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Jesse Hamm

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Horror's onus. [Apr. 15th, 2006|09:19 am]
Jesse Hamm
I can count on my fingers the number of horror films that I find downright frightening. This stands in contrast to the pass/fail ratio of every other genre on the planet. It's not hard to find a western that feels lawless and dusty, a romance that sparkles with flirty tension, or a comedy that makes me laugh, but horror flicks that terrify me are as rare as six-fingered shamrocks. This is probably because few filmmakers are gutsy enough to even attempt a straight-up, wet-your-pants-scary horror film. Instead, most ostensible chillers end up as either "a thoughtful mood piece" or "campy, ironic fun." Aim low, America.

I think this cop-out epidemic can be explained by the fact that horror is the toughest genre to do right. No other genre demands as much energy from its viewers, and the measures a story must take to extract such energy are great. Consider the emotions called up by other genres: the excitement of a trip, the romance of a date, a good laugh with friends, periods of sadness or introspection.... real life circumstances can make those moods peak for several minutes or more. But the high intensity panic which horror films aim to cultivate is, in real life instances, only momentary. Sustaining that emotion for the better part of 90 minutes is a herculean task -- no wonder filmmakers shy away from it!

Naturally, panic needn't be sustained continually for the duration of a film; it's enough for scares to crop up at intervals in a background of unease. But even that goal poses logistical problems. When we encounter a lethal threat in real life, one of three things quickly happens: we evade it (and then stay clear away!), we succumb to it, or we become accustomed to it. The horror-monger's challenge is to deny his principal character all three of those options for the story's duration, without losing credibility. Tough task! Let me sketch the major horns of this multi-lemma:

*The victim must encounter the threat repeatedly throughout the story, BUT a victim stupid enough to voluntarily remain anywhere near the threat after the first encounter will lose our sympathy. (Pat solution: limit victim's mobility [car won't start, snowed in, crippled].)

*The threat must remain threatening in the minds of the audience, BUT the primary victim must survive repeated encounters with the threat, which will endanger the threat's notoriety. (Pat solution: let the threat kill off secondary characters during each encounter, saving face without killing the primary victim too soon.)

*Our knowledge of the threat must increase throughout the story, since finitude and stasis breed calm in the viewer, BUT the threat must remain mysterious, since comprehension and certainty also breed calm. (Pat solution: the threat is gradually revealed to be one thing and then turns out to be something else, rebooting the mystery.)

*Encounters with the threat must be brief to avoid exhausting the audience, BUT how can the victim escape from the threat temporarily without escaping permanently? (Pat solutions: the threat is 'toying' with the victim, the threat has minor but decisive weaknesses [garlic, silver, sunlight...].)

I'd like to expand on the first clause of that last point. It's important not to scare the audience for too long, or revolt them too much, or they'll tire and abandon the story. They may take their emotional leave in good humor, laughing with an outsider's smirk at the characters' screams, or they may fold their arms in disgust, but in either case they'll part company with the horror, viewing it now from outside the noose. Good horror disturbs us with enough restraint that we remain sensitive to it without looking away, allowing us to immerse ourselves in subjects that are otherwise too painful to dwell on.

Comedy serves a similar purpose, but I think horror cuts closest to the bone. A shame that today's filmmakers approach the genre half-heartedly.

[User Picture]From: quirkybird
2006-04-15 04:42 pm (UTC)
I still hold that one of the scariest movies I've ever seen is The Birds. Hitchcock: capable of making cheeping birdies terrifying, even while filming in full daylight.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2006-04-15 04:51 pm (UTC)
Here I am a Hitchcock fan and a horror fan, and I still haven't seen The Birds. It's so hard for me to conceive of scary birds that I fear disappointment. I'd probably keep thinking,"Why don't those people just stay indoors all the time, like me?"
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[User Picture]From: quirkybird
2006-04-15 06:56 pm (UTC)
See, they TRY the indoors thing, and Bad Shit ensues on all quarters. And the fact that birds are so generally non-scary makes the whole thing that much more unnerving; that this brainless, everyday, ubiquitous presence suddenly goes Bad. Way better than HOLY SHIT ALIENS FROM SPAAAAACE, because you do not see aliens from space hanging around your busstop the next day.

This is why "Shaun of the Dead" is the only zombie movies that still gives me nightmares---the combination of totally convincing, dreary 9-to-5ishness with disarming slacker humor and SHAMBLING CORPSES OF THOSE WE USED TO KNOW just wrecks me.
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-04-16 06:29 pm (UTC)


Hi, Dave Porta here.

"But the high intensity panic which horror films aim to cultivate is, in real life instances, only momentary. Sustaining that emotion for the better part of 90 minutes is a herculean task!"

I read that, and the first thought I had was, "Hitchcock, fer cryin' out loud."

Naturally, I get to the comments, and the first one beat me to it.

BTW, today is Easter. ~ The Lord is risen!

Horror, panic, suspense...

Payt sez that the first time he saw "Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein" when he was a kid, it scared him to death.

Summer 1975, Psych grad student Rich DiNapoli said "Jaws" had a couple of psychologically very effective moments. Zero took me to a moviehouse in Rochester where it was playing, and I saw for myself. When the corpse's bloated face bobs out from under the sunken craft as if out of nowhere, for example. "Jaws" was a monster movie, a horror thriller filled with suspense.

Johnny Williams's minor 2nd theme music for the shark entered popular culture. Bernard Hermann's "ree-ree-ree" for the "Psycho" shower sequence enhanced the shock value.

Imagine a horror thriller without music! Now THERE is cause for Panic!
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2006-04-17 08:29 am (UTC)
True 'nuff about the music. The Shining is another good one for that.

And ditto about the corpse-face in Jaws. When I was four that was like the scariest thing I'd ever seen. That, and Margaret Hamilton turning into a witch outside Dorothy's window.
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From: ex_khyungbi
2006-04-17 08:35 am (UTC)
I like horror films, and I don't like them to be half-hearted or campy and ironic, either. I like a good honest attempt to freak me out and fill my body with adrenaline... I guess that's what they call "catharsis." I think your phrase "enough restraint that we remain sensitive to it without looking away" is well-chosen, although there *are* some horror movies where I've had to look away from the screen, or hold my hands over my face, anticipating what was going to happen.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2006-04-19 08:52 am (UTC)
Glad to see you weigh in, J! I welcome any horror movie recommendations you might have.

There was a Lovecraft filmfest here a few months ago, but I missed it. I wasn't sure there were any good flicks on the roster anyway, knowing as little as I do about Lovecraft adaptations.
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From: ex_khyungbi
2006-04-19 11:49 am (UTC)
Hello Jesse,

You probably didn't miss much at the Lovecraft Film Festival, frankly. :/ Most Lovecraft movies tend to be either campy gorefests (i.e. REANIMATOR) or just mediocre low-budget films (although apparently there was a good "1920s-style" adaptation of THE CALL OF CTHULHU filmed recently, operating from the premise that it would only use special effects technology which was actually available when the story was written. (It has KING KONG-esque stop-motion.)

Have you seen many of David Cronenberg's horror movies? I really enjoy most of his stuff.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2006-04-20 12:47 pm (UTC)
THE CALL OF CTHULHU sounds interesting.

By Cronenberg, I've seen THE FLY and EXISTENZ. I liked 'em both, though I didn't find them very scary per se.
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From: ex_khyungbi
2006-04-20 05:52 pm (UTC)
Cronenberg's best movies, I think, are his early work: THE BROOD, SHIVERS (aka THEY CAME FROM WITHIN) and RABID. All excellent (RABID slightly less so than the other two).
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[User Picture]From: mmeubiquitous
2006-05-01 07:12 pm (UTC)
If it's the festival I'm thinking of (I helped host it when it came to Salem, MA a few years ago) it's specifically geared towards independent filmmakers' adaptations. The one in Salem had a few really good films, some ok ones, and a bunch of low budget dreck. Overall positive, I'd say, but then again I'm a huge Lovecraft fan, so I'm biased :)
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