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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Horror Must Interrupt the Narrative (When is a Monster Movie not a Horror Movie?)

In keeping track of the number of horror films I've seen, I am often confronted with the challenge of deciding whether a movie fits into the horror genre, or if I must exclude it from the list.

There are a few titles on there that maybe shouldn't be, and some that aren't that maybe should be. I'm currently a bit confused about Shaun of the Dead and The Frighteners; the former is listed, the latter is not. This raises the same question concerning other morbid comedies, including The Comedy of Terrors and Arsenic and Old Lace.

If any of my readership has an opinion on defining the genre with regards to such crossovers, I would appreciate the input in comments!

But as I was watching such movies as Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998) (both from Roland Emmerich, coincidentally), I was stricken with the question of why such films, Godzilla in particular, should not make the list.

The giant monster subtype of horror/sci-fi is strange to consider. To modern audiences, the giant monsters of the 1950s (and before and since) are in general not particularly frightening. But that's not to say that they weren't scary to less experienced audiences who held rational fears of atomic radiation or simply were shocked by and unaccustomed to the spectacle of enormous monsters looming over the theater. In any case, while the subjective horror of these outdated, rubbery monsters is dispelled for contemporary viewers, the flavor of the horror film persists, and is unmistakable, even in these now-laughable selections.

Just because a film isn't particularly scary doesn't make it a non-horror film. So why does a movie like Godzilla fail to qualify? The answer I've devised is that for a film to qualify as horror, the frightening element must interrupt the narrative. By this, I mean that the underlying narrative that consciously directs plot and the audience must be temporarily broken by something that should feel dangerous.

Something that feels dangerous can be a monster, or it can be an event or action, like an attack, jump, or chase. It can also manifest as an unnerving situation or setting, which I think is what qualifies Eraserhead or A Clockwork Orange.

The underlying narrative is the progression of the plot. It is followed verbally or physically by the characters, and is tracked by the expectations of the audience. In The Wizard of Oz, the characters follow and continually make reference to The Yellow Brick Road, and the audience tracks that journey, such that each challenge faced by the heroes is met in reference to the ultimate goal, like an Odyssey or a series of Herculean Tasks. In contrast to this, we see horror characters frequently lost, confused, or stalled without alternatives. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) operates on the unnerving situation of five youths stranded nowhere, doing nothing, and unknowingly in terrible danger. TCM is the farthest thing from the Yellow Brick Road plot imaginable.

A movie like the 1998 Godzilla could have deployed its monsters as horror creatures, with a little tweaking, since they descend straight from the bloodline of King Kong and Jurassic Park, not to mention the Japanese originals, but they never transcend into horror because the narrative of the film is never interrupted by any of the dangers the film presents. The best examples come towards the end of the film, where the party of main characters is pursued alternatingly by the colossal Godzilla and by her man-sized, voracious hatchlings. A jeep evading a giant saurian and a party being chased on foot by hungry human-scale bipeds are both common to Jurassic Park and Godzilla, but whereas the dinosaurs in JP frequently deliver genuine scares that leave the protagonists reeling, the creatures in Godzilla, while behaving in almost identical fashion, are never met with the same kind of response by the protagonists. In this movie, the heroes are consistently approaching their plot goal when they are interrupted by a scary monster encounter. But instead of letting this intrusion generate horror by interrupting the narrative(screams and panic onscreen, screams and panic in the audience), the protagonists always have something to say in response, usually some kind of wisecrack. This maintains the intellectual composure of the characters, who manage to meet every threat head-on, internalize the danger, and dispense a comic rebuttal that connects the pre-intrusion to the post-intrusion. By this method, no character or audience member is ever reduced to, or intended to be reduced to, a real instinctive danger response. Instead of meeting the challenge instinctually, it is met verbally, which is simultaneous to the overcoming of the adversity.

A second, related point concerning violent interruptions of a film's narrative is that of non-horror films that could be horror films if the narrative itself were different. A film like Godzilla has a narrative that could be subject to horrific interruption, but is simply not so interrupted. Contrastingly, films like David Fincher's Zodiac and Fritz Lang's M are examples of films where the archetype of terror, in both cases the serial murderer, does not pose a threat to the narrative that the film follows. While Zodiac includes some horror-quality scenes, the narrative of the film is told through the lives and relationships of several characters involved in the Zodiac investigation. As such, that narrative is never threatened by the Zodiac killer, because the killer's actions are developed secondary to the development of the primary characters, who experience their own personal triumphs and tragedies, not in relation to the killer himself, but in relation to the mystery generated by the killings.

Similarly, M is an interesting film to watch today because in 1931, the vocabulary of filmmaking was very underdeveloped. Not many years before, things so taken for granted now like cutting between closeups of different faces during a conversation were completely alien, since such a seamless transition of perspective is not in any way a natural experience. The most noticeably underdeveloped piece of vocabulary in M is the unfocused narrative, which dwells for a long time on the explication of minor events, which might be summarized in a montage in a modern film. M gives ample screen time to all parties; the killer, the police, the underworld figures, the beggars, and scenes of the general public. By weaving such a broad narrative, Lang effectively narrates all of Berlin, to which the viewer is an observer. It creates an interesting story, but it is not crafted to make the audience invest sympathy in a narrative developed through a group of characters, like most modern films do. As such, the narrative of M is not even subjectable to such a threat as Peter Lorre's child-murdering character. It does not seem that there can be a "horror film" without such an interruption of the narrative.