Friday, October 1, 2010

Opening the Door to Horror

I write about all genres of film all year long so when I focus my attentions on horror in October, it's not just a way to write up horror films all month long (because I can do that any time) but a way to try and understand better the genre that, along with science fiction, first attracted me to film in the first place. In an effort to find a moment or a scene or an action in a movie that defines horror for me, one that I could use to kick off the month and set the cornerstone for building on my understanding of it all month long, it didn't take long and, surprisingly, doesn't even come from a movie of which I'm a very big fan.

None of that matters because I can honestly think of no better example of what horror exemplifies to me, and my understanding of it, than the opening scene of 28 Weeks Later. And it's opening is, quite frankly, so stunning, so unbelievable in the emotional cruelty it inflicts on its characters, that it may very well be the reason I'm not a fan of the film so much because, really, what film could follow that opening? Allow me to provide a general overview of what happens in the first few minutes of 28 Weeks Later (I write this under the assumption the premise of both films is known to all) to help us all better understand what horror, the genre, strikes at, and sometimes hits with deadly accuracy, in all of us.

The movie opens in a country house in England, where several people huddle together with windows boarded and doors barricaded. They are in hiding from the population of infected souls, poor Brits infected with a virus, the "Rage" virus, that, quite simply, drives one murderously insane and once a victim is attacked they too become infected, instantly, and begin rampaging as well. Don (Robert Carlyle) and his wife, Alice (Catherine McCormack) are making dinner for everyone, by candlelight, as there is no electricity. As they sit to eat a knock comes upon the door from a frightened child that no one wants to let in. It could be a trap or simply that the boy has been followed by the infected and by letting him in they will blow their cover. The argument over letting him in is bad enough but nothing compared to what will follow.

Still, here, immediately, we are given a taste of what horror deals with, a confrontation with fears and instincts that no one wants to acknowledge. Letting the boy in is the only humane thing to do but what if it means the death of everyone? Finally, they make the decision to let the boy in.

Once the boy is inside, as feared, the infected begin attacking the house. They break through the barriers. They rage homicidally, killing the other four in the house. Don and Alice and the boy make their way upstairs and separate. Finally, Alice is attacked in the upper bedroom while Don is across the room in the doorway, the doorway that is his only means of escape now that the infected have come in from the other side. She sees him and instinctively screams to him for help. He knows she is doomed and if he helps her, he too will die. Every instinct we have as viewers tells us he will die trying to help her. But he doesn't. To our shock, and hers, he turns and runs. And runs. He makes his way outside where, upon briefly turning around, he sees her, in the upstairs window, looking on in shock as she is attacked. The infected pursue him across the field and down to a river until he gets to a boat, fights off others and narrowly escapes. There is momentary relief after he escapes until one reflects upon the wages of his escape, which can only be described as horrific. Truly horrific.

The rest of the movie couldn't hold up to that opening sequence for me but it doesn't matter because that opening sequence is, in and of itself, a kind of stand-alone horror short. More importantly, it does something few horror movies do: It made the human weakness more horrific than supernatural or physical terror. The basic moral flaw of Don is the true horror, not the infected attackers. He has done something that affects us as more vile and repulsive than any physical gore or violence we will see throughout the rest of the film. And that about sums it up right there. Too many horror movies rely on the monsters of the body, not the monsters of the mind.

This October, Cinema Styles hopes to open the door to the horrors of the human mind as portrayed in the genre while exploring the supernatural and superstitious fears that it has always used to get us there. The door's open. Come on in.