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Satire, Americana, and the Death Race

In the opening monologue of Patton, George C. Scott intones, “Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser.” In the year 2000, Americans have found their winner, and his name is Frankenstein. Death Race 2000 is a movie about what Americans love – winners, speed, and violence – and what they’re willing to put up with in order to get it. It’s also a gory, stunt-filled action movie co-starring Sylvester Stallone. So it’s easy to imagine viewers only enjoying the campy, ridiculous surface without catching the surprising profundity that lies beneath.

Death Race 2000 (1975) possesses this strange tension mostly because it was produced by Roger Corman and directed by Paul Bartel, whose later cult classic Eating Raoul I wrote about a while back. Eating Raoul gave a taste of how Bartel and the Corman team could integrate their dark social satire into basic B-movie formulae, and they succeed big time with Death Race. Its silly sci-fi premise is twisted into a giant, layered joke about pompous patriotism and governmental mendacity. And there’s still a whole lot of fast driving.

That premise is pretty well-known, but here it is anyway: since 1980, America’s most popular sporting event has been a transcontinental road race. Five drivers compete to get to New Los Angeles the fastest, and to “score” the most bystanders along the way. In 2000, however, the Army of the Resistance is actively sabotaging the race, so the drivers must reckon both with each other and with rebel booby traps scattered along country roads. Each driver has a navigator in the passenger seat, and a gimmicky theme to their costume and car; this aspect of the film is nicely carried out considering the budget, and it’s clear that even if this were just another dumb B-movie, it’d be an especially imaginative one with a really DIY design aesthetic.

But it’s far from dumb. Many of the ideas aren’t fully realized, sure, but for an ostensibly trashy movie, there’s so much rich ideological terrain. For example, the film just savages the mainstream media, which is complicit in shoving the race down the citizens’ throats. In the government’s scramble to provide breads and circuses as a distraction from economic woes, they have no greater ally than the nation’s television personalities. There’s the yammering, neckerchief-wearing reporter Junior Bruce (played by “The Real Don Steele”), who dishes out constant race-related updates and is more than happy to suppress real news and scapegoat the French if it suits the current administration’s whims. Or the fawning talk show host Grace Pander, who refers to every racer as “a dear friend of mine” and translates every new plot twist into dramatic camera fodder.

They’re both presented as willing lackeys of the beloved “Mr. President,” whose broadcasts from his palace in China are literally nothing but pure spin. Clearly, Bartel and the film’s writers believe that if political leaders want unquestioned authority, then gently taking away freedom of the press is the way to do it. Late in the film, the racers ask a supercilious government agent about the rebels’ role in a colleague’s death, and he replies, “Who mentioned anything about rebels? There are no rebels. Understand?” For a film that’s supposedly about racers knocking down pedestrians, this is a surprisingly subtle method for dealing with dissent, invoking Goebbels’ concept of the “big lie.” Mr. President’s government makes its lies truth through repetition, and the news media gladly volunteer to repeat. (Keep in mind that this was made the same year as All the President’s Men, and only a year after the real-life Watergate revelations.)

But of course, the race isn’t just forced onto a reluctant citizenry. It really is the most popular sporting event, and most Americans are devoted fans cheering on their favorite racers. Like I said, the movie is about what Americans love. They love to be lied to, as long as the lies go down easier than the truth. And, obviously, they love to watch other people commit acts of violence. This is where Frankenstein (David Carradine) comes in. Trained from birth to be the world’s greatest racer, he’s simply that. The film’s opening sequence, in which the racers pull up to the starting line, is intercut with a press conference where a doctor (played by Bartel) announces Frankenstein’s recent “limb transplant,” and every reporter oohs and ahhs at his mangled-and-repaired body.

But this is all more spin. As he reveals to his navigator Annie, his body is totally intact, and all the myths are just that – compiled by the government to build Frankenstein up as the national hero he’s become. It’s like if Chuck Norris “facts” were treated with as much seriousness, by the government and the people, as the official story about 9/11. At moments like this, Death Race 2000 resembles an intentionally frivolous 1984. Frankenstein is the hero, ready for worship, and when he speaks his mind in private, the film’s engaging in some crafty deconstruction of American iconography. It’s like catching the guy who plays Mickey Mouse at Disneyland without his costume’s head on… and then hearing him say that he wore the costume only so he could sabotage Uncle Walt.

So although the film’s nominally about the race itself, much of the dialogue actually involves Frankenstein’s role as the race’s iconic hero. His name, after all, borrows from real-life horror iconography, but with a messianic twist: like the monster, he’s (said to be) an ugly assemblage of disparate body parts, yet he’s anything but hated. He’s broken anew during every race (he loses limbs, his navigators die), then stitched up by the start of the next one. He’s Christ rising from the tomb, he’s the Fisher King, he’s T.S. Eliot’s Phlebas the Phoenician. Frankenstein, once a hideous murderer from horror fiction, is now the American people’s hope for eternal life.

This theory is given some credence by an oddly powerful scene in the middle of the movie. While taking a break in St. Louis, Frankenstein is confronted by a teenage girl named Laurie, a member of the Lovers of Frankenstein, and they have this exchange:

Laurie: I wanted to meet you, Mr. Frankenstein. I wanted you to know who I am. So it would have meaning.

Frankenstein: I don’t understand. So what would have meaning?

Laurie: We love you, Mr. Frankenstein. I know just saying it doesn’t mean much.

Frankenstein: Why do you love me? Because I kill people?

Laurie: Scoring isn’t killing, Mr. Frankenstein. It’s part of the race. You’re a national hero, and we want you to know, we’re with you 100%. Good night, Mr. Frankenstein.

The next day, as the race continues, Frankenstein and Annie spot Laurie standing in the middle of the road, with a gaggle of other girls on the curb taking pictures. Frankenstein scores her and drives on. Annie asks, “Why did she do that?” and Frankenstein answers, “Show me she loves me.”

This scene speaks so much to the nature of fame and fandom. Everyone may love Frankenstein, but Laurie sacrifices herself to give him additional points. Her sacrifice, accompanied by classical music played on a synthesizer, has an ethereal quality; it proves that even with something as crass, violent, and pointless as the race, someone can find real love and meaning in it. Laurie probably hasn’t known a time without the race, so it’s all she really has to believe in, and her sacrifice lets her enter into Frankenstein’s cycle of death and rebirth. Everyone needs something to believe in, and if necessary, they’ll forge their own belief system out of whatever’s available.

Another testimony to Frankenstein’s symbolic power comes from the reporter Junior at the end of the film, when the race has been declared abolished. He protests, “Sure, [the race] is violent, but that’s the way we love it! Violent, violent, violent! And that’s why we love you!” The race is a political distraction, but it’s more than that. It’s a condensation of all sports and phallic metaphors into one competition and five cars. It’s an American monomyth, played out each year for the same reason as the Super Bowl or the World Series: not to see who wins, but just to see the game. It’s the same channel for aggression as 1984‘s Two Minutes’ Hate.

I don’t want to give the impression that Death Race 2000 is nothing but sophisticated social commentary. It’s still a wacky ’70s B-movie starring David Carradine, with its share of comical dismemberments, crude sex jokes, and amazingly dated fashion statements. But this is the miracle of Corman-trained filmmakers: working with minuscule budgets and restrictive schedules, they could turn out cheap-looking yet intellectually fierce movies. Paul Bartel never quite broke into the mainstream, but I still think he knew what he was doing just as well as Scorsese, Bogdanovich, James Cameron, or any of the other auteurs who started out with Corman. (Also note that Death Race‘s director of photography, Tak Fujimoto, had worked on Terence Malick’s Badlands and would go on to collaborate with Jonathan Demme on numerous films, including Silence of the Lambs.)

So although the film has its share of dumb vulgarity, and occasionally undermines its own intelligence with self-contradictory nonsense, it’s nonetheless a self-consciously over-the-top work of legitimate satire. In many ways, it reminds me of William Klein’s politically volatile superhero spoof Mr. Freedom (1968), though I think Death Race is substantially less pretentious and funnier. It’s a film that’s content to let nuggets of serious wisdom and feeling lie awkwardly cradled between explosions and broad comedy. It ends on just such a peculiarly incongruous note, after the marriage of Annie and “Mr. President Frankenstein,” with a voiceover that sounds like it’s from an anthropological documentary: “Yes, murder was invented even before man began to think. Now, of course, man has become known as the thinking animal…”

This ominous conclusion exemplifies much of what I love about Death Race: how the filmmakers were willing to throw in all kinds of enigmatic tangents that we don’t expect under the auspices of a supposedly bad, cheap movie. After all, like Shakespeare’s wise fools, sometimes cheap movies get away with statements that a blockbuster could never risk. So there’s my defense of Death Race 2000. Do you have any opinions on the film, Paul Bartel, or Corman? Do you love Frankenstein?

[Note: Having just recently written about Splice and It’s Alive, I feel like I’m accidentally documenting Frankenstein‘s influence on horror/sci-fi cinema. Maybe I am.]

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It’s Alive, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Killer Baby

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like anxieties over blood ties with a monster baby.]

Ashley:

As I’ve made apparent, I have a fondness for pregnancy/infant/child horror. It’s a kind of horror that is very palpable to me, probably due to my own deeply internalized fears of pregnancy, child birth, and children overall. It’s Alive (1974) is one of the best examples of pregnancy and family anxieties manifesting themselves in a monster child. The film opens up with a happy couple on their way to the hospital; Lenore Davis is pregnant with her second child. They send their son, Chris, to a friend’s to wait the night and head to the hospital for what is supposed to be a beautiful, happy occurrence. The situation quickly devolves into terror when, upon birth, their infant  slaughters the entire room of doctors and nurses before disappearing, causing a city-wide panic. What follows is as much a well-written family drama as it is a horror story.

The movie does an excellent job of presenting motherhood, and even femaleness itself, as a state of Otherness. From the very beginning after the child disappears from the hospital, the doctors and Frank Davis do a great job of continually oppressing Lenore. Frank  makes decisions about the mutant infant’s fate with the doctors without consulting Lenore first; the doctors give her placating drugs and suggest that she not even be downstairs in her own home due to the stress. Their clinically disconnected treatment of Lenore reminds me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, wherein a woman’s neurosis and depression is deemed a feminine psychosomatic condition and she is ‘fixed’ with fresh air, pills and a refusal to let her work, despite what she wants for herself; she eventually goes bat shit insane. A similar fate awaits Lenore Davis.

The men around her- doctors, officers, and even (or most especially) her husband-do not experience the emotional investment that Lenore does in giving birth to an abnormal child who then immediately goes missing and therefore do not take it into account. They do not consider the psychological implications of carrying a pregnancy to term only to have it end with something arguably worse than the worst case scenarios of miscarriage or still-birth. Her increasingly deluded behavior is set on the back-burner in light of the threat facing the innocent citizens and her husband doesn’t have the patience or emotional capacity to deal with his family. He keeps his son, Chris, at a constant distance, refusing to bring him home or tell him what’s actually going on (which leads to deadly disaster later) and he refuses to listen to Lenore, whether she’s ruminating on how their infant came to be or falling quietly into madness.

Frank spends most of the movie struggling with the idea that the blood flowing through the killer infant’s veins links him irrevocably to Frank and his family. He lashes out at the police officers, unprovoked, demanding to know why they look at him as if it’s his child, before desperately denying any feelings for it;  after shooting at the baby, he tells Chris ‘it’s of no relation to us’. He further denounces any relation to the baby by implying to Lenore that Chris is ‘my son’ and asking her ‘see what your baby did…’ after the child kills a family friend.  This attitude reflects societal ideas about family ties; your family and how they act and what they are reflects on you as a person. Many people want to sever some family ties or disown certain members of their families for not living or acting or being a way that they find acceptable (of course, in the case of rampant murdering, the desire to obliterate ties makes sense). In Frank’s case, making Lenore responsible for the feral infant helps alleviate some of his guilt and stress. Frank, as the patriarch, can claim the normal child as his own, whereas Lenore is the bearer of a rotten fruit.

Despite the clear danger the Davis baby presents, Lenore, in her mentally unstable state, attempts to mother the infant; as was the case with Rosemary, blood is thicker than fear and maternal instincts override very real, dangerous realities. It’s Alive presents us with a foreign femininity that is misunderstood and ignored by male professionals; an image of hysterical motherhood that is both stereotype and reality. What mother wouldn’t defend her baby, her child, her flesh? Besides, he’s not ugly….

Alice:

“I always think that things that are small are more frightening than things that are large.” – Larry Cohen

Babies are supposed to be defenseless. They’re not supposed to attack. But in the world of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive, modernity is toxic. So when the Davis family’s second child (the titular “it”) emerges from its mother’s womb, it can already defend itself, and leaves the delivery room a bloody mess. At its core, though, this isn’t a movie about nurses and joggers being cut down by the infant’s fangs. It’s about one family’s disintegration, and society’s complete failure to put them back together again. It’s about a house whose offspring has been corrupted by forces both inside and outside.

But yes, the starting point for that disintegration is a feral baby on a killing spree. The Davis baby’s unusual physiology gives new meaning to the words “family emergency,” and its parents are totally unable to cope. Frank is a white-collar PR man with a bad temper, and he can’t keep up with the onslaught of pressure from every angle: the unscrupulous media; his smarmy, two-faced boss (“He won’t be coming back”); academics anxious to dissect the monstrosity; and the police, who lack his personal interest in the crisis. Everyone’s eager to personally profit from Frank’s situation, forcing him to isolate himself from all of them, his wife included. “Should’ve known better than to trust anybody,” he mutters after a nurse turns out to be a journalist in disguise. With the Davis family marked as different, the scavengers descend.

Lenore doesn’t fare any better. While Frank runs around, fending off attacks on himself and his family, she’s cooped up in her room as a consequence of medical advice. From her initial protests at the hospital to her screams as she’s being carted away – “What does my baby look like?” – she’s systematically ignored and excluded from the entire medical process. The doctors, supposed experts on matters of the human body, use any excuse to discount her opinion, and what choice does she have? First she’s a hysterical mother giving birth, then she’s drugged, then she’s post-partum, then she’s the mother of a mutant child. Her own experience of her own body is discredited because it’s colored by maternal emotion.

Her only outlet is to go crazy, which she does with aplomb. One moment she’s theorizing out loud that untested pharmaceuticals (foisted on her by the medical establishment) could’ve caused the birth defects; the next, she’s laughing like mad at Looney Tunes. Later, she frantically cleans house as if trying to make her family normal again. It’s Alive is about the horror of a family attempting to survive 20th century industrial society. The baby’s existence tears it parents apart along gendered lines, leading the father out into the public domain (gun in hand) while the mother manages what’s left of the home. The mother reacts by shielding her child; the father flatly denies his parentage… until overcome by the infant’s sobs.

The baby, after all, wants nothing more than to be with its family. It visits its brother Chris’s school, then journeys to the Davis homestead, where it symbolically drains several jars of (its mother’s) milk. It mutilates the family cat, but Chris accepts it as kin. “Don’t worry… don’t be scared,” he reassures the baby. “I’ll protect you.” It’s Alive interrogates the very concept of a “normal family,” especially in such an abnormal, unreliable society. Ultimately, for each member of the family, the most “normal” value is the protection of the newborn son. As Carol J. Clover says in Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Frank is “maternalized” (86), but it’s not just that he accepts a shift in gender role. He also comes to prioritize the unity of his family above external forces of law and order. This decision arrives too late, however, and the film’s bleak conclusion renders its hard-earned exchange of values totally moot.

While last month’s entry in the Final Girl Film Club, City of the Living Dead, worked mostly because it had oodles and oodles of gore, It’s Alive carefully rations out its graphic violence. The baby is only shown in shadows and quick close-ups, easily disappearing into the corners of the school or Chris’s room – environments where a child is more welcome than the police. The film methodically builds up its oppressive atmosphere so that even the act of opening of a fridge is imbued with terror. In another movie, our attention might’ve been fixed on the baby’s bloodied victims, like the milkman or the family friend Charlie. Here, they’re collateral damage to the central tragedy, practically relegated to afterthoughts. The motif of flashing lights, which fill the screen at the beginning and the sewers at the end, configures the outside world as hostile and intrusive, a massive entity that persecutes the Davis family (including its second child).

In its mood and style, It’s Alive barely resembles a “typical” horror movie; it feels more like a tense family drama. It could even be a cousin to John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, another 1974 film about motherhood under assault. Other scenes look more like a Dirty Harry-style cop thriller. One of the keys to It’s Alive’s greatness is its refusal to be pinned down by genre or formula. It even works some dark comedy into its warped approach to childrearing. (For example, the camera lingers momentarily on a glittery sign on the back of a school bus which reads “STOP CHILDREN.”) In this aspect, it’s somewhat like Splice, another parenthood parable I recently reviewed. However, while that movie buried itself in its mad scientist clichés and its yen to go over the top, It’s Alive’s versatile director Larry Cohen keeps the action solidly rooted in the traumas of the Davis family.

Also like Splice, It’s Alive turns to Frankenstein as a metaphor for its conflict. (And as a source for its title, which is no longer Dr. Frankenstein’s “eureka,” but instead a pulpy announcement of impending horror.) During a conversation with a pair of university doctors, Frank ruminates on seeing the Karloff film version as a child, then reading the Shelley novel in high school. “I realized that Frankenstein was the doctor who created him. Somehow the identities get all mixed up, don’t they?” By the end of the film, Frank realizes that maybe being a father isn’t so far removed from being a mad scientist after all. The film’s beautifully menacing final line – “Another one’s been born in Seattle” – furthers indicts all American families as potentially hazardous laboratories. So who knows? Maybe right now there’s a couple at work in a bedroom, accidentally breeding a monster.

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Sugar, Splice, and Everything Nice

Last Thursday, I went to see Splice. It didn’t sound great, necessarily, but I’d read conflicting reviews of it across the horror blogosphere, so I figured I might as well go check it out. (Besides, in theaters full of mediocre sequels and Marmaduke, it was pretty much the only appealing movie.) As expected, it wasn’t great, but it was food for thought, so I’m writing a review based on the notes I took while watching it. (Yes, I’m that kind of movie nerd.)

As you’ve probably read elsewhere already, Splice is about a pair of genetic engineers who tumble down the slippery slope, watch things spiral out of control, and endure other metaphors for incremental chaos. In short: Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) are young, they’re in love, and they clone things. They work for a corporation that pays them to produce special proteins; Elsa – against Clive’s wishes – decides to take their work to the next level, leaving them with a rapidly-growing chimera baby named Dren.

But, well, Elsa gets attached to Dren, then Dren gets attached to Clive, they go to a farmhouse in the countryside, a kitty dies… all the consequences you can easily foresee when you hear the words “mad scientist.” This is clearly co-writer/director Vincenzo Natali’s 21st century take on Frankenstein – the plot, character names, and the line “It’s alive,” constituting one big allusion – and he’s partially successful. The film cultivates many motifs already present in the Frankenstein story relating to the hell of parenthood, yielding a nice mix of black comedy and family melodrama. (Coincidentally enough, this is exactly what I thought of Seed of Chucky, which sustains this mood far better than Splice.)

Unfortunately, these delights are front-loaded, so Splice‘s second half is a lot less funny, clever, or logical – and the characters stop behaving in interesting or sensible ways. Granted, Elsa and Clive conform pretty well to the “absent-minded nerd” stereotype, subsisting on a diet of pizza, ramen, and tic tacs as they work on Dren. But as the film reaches its ickiest moment, science and reasonable decisions take a backseat to plot twists, which pretty much derailed my commitment to the movie. After that, it pretty much falls apart; much unnecessarily convoluted rape and murder ensue. It’s a real shame, because in a more deserving context, the closing scene could really have been powerful.

Focusing just on the first half of the movie, however, there’s a lot to love. The sudden scares and gross-outs you’d expect are pretty seamlessly incorporated alongside the interpersonal conflict. Clive and Elsa’s dispute over whether or not to keep Dren alive gets caught up with Dren’s own accelerating emotional problems, transmuting this little domestic squabble into pure horror. It’s just the right tense atmosphere for a simultaneous lesson in the ethics of science and parenting.

Alas, all of this promise just leads to a dead end. Elsa’s mother was crazy and abusive… but that doesn’t really go anywhere. Clive wants a child, then doesn’t want this child, then really wants this child… but then he and Elsa change their minds altogether. Much of Splice aspires to the cool, perverse genius of David Cronenberg. Between the tiny cast, secluded Canadian settings, and the curious coupling of science and sex, you can tell that Natali studied The Fly, and studied it well. But rather than ending with The Fly‘s controlled tragedy, Splice goes off in a million directions at once, and fails to make characters’ deaths count.

Like Dren, Splice includes many of the right ingredients for success. It has a pair of talented and attractive stars, some great special effects, and an intriguing, if not overly original, premise. But as with Dren, these parts fail to congeal as the experimenters lose sight of their original goals. It’s no masterpiece, but an intriguing mesh of disparate genetic material. Was this ever about cinema?

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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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