Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Mechanics of Horror

No, not really scary guys who fix cars for Dracula but the "hows" and "whys" of the horror world. And I also don't mean that persnickety shit where know-it-alls ruin everyone's fun by complaining about something being physically impossible in a supernatural story, like a vampire not reflecting in a mirror, which is, yes, impossible because the reason you can see the vampire is because lights reflects off of him and if your eyes can see that reflected light so can a mirror. But, you know, it's a vampire and the mirror reflects the soul and we all get that when watching Dracula.

I'm talking about the actual mechanics of how something works within the logic of the story itself. Let's take a look at three horror staples and ask a question of each in the hopes of understanding their inner workings a little better.

For starters, how does a vampire suck out the blood? Seriously. Usually, when we see the results of a vampire attack, it is as pictured above. A couple of bite marks and some drops of blood. But does that mean the vampire is sucking it out through his teeth? Because, if not, the neck should be a lot messier. If the vampire is biting into the neck, to get the blood flowing, and then sticking his mouth over the gushing to lap it down, there should be blood smears all over the neck or, at the very least, a big-ass hickey where the sucking took place. Personally, I think vampires have fangs that act as straws. Much like a snake has ducts that spew venom, the vampire has ducts, either within the teeth themselves or just above them, that suck the blood out neatly and cleanly. It would seem the wisest evolutionary move for an animal reliant upon such feeding to waste as little blood as possible.

Now let's consider the werewolf. The werewolf is a person who, with the full moon, suffers a full DNA reworking and becomes a hybrid wolf/human. The werewolf then goes out and starts attacking. Why? Animals attack for two reasons: hunger and fear. Take a lion. It attacks prey when it is hungry and intends to eat it. It attacks a human wandering into its territory when it feels threatened. It never attacks because it's bored and feels like attacking before taking a nap. So a werewolf is attacking for one of those two reasons. Now, when a person knows they are a werewolf, they will often go to great lengths to keep themselves from being set loose so as to stop their murdering rampage. They will lock themselves up or ask someone else to in order to prevent the unthinkable. But might not a better plan be to stuff yourself silly before the transformation?

Let's say you know you're going to transform at midnight. Okay, buy a large roast, cook it up with some potatoes, eat the whole thing and maybe have an entire pie for dessert. Eat until you can, literally, put not one more morsel in your mouth. When you transform you will be sated and, perhaps, even a little sleepy. Hey, that's another idea! The night before the full moon, don't go to sleep. Stay up all night and then, the next evening, after you've been awake for 36 hours, eat that enormous feast of food and guess what? When the transformation happens you'll do what any other wild animal does in the same circumstances (or, for that matter, my cat): You'll roll on your back, pass out and snore like a gas-powered chainsaw running on a ten-gallon tank. You're not hungry and you're not afraid. Threat diffused.

Okay, now over to zombies. I assume they can smell a living human just a predator can smell its prey. This is why I don't think the scene in Shaun of the Dead would work, again, within the logic of the genre itself, where Shaun and the rest pretend to be zombies to get past the real zombies. I mean, if that works then it means zombies are literally just going by visual cues in which case, surely they would go after each other by mistake every now and then.

But maybe that's wrong. In 28 Days Later, the zombies don't detect Jim (Cillian Murphy) in the church until he speaks. If it all went by smell it seems like they would have detected him earlier.  But those zombies are more about rage anyway, not so much eating.  And zombies have been approached by so many different angles now, without a real primary source to sort out the rules.  We've got plenty of old zombie movies as well as the one that gave us the modern zombie, Night of the Living Dead, but there is no original source novel, written in the late nineteenth century, that serves as a guide for the development of all future zombie tales.  It really is an open-source kind of sub-genre, which probably accounts for the haphazard inundation of zombie material these last several years.

There are many other horror staples that may have multiple "hows" and "whys" attached to each and it's an interesting way to think about each sub-genre more deeply, looking for answers that help us understand the nature of the beast just a little bit more.  And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go eat a massive meal and pass out in front of a movie.  What's that?  Werewolf?  Nope, just a slob.

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.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Christopher Lee Tells Stories and Gives Advice!

Three years ago, here on Cinema Styles, I put together some short videos of Christopher Lee from an old CD-Rom I bought in the nineties. It was a CD-Rom on ghosts called, yes, Ghosts. That one of the first things I ever bought for a computer, back in 1994, was a CD-Rom titled Ghosts and hosted by Christopher Lee should surprise no one. That I saved it even after it stopped working may be cause for slight surprise. Years later, in 2008, I pulled the video files from the now defunct CD-Rom and put together these two Public Service Announcements plus a full ghost story, The Silent Pool, narrated by Lee. Since I still like them and folks aren't likely to find them (who the hell surfs through nearly five years of archives on Cinema Styles?), I present them here again, in one post package. The video is poor quality because it was produced in 1994 for PC screens that had maximum screen settings of 640 x 480 and processors that had trouble presenting text, much less videos. But still, it's Christopher Lee! Enjoy.




Saturday, October 1, 2011

In the Mood for Horror: Atmosphere over Fright

I've watched so many horror films that haven't scared me I couldn't even give you an accurate count as to how many times it's happened.  For the most part, horror movies never frighten me.  Not to put too fine a point on it but, for Pete's sake, I'm a grown man so the jump scares and demonic hobgoblins just don't do shit for me, so don't get too disappointed if I've got a blank look on my face.

But here's the thing.  This is how many times a movie not scaring me has affected whether I liked it or not:  zero.

There are those who like horror because it scares them.  Plenty of people, in fact.  Others go for the gore and the jump scares.  I wish them all the best and wouldn't even try to persuade them against it as changing the heart is a difficult thing to do if that's where the heart leads you.  But for me, it's mood, all the way.

I like atmosphere.  No, screw that, I love atmosphere!  Atmosphere gets me through and that's why, for the most part, whether a movie is demonstrably scary or not doesn't matter a whole hell of a lot to me.  If you've visited here long enough, and read through enough Octobers, you've seen my mentions and write-ups of City of the Dead (aka, Horror Hotel).  And if you're groaning, thinking, "not again," don't worry, I'm not going to go back into it except to say that it's the "thick as mud" atmosphere that sells me every time.  It's not just a favorite horror movie, it's a favorite movie, period.

Recently, I wrote a post on TCM about my semi-addiction to isolated locations in the movies.  In it, I mention both The Wicker Man (1973, of course) and Don't Look Now as two personal favorites.  Both of those movies have horrific, even supernatural elements to them and that makes it easier to provide a dense, foreboding atmosphere.  It can be done with drama, but an isolated landscape in a drama, like Stroszek (also mentioned in the post), gives off a whole different feel than horror.  In drama, the feeling is more of the despair of hopes and dreams.  In horror, it's more about the dread of the unknown.  And that dread is what pulls me in, every time.

It's why the Universal classics work so well for me, because of their command of atmosphere and mood.  I don't watch Frankenstein or The Bride of Frankenstein because I want to be scared.  I watch them for the mood they set, a sense of dread, of creepiness and foreboding.   And all of the horror films I love, from Old Dark House and City of the Dead  to The Shining and The Thing (horror/sci-fi), have a true command of atmosphere.

But great atmosphere need not be a product of big studio financing.  As often as not, it's something that can be obtained on easy credit with no money down.  Take a look at Carnival of Souls, The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity to find great cases of atmosphere done on the cheap.

So when I hear someone complain that a horror movie isn't scary, frankly, I get a little irritated.  The horror genre's sole purpose is not to scare but to deal with horrifying elements, usually, but not always, in dramatic form.  Something can horrify us but not necessarily scare us (Freaks, perhaps).  The two are not synonymous.  It can do both, one or the other or neither.  The horror movie deals with that which is outside the realm of most people's normal experience.  To get those kinds of stories right, the first thing a director has to do is establish mood.  Only then can he hope to scare us.  To paraphrase the old saw about real estate, in the realm of horror, the three most important things are atmosphere, atmosphere, and atmosphere. And when it's done right, it's like the air that you breathe.