Wednesday, October 5, 2011

It's a Mystery to Me

One of my favorite things about horror is how effortlessly it blends in with other genres, like science fiction, for instance.  Take Christian Nyby's and Howard Hawks' 1951 The Thing from Another World.  It's science fiction blended with horror though it leans towards sci-fi.  John Carpenter's version from the same source story, The Thing, 1981, deals with the same basic structure but leans more towards horror than sci-fi.  Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Island of Lost Souls all blend sci-fi with horror as well.  But there's one genre that is, at times, practically interchangeable with horror and it too often doesn't get it's due for its contribution to the genre:  Mystery.

The horror mystery is one of the oldest forms of genre story telling there is.  In fact, what is generally considered the first detective fiction, Edgar Allan Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue, is not only a mystery but a monster story as well.  From the very beginning, the two were strongly connected, and as mysteries came into their own, with a murder almost always at their center, the macabre came to play a bigger role in their development.

But if there is one particular subset of horror that is almost exclusively mystery, it is the ghost story.  At the heart of practically every ghost story is the mystery of who the ghost is and/or why they exist.  The Uninvited from 1944 gives us perhaps the best possible combination of the two.  Truly a great mystery and ghost story, the film seamlessly weaves together the twists and turns that surprise the viewer endlessly.

Another great mystery from the same period, and a great ghost story to boot, is Portrait of Jennie, with Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones.  Again, like the best ghost mysteries, the story is about both the "how" and the "why", in this case, Jennie's existence and her visitations to Eben, a mystery that comes to a thundering finale unlike few other cinematic spectacles of the forties.

The fifties, sixties and seventies continued to give us great mysteries that also played as ghost stories, from The House on Haunted Hill and The Innocents to The Haunting and The Legend of Hell House (lots of "h"s in that last sentence).  Even such an over-the-top kill-fest as The Omen had a slight mystery at its center as Roger Thorn (Gregory Peck) slowly unravels what really happened that night in the hospital when his wife gave birth.

By the eighties, the formula hadn't changed much.  Films like Ghost Story, based on the Peter Staub novel, dealt with the appearance of a menacing and murderous spirit whose true purpose isn't dredged up until the final act.  And the special effects spectacle Poltergeist had a mystery, if only a slight one, propelling it as well.  We know that the little girl gets taken, and eventually returned, by the spirits in the house but the "why" is buried deep in the story and only unearthed at the end.**

Even a modern day horror film like The Ring, based on the Japanese horror film, Ringu, in turn based on a 1991 novel, is a good mystery as well.  In fact, the mystery aspects are what drive the whole story and, in my opinion, the main reason to watch it, much more than the rather tepid and cliched horror aspects.  Hell, I kind of wish there hadn't been the whole murder tape curse going on but, rather, just the little girl's mystery.  Of course, no one bothers to call it a mystery.  On Wikipedia, it's referred to as a "psychological horror film" despite the obvious prevalence of the mystery at its center.

A good whodunnit revolves around murder in the first place, so extending the story out, just a bit, to include the supernatural really isn't much of a stretch.   As a result, good mysteries and good ghost stories have always walked cold dead hand in cold dead hand.  I like both genres on their own so much it's no surprise that the mystery ghost story is probably my favorite subset of horror overall.  It's a relationship that feels as natural as a noose around the neck of Annabelle Loren with an appeal that's hardly mysterious.


*pictured at the top of the post:  The Greene Murder Case, an early Philo Vance mystery in which members of the Greene family are knocked off, one by one, by an unknown force in an old, dark mansion.

**all above puns intended.


Christopher said...

Seems like Mystery was the first form of Horror with all those old dark house type mysteries,The Cat Creeps,The Last Warning,The Bat,The Cat and The Canary.Even the Chaney films ,London After Midnight,The Monster etc ,until Universal unleashed the "Monsters"on the world,then that mystery form began to look very out dated.
I have Portrait Of Jennie sitting out to watch again..I've come to regard it along with Song of Bernadette as "Spiritual Noir" :o)

Vanwall said...

The great Thriller TV episode, "Pigeons From Hell", based on the Robert E. Howard story, was a great little mystery, as well. Possibly the best horror ever on TV. "The Stone Tape" is another TV horror/dread/mystery, very atmospheric and ahead of its time.

Anonymous said...

tdraicer: Ghost Story the book is nothing like the movie-indeed the title is a a black joke, as the characters in the book mistakenly think they are dealing with a ghost from their past when they are dealing with something much worse and very other. (But there is a mystery there, even if "ghost" isn't the answer.)

Greg said...

Christopher, the monsters did replace the mystery, but the mystery soon found its way back, especially once ghosts became more prominent.

Greg said...

Vanwall, the Thriller episodes are on Netflix and I'm unfamiliar with that one so I'm definitely going to check that out this weekend!

Greg said...

tdraicer, I'm curious about the differences now. I probably won't read the book, or at least, not until I've gone through a much larger pile of "to get to's" that I have built up but definiely curious. So which take on the story did you like better, the book or the movie?

Richard Harland Smith said...

Yeah, I want to read "Ghost Story," too. Book club! Book club!

MrJeffery said...

for some reason as a horror fan i've never been a fan of mysteries. 'the uninvited' is a fun one though. lately there's a lot of movies where who the killer is is revealed at the end. usually not the biggest fan of those either.

Greg said...

I'll do a book club only if:

1) I don't have to read anything.

2) No one bothers me about whatever book is chosen.

Let's do it!

Greg said...

lately there's a lot of movies where who the killer is is revealed at the end

That's definitely mystery but only the basic thread of a classic whodunnit which a lot of slasher movies use. Starting with Psycho and going through the original Friday the 13th to Scream, a big part of all was keeping the real killer a secret until the very end. Nothing like the intricacies of The Uninvited and most just use it to add another level to the movie, which in most cases, it rarely ever does.

bill r. said...

Man, I got all excited about Richard's book club idea and then Greg had to piss all over it. You could have hosted it over at TCM, and it could be a roundtable dealing with novels based on famous films, and I could be part of it for once, no longer shunned simply because I haven't sired any offspring. I'm not even bitter about that at all! I just thought the book club was a neat idea.

Greg said...

Ha, ha, fuck you, bookworm.

bill r. said...

There's no question, I deserved that.

Greg said...

You and Richard read Ghost Story and tell me about it. I like that plan the best.

bill r. said...

We'll read it, and then we won't tell you ANYTHING!!!

Anonymous said...


>So which take on the story did you like better, the book or the movie?

The book, by a wide margin. But I apologize for being somewhat spoilerey there-I (clearly mistakenly) assumed you'd read it.

Greg said...

Not spoilerey at all. I think I might give it a read soon.

Sam Juliano said...

The great THRILLER TV episode, "Pigeons From Hell", based on the Robert E. Howard story, was a great little mystery, as well. Possibly the best horror ever on TV.

Wow Vanwall. BORIS KARLOFF'S THRILLER is a huge personal favorite series ofr mine for over 40 years, and I continuously promote "Pigeons of Hell" as it's finest hour. Still the horrifying "The Incredible Dr. Markeson," "The Cheaters," "The Grim Reaper," "The Weird Tailor," "The Devils's Ticket," and "The Hungry Glass" are exceptional episodes. The final shot in MARKESON must surely rank among the most unforgettable ever to appear on television.

The middle segment of Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH, "A Drop of Water" based on Chekov is absolutely terrifying, even today.

Great post here Greg!

Greg said...

Thanks, Sam!

The great THRILLER TV episode, "Pigeons From Hell", based on the Robert E. Howard story, was a great little mystery, as well. Possibly the best horror ever on TV.

I just confirmed that this episode is, in fact, available on Netflix Instant. I'm watching it tonight!