Thursday, October 29, 2020

Halloween Movies of Choice: Movies 16 to 19 - Is this Horror?

How do we know when we are dealing with something in the genre of horror?  There are different ideas on that topic, so pin-pointing authentic horror within film is trickier than it might at first appear.  Horror crops up in strange places ...

In the book Danse Macabre, Stephen King defines three levels of emotion/feeling that can be inspired in the reader/viewer.  From "lowest" to "highest" these are revulsion, horror, and terror.  The emotion easiest to generate within the viewer/reader is Revulsion.  Revulsion is the reaction to something acutely gross or disgusting, such as slimy guts, pools of blood, heads rolling down the hall, or flaps of necrotic skin.  It's the sort of thing that if seen in real life would make almost anyone gag, barf, or pass out.  Human revulsion to "body horror" is near universal, and based largely in physical reactions that all people share.

King's middle level is Horror.  Horror is more challenging to generate within the audience, and it happens when the audience is confronted with something so unnatural or impossible that their minds struggle to make rational sense of it.  Maybe it's giant snakes with seven heads, or walking carnivorous plants, or a dead friend suddenly appearing in your room at night.  This is the moment of shock, when your brain short-circuits, and you are trapped in that moment of panic in fight, freeze, or flight.  It therefore has both a physical/body component and a cerebral component.  Horror by this definition is difficult because not everyone finds the same things to be unnatural, nor at the same level of implausibility.  Also, if you are using a typical trope for the genre then the audience may not feel horror - it will be too "natural" to them; something they've seen so often that it no longer compels them to try to make sense of it.

For King, the finest level is that of Terror.  Terror happens before the unnatural thing is fully revealed.  It is the moment of suspense.  It is the aching dread where your mind runs wild with ideas.  In terror your imagination is your real enemy.  You know something is wrong but have no other concrete information.  You sense the rules of reality have changed, and for some reason you didn't get the memo.  It is that deep sense that the universe is a hair's-breadth from devolving into utter chaos.  Terror, more than anything, is what makes you leave the lights on after you watch a good horror flick.  Your imagination is still running away with you.  Terror is especially difficult to engender in the audience because it is entirely cerebral, and more dependent on culture, personality, and individual experience than the other two levels.    

In my opinion, good horror has aspects of both Terror and Horror, with Revulsion being optional.  I like the Horror level because I like monsters.  Sometimes movies with too much Terror can bore me.  I get emotionally saturated if the suspense does not ever resolve into Horror or Revulsion.  But I've also seen a few good flicks that were merely gore-fests, so who knows?  

With all this in mind, I'm going to take a look at the horror genre aspects of a few canonically non-horror films and see how/if those aspects are an integral, necessary part of the movie.  Does it inspire the emotions of Revulsion, Horror, or Terror?  Would the movie be as effective without these?  Let's look ...

SPOILERS as always so watch before reading ...

16.  Groundhog Day - 1993

One of the most original and celebrated fantasy "time travel" films of the modern age, Groundhog Day was utterly unique and genre-busting.  There were very few comedies before this one that had included distinct fantasy elements.  Although the day-looping-over-and-over idea was not original to this film, it was handled in ways that were totally innovative.  

No small credit goes to Murray's performance, where he has to play both protagonist and antagonist while convincingly undergoing a complete change of personality.  At first it seems the conflict in the film is between Murray's character (named Phil, of course), and nature gone wild, but we quickly realize that that isn't the case.  Nature, after all, hasn't gone wild, it has become utterly and completely predictable.  This movie is about Phil versus himself, and how this constant sameness throws his narcissism into a relief so stark even he can't miss it anymore.  Phil comes to realize that he, himself, is responsible for his misery, and that in spite of the inexorable sameness of the days, he still has the power to make the all of the choices that matter.

Looking at the three elements of the genre of horror, we note that Groundhog Day has plenty.  While unbridled terror is not an expected reaction to this film, dismay, unease, pain, sadness, confusion, and dread are all possibilities.  Phil's world has cracked along the seams - the rules of reality have changed and he has no idea why.  We also have no idea why; the audience is never told why this has happened, nor for how long, nor why it stops.  During what might be 70 or 80 years of looping, Phil descends into utter despair, attempting suicide over and over.  Actually, he succeeds in suicide, he just does not stay dead.  He becomes utterly unhinged, stealing Phil the groundhog and letting the animal drive the van with both of them over a cliff.  You are even treated to the sight of his corpse being identified in the morgue.  

In these exceptionally grim moments we share Phil's emotions of angst, exhaustion, shock, despair, and dread, both for him and for ourselves.  The horror of an endless treadmill of helplessness and powerlessness is something we understand and even fear.  But without these moments, Phil's epiphany and eventual discovery of happiness wouldn't be possible.  In that sense, Groundhog Day is exceptionally clever horror, using every nuance of the genre to bring us deeply and fully along with the story.

17.  Hamlet - 1996

I watched the entire 4+ hours of Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version of Hamlet.  I've seen a few different versions of this play, and this one is top notch.  It has serious flaws, but overall it offers a grounded portrayal of the story, allowing the viewer to engage deeply with the characters.  Winslet's performance as Ophelia is the best for the role I've ever seen.

Considering Shakespeare's works as horror is not a new idea - after all the "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble" spell in MacBeth is recited by actual witches.  As noted in the paper The Gothic in Hamlet " ... the use of ... horror leads to gothic catharsis. Gothic catharsis can be defined as a form of catharsis with the specific aim to create fear and awe in the audience ... which ... makes the audience ... feel relieved because the horrifying incidents did not happen to them."  I note here three ways in which Hamlet specifically uses the elements of the horror genre to tell its story.

1.  The ghost.  Hamlet sees the ghost of his dead father, which certainly shocks and horrifies Hamlet and his attendants.  Old Hamlet is not happy in the afterlife, and tells his son that he was murdered by Claudius (Old Hamlet's brother) who now sits upon the throne.  Hamlet is ordered by the ghost to kill Claudius.  Hamlet, a brooding, self-centered, introspective thinker, is overwhelmed with this assignment.  He agonizes and delays, not knowing if this ghost is a force of good or evil.  It's an important and dreadful question.  Certainly Old Hamlet is no angel - he's insisting his son commit murder, however justified.  In the end, the ghost's demand results in rampant tragedy.

2.  Madness.  Hamlet ponders and pontificates, pretending to be going mad as a cover for his odd behaviors.  Perhaps he actually is going mad; his reality has shattered, and he can't rely on anything anymore, even himself and his own judgement.  He is filled with confusion, rage, and despair, lashing out at everyone - most notably Ophelia.  He cruelly rejects her, and then kills her father (thinking it is Claudius).  Ophelia becomes unhinged herself and winds up drowning in a manner that is never confirmed.  We sense the walls are crumbling around Hamlet and his world.

3.  The Specter of Death.  Hamlet has already seen his father's ghost and knows the grave need not be a place of peace.  He ponders suicide, saying "To be or not to be," but runs from the idea because he is afraid that the 'dreams' of the dead may well be wretched in the extreme.  The play turns utterly morbid, especially when Hamlet is confronted with the skull of Yorick, who was the kind court jester of Hamlet's youth.  Contemplating the skull, Hamlet experiences revulsion, saying his "gorge rises."

Elements of the horror genre underlie all of Hamlet.  Without them, there is no dread, no tragedy, and ultimately no story of interest.

18.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit? - 1988

Animated cartoons have always lent themselves to the macabre and the terrifying.  They fully explore of the Horror level of the genre - within a cartoon the laws of reality go out the window.  Cartoons allow for unbridled chaos and brutality where the characters can't even die to get out.  Think of all the ways that Wile E. Coyote mangled himself as his strategies backfired.  How about that cartoon where we see Daffy Duck being toyed with by the artist in scene after scene, the world shifting around Daffy wildly, even to the point of body horror where Daffy is redrawn as a monster?  And these were supposed to be funny ...

Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons' always understood the cartoon-equals-creepy factor.  Bart and Lisa's favorite cartoon show is called "Itchy and Scratchy."  This cartoon within a cartoon serves to highlight the whole bizarre idea that cartoons bashing one another is funny - Itchy and Scratchy commit horrific acts of violence, and Bart and Lisa laugh uproariously.  The series took the logical next step and created a yearly Halloween special called "Treehouse of Horror."  In the ninth episode, Bart and Lisa get thrown into an actual Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, and the titular characters ask why seeing them get cut up and hurt is supposed to be funny.  They then direct their violence towards Bart and Lisa to teach them a lesson.  Super duper creepy.

The logical extreme of cartoon carnage shows up in the anthology "Twilight Zone - The Movie" where a kid with godlike powers torments people by throwing them bodily into cartoons and bringing cartoon monsters to life in the real world.

So it's really no surprise that "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" is terrifying, and I'm not the only person who thinks that.  Juxtaposing cartoons and people living side-by-side is a recipe for bloodcurdling chaos.  The rules between reality and "toonality" are not compatible, and since you never know if a gag is being played for laughs or for suspense, you can't have fun with this movie.  You are in a constant state of dread, unable to predict what the consequences of any action will be.

Super nasty things happen in this film or are referenced - off screen the protagonist's brother is killed by having a piano dropped on him, and Marvin Acme is killed by a dropped safe.  The worst, the very worst, is that on screen we see the villain Judge Doom summarily execute a harmless toon by dipping it in acid.  This is how we learn that there is no due-process for toons, and that the judge has full powers as judge, jury, and executioner with no supervision of any kind.  The shoe toon death scene is something I can't even watch, it is so barbaric, and it is slooooow death by acid torture.  Sadistic in the extreme.

The judge himself is super terrifying, and when he starts to mentally unravel things get overwhelmingly nasty.  His henchmen are killed by making them laugh themselves to death.  Doom himself dies slowly and agonizingly in dip, thrashing about in torment.  

This movie is entirely driven by elements of the horror genre, and the tone and mood are created by our own unease with cartoons juxtaposed with reality.  Toon Town is supposed to be cheerful and fun, but it's definitely my version of Hell.

Image credits.  "Medea killing her children" from the Princeton art collection.  Dvd covers for each movie.  Still frames or promo photos for each movie.  Composites of promo photos.

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