Better late than never: Of Gods and Monsters

[Note: I started writing this several nights ago, but time constraints and festivities prevented publishing it till now, when it’s not really still relevant. Enjoy!]

It’s almost Halloween again. I’ve been blogging pretty rarely lately – and with a good reason, which is “real life” – but something about this season (and who I am) makes me want to watch, read, and write about horror. So I think I’ll spend a little time discussing the horror genre, especially as it’s represented in film. As I came to WordPress, I saw this post, “Quelles Horreurs!” by titirangistoryteller, listed among the “Freshly Pressed.” I’m always up for someone else’s insights into a genre I love, so I clicked and read the post… and immediately went, WTF? Granted, I’ve read way more inane commentary on horror. This is just kind of mediocre. But still, it’s full of what frustrates me about shoddy, poorly-researched film discussions: it’s full of generalizations, broad leaps of logic, and takes tiny samples as being representative of a much broader whole.

For example: “The sixties had an outpouring of B-grade horror flicks, most of which starred Vincent Price, Christopher Lee or Boris Karloff…” The first clause here isn’t so bad, although the usage of “B-grade” is dubious, and maybe they should be penalized for use of the word “flicks,” but claiming that most 1960s B-movies had either Price, Lee, or Karloff? Man, those guys must’ve been working overtime! They were all prolific actors, and they were in some of the best-remembered B-movies of the ’60s (though I would want to explore further what that term, B-movie, actually means), but please just think about what you write and do some fucking research. The fact is that hyperbole-based writing is rarely genuinely informative, nor does it get across much about the actual content or meaning of the films. And beyond that, it pisses me off.

That said, let’s actually talk about horror. Price, Lee, and Karloff are legends within the genre, though it’s totally meaningless to declare them emblematic of an entire decade’s B-movies. Why not look at their legacies? Karloff was born William Henry Pratt – switched from a very English name to a mysterious, vaguely Russian one. After countless supporting roles, he was called “?” in the opening credits of James Whale’s Frankenstein. And Karloff’s career began in earnest, lumbering and moaning as he traversed the European countryside, an ugly patchwork of dead tissue revived by lightning, gentle at heart but brutal in body. If you want to explore Karloff’s legacy, I recommend another B-movie of sorts, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets. It’s not so much straight horror as the kind of horror movie Bogdanovich, fresh from writing about film for Esquire and now a student of Roger Corman, would make, doubling back on its artistic antecedents and contrasting them with the horrific present-day. At the center of it all is an aged Karloff in a quasi-autobiographical role, close to death and ready to set aside a career as a movie monster.

Thank God for Jack Pierce's talent with makeup

What is a monster, anyway? Is it the mad scientist or his creation? Do they each share in the monstrosity? Is a vampire a human being, or something else altogether? It’s so fun to ponder these questions within the fictitious constraints given to us by a body of films. What do you remember about Karloff’s Monster? His hulking gait, his way of going, “Ehhhh!”, his dislike of fire, or was it the neck bolts? Another cinematic reference pont is Victor Erice’s magical 1973 film about childhood, The Spirit of the Beehive. Ana Torrent stars as a little girl in Franco’s Spain who sees a screening of the original Frankenstein and begins seeing the monster all around her. When children see horror movies, it can affect them, for better or worse (in my case, I’d say “for better”).

Erice’s film also connects to a tendency in horror film which I was discussing on a little radio show last Wednesday: transmuting trauma and familial dysfunction into the strange or supernatural. This isn’t a new observation by any means, but it’s something I frequently find interesting. In horror, you don’t have to talk about emotional, psychological, and sexual issues directly; you can turn them into another form. Consider David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979): early on, a young man’s resentment of his father is manifested in a tumor on his neck. Later on, a woman’s antipathy toward her husband and protectiveness toward her son… well, it’s better to watch the movie and be disgusted.

The point is that when we don’t have to follow normal physical and biological laws (e.g., they’re being transgressed by agents of the paranormal), we can have different kinds of tension and pain exhibited in unusual ways. In The Exorcist (1973), for example, the complexities of a mother/daughter relationship troubled by divorce, dating, and the onset of adolescence are blown up (in all senses of the phrase) via the horrors of demonic possession. Sure, a lion’s share of the horror comes from the explicit, nearly X-rated gore (whether we’re talking crucifix masturbation, spider walking, or just pea soup), but it’s contextualized and given emotional heft by the pre-existing difficulties between Chris and Regan MacNeil.

Father Merrin (the apparently ageless Max von Sydow) approaches the MacNeil house

Unfortunately, at this juncture, it’s been so long since I started writing this post that I’ve lost track of what my argument was. But that aside, horror films serve many important roles in our common culture, and they’ve often turned out to be masterpieces – whether low-budget art horror films like Carnival of Souls, auteur triumphs like The Shining, or classical Hollywood productions like Dracula. The scope of horror is so wonderfully broad, perhaps because people can be scared in so many ways, and for so many reasons. You can indulge in the self-aware excess of The Evil Dead, or in the measured blood-letting and psychological brutality of Cries and Whispers. Hopefully I can get my mind back on track and write more along these lines in the near future. Till then, pleasant nightmares.

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