Monday, January 25, 2010

O, the horror!

I think Capsule Reviews - January Doldrums Edition by Bill Ryan captures a number of things that are important to me, whether he exactly intended it or not.

There are two things... two of the things I've traditionally enjoyed more than anything else... that I can't get interested in at all of late. Horror and movie writing.

In the post linked, Bill writes, "I'm becoming more and more convinced that if horror fans fear anything, it's change."

It's true.

Horror fandom is a dull, humorless lot, that practically defines itself by its disdain for imagination.

Presumably most horror fans were originally drawn to the medium by early experiences that startled and frightened us with unexpected shocks and creative turns that fired our imaginations and fueled our nightmares.

Somehow after becoming a fan, one starts to codify the things they like. How much of the horrors should be explained, whether the horrors could exist in our world, how much humor should be included, etc.

Most horror fans - myself included, I know - not only have some mental Mad Monster Party hodge-podge living in their brain, cobbled together from "rules" they've created from the things that happened to scare them as a child and notions they've built up from overthinking everything about the genre. Any attempt to piece together any of even the most well-considered and intelligent of these - so my own certainly not included - would stumble pathetically on a lack of room for imagination as well as internal contradiction.

Horror needs room to move around and breath. It needs to stumble clumsily about.

House of 1000 Corpses and House of the Devil seem to me to be the House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, which is to say nothing about the value of any of these as entertainment, but simply that all four are reflexive and concious of what the audience wants or what the moviemakers believe the audience wants.

In the age of the Internet, fan "rules" have been codified, people believe they're not idiotic (by definition), that they make sense and even that they're right.

Look, I'm sitting here having read Bill's post that I linked and his earlier review of Halloween II, in which he writes, "Explanations are for simpletons, and it's frankly beyond me why Zombie is convinced the opposite is true."

And I agree with every fabric of my being.

I picture everyone who ever explained to me that some horror movie was scary because "it could really happen" and I want to scream and force them to watch a Lucio Fulci or J-Horror marathon.

And I think I remain right. Whereas I believe horror needs some connection to what we can imagine as immediate, our primitive animal fears, I think understanding is the opposite of fear, too. Ask Joseph Goebbels, or any other politician who has led a campaign of war against another country, for that matter. It's easy to get people to fear (and, as such, hate) something or someone they don't understand and nearly impossible to do the same with something or someone they do understand.

I type, wanting to write more on this, to further codify my beliefs on this, but all the while seeing that I am part of the problem.

You see, I'm sure Bill's thoughts are on the money as to why he felt like he did about Halloween II, and may very well apply to how I will feel or a majority of viewers felt to that specific movie.

Yet I'm even surer that the most important thing a horror movie (or story) needs is the ability to do what I'm not expecting. And codifying a bunch of rules of what is or isn't "good" horror or, even worse, what is or isn't "scary" puts a box around what a movie should or shouldn't do and makes it easy for me, as an experienced horror fan, to expect everything that might reasonably be done inside that box.

Someone could probably study on the psychology of horror's biggest advocates stripping away it's most important tool. That shall not be me, though.

I'm just a guy who is sitting and feeling perplexed.


bill r. said...

First, off, thanks very much for the link. Second, well, you're right. About the "rules" thing, I mean. For instance, don't get me started about people who say "Thank God horror films are funny again!"

But yes, to say horror films, or horror fiction, should or shouldn't be doesn't help, and can help you look like an ass when somebody offers a deluge of counter-examples that you'd forgotten about. But in the case of "explaining things", I think Zombie is dragging the genre backwards. Nobody reads a horror story or sees a horror film and says later that the best part was when that one guy explained everything. There's still a desire for it, or else you wouldn't see so many theories behind what MULHOLLAND DR. (a horror movie, in my opinion) means, but of course that excited post-film theorizing would happen if Lynch had made things plain and simple.

What I'm saying is that broadly I agree with you. No rules. I'm for that. But if anybody wants to list horror films that were enhanced by an explanation of the mystery, I'm all ears.

Neil Sarver said...

My pleasure. I really did think you made a lot of good points.

And obviously I agree on explaining things. I even find attempts to explain afterward or contemplations of them, as you note, to be dull and largely dull-witted, but that could reflect me more than anything.

I'm certainly not aware of an explanation that is held to make the fear of a horror story more effective.

As I've said before, I don't think horror - in the most basic sense of scaring people and such - is something that Rob Zombie is good at. Of course, it also doesn't strike me as something he's interested in at all either.

Somewhere in there and your Mulholland Dr. note we run into the kind of Big Tent Horror/little tent horror discussion...

I think Rob Zombie works in horror because that's where he can commercially make movies about the kinds of characters and situations that interest him. Unfortunately, it suggests to most that certain other situations and effects will take place that never do... or never do well, because, as I see it, they're only there to fulfill the genre requirements as they are seen commercially.

And commercially and popularly is where I think the kind of Big Tent Horror philosophy runs into trouble. I'm frankly all in favor of it, in principle. All the world of horrors and disturbing events, subjects and people under one big happy roof.

The trouble is, to the average person who isn't a Horror Geek, horror and whether it is good is all about whether they were scared. So, when we Horror Geeks invite movies under the tent that aren't even intended to have that kind of thrill/scare effect, we're not only inviting them among the other similar works, but we're also inviting criticism from a number of angles, based on not meeting a criteria that they never had any intention of meeting.

Blah... Personally, for me, I agree with most of what Curt Purcell says in his Supernatural Horror posts, but then I also think that's more rules than I'm entirely comfortable with, too.

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