The Slasher in the Rye

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll want to know is where I was born, and what deformities I had, and how my parents didn’t help when the townspeople burned me alive in our house after what I did to those two little girls, and where I got my mask, and all that Jason Vorhees kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.  In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my fans would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything that made my backstory even more complicated and nonsensical than it already is.  They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially the fat ones.  They’re nice and all — fans generally don’t run away when they see me, at least until it’s too late — but they’re also touchy as hell.  Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.  I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around that summer camp just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and lay low.   I mean that’s all I told J.C. about, and he’s my producer and all.  He’s in Hollywood.  That isn’t too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every weekend.  He’s going to drive me home when I go home next month maybe.  He just got a Hummer.  One of those retired army jobs that has chains and everything in the back for holding back bombs and junk, but I bet I could break them.  It cost him damn near an arm and a leg.  At least that’s what I would’ve paid.  He’s got a lot of dough, now.  He didn’t use to.  He used to be just a regular writer/director, he used to be small-time.  He made this terrific film, Dark Star, in case you never heard of him.  The best scene in it is with the alien.  It has this alien that looks like a beachball with feet and claws, it’s like a mascot, and the main character chases it around the spaceship and slaps it with a broom.  It killed me, which most things can’t really do, considering the number of sequels. Now he’s out in Hollywood, J.C., being a prostitute.  If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.  Don’t even mention them to me.

dark deeds, darkly answered

The Measure for Measure research project has begun and continues apace.  It’s shaping up to be interesting.  In my readings I’ve learned some interesting facts, like that outside of the great tragedies, M4M is Harold Bloom’s favorite Shakespeare play.  What.

I suppose I can afford to link a few things I’ve found that I think are cool or noteworthy.  First, Neil Gaiman has a wonderful piece on Ray Bradbury in the Times Online, one with which I agree wholeheartedly.  I tend to think of myself pretty strongly as a Midwestern writer — so in a more canonical sense my lineage would consist of people like Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson and their stories of small-town grotesqueries.  And while I’ve read those writers and they’re indeed good, none of them has affected me more than Bradbury — also their literary child, but in addition to petty rural politics, he also wrote about monsters and spaceships.

And with that, my second link.  Jeffrey Anderson, a blogger over at Cinematical, asks if sci-fi as a genre has surpassed horror.  Of particular interest is this bit:

At its best, horror is capable of — and even expert at — taking the temperature of a time and mood in very subtle ways. But, like comedies and erotic films, it will always be an embarrassment, something one enjoys inwardly but does not celebrate outwardly (at awards ceremonies). But there’s also no denying that science fiction has struck a chord with audiences.

Now, this is a film site talking about films and blah blah blah.  You know what I’m going to say: he’s wrong, at least partly.  Yes, horror does its best during times of social and economic duress (the sf/horror boom in the 50s, the satanic horror boom in the 70s leading to the general horror explosion in the 80s, the post 9-11 J-horror boom, and so on).  But to say that a piece of horror fiction is always going to be an embarrassment because it is the product of a certain time — well, absolutely not.

I’ll hedge my bets to begin with.  Let’s look at Dracula: now, this book absolutely takes “the temperature” of Victorian Britain.  Vampires operate entirely by means of metaphors for (repressed) sexual activity.  Quite titillating!  And is it dated?  Yes.  Do people seem to care?  Not particularly — the architecture Stoker established for his vampires is still in use today.  I mean, Twilight, goddamn.

I could also talk about a film that’s both sf and horror — Alien.  It’s a bit harder to make this one relate to its time-period — perhaps you could say it relates to fears of increasing corporate control of society at the end of the 70s.  Anderson seems to assume that a film cannot be tense and foreboding (horror) but also quiet and thoughtful (sf).  Well, Alien is both, and it’s damn good.

Now for straight horror fiction, I could talk about The Shining — the book and the movie.  The book is probably one of the best things King has written, and the film is Kubrick, so you know it’s good.  Unless you want to tie both of them to a particular social event (eg, an increasing number of divorces in the 70s) then they’re both very thoughtful (in their respective ways) and also very tense and frightening.  King’s novel is a meditation on fatherhood, family, abuse, and self-determination; Kubrick’s film is… well, take your pick.

But Anderson does raise a valid point in that horror is simply not as popular as sf (or even fantasy) these days.  Part of this is Peter Jackson’s LotR films being so damn good — fantasy is suddenly respectable, and sf is closer aesthetically to fantasy and therefore easier to digest.  Not to mention sf has a cultural pedigree already in Star Wars and similar things.  Horror’s cultural icons — the old Universal monsters, which aren’t so scary anymore, or Kubrick’s The Shining — are plenty respectable, too, but, as Anderson points out, the ‘modern classics’ of Shaun of the Dead and Let the Right One In haven’t had as great an impact on the culture as either of those.

Well, I guess two reasons as to why, the first being that those films weren’t American.  Before you call me xenophobic, understand: I loved them both.  But that’s because I’m a horror fan and I’m willing to search for good horror.  I’m willing to read the subtitles for LtROI.  The American films Anderson cites (Drag Me to Hell and The House of the Devil) are, mutually, absolutely goddamn terrible and uninteresting.  The second reason is that horror isn’t attuned to zeitgeist at the moment — we’re looking for feel-good escapism, which is what something like Avatar offers, and horror (usually at its best and even sometimes at its worst) is noble for not allowing that.  Horror can have a happy ending, but it exists only to remind us of the dangers and uncertainties of existence, and at the moment, we’d rather fawn over sparkling non-horrific vampires or pretend to be peaceful blue catpeople living on a planet with a ridiculously impractical and unbelievable ecosystem.  I’ll leave it to someone smarter than me to figure out why that is.

In other news: I might have exciting news about something or I might not.  It depends on when I get confirmation of details.  Watch this here space.

Richard III @ Riverside Studios

This was not a very good production.

The thing about R3 is that it works best when the title character is played as an over-the-top hilarious cartoon — a sort of evil ain’t-I-a-stinker Bugs Bunny.  What this means is that you need a Richard who is crazy, zany, hilarious, and carries the production on his hunched back.  Unfortunately, the folks at Riverside Studios decided to attempt deep emotional resonance, and while they actually achieved this to some degree — the Elizabeth was absolutely amazing, especially when Richard proposes marrying her daughter and she rips him to pieces, and the elderly Margaret (played by a man!) was quite convincing as a drunken, curse-spitting old woman fallen on hard times.  The guy playing Richard was actually good, spinning it as a kind of Crispin Glover thing.

Despite this, the play was just boring.  It was far too somber and therefore very grueling to sit through — the last third was nicely abridged, especially the procession of ghosts, but the first two-thirds were plodding.  Richard needs to be energetic and awesome in a love-to-hate-him way; the audience needs to know he’s unquestionably evil, yet at the same time really want to see him fuck people’s shit up.  It simply works better when it’s a crazy Marlovian spectacle.  My evidence: Ian McKellan’s Nazi-flavored 1995 adaptation, which plays hell with the source text (they all do, as R3 is ungodly long and sloppy) but it’s loads of fun and pretty damn stylish.

A more positive note about the Riverside production: Catesby was also very good.   The staging was a sort of modern multinational corporation boardroom setting and they chose to make Catesby a smartly dressed young female secretary with a clipboard and a constant uncertainty about what the hell was going on around her, and who slowly realized she was both in over her head and pretty much stuck in the plot for the long haul.  This worked.

On the other hand, both sides of the stage had this industrial scaffolding that, at various points in the play and for no specific reason, Richard would climb around on despite apparently suffering from palsy.  I think the idea was to make him sleek and dangerous, and the acrobaticsmaybe would recall the “bottled spider” remark Margaret makes about him.  A neat idea, kind of awkward in execution.  SPEAKING OF WHICH: the Battle of Bosworth Field was a dance party.  I am not kidding.  Both sides glowered at each other from across the stage, dancing slightly while techno music played and strobe lights went off.  Occasionally they staggered as if they’d been hit.  It was like watching a Final Fantasy battle screen, which again was pretty neat, but within the context of the play and production completely crack rock.

And that’s all I have to say on Richard III’s Jungle Gym and Rave from Hell.  On Wednesday keep an eye out for my thoughts on the RSC’s recent production of Twelfth Night. Here’s a preview: it’s also not very good!

Packing, The Tempest, ghosts, and so on

Obviously last Friday marked the first occasion of me skipping my self-imposed blogging day, but that’s probably somewhat understandable given 1) it was Christmas, and 2) I was sick as a dog.  Today is equally special because 1) it is the first day of a New Year, and 2) it’s five days until my flight to Old Blighty.  I have no particular enchantment with the idea of the new year and I’m not one to make resolutions so I’ll spare you that.  I’ve been packing on and off again for most of the past week, since I’ve never had a trip of this length or international variety before and I’m worried to pieces about whether or not I’ll have everything I need and still come in under the airline’s weight limit.

Also I have a new rejection count: 36.  Ta-dah.

In other news, my original plan to ring in the new year was to do a lengthy write-up of last fall’s most successful horror flick, Paranormal Activity.  It didn’t happen for a couple of reasons, the chief one being that there are far too many ways for me to talk about the movie — I can fit it into three or four different contexts and produce a coherent reading from any of them.  Suffice it to say that the movie is good — not as good as the press would have you believe, nor as scary (unless I am just desensitized), and it has a few notable flaws, but it still manages to be one of the best horror films of the past decade.  As someone who is very obviously picky about this sort of thing, I suppose that’s saying something.

A friend of mine, in response to my reading of American Psycho, jokingly asked me which Shakespeare Paranormal Activity rewrites, flippantly suggesting The Tempest.  I laughed, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it was absolutely true.  It’s obviously not an intentional rewriting, but screw intent, and I think highlighting connections between The Tempest and Paranormal Activity actually produces a really interesting reading of the latter.  So if I ever feel like doing something completely and utterly ridiculous, you can expect my writeup on that, though if my blog degenerates into me excavating Shakespeare from artifacts of modern pop culture I might have to change the name.  The same friend who got me to thinking along these lines was kind enough to even offer a title: Rebarded.  So props to her for that.

A number of things

And we have this month’s very special Esmeralda Sinn story up and live.  Also, here is a secret bit that is not secret at all because I keep linking it.  I have never had to read an Esme story out loud before, and doing so for this actually made me feel embarrassed for myself.  But being embarrassed in public is what the internet is for, right?  Incidentally, the background music I used is from Metal Gear Saga by Harry Gregson-Williams, it appears on the soundtrack to MGS4 and incorporates motifs and themes from the previous games and is generally pretty awesome.  I have absolutely no right to use it and I’ve sullied its existence by including it in this story about pseudobestiality, and I’ll probably get some cease and desist notice over it sooner or later.

On other fronts:

  • I’ve touched on the genre-lit-death-of-culture thing here before and written a lot of boring stuff about it.  This essay by Nina Siegal, grabbed from The Daily Dish, does a good job of summarizing the arguments of the various sides and pointing out how all of the factions use more or less the same tactics to get us to sympathize.  She makes the very good point (that few people seem to be aware of) that literature often manages to transcend genre; Ada or Ardor is pretty blatantly sf, for instance, and Shakespeare wrote wrote things we would classify as thrillers or fantasies.  In the end, though, I still seem to come down on the side of guys like Chabon, who argue for that “well-told tale” and insist that strictly divvying things up into genres and pronouncing some unclean and others sacred is to some degree detrimental to the diversity and health of the literary establishment and blah blah blah.
  • I haven’t talked about films much here outside of horror movies, but I can safely say that Inglourious Basterds is a wonderful, beautiful thing and it is the best movie I have seen in a very, very long time.  I have literally not been that pleased while walking out of theater in maybe five or six years.  Tarantino delves into some trippy metafictional commentary (seemingly designed to win my heart) on how cultural fictions (be they movies or books) shape and inform our conception of the past, or even the present, and how these things could be used for good or evil.  Please, see this movie.
  • I have my paperwork turned in for the London trip, finally.
  • 28 rejections.

The Horror Franchise

Fangoria has an interesting article comparing the modern Saw franchise to Friday the 13th from the days of yore.  I think the connection is one that is natural, even if subliminally, to many people; I’ve drawn a similar parallel here on this blog, though I chose Michael Myers over Jason for the sheer jumping of the shark the Halloween series accomplished.  Anyway, Saw is the horror movie for this day and age.  Not since Scream have we had a franchise of such, well, popularity.  However, Saw (like F13 before it) is very quickly petering out due to the advent of a new sequel every year.  Though the Scream films were progressively less entertaining, they still managed to be all self-aware and postmodern using the rules of sequels and trilogies and stuff, and even then the series had the decency to know when to quit.  Oh wait.

Regardless of all that, I think there are a few things in the Fangoria article worth considering.  Like the following comment on why F13 eventually started a slow decline:

A common bone of contention among fans of Friday the 13th is the “death” of Jason in part four and the attempt to take the series in a new direction with part five, subtitled “A New Beginning.” This was met with backlash from fans, resulting in Jason’s return in part six to hack and slash his way through sexy co-eds, only this time in full-on zombie mode. In the end, that’s all the fans wanted to see: their now iconic antagonist fuckin’ some serious shit up. No need for story, no need for emotion. Just murder, mayhem, and occasionally some tits for good measure. The damage, however, had been done, and while part six remains a fan favorite and received favorable reviews, the popularity and financial success of the series began a slow decline.

And then:

A loose parallel can be found in the Saw franchise, particularly in part three which concluded with the death of the infamous Jigsaw himself, John Kramer. With part four, much like in the fifth Friday the 13th installment, we’re introduced to a new, replacement killer, with hints and allusions to the original found throughout. Is it any coincidence that both films were some of the franchises’ most poorly received? The appeal of the first film, and by extension Saws II and III wasn’t just in its clever traps, it was the attempt of the filmmakers to inject a story amidst the chaos. Kramer is made to be a highly sympathetic, albeit psychotic, character, with his traps serving as a metaphor for the path his victims have chosen in life. The death of John was the death of the motivation behind the entire series, and thus dooming the series to mindless repetition. This sentiment was expressed by Elizabeth Weizman of the New York Daily News, who considered the conspicuous absence of Tobin Bell from the fifth film to be its biggest drawback, cheapening the series and allowing it to fall into a state of convention.

This touches on a few themes I brought up in my earlier rant on the death of horror, though not (I think) in a good way.  In his article Mr. McHargue rightly asserts that it was the fans’ criticisms that caused F13 to ride off the rails; the character of Jason was central, and removing him confounded whatever glamour the series had accrued.  Likewise, removing Jigsaw from the Saw films removes a central tether that draws the audience to the films, alienating the fans who have come to know these ambiguous antagonists.

I’ve talked before about how horror as a genre is pretty much crap, and it’s our fault.  I am not about to go back on that.  The audience’s desire for, as McHargue puts it, “their now iconic antagonist fuckin’ some serious shit up. No need for story, no need for emotion. Just murder, mayhem, and occasionally some tits for good measure” is a visceral and longstanding form for the genre, and it is what I think we need to move beyond.  Do you really need to see Jason and Jigsaw fuck shit up for nine movies, or a new movie every Halloween, or whatever the hell?

The issues with this desire is that these characters, in the end, do not represent healthy urges; no matter how mistreated they were, no matter how sympathetic they are in their backstory, these characters are villains.  Jigsaw has the better claim here, since he defends himself with a bunch of philosophical claptrap, but does Jason’s death at the hands of irresponsible camp counselors really justify him killing a bunch of people unrelated to the incident not just once but ten fucking times? These characters do not — cannot — change if the franchise should continue.  (Ironically, McHargue references a reviewer who apparently thinks doing away with Jigsaw somehow condemns the Saw franchise to convention — yes, nothing is more tired and convential than plot development, changes in the status quo!)  I appreciate a good vengeance story as much as anyone, but there is a point when justice has been served and enough blood has been spilled.  If we’re supposed to be sympathetic to Jigsaw or Jason, then there should be a point where they as characters have this realization and settle back into normal life.  Of course that won’t happen because it would be 1) fucking ridiculous, and 2) problematic for shitting out a sequel next year.

“Now, Michael,” you are surely saying, “how can you grudge me, the demagogue so reverently referred to as the Masses, my spectacles of vengeance and bloodshed?”  Well, the Masses, here’s the tricky part: I don’t begrudge you your spectacles, but I begrudge you your franchises of spectacles.  Horror, I think, should simply not be geared toward franchises.  I was a little off put by a comment in McHargue’s article, where he claims that Saw serves “as not only a means of introducing Generation Z and the tail end of Generation Y to horror, but also by reinvigorating the popularity and importance of the horror franchise.”  Well, I see what he means — but I doubt that the franchise model needed or deserved to be reinvigorated.

You see, if F13 or Saw were limited to one installment, my qualms with them would be nothing.  If you have one story about unstoppable vengenace murderer featuring an iconic character, then there you have it.  Make of it what you will!  But as you strain credulity by widening the circle of carnage beyond all reasonable limits — and convolute the overarcing plot to an unnecessary degree — things get tired, ridiculous, dull.  If you attempt to spice up the narrative by changing or killing off the main character, then you lose because the fans won’t respond well.  Franchises (unless they have a pre-planned story arc, which I think rarely happens in horror, and anyway wouldn’t be very good if stretched out over roughly a dozen films) are not a good thing.  It’s an absolute lose-lose situation, even if you give the audience exactly what they (apparently) want and release a bunch of identical movies, because eventually interest will wane and the continuity will be fucked all to hell.

Which paves the way for a reboot 15 or 20 years down the road.

Rejections: 26.

The Death of Horror

By way of Dread Central I’ve stumbled upon an article in the Newark Film Examiner by Mark Jones about seven reasons why the horror genre is dying.  While Mr. Jones offers some very good reasons, I feel like the article has a few details wrong, and who better to discuss this than someone with a grotesquely inflated sense of self-importance like me?  So here are Mr. Jones’s points in quotes, with my responses after.

7) Over Saturation
It would seem “quantity over quality” has become the horror adage. Each week more and more poorly produced, straight-to-video horror films hit the shelves and each week, the genre becomes a little more diluted. Horror is becoming the new porn, where anyone with a video camera and willing participants can shoot a film and get distribution. This lackadaisical approach to filmmaking turns a genre with little respect into a complete joke.

This.  This this this this this.  Is.  Exactly right.

But only in a certain sense!  For example, how many Saw films are we up to now?  How many more Halloweens will go by with another shoddily constructed offering in theaters?  I don’t know, because Saw stopped being relevant after the first installment.  It’s a cash cow, now, and an easy buck for the studios.  This same sequel-madness is what felled the great Slashers of the 80s, my friends — even Michael Myers in his resplendent glory was toast once magical druids were on the scene.

I think this problem can be neatly contained in an exploration of a horror subgenre, namely, the zombie movie.  Jones points out that any starry-eyed wannabe film student feels like he can (or should) make a horror movie because it is the “easy” way to go.  Doubly so if it’s a zombie movie.  This is a staggeringly wrong assumption on both counts.  Horror is not (or should not) be the easy course of action, and a zombie movie should be considerably more complicated than most filmmakers (prospective or professional) seem to think they are.  Fear, despite being an arguably primitive emotion, is much more meaningful than we like to think it is.  The overarching problem, I think, is that the audience for a horror piece seems to refuse to have standards.  People will focus on one aspect of the thing: gore, the variety and ingenuity of kills, the makeup effects on a zombie.  If these things are good, then suddenly it doesn’t matter what the story is, what it is about, what it teaches us.  Who cares about that stuff when there’s enough blood and guts that the filmmakers must have raided the meat section at a Super Wal-Mart?

Let’s talk about zombie movies.  Romero has run the standard zombie invasions make us question who the monsters really are rigmarole in the ground and perfected it.  It’s pointless, I think, for any zombie story to take this exact same tack again because even Romero himself has seemingly devolved into self-parody.  Do not get me wrong; this is certainly an important part of the zombie formula, but it’s getting tired.  It needs to be expanded, played with, questioned.  It will take effort to reinvent this type of plot, to move beyond it, and to make the zombie genre exciting again.  But unfortunately, if people are not retreading Romero’s ground (which they rarely seem to do with any finesse), they’re instead making purely stylistic movies based on how “cool” or disgusting something would be — the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, for instance.  But because, in the stylistic or technical sense, all you need for a zombie movie is a working video camera, some friends, and some makeup, it appears to be the easy way to get something done, so all your independently produced DTV zombie movies are the DotD remake without the pleasing editing or absolutely stunning Johnny Cash opening sequence.

So the genre stagnates only because we allow it, only because we do not, for whatever reason, hold horror up to the rigorous rubric of quality we apply to other genres.

6) Big Budgets
It might appear shortsighted to say a bigger budget would have a negative effect on a film. The more money spent, the better the film will be, right? Not always. What made many of the older films so scary is how real they seemed, looking more like documentaries than feature films. Also, no one in the films looked like actors. Leatherface’s family in the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” looked like they were pulled from a local insane asylum, not a casting call. All in all, the films were so genuine that they scared audiences for days after leaving the theater. Today, horror films are so stylized and clean it would be like getting scared by a car commercial.

Debatable, I say.  While I agree that realism is a plus, low budgets are not always indicative of quality because a lower budget, as I pointed out in the zombie-movie syndrome, often forces a storyteller or filmmaker to follow the stylistic or technical approach to horror and neglect the deeper meanings and implications of the narrative.  The original TCM was somewhat boring, I would say, and I absolutely despise the first Evil Dead movie.  Now admittedly, in both of those examples the lower budgets and technical emphasis resulted in some pretty stunning special effects (mostly in the case of The Evil Dead), what’s the point if the narrative fails to engage me?  I suppose it’s preferable to the next insidious beast…

5) Computer Graphics
Has the price of corn syrup and red food coloring skyrocketed? Recent horror films have become so dependent on computer graphics that they look more like cartoons than live action movies. Think of how much better “I Am Legend” would have been if the monsters chasing Will Smith around dilapidated New York City weren’t those silly looking animated abominations. The thing with CG is it can be beneficial, but when it’s overused, the films tend to be less scary and more stupid.

Yes, I hate CGI.  Do you hate CGI?  You should, especially in horror films.  CGI almost unavoidably breaks my suspension of disbelief because it looks so unreal.  I cannot feel threatened by something that is obviously added in post hoc; it would be like being scared of a Photoshop filter, for crying out loud.  It really doesnt even have to be a CG monster; I would say that Let the Right One In is probably the best horror film of the last five years, yet it has one particularly heinous scene with CG cats that pulled me entirely out of the film.  Now this is something of a problem, of course, because I suspect that the scene would have been impossible (or illegal) to achieve with real cats, and may have even looked ridiculous with puppets or animatronics.  So I maintain that CG should always be a last resort — the recent film Splinter, while not as good as LtROI, is a fantastic example of the wonders we can do with makeup and puppets, with only minor help from computers.  (Still, there’s a cringe-worthy shot or two near the end, but like the heinous cat scene, it’s over quickly.)

4) PG-13 Ratings
Nothing makes horror fans gripe and groan more than seeing a PG-13 rating on a horror film. What this rating guarantees the audience is that there will be little language, no nudity, and toned down violence, while guaranteeing the producers of the film a better box office turnout.  The PG-13 rating plays to the teeny bopper crowd, who will scream in terror at every single cheap scare inserted throughout. It also robs potentially good films of any kind of legitimacy with unrealistic dialogue, little suspense, and moderate violence. Not to say violence in moderation isn’t sometimes a good thing, which brings us to…

Again, debatable.  You may ask me to think of a good PG-13 horror film and I would be at a loss, but I think if I did research I might find one. (EDIT – a friend of mine was kind enough to point out that the US remake of The Ring, which I hold as an example of cross-cultural-remake-done-right later in this essay, is also rated PG-13.  So hooray for that.) Horror is not — or should not — be proportional to the amount of tits and blood you can show.  In fact, in my personal philosophy, a horror story is especially successful when it manages to terrify you without these things.  The original 1963 version of The Haunting is a good example here; of course it was made before there was a ratings system for films, but it has no gore, no nudity, and little swearing, but I would say it is the best haunted house film yet made.  If there is anything in this movie that would warrant for it a higher rating than PG-13, especially in 1963,  it is probably the rather distinct currents of lesbianism the film (and its source material, Shirley Jackson’s immaculate novel) exude.

3) Torture and Rape
Many of today’s horror filmmakers are confusing what’s disgusting with what’s scary. In a genre where less can be more, over the top, bizarre violence has become a crutch. From the “Hostel” films to “Saw” one through one million, it’s obvious that these filmmakers are trying to get scares by repulsing their audience. What they need to realize is making someone vomit is far different than actually scaring them. Along with torture, rape scenes have become a way for filmmakers to push the envelope. Yes, some older horror films did contain both these aspects, but today it seems every horror film has a scene with someone tied to a chair getting god-knows-what shoved god-knows-where, while somewhere else a poor unsuspecting girl is about to be deflowered by some maniac. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself, is this really entertaining?

No real disagreement here.  The sooner we move beyond torture porn the better.  This ties in with my own opinions on horror, letting a lot go unspoken so your audience can fill in the blanks with whatever makes them the most uneasy.  But it’s also a matter of meaning I brought up back when talking about zombie movies; torture porn is porn because it lacks any merit beyond gore, pain, and suffering.  There is no lesson being learned, there is no reason for this pain!  Again we have a stylistic or technical emphasis over the narrative; torture porn is about what looks cool, with no greater message being coherently formed or stated.

A particularly strange strain of torture porn, I will briefly argue, is the Ju-On series, which is being consistently remade and sequelized in the states as The Grudge.  The characters encounter an evil female ghost who has at best a tangential connection to their lives; they remain mostly ignorant of this malevolence until they are too late, and then they are spirited away or whatever the hell it is the creaky throated ghost bitch does with them.  The series is significant because it does not fall into the bloody mess (heh heh) of other torture porn: there is little blood, really, and the gore is usually restrained enough.  Yet it still operates in the same way: characters, who are  pretty much completely innocent of the reason for the ghost’s vengeance, are murdered one by one and — this is the kicker — there is no way to stop it or save yourself.  Tell me, why in the hell would anyone want to watch this, because I don’t understand it.  What is the thrill in watching an unstoppable monster be literally unstoppable as it kills random people for no goddamn reason?

Compare the “classic” torture porn plot: some unstoppable and seemingly omnisicent antagonist (a collective of heartless, rich foreigners or something) for no evident reason other than perhaps their own evilness-for-evil’s-sake slowly murders a group of basically innocent protagonists who lack any possible form of recourse.  In the end one or two may escape, but there’s always the stinger ending where MAYBE THEY DIDN’T or, more likely, they get killed off in the first five minutes of the sequel.  This sort of thing could be a ripe criticism for the disconnect between upper classes and lower classes, let’s say, but you only have to watch one of the movies to see it’s not.  It’s about how badass people being hit by trains looks.

2) First Person Point of View
Why is it that every time someone runs in a film there are sequences of nauseating hand-held camerawork? Can the viewer not understand what the person on the screen is doing without seeing it through their eyes? If that’s not bad enough, there are the films in which the characters themselves are shooting the movie. Ever since “The Blair Witch Project” filmmakers have been making first person horror films and every time the characters use the same sparse reasoning of “I’m filming this because it’ll be important,” to justify their actions. Even horror legend George A. Romero took part in these shenanigans in his last film “Diary of the Dead.” There is nothing more unbelievable than a group of twenty-something idiots who think filming giant aliens or zombies or invisible witches is more important than their own safety.

I sort of agree here.  The shaky first-person-cam of Cloverfield of Blair Witch is annoying as hell.  Who cares about seeing a movie?  I’d rather watch blurs of movement while people scream at each other incoherently!  But the Blair Witch film, in particular, is interesting as a cultural artifact; if you will recall, many people were confused as to the movie’s veracity.  Was it really long-lost footage?  This is rather silly, of course, because it is about fucking witches and spirits and anyone with two brain cells should be able to tell you it’s fake as all get out, but the fact that the movie was shot realistically, with an every day video camera, somehow managed to blur the lines between reality and fantasy.  I am reminded of the Victorians and their delight at staging pictures of fairies and ghosts for photographs; among the populace there was a sizable portion of people who simply did not believe you could fake a photograph because a photo reproduced exactly what it saw — what was ostensibly “reality.”  Anything in a photograph simply had to be real.

A small aside, while we’re still on the subject of cinéma vérité: the Spanish film [REC] was well received among horror circles, touted as being frightening, got an American remake called Quarantine, and there is a sequel to both on the way.  I will tell you now, contrary to popular reports, this movie is terrible.  It has plot holes galore, has no cohesive horror-aesthetic sense, I could really go on and on.  But I will stop for now and bring it up again when I’m through with this list.  Speaking of which…

1) Remakes
It’s nothing new for filmmakers to rehash old ideas and characters, but the horror genre has become notorious for it. At this moment, there are over 60 horror films slated to be remade. Granted some of them are just talk, but it’s a staggering number even if only half of them come to fruition.

Yes.  This really needs no explanation.  How are remakes a good idea?  What is up with the current studio fascination regarding “reboots” for classic horror franchises?  Do we really need an Elm Street remake, no matter how dated the original is?  Just because this worked for Batman doesn’t mean it will work forever, guys.

I’ve already mentioned [REC] and how it got an American remake, and so I will take this moment to talk about importing horror.  Up until recently, most horror media were imported from Japan and other Asian countries — original movies, Americanized remakes, etc.  I like being able to take part in a sort of international culture of horror just as much as the next guy, you understand, but as per my comments above I don’t really like remakes.  It worked well for The Ring, and that’s pretty much it.

So as long as we’re importing the original films, then we’re good, right?  No, we’re not, because the original movies can be just as shitty as anything we crank out in America.  The amount of Japanese/Korean horror that has been imported is far too large and diverse to point fingers at every little thing, really, but I will say the original Dark Water is a good horror story while One Missed Call is not.  However, in the wake of Pan’s Labyrinth the American horror scene seems to have gravitated to the other big ocean and set its sights on Spain.  This is not a mistake in and of itself; after all, Guillermo del Toro is a wonderful filmmaker, a man after my own heart, and Pan’s Labyrinth is a great film.

But perhaps because of the astounding quality of Pan’s Labyrinth as both a piece of horror and a piece of cinema (genre does not exclude art, it turns out!) there is a marked tendency to call any Spanish horror film the next big thing.  The Orphanage, for example, was very highly regarded even by critics despite having plot holes you could drive a bus through.  Certainly it deals with Important Issues in the same way Pan’s Labyrinth did, but it’s wholly more clumsy and nonsensical.  It was a passable film, but not deserving of the praise it received.

[REC] is the flip side of the coin, a movie with little worth that (like The Orphanage) was undeservedly praised.  It is — again! — style over substance, sound and fury signifying nothing, and so on.  The plot holes in this baby are wide enough that we could slip a 747 through.  It’s torture porn, except the first-person perspective means you never have any clue what sort of torture is going on (unless it’s torture of you, the viewer, heh heh heh).  It is scary, but only in the way that a jack-in-the-box is scary to a child who has never seen one before.  You jump when the monster pops out, but beyond that there is no emotional engagement.

I feel I should draw this ramble to a close.  It’s something of a mess.

Horror is a crappy genre.

This is true.  It has been a crappy genre for a long time, because so much of it is bottom of the barrel, derivative and desperate scrapes at the feet of better works.  So much of it is style in place of substance, disgust in place of true horror.  This is the fault of fans like me and you, because we refuse to challenge this genre we love so very much.  We refuse to ask it to do great things, simply so we can watch it do cool things.  When the genre gives us something good — something that is art, or approximates it, or strains the conventions in even a wonderful little way — we stand back and let the sequels come, the remakes, the reimaginings, the next-big-things.  We refuse to think about what horror as an emotion means for us as a species, what it communicates.  We horror fans are content to sit here and simply amuse ourselves to death.

That’s pretty spooky, isn’t it.