Saturday, November 26, 2011

From Movie Star to Horror Star

The horror film has always been a somewhat disreputable genre, and its biggest stars have traditionally been in a ghetto. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, for example, were well known for their horror roles but always found it hard to get work outside the genre. However, the reverse did not hold. Mainstream movie stars have always been able to dip into the horror genre for a film or two--think Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense and Nicole Kidman in The Others--then go back to their mainstream careers. And movie stars who were aging or otherwise on the decline could always find a haven in the horror genre. This was what happened to Ray Milland.

Born in 1905, Milland was a major movie star whose credits included The Lost Weekend (for which he won the 1945 Best Actor Oscar for playing an alcoholic), The Big Clock, Ministry of Fear, the Hitchcock suspense film Dial M for Murder, and even a dip into the horror genre, with the ghost movie The Uninvited. But by the 1960s, the roles were drying up, and Milland made a decisive turn into the arms of American International Pictures, makers of cheap horror movies. Three films in particular stand out: X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963), directed by Roger Corman; The Thing with Two Heads (1972); and Frogs (1972).

These are not necessarily good films, but Milland is good in them. He brought to them professionalism, star wattage, and an interesting turn on his screen persona. Throughout his career, Milland played suave, intelligent, flawed characters (flaws such as alcoholism in The Lost Weekend, or attempting to murder his wife in Dial M for Murder). In his horror roles, Milland continued to project polished, articulate intelligence, but the flaws took over, particularly a cranky impatience with any lesser beings who stood in his way.

You could sympathize with Milland in these roles. In X, he was determined to perfect a formula for seeing through things; in Thing with Two Heads, he was a dying man who wanted to save himself by grafting his head onto someone else's body; in Frogs, he was a plantation owner who wanted to have a nice Fourth of July family celebration.

But something always went wrong. In X, his super vision became his downfall; in Thing with Two Heads, despite his bigoted attitudes, his head was grafted onto the black body of Rosey Grier; in Frogs, swarms of malevolent frogs, snakes, lizards, spiders, and other swamp creatures invaded his plantation, apparently in revenge for humanity's assaults on the ecology. Milland responded the same way in all three cases: through grouchiness. It was insufferable to him that pesky little things like race and pollution should get in the way of his calm ambitions. He became angrier, more insulting, more cutting. He fought the horrors the way a civilized person does: through sarcasm.

For his contributions to the horror genre, Ray Milland should be remembered.

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Ethics of "Cube"

Horror movies have a strong ethical component. By showcasing what the normal characters have to do to survive the deformed destructive being (DDB), they implicitly teach what are the correct ways to survive in the real world. The classic example is the Final Girl, who is usually virginal and thereby escapes getting slashed like her randy cohorts. The DDB acts as an ethical teacher, instructing us what not to do by destroying the person who did it and sparing the person who did not do it.

In my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, I list six ethical rules that are found with particular frequency in horror films:

1. Be conservative.
2. Do not commit sacrilege.
3. Do not have unmarried sex.
4. Do not get contaminated.
5. Beware of youth.
6. Be charitable.

It is the rare horror film that does not teach one or more of these principles. But there are exceptions. One of these is Cube (1997), a hybrid science fiction/horror film in which six people from different walks of life are stranded together in a giant cube consisting of interlocking rooms. The cube is essentially a maze, in which the object is to escape to the outside world while avoiding deathtraps that are liberally sprinkled throughout the edifice. Nobody knows who willed the cube into existence, so the cube itself is the DDB: an artifact that is deformed by virtue of having no sensible purpose for its construction, and that is clearly destructive. The six captives appear to have been selected for confrontation with this DDB because each has a skill that can be contributed to the good of all: one is a cop who knows how to lead; another a prison escape artist; another a mathematician who can make sense of the number scheme that governs the cube. A doctor, a designer of the cube, and an autistic man round out the six.

So, what do we learn ethically from Cube? At first it seems we are in for a conservative lesson about how important it is to work together. This is the point the cop keeps stressing, and from early in the movie he is the authority figure, the one who seems most practical, positive, and determined to escape. The characters do work together, but for most of them the result is failure. As for the cop, he ends up going berserk, attacking his comrades, sexually assaulting the female mathematician, and being killed for his troubles. So the rule "Be conservative," with its support for authority, does not apply in the world of Cube.

On the other hand, defying authority, as the prison escape artist does, also meets with a bad end: the escape artist is the first of the troupe to die. The doctor is charitable to the autistic man, and she dies, so "Be charitable" doesn't work very well. Neither do "Do not get contaminated" and "Beware of youth": they don't seem to apply to the cube. The cube designer gets killed, perhaps because he is a nihilist who is always ready to give up, thus violating "Do not commit sacrilege." But by that rule, as well as the rule "Do not have unmarried sex," the mathematician, a young, intelligent woman who resists the sexual advances of the cop and never gives up struggling to escape, is the chief candidate to live. She is, by all rights, the Final Girl. That's what makes it such a surprise when she is killed.

Only one of the six survives and escapes: the autistic man. He is a nice fellow, and is able to contribute his autistic savant mathematical skills to solving the puzzle of the cube. But what does his survival teach us ethically? It is better to be developmentally disabled than not? This does not seem an ethical lesson most of us can practice on a daily basis. And therefore Cube is ethically nihilistic. It teaches nothing about how to act; it only presents the horror of a world in which there is no way to act that is better than any other.

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

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Consistency of Lameness

Just as good horror movies across time share certain traits, so do bad horror movies. Over and over, no matter how many years go by, the makers of bad horror films repeat the same mistakes. It doesn't matter if the film is a low-budget independent with a no-name cast or a better-budgeted studio film with Hollywood stars. The lameness remains the same.

To make this clear, I have chosen two bad movies, one the ultra-low-budgeted The Body Beneath (1970) and the other the modestly-budgeted Vacancy (2007). Vacancy had Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale as a married couple, David and Amy, who wander into trouble in a motel in the middle of nowhere. Body Beneath (1970) features a cast most people probably never heard of as a vampire clan seeking to renew their bloodlines. Of the two, Body Beneath is worse, but is slightly redeemed by camp. Vacancy has some good moments of suspense, but overall is mediocre, without even the virtue of camp.

Here are five key characteristics that make these movies lame:

1. Lack of originality. The tradition of rural motels containing sinister occupants has been around for a long time, most memorably in Psycho, so if you are going to do it again you had better do something to make it fresh. Vacancy has a twist involving snuff filmmakers, but that is not exactly fresh either. Likewise, the vampire subgenre was already antiquated by the time Body Beneath came along, and to try to freshen it up that film introduced the idea of renewing bloodlines, which might have been interesting if it had made any sense. Instead, the film is so convoluted in explaining how the bloodline renewal would work that it loses interest before it can ever reach coherence.

2. Unimpressive deformed destructive beings (DDBs). A horror film is only as good as its DDB, and these are not good DDBs. Body Beneath features a talky, weak-looking lead vampire in a minister outfit, (Gavin Reed as Rev. Ford), plus a trio of lady vampires with bad blue makeup and a deeply cliched hunchbacked assistant. Vacancy has a total of three serial killers who are largely inept at killing the two victims at their disposal. Two of the killers wear creepy masks, but this is hardly enough to turn them into genuine threats.

3. Boring normals. The normal characters in a horror movie should be somewhat sympathetic, so that the audience cares about the peril they face. In Body Beneath, the main normal couple seems to be mainly interested in having sex, and the other normals are unmemorable. In Vacancy, the married couple seems to have no interest in sex, being too busy sniping at each other, and there are almost no other normals around.

4. Tone deafness. Vacancy has nicely scored beginning and end credit sequences that are reminiscent of Hitchcock--just the thing to set the mood if this movie were anything like a Hitchcock film, which it is not. Body Beneath is loaded with references to Carfax Abbey, making you think of Dracula, most of the adaptations of which are much better than what you are seeing here. Overall, Body Beneath and Vacancy feel like they were pasted together from such references to better films, yet with deafness to what makes a film good on its own.

5. Incoherent endings. Body Beneath ends with the sex-crazed couple turned into vampires--is that it? I'm not sure. Vacancy ends with the husband alive but wounded, with help on the way--or is he dying, and will help never come? I don't know. Worse, I don't care. The movies so thoroughly lost me I didn't even bother pressing scene selection to go back and figure them out.

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

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Natural and Supernatural

An interesting debate on Session 9 has been going on at IMDB. Session 9 (2001) is a movie set at an abandoned insane asylum, where a work crew led by Gordon (Peter Mullan) is removing asbestos. While one crew member listens to old psychiatric tape recordings of a killer girl who had multiple personalities, mysterious killings occur, which are ultimately traced to Gordon. At the very end of the movie, Simon, one of the multiple personalities, who had encouraged the killer girl to kill and who revealed himself on tape in psychiatric Session 9, is asked where he lives, and he answers, "I live in the weak and the wounded, Doc."

The debate on IMDB concerns the nature of Simon's existence. Some people on the discussion board think Session 9 is a demonic possession movie, in which a demonic presence named Simon who haunts the asylum possesses Gordon and makes him kill people, whereas other people think Gordon is just psychopathic and kills people for natural reasons. In the latter view, Simon was just a personality of the killer girl, with no existence outside the tape recording, and what he said about the weak and the wounded was just metaphorical. On the demonic side, one discussant makes a case for why "Simon was actually an evil spirit or entity." On the psychopathic side, another discussant writes, "To me this is clearly a movie about a man who has a mental illness."

My own view is that the film leaves the issue ambiguous, which is why different people come away with different answers. Despite the ambiguity, I do think the film leans more toward the idea of Simon as an actual demon, although the nature of Simon's comment--that he lives in the weak and the wounded--leaves it easy to see that he depends for his successes on human mental fragility. The movie need not be either/or--it may be about both an evil spirit and a man with a mental illness.

The significance of this issue for horror film history is that the presence of the supernatural is not always clear. Even a movie like Psycho, which apparently ties everything up naturalistically when the psychiatrist explains how Norman Bates came to murder various people, has a hint of the supernatural. At the end, Norman is shown locked up, and superimposed fleetingly on his face is the skull of his mother--as if she were really possessing him from beyond the grave.

Most horror movies are crystal clear about whether their deformed destructive beings are natural or supernatural. Jaws has a shark--period. Dracula has an evil being who lives for centuries and shuns crucifixes. But every once in a while the ambiguity can be great enough that audience members do not agree on what they have just seen. That is the case with Session 9.

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