Friday, December 30, 2011

New Year's Contest: Win This Book

This blog began as a discussion of the ideas in my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films. Now you can win a free copy of this book, and all you have to do to enter the contest is follow this blog publicly.

Here's how it works. If you are already a public follower (member) of this blog, with your icon in the right-hand margin, do nothing. You are automatically entered in the contest. (My own icon won't be counted, of course). If you are not already a public follower of this blog, become one by clicking on the "Join this site" button in the right-hand margin, so that an icon representing you appears under "Members." If you are having trouble getting the button to work, send me a comment.

The opportunity to enter the contest will end at midnight EST at the end of the last day of January, January 31, 2012. After that I will hold a random drawing of all public followers. I will announce a winner and contact that winner for his or her mailing address, and mail one copy of Deformed and Destructive Beings to that address.

This contest is subject to all applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations governing contests.

Good luck to all, and Happy New Year.

George Ochoa

Friday, December 23, 2011

Remembering "The Omen"

My book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, is cited in Wikipedia in the "Analysis" section of their Damien Thorn entry. Specifically, they cite my examination of how the star power of Gregory Peck--who, in The Omen (1976), played the adoptive father of the son of Satan, Damien Thorn--contributed to the characterization of Damien as a potent deformed destructive being (DDB). Peck was associated with heroic roles, so when even he could not defeat Damien, and died trying, it was as if all his star power was transferred to Damien.

I was pleased to see my book linked with The Omen, because The Omen is one of my all-time favorite horror movies. I first saw it in the summer of its release in a movie theater in Queens that had the air conditioning turned way up, and I shivered throughout the film, uncertain whether the cause of the shivering was the movie or the air conditioning. I loved the elaborate Satanic murders, the vicious dogs, and especially the last shot of little Harvey Stephens as Damien turning toward the camera and smiling.

So enamored was I of The Omen at that time that I planned to write an essay, "The Exorcist vs. The Omen," in which I would prove that The Omen had outdone The Exorcist (released three years earlier) for the title of best horror movie ever made. I never wrote the essay, and now I don't think either of them is the best horror movie ever made (The Exorcist, by my reckoning, is No. 3 and The Omen is No. 24). I did film a silent Super-8 parody, The Omen: A Cheap Imitation, which was a companion to my earlier The Exorcist: A Cheap Imitation. This Omen parody was chiefly notable for my attempt to pick up a girl in the park who was walking her dog by means of the line, "I'm making a parody of The Omen, can I use your dog?"

The Omen has fallen somewhat in my estimation since then. Lee Remick as Damien's adoptive mother looks kind of lost, especially when she and Damien are surrounded by angry baboons at a drive-through zoo. (Animals generally don't like demons, vampires, or other DDBs.) The film seems derivative of The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, and its big-budget studio gloss keeps it from being as scary as it might be.

But then there are those murders. Every time Satan (always offscreen) decides that his little boy is in peril, he stages some kind of freak accident that kills the person who poses the threat. My favorite of these is when David Warner as the photographer Jennings gets beheaded by a sheet of glass. This sequence is beautifully edited. I analyzed it in Deformed and Destructive Beings, and it turned out there are no fewer than thirty shots in a single minute of screen time--two shots per second--to create the illusion of the sheet of glass spilling off a truck and slicing off Jennings's head. Wherever The Omen may land in my estimation, this remains my favorite screen beheading.

George Ochoa

Sunday, December 18, 2011

George Ochoa Facebook Page

I just started a Facebook author page and I invite anyone reading to visit. There isn't much on it yet, but I will try to make it grow. The link is

Before I wrote Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, I wrote or cowrote thirty-four other books. Most of them had nothing to do with horror films, but occasionally they touched on the subject. The American Film Institute Desk Reference was a book I cowrote with my wife and frequent collaborator, Melinda Corey; it also had an introduction by Clint Eastwood, of all people. The book had a short section on horror, including a nice spread of Colin Clive as Frankenstein confronting Boris Karloff as the monster in Frankenstein.

A complete list of all my books is on the Facebook page, as well as other information about what I've written and the writers who have influenced me.

George Ochoa

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Response to a Pan

I was delighted to see that my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, had been reviewed in Rue Morgue #112 (June 2011). My delight persisted even when I saw the review was a pan. In part, this was because I subscribe to the writer's philosophy: "I don't read my reviews; I measure them" (this one measured 7 x 2 inches). But in addition, I knew that a negative review would give me more material for this blog than a positive one.

I'm not going to rebut every point in the review, because there are things I like about it. The reviewer, Justine Warwick, shows in a few places an understanding of author and book: "Ochoa is certainly a fan"; Ochoa makes some "interesting" and at least "mildly intriguing" points; Ochoa performs "some serious mental yoga"; "you start to wonder if Ochoa is not so much from an ivory tower as from another planet." Indeed, I have always felt as if I am from another planet, possibly Neptune.

However, I was alarmed, mostly for Warwick's sake, when she stumbled into the old reviewer's trap of one-eyed quoting. This is when, using one eye, you quote from a text to support a point while leaving out adjoining material that would undermine your point and that you presumably can't see because of your bad eye. Warwick one-eyed-quotes when, charging me with making "no acknowledgment of the cultural context" of horror film production, she quotes the following line from my book: "Ever since the story of Adam and Eve, there has been a notion that the first of a species must be male." But she leaves out the very next sentence: "It may be a backward patriarchal notion, but there it is." In that line, I suggest the cultural context of the notion--a backward, patriarchal culture--thus refuting her claim that I make "no acknowledgment" of cultural context. She would like me to add still more--such as that the culture in question is American and Judeo-Christian--but that doesn't help her absolute claim of "no acknowledgment" of cultural context.

This, however, is not my biggest beef with Warwick's review. My biggest problem is that she doesn't appear to know the difference between an argument and a proposition. Here is what she says: "his argument essentially falls at the first hurdle by being both too broad and a 'whole cloth' proposition." Do you see the slip in diction? According to her, my argument is a kind of proposition. But it is elementary logic that an argument is not a proposition. An argument is a group of propositions of which one is claimed to follow from the others. To weigh an argument it is necessary to examine the truth of the propositions and the validity or strength of the inferences.

Now with my book, this would have been easy to do, because most of the argument for my theory of deformed and destructive beings (DDBs) is made in Chapter 1. It's all of thirteen pages. But at no point does Warwick engage with this argument and say where the logical flaws are. I know, it's only a review, but if my theory is so wrong you'd think she could have found at least one objection to make to a premise or inference establishing the theory. To make room, all she would have had to do is cut one or more of her ad hominems, which have no logical weight, no matter how they are multiplied.

Instead, Warwick spends most of her time misunderstanding the rhetorical strategy of the book, although it is stated explicitly more than once. After Chapter 1, most of the book is not concerned with proving DDB theory, but demonstrating its usefulness--showing what "can be done with the theory" (as the preface states) in various areas of understanding the horror film. Had Warwick noticed any of these passages, she would not have talked about my setting out "to prove that every element of every horror film is devoted to presenting the DDB." After Chapter 1, I am not setting out to prove anything like this; just to show how interesting and fruitful the theory is. If it seems interesting--and Warwick admits it sometimes does--that is what I wanted to accomplish.

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

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Books That Shaped This Blog

Jon T posted a nice list of horror film books at Shocks to the System - Subversive Horror Films. It's made me think about the books that influenced my own horror film book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, as well as this blog.

The most influential books were not horror film books at all: The Complete Works of Aristotle and the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. From Aristotle the philosopher and Aquinas the theologian I derived the basic ideas about form and deformity, being and beauty that underlie my concept of deformed destructive beings (DDBs). A line of Aquinas' that I find particularly applicable to horror films is: "an image is said to be beautiful, if it perfectly represents even an ugly thing."

Also influential is a book I no longer have: Focus on the Horror Film, edited by Roy Huss and T.J. Ross. I found this book in my high school library back in the early '70s. A compilation of essays on the horror film, it was my first glimpse of the possibility that you could write serious, scholarly prose on something as seemingly flimsy as horror movies.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the video guide The Horror Film: Over 700 Films on Video Cassette was useful in directing me to horror movies I had overlooked. David J. Skal's Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen showed me that a horror film writer could combine expert story-telling with scholarly acumen. This talent was even more evident in Skal's masterful The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror.

Once I decided to write philosophically about horror, Noël Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart was a helpful model. I didn't agree with his entire framework, but I liked how he talked. Although not a horror film writer, Richard Rorty was another philosopher whose way of talking I liked, particularly in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. I thought Rorty was instructive about the process of changing people's minds on any subject, even if the subject is monsters.

Rick Worland's The Horror Film: An Introduction was a concise, thorough primer on the genre that helped me fill in gaps in my knowledge. William K. Everson's Classics of the Horror Genre only went up through The Exorcist, but it discussed the older films with erudition and taste. Carol J. Clover's Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, which introduced the world to the term final girl, was a fascinating take on horror films from a woman's point of view.

Also influential were Horror Film Reader, a collection of essays on the genre edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini; Walter Kendrick's The Thrill of Fear: 250 Years of Scary Entertainment, which positions the horror film in the broader context of horror entertainment; and a marvelous reference book on the Universal horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946, by Michael Brunas, John Brunas, and Tom Weaver. There were many other books too, of course, but these were the main ones behind my book and this blog.

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

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Horror Plagues

I was watching the Spanish horror film [REC] (2007), and two things occurred to me: 1) how many horror movies I've seen where the story is told with a shaky camera from the point of view of a documentary filmmaker, and 2) how many horror films depend on a plague for the generation of the deformed destructive beings, or DDBs, who are the focus of the story. The shaky camera gambit is almost always annoying to me, but plague stories can be quite effective, and they are my subject today.

[REC] follows in a long tradition of horror plague films, which concern the transformation of people into DDBs as a result of some readily transmissible disease. The disease process is often vague. Vampires and werewolves, whose curse is usually transmitted through bites, appear to have some supernatural element, although their infectiousness might be due to something as a simple as a vampire or werewolf pathogen, such as the microbe that turns people into vampires in The Last Man on Earth. As the horror genre became increasingly informed by medical rather than supernatural explanations, biological accounts for the plagues became more common than spiritual ones. Rabies was the problem in I Drink Your Blood and Rabid; drinking water in The Crazies and Cabin Fever; blood in 28 Days Later; and parasites transmitted through sexual contact in They Came from Within (Shivers). The pathogens involved are often microscopic, although they can be larger. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the body-snatching organisms are large pods from space, causing an epidemic of people who are nice and tranquil but somehow not quite themselves.

Whatever the pathogen or its means of transmission, it spreads rapidly, turning its victims into DDBs who are, in many cases, capable of further spreading the disease. They are either physically deformed, psychologically deformed, or both, and they are destructive, either because they are violent or spread the disease, or both. The chill of the horror plague movie usually comes from the menace of the disease-stricken DDBs preying on a band of normal survivors, threatening to kill them or turn them into copies of themselves.

Plagues have been significant since the days of ancient Greek literature, when people ascribed epidemic disease to the anger of gods (as in The Iliad and Oedipus Rex). In the horror film, plagues often remain significant, pointing to some sort of causative social malaise that results in the breakdown of societyIn The Masque of the Red Death, the red death seems a metaphor for underlying social and moral corruption.  In Night of the Living Dead, the cause of the epidemic of zombieism is unclear, but military and government figures seem to be implicated in it, at least to judge by how quickly they run away from television cameras. In Dawn of the Dead, the zombies become a symbol for consumerism as they stagger around a shopping mall.

Even more profoundly, the horror plague film seems rooted in a deep historical awareness of how fragile society is, how quickly it can succumb to a sickness that comes out of nowhere and spreads everywhere. The Black Death of the Middle Ages is the most famous of these pandemics, but they have happened throughout history. Depending on the symptoms, healthy people can suddenly look like monsters and be avoided, literally, like the plague. Horror plague films are like home movies of episodes our species has lived through before, and will experience again.

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