Friday, August 27, 2010
Fun and Unfun Horror
I recently moved six hours from everyone I know for law school, into an apartment without internet. Knowing no one, I took the opportunity to work through my significant collection of unwatched horror films. Curiously, I discovered that I had no desire to watch certain movies in my collection, opting towards ones that I for a long time had little desire to touch, things like Tobe Hooper's miniseries of Stephen King's Salem's Lot, which I've had for several years.
Most notably, I watched The Blob from 1958, its 1988 remake, Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, and its 1978 remake. The Blob spawned a mirthful remake, while Invasion's next of kin was significantly less-so.
Keep in mind that a film does not have to be "fun" to be excellent. I wouldn't describe many of my favorites in the "fun" category, because fun usually means not thought-provoking.
I had intended to explore what makes a film fun or unfun, but did not have much of an idea of how to do so. But I was inspired while watching a really cool program reproduced on YouTube called "Horror Cafe" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruYg2aX4uCg), wherein several prominent genre heroes discuss their craft over a multi-course meal. John Carpenter gave an analysis breaking plots into "right" and "left," just as you would imagine the political spectrum. According to Carpenter, films belonging to the right are "us versus them" scenarios," while on the left, we have "us versus ourselves." Right-leaning films present a sympathetic tribe combating the forces of otherness, a monster, an opposing, less human tribe, etc. In left-leaning films, the sympathetic characters are often isolated, without a tribe, or the tribe is being threatened from within, not by something inhuman, but something very, unpleasantly human. On the right, we have films that reaffirm group identity and demonize otherness. On the left, films expose the weakness and human flaws; things that the tribe doesn't want to admit.
I like to posit American Psycho as a prime example of the left-hand film. The power I find in this film comes from the sympathetic Patrick Bateman character, who is an exaggerated caricature of human jealousy and hostility, the externalization of everything you think when someone pisses you off.
Both of the original versions of The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were made in the 1950s, when science-fiction/horror was bound to the pro-military, anti-science paradigm of the nuclear age. As such, both films present threats from space, which terrorize the characters of a small community, and pose a greater threat to the United States at large. Both conclude with successes. In The Blob the monster is incapacitated, and in Invasion the central witness finally has his testimony acknowledged.
Invasion is often interpreted as symbolizing the threat of communism. Outsiders infiltrate America, take over the minds of the populace, and covert America to an empty, efficient way of life. Sounds a lot like the promise that communism would destroy individuality and institute forced atheism. Herein we have a reinforcing of the American identity against the sway of the other.
The Blob is just about space monsters.
The remake of The Blob is interesting, because it's really just the same story, updated to the 1980s. It draws together disparate groups into one communal identity, where the loner/biker character must join with the jocks and cheerleaders. This is a fun film, not in spite of, but because of the high degree of gory special effects. The film doesn't challenge the viewer emotionally, so it's not like the gore punctuates any kind of heart-chilling point the director is making (see this entry for a discussion of the serious use of gore).
Instead, we can revel guilt-free in the labors of the FX guys, who worked hard doing what they love: coming up with the grossest practical joke they could think up. You ever see a nasty effect and rewind it? That's what I'm talking about.
Contrary to this, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not fun. Some say it's a commentary on the downfall of American culture. I don't know what it's supposed to be about. I could hypothesize about it, but I'm not comfortable committing. Still, it's not a fun movie. The scene where Donald Sutherland smashes the head of his doppelganger with a garden hoe is really gross, and deadly serious. No music accompanies this act to cue any set response in the listener. The gore punctuates the internal identity struggle of the character, who brings great emotional investment to the dispatching of the imposter. The final scene of the film is the most significant plot difference from the original. In the 1956 version, the main character survives his encounter and successfully warns the world. In the 1978 remake, he is transformed, and betrays his former friend, who may be the last human on earth. In the original, the tribe suffers many losses, but the central figure maintains the tribe. In the remake, what starts as a tribe becomes the struggle for individuals to survive, and the central character eventually loses himself and becomes something else.
Donald Sutherland's character is filled with anxiety about what he could become. Do we sense that in ourselves? Losing our idealism? Betraying those closest to us because we were swayed to something else?