The fallen leaves blowing through Georgetown
15. Kitty Winn understated but hot as Regan's mother's secretary
16. The entire rest of the principal cast, including Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, and Lee J. Cobb
17. Regan summoning a statue of the demon
18. Regan floating above her bed while the priests chant "The power of Christ compels you!"
19. The coda in which Regan kisses Father Dyer because she recognizes his clerical collar, and Father Dyer looks down the stairs where Father Karras got killed
20. The up-tempo music that accompanies the start of the closing credits

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

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Artist in "Color Me Blood Red"

I just had the pleasure of seeing the third in Herschell Gordon Lewis's blood trilogy. I had already seen Part One, Blood Feast (1963), and Part Two, Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), and these prepared me, to an extent, for Part Three, Color Me Blood Red (1965). I expected blood and gore, and got those. Laughably bad acting, cheap production values, ludicrous dialogue, and stilted direction were also expected and delivered, as were good-looking women wearing very little. A certain overall strangeness is also a mark of this auteur, and Color Me Blood Red carried on in this tradition. But Color Me Blood Red was distinctive in one way. It is a horror movie about being an artist, and a fairly accurate portrayal at that.

Color Me Blood Red is the story of painter Adam Sorg (Gordon Oas-Heim as Don Joseph), who, after being offended by a critic's deprecatory remark about his use of color, begins to add human blood to his canvases. At first it's an accidental drip of blood from his girlfriend's finger, then it's his own blood, in quantities. But it weakens him too much to use his own blood, and besides he needs more. He finally resorts to murder--first his girlfriend, then another girl--and paints freely with their blood. The result is critical acclaim and public demand for his paintings. No one knows his secret, but something about his paintings captures the imagination. Finally Sorg tries to kill one girl too many, and is executed by her irate boyfriend.

Red Smith once said, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." Apparently, according to Lewis, painting works the same way. In Color Me Blood Red, Lewis works out a metaphor for what is involved in all artistic creation--drawing material from yourself and from others (your blood, your friends' blood) until your art is genuinely original and alive. That it tends to destroy the artist and may also destroy others is the price one pays for accomplished art. Further, in the specific case of horror art, blood is part of the spectacle for which people pay to see, and even if that blood is fake, it is only of interest because there exists real blood that does sometimes get spilt. Lewis probably did not intend his audience to think much about these ideas, but they are present nonetheless.

The other blood trilogy movies are similarly intellectual in reach. Blood Feast involves Egyptian scholarship and religious fervor. Two Thousand Maniacs! delves into historic tensions between North and South. Yes, the trilogy is exploitational and the production values are low, yet the movies exercise a curious hold not only on the innards but on the mind.

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

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Outsiders

In a horror movie, the deformed destructive being, or DDB, is frequently an outsider, coming in from outside a community and wreaking mayhem--the shark in Jaws, the demon in The Exorcist, the alien in Alien. Sometimes, however, the DDB is a plural outsider, a group of outsiders. And sometimes, to add to the creepiness, the outsiders are us: they are, or are very close to, the community that seemed to be under attack.

For much of its running time, Dead & Buried (1981) plays like a murder mystery, with a sheriff (James Farentino) trying to figure out why strangers are turning up dead in his little community of Potter's Bluff. The town seems to be a peaceful place, yet the audience can see (as the sheriff cannot) that periodically large groups of the citizenry gather together to carry out brutal murders of strangers. The strangers are then mysteriously reanimated and become part of the town.

It turns out that the local mortician has discovered a way of reanimating the dead and has been practicing it for years. The entire town, as far as we can see, is dead--including the sheriff, though he did not know it. The DDBs in Dead & Buried are the entire town. Usually the DDBs in a horror film are sharply distinguished from the normals (the film's normal characters), but in this case they are the normals. This makes Dead & Buried an unusually disturbing horror film.

A more recent film, Insidious (2011), maintains more of a line between the DDBs and the normals, but it has them cohabiting in very close quarters. In Insidious, a family is preyed upon by weird apparitions and strange sights and sounds that seem to be related to their comatose boy Dalton. It turns out that all around them, in another dimension called "The Further," exist astral beings who are fascinated with Dalton because his spirit has been able to get out and visit them, and because his body is now up for grabs. Among these DDBs is a particularly dangerous being, a red-faced demon whose first appearance provides the film's best jump-scare. In the end, Dalton's father (Patrick Wilson) has to venture into the astral plane himself to try to rescue Dalton--with mixed results.

Insidious is less convincing once it is in the astral plane; it works better when the father and his wife (Rose Byrne) are in their house and the intruders seem to be coming through the walls. But throughout, it has the palpable feeling that the family is sharing the house with a horde of outsiders. As in Dead & Buried, this communal DDB generates the sense of a powerful swarming attack that cannot easily be repelled--if it can be repelled at all.

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

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Love That Lovecraft

Much of my misspent youth was misspent reading H.P. Lovecraft stories, weird tales that often featured the Old Ones, aliens who resembled gods or demons. The Old Ones were imprisoned since prehistoric times, but were always threatening to burst out. Occasionally these stories have made their way into movies, and here are my three favorite of those films.

1. Re-Animator (1985)--There are no Old Ones in this movie, just reanimated corpses. Based on Lovecraft's story "Herbert West--Reanimator," it tells of the mayhem that results when medical student Herbert West starts bringing the dead back to life. Invariably the zombies are grouchier and more out of control than when they were alive. The movie expertly mixes horror and black comedy, reaching its apex when a decapitated head makes sexual advances on a bound and naked Barbara Crampton.

2. The Haunted Palace (1963)--Ostensibly an adaptation of the title poem by Edgar Allan Poe, the film is actually a version of the Lovecraft novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The Old Ones are part of the material of this film, although the focus is on Charles Dexter Ward and his possession by deranged warlock ancestor Joseph Curwen. Under Roger Corman's direction, Vincent Price does a fine, hammy job as Ward/Curwen. The film is also notable for the deformed people lurking around the town and for Debra Paget from The Ten Commandments as Ward's long-suffering wife.

3. The Call of Cthulhu (2005)--A genuinely unusual film, this is a black-and-white silent short (47 minutes) and a mostly faithful adaptation of the Lovecraft short story of the same name. Cthulhu is one of the Old Ones and is represented here, admittedly with less than state-of-the-art special effects. Overall, the movie is creepy, strange, and true to the feeling of Lovecraft.

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

Saturday, July 9, 2011

'Dead End' a Strange Trip

Yesterday I saw Dead End, the 2003 horror movie, not to be confused with the 1937 Humphrey Bogart movie that introduced the Dead End Kids. The 2003 movie is strange, funny, and compelling. It is an example of the long tradition of horror movies in which the horror is encountered by going off the main road (see my earlier post, Stay on the Main Road!), but Dead End does something new with the traditional situation.

In Dead End, a family is driving to Christmas Eve dinner at grandmother's house. For some reason, the father has decided to take a back road instead of the Interstate, and the road goes on and on, surrounded by dark woods, without lights or markers--except for what seems to be the name of a town, "Marcott," that does not materialize no matter how long they drive. Along the way, they encounter a lady in white who is carrying a dead baby, and a mysterious black car that seems to bring death with it.

As in a conventional horror movie, the family members (two parents, a teenage son, a grown daughter, and her boyfriend) are picked off one by one, until only the usual Final Girl is left. But the agent of the killings is not the usual hulking slasher; it is something much more mysterious, and even when seen at the end remains so.

In the manner of a David Lynch movie crossed with a Twilight Zone episode, Dead End is full of strangeness. The mother goes insane and eats a whole pie. People blurt out suppressed truths--the daughter's pregnancy; the son's actual paternity. Inhuman voices chatter on the radio and in the woods. Theories abound about the family's location--are they on a forest ranger's road? A military road? Mutilated bodies are hinted at but only shown in glimpses.

Dead End is over-talky, and the bickering of the characters sometimes make them unlikeable (especially the teenage son). It suffers from the constraints of its low budget, although it also makes use of the same to convey claustrophobia. Overall, Dead End is worth seeing.

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

Monday, July 4, 2011

Revenge and Horror

In yesterday's post, Kong in Love, I talked about sexual attraction (or love) as a motive for the deformed destructive being (DDB) in a horror film. Another common DDB motive is revenge. There is a key difference between these two. Whereas even simple animals can feel sexual attraction, revenge requires a certain amount of higher brain function. The revenger needs to be aware of having been harmed unjustly, to recognize and remember who harmed him, and to plan retribution accordingly. This requires a thinking DDB--insane perhaps, but rational. The mindless Blob just consumes everything in sight; the Abominable Dr. Phibes selects his victims carefully, according to a well-considered plan for revenge.

Because higher cognition is necessary to the revenger, humans rather than animals are usually the agents of revenge in horror films. (There are exceptions, such as Orca: The Killer Whale.) To be DDBs, these humans must be deformed in some way. Usually at least they are psychologically twisted, perhaps driven mad by their injuries, but they may also be physically deformed, such as Phibes in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, who has a face like a skull that he disguises with makeup to look like Vincent Price. In rape-revenge films like Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, the deformity of the revengers lies solely in the sadistic intensity with which they carry out their destruction of their tormentors.

As pointed out in my post on Tell Tale, revenge horror films have a potential flaw: the very rationality that is necessary for revenge might make the revenger seem too weak a DDB, as is the case in Tell Tale and the old Karloff-Lugosi film Black Friday. The revenger may seem less like a monster and more like an ordinary citizen acting with just cause. This problem can be avoided by making the punishments horrible and monstrously elaborate, like the castration of the rapist in the bathtub in I Spit on Your Grave.

DDB status can also be preserved by making the logic of the revenge twisted. Dr. Phibes takes revenge on the surgical team that was present when his wife died on the operating table, even though they tried to save her and were not responsible for her death. He also believes that God showed him the way to revenge by inspiring him to use the plagues of Egypt as a pattern for his punishments.

In short, the revenge film can make a good horror film, but only if it is sufficiently raw and bizarre. Think Carrie, in which Carrie takes revenge on a lifetime of bullying by killing everyone at the prom. Even better, think Freaks, in which the freaks punish a tormentor by turning her, ironically, into one of them.

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

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Kong in Love

A common motif in horror movies is the monster who is sexually attracted to, or even in love with, a normal. Usually the monster--or deformed destructive being (DDB)--is a male, and the normal a female. This was the case in both versions of The Fly, and in The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and in Psycho, in which Norman Bates's attraction to Marion Crane triggers his killing spree. But the archetypal version of this setup is found in the original King Kong (1933).

Kong, a giant gorilla, is deformed with respect to his size and destructive of life and property, qualifying him as a DDB. In addition, his love for the blonde Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) is destructive because it violates the rule against transspecies romances (with implicitly, perhaps, a racist fear of miscegenation). Biomechanically, the romance could never work--how could conventional vaginal intercourse ever take place? And Kong fails to win Ann's consent--this is why she is always screaming at him whenever he picks her up--making his advances tantamount to rape.

For all these reasons, Kong's love is wrong: the most fundamental sort of deformity and destructiveness. Yet a great deal of audience sympathy is worked up for Kong's love. He is tender with Ann, even when he strips off her clothes, in a mix of curiosity and randiness. He is protective, zealously fighting dinosaurs for her and breaking his chains when he thinks the photographers are attacking her with flash bulbs. He does prodigious feats for her--breaking through the monumental island gates; climbing the Empire State Building. Before he dies, he carefully puts her down so that she will be safe. Finally he dies for her. The idea that Kong's story is a modern-day "Beauty and the Beast" is played up throughout the film, and this is the strongest cue for audience sympathy: despite Kong's DDB status, he is to be understand as a fairy-tale hero, a star-crossed lover.

The combination of rampaging horror--embodied, above all, in the screams of the beloved--and the unrequited love that drives the agent of horror are what make Kong such a great film. Kong welds together two great passions--fear and love--and holds them together until the end. The failure of its remakes to do so (1976, 2005) is among the factors that makes those films weaker. In both of those films, particularly the 2005 version, the blonde feels affection, even love for Kong. Mistake. The blonde's love for Kong makes him less of a DDB, breaking the balance between fear and love. The first movie had it right: Kong picks up Ann, Ann screams, Kong is in love. And Ann keeps screaming.

George Ochoa