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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Defining Horror

Before this blog rolls on much further, I believe it is important to lay down some ground rules about what constitutes a horror film.

In high school, I picked up a book from the public library by John Kenneth Muir titled Horror Films of the 1970s. I love this tome and have checked it out many times. I was fairly sheltered growing up, and my parents kept to a pretty hard interpretation of MPAA guidelines. So I was allowed to see much in the way of scary movies until my junior/senior year. That summer, I picked up Muir's book, which was a pretty satisfying way to work through the films, synopsis by synopsis. The description of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre caught my interest pretty good, and I tracked down an old VHS copy. I think the way I imagined some of the film based on the review was more effective than the movie, but still, a classic. Then my folks eased up, and I started making up for lost time, using Muir's book as a model for my Netflix queue.

I was in the IB program in high school, and for my Extended Essay, I crafted a 17 page treatise on visual/artistic elements of Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, drawing heavily from Muir's book, as well as an IFC documentary titled The American Nightmare.

Studying horror films, and especially with keeping a list of them, requires some guidelines on what qualifies for the list and what doesn't. Muir's book includes non-traditional horror titles, such as A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance. At first, I just took his word for it, but I have a solid defense worked up.

A Clockwork Orange is so broad that it's tough to define. Our victims and antagonists swap roles at some point. What ties them together is the cruelty of the film, but that doesn't make it a horror picture by itself. But ACO does serve the definition of "horrify."

The difference beween terror and horror is that terror is the fear that something will occur, while horror is a reaction to something that has occured. ACO horrifies not by putting a character at stake, but by putting morality on the line. The plot of the film is a play that sets up the treatment Alex receives, which robs him of his ability to make immoral choices. This kind of Christian tyranny is a dystopia that threatens us more deeply than our bodies. That can horrify an audience.

Boorman's Deliverance will never be found in the horror aisle of a rental store. It's a drama and an action/adventure film. One thing I love about Deliverance is the relationships between the main characters. In the opening voiceovers, it's easy to believe that these men are real-life best buds. This makes them remarkably human, by movie standards, and extra vulnerable. They are not action heroes. This is essential.

Contrasting with the protagonists are the hillbilly antagonists. These characters are not regular villains of the drama and action genres. They are monstrous, no far cry from the inbreds in the Deliverance-inspired Wrong Turn or Aja's remake of Craven's The Hills Have Eyes. They are monstrous because they are not human like the protagonists. The villains are unreasonable and vicious, and totally unsympathetic. Consider an action villain who is motivated by money or power. That's a sympathetic vision. You can always root for Darth Vader, who makes villainy cool, but the adversaries in Deliverance are savage and unpredictable. You can't relate to it, so you recoil from it.

This is important to understand my take on two films: Zodiac, which didn't make my list, and The Passion of the Christ, which did.

Fincher's 2007 film about the Zodiac murders promised to be a pretty scary ride, but viewing it again, I realized that this isn't a film about a murderer. It's really about the protagonists. The murders are almost incidental, like a natural disaster. These men never actually come into conflict with the horrific element. Instead, we're treated to something like All The President's Men, which is not really about President Nixon, nor is Zodiac really about the Zodiac killer.

Gibson's The Passion of the Christ begins in media res, which totally limits it, in my opinion. I saw the film as a companion to the Biblical account of the execution of Christ, but it doesn't stand on its own, because it depends on a knowledge of scripture to be relevent. Furthermore, Gibson's film is horrifically gruesome, right on par with the most violent offerings (offings?) in the horror canon. I submit that the motive behind the film is to horrify, as a means to cultivate sympathy, yes, but by way of sickening the viewer. The Passion is certainly an exploitation film as well, building its audience by exploiting a religious conscience, regardless of the stand-alone merit of the presentation.

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