Wednesday, February 28, 2007

They're coming for you Barbara

Whilst many 50s horror pictures can be interpreted through the anxieties of the nuclear age, the conflicting views of the need for consensus and the threat of communist hegemony, the horror of the 70s became harder to penetrate. (The pre-50s horror films were mainly based on literary works and thus channelled borrowed themes).

Ed Gein influenced dozens of films from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to, uh, Ed Gein.

The phenomenon of the serial killer and mass murderer, which had not really existed in the cultural conscious of America before ED Gein but was rooted firmly into it after the Manson family murders, the Summer of Sam, Ted Bundy etc., was expressed in the form of the slasher flick. In Friday the 13th and Halloween, the monstrous figure represents the backwoods psycho who seems to dispatch his victims with seemingly little motive other than a need to extinguish their lives, an inexplicable action not fuelled by the usual human emotions of anger, envy or lust, but based on something insensible (Michael Myers is simply insane and never explained, whereas Jason Vorhees of Camp Crystal Lake seems to act out of vengeance, and yet it is a vengeance never satiated). The fact that the victims were usually teenagers bereft of authority figures signifies the burgeoning baby boom generation growing bold without the social bonds of previous generations, creating monsters that it does not have the facilities to deal with. The counter-culture of the 60s and subsequent cultural crash of the 70s, with the drawn-out death rattle of Vietnam, the death of Kennedy, the beginnings of the drug war, terrorism and Nixon’s shadow all combined to create a decade of paranoia.

Halloween. Laurie Strode, alone in the dark.

Whilst the zombie pictures are more easily identified as social critiques, Dawn of the Dead standing out most ostentatiously as a parody of mindless consumerism, these lone stalker pictures can all too easily be dismissed as bums-on-seats teen fodder rather than an examination of the breakdown of social links as America became more separated and urbanised in society as a whole, and the family unit itself broke down as divorce became commonplace (see everything from Kramer vs. Kramer to the period-set The Squid and the Whale). The victims here are the young and defenceless new generation who have no one to call on for help. In Halloween the parents are not at home, the neighbours are dead and the authorities are next to useless (whilst in Friday the 13th the unfortunate teens are the camp authorities), habitually arriving as the credits roll in film after film, usually just as the conflict has been dealt with (often by the survivor who shares values most similar to the previous generation-Curtis is a good student and has not adopted the 60s equivalent of free love). This screen version of the breakdown of the family unit ties in with the 70s vision breakdown of society, not only in the horror dystopias of Soylent Green and The Omega Man, but also represented in the evolution of the urban nightmare films which grew from Assault on Precinct 13 and The Warriors through to Escape from New York and Robocop, depicting the urban centres of America as lawless no-go areas, awash with outlandish gangs and drug-fuelled violence. Again, the authorities are doing a poor job, corrupt or fascist where they aren’t absent and it is only when the Reagan era influences the 80s trend for the buddy-cop movie that the police start to gain ground again in the cinema.

The urban hell of Soylent Green.

Whilst the mainstream depicted the anxieties of a generation growing up alone and at risk from outsiders, the indie features dwelt on a seemingly more personal subject matter. The early films of Cronenberg like Rabid and Shivers helped to coin the term body-horror, and whilst it would seem obvious that the terror is based on the fear of not being in control of our own flesh, it comes from the vantage point of the 70s, lurking in the STD-generating shadow of the free love 60s and leading into the ultimate body-horror bogeyman, AIDS, as films such as The Thing remake and The Evil Dead (not only is the horror inside us but it is easily passed to others) dragged the theme into the 80s.

The Thing. The horror lives inside us all, but Kurt Russell more than most.

But what have horror films to tell us today?
The resurgence of the genre in the mainstream in the last decade has mainly been led by two strands, the self-referential and the ghost story, so what do these films tell us about ourselves?

Films like Scream seem to offer nothing beyond tidbits for fans of the genre, a mirror reflecting upon itself, and the likes of Stir of Echoes, the Sixth Sense and The Others seem to share little besides the presence of children. The children and the concentration on character, suspense and the lack of gore would point toward the films being aimed toward the more mature audience, the grown up viewers of the 70s teen-slasher who are now parents themselves and of an age where they are both anxious for their progeny’s future and for their own parents who are now ageing (though there were parental-anxiety films in the 70s such as The Omen, The Exorcist and Don’t Look Now). Whilst the children in these tales are very much alive, the lives of their parents have changed and in a sense these films deal with the death of the old way of life through to acceptance and the commencement of the newer, presumably better path, with a family taking centre stage (and coming full circle from the isolated slasher flicks of the 70s and 80s, the lone teens sent out into the malevolent world now have families of their own and seek to change things for the better for their offspring).

Alongside these branches we have the sub-genres that never left, with creature features along the lines of Mimic and a million others, and the cod-mythological works of The Prophecy, Stigmata and The Relic all saying little that hasn’t been covered by their ancestors – from the days of Frankenstein we learned that it is best not to play the role of creator and mess with nature or things that we do not understand.

As for werewolf and vampire pictures, some of the most iconic in horror imagery have become some of the poorest offerings in the horror genre, despite the flawed attempts to inject some depth into proceedings (the Addiction, Nadja, The Hunger, The Company of Wolves).

After the numerous Hammer Dracula sequels spread the character thin over the decades, the attempted resurrection by Coppola in the 90s was only partially successful, hampered by its own pomp, and the genre has been repeatedly staked through the heart at each incarnation – from Vampires to Dracula 2000 to Underworld, the character of the romantic blood parasite has become the domain of the ex-music video director hoping to make a name in tinsel town. Once a metaphor for lust and the consequences of sexual abandon, the vampire story has been reduced to, at best, cautionary nods warning against dodgy haircuts and tight leather.

Dracula 2000. Gerard Butler must thank god for 300 twice a day

Also suffering in the Underworld franchise is the werewolf, once representative of everything from our animal urges bubbling under the surface to the hormonal tortures of adolescence, it has been reduced to merely another creature, a showcase for effects specialists mindful of the famous American Werewolf in London transformation sequence and with little more depth than a casual commentary on the issue of punishment vs. rehabilitation – the werewolf is a human too, so should it be put down or should we try for a cure? Invariably the creature is killed, emphasising that we are ultimately responsible for our actions and must pay in kind, or that punishment is a fitting response to crime, depending on your political outlook. This topic is nothing new of course, and has been covered since the early days of the were-picture.
One of the better Were-series in recent years is the Ginger Snaps franchise, but despite its accomplishment the chosen themes of female adolescent and sexual awakening are explicit and well-worn, as Ginger grows up and becomes much more interested in boys than sister B, as both partners and dinner.

But what of the rest of the world? Whilst the US horror market becomes culturally repetitive, besides the cooing reassurance for the disco generation dealing with teens of their own, the most successful horror films are crawling out of Asia.
Bally old Blighty does have a long tradition of horror classics, from Quatermass to Village of the Damned to The Wicker Man, but as the camptastic Hammer offerings took the box office by storm the recent decent British horror pictures have come to reflect the knowing-winkery of those days, and stand in camps with either one foot firmly in comedic territory (Dog Soldiers, Shaun of the Dead and Severance) or both flailing in the land of the bizarre (In the Lair of the White Worm), offering little behind the scenes besides Lotto cash.

Shaun of the Dead. Funny, But Is It Art?

Since the success of The Ring the Asian horror film has been the foundation of the recent popularity of Asian cinema in the West. Alongside the traditional (if updated) ghost stories the pervading reference is to that of technology – the leaping bounds of East-Asian progress on all things electrical have led to a fear of the machine.
An issue historically dealt with in sci-fi, the reason for the fixation on the ghost in the machine in the East is perhaps due to a readiness to believe in the supernatural, or a greater steeping in history. The new technological methods of communication may allow a new avenue for spirits to come back and haunt the living, be it through videotape, mobile phone or the internet, and allows for hauntings outside the traditional confines of the old, dark house.
The emphasis on the psychological rather than gore is usually an indicator of quality, and this has no doubt helped the Asian horror films stand out, but it is the application of a different set of rules that likely interests those in the West.
The traditional chase, confrontation, solution through force rules of American horror films do not apply, so if the situation is not as easily predicted you automatically raise the suspense; when you do not know if the heroes and heroines (or even children) will survive, the thrill of the unknown remains intact.
In Hollywood you need to create a monster that literally exists in dreams in order to bend the rules, but there are no such safeguards in Asian horror – the most extreme case perhaps being the Grudge, which begins as a seemingly humdrum haunted house picture but morphs into something where you don’t ever need to visit the house to be in danger.

This fresh approach to horror (for the West) brings about a strange situation, as the stories are transplanted into a culture where the themes do not necessarily apply, and so films that are a success for the horror genre and bring scares back into the cinema now have nothing to say.

The Grudge. This chap can turn up anywhere, and frequently does.


  1. You delve a little into anxiety horror with some of those 70s paranoia flicks, but not much. Just about all of those 70s anxieties are in effect today, except for the intial shock of the whole loss of innocence thing (I'm talking America here, as they're the one's putting out the films. It'd be naive to think Britain still had an innocence as late as the 70s.) What about this current 'gorno' trend? Would you even consider that 'horror' in the traditional sense, or is it something more base? Your thoughts please.

  2. American Horror cinema in the 70s and early 80s was blessed with a line of auteurs who, for a while at least, specialised in the genre and made a series of classics. John Carpenter, George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, Stuart Gordon, David Cronenberg (Canadian, I know) all made great films in those decades. they all were able to combine making efficient horror films with actually having something to say.

    The modern US horror film is made generally by an ex-music video or advertising director who is on his first gig, hoping to impress enough to be offered a luctrative action franchise with little or no real interest in the horror genre itself. Thats why modern horror films don't have anything to say, I think.

    The only real exceptions I can think of are Lucky McKee, Alexandre Aja, Eli Roth and Neil Marshall, and none of those is really on the level of the directors listed above yet.

  3. I'm finding it difficult to think of any current social issues or anxieties horror could be used for in our modern world - threat of terrorism? childhood obescity? growing debt? Stuntman with big car running people over?

    The only ones I've seen lately that have given me a bit of a scare were the Japanese stuff like Ring and Grudge - I even had nightmares after Ring.

    To my eyes a lack of original ideas seems to be prevailing in most areas of cinema, I'm not really surprised that horror films are caught in a similar lull with everything else. Lately it's just trying to be scary for the sake of being scary - which would be fine, if it was scary.

    Horror films seem to be a safe gig for first time directors, studios can take a chance on a young buck and be pretty safe in recouping any expenses on the basis that lots of people will pay to see violent bloody deaths. It's not original but it works.

  4. Or you could just not respond to us at all.

  5. Sorry I haven't written sooner, moody shaven bear.
    Since the post I have been to the pictures 8 times to see something, so that coupled with having to, you know, keep my lady-relationship going and see some friends a couple of times left me with no time to be writing and such. I also watched 5 hours of a bad anime show for a review for sci-fi-london.
    I've been busy, it's not been two weeks yet.

    The point that you make about the anxieties of the 70s being relevant today is fine, but what I was looking for is whether today's horror films are telling us anything new. The world has changed in the last thirty years, even if some things will always stay the same, but mainstream horror really does seem to have turned into teen drone churners of late. There are things being said - some of the more 'mature' psychological things do point to the maturing of the 70s generation, their new outlook on the world. What's "gono"? If it's the gore one-upmanship of Hostel et al that's another 70s throwback, look at Cannibal Holocaust and a dozen zombie movies. There is still little the likes of Saw can offer that tops Jaws offering the image of being eaten alive to a PG family audience.
    It does come under the wide horror umbrella, of course. The very term 'schlock' is particularly suited to horror films, and uniquely to the genre the term 'cheap and nasty' can easily be a compliment.

    There's not much to reply to David, he tends to just write statements and I don't have any points to argue with him on - 70s auteurs, check. present day music vid vapists bar a few exceptions, check.

    Davey's thoughts that it's a symptom of a general lack of originality I disagree with, despite my remake rants. I think that there is plenty of ivention out there, if you look for it, and converseley that many of the greats of the 'golden age' 70s were far from original in terms of core ideas, but it was the delivery that made them endure.

    But despite the recurring themes films in the 30s didn't have underlying nuclear anxiety, films of the 40s didn't share a Cold War subtext, so the current affairs of the time are reflected in the movies of the period, but what are our affairs? In an age of information profligation it is hard to seperate issues which will remain pressing from those that are a flash-in-the-pan.
    Even that mighty issue bird-flu is just an extension of issues of contagion dealt with in everything from vampire and zombie movies to Cronenberg and Outbreak. Though Outbreak was another tale of authority, of force vs. therapy and who should hold sway over the masses for their own good.

    Arguably you could already say that the Western obesity questyion has already cropped up in horror in the shape of 'Feed'.

  6. "He tends to just write statements"? I'm trying to decide if thats insulting or just patronising.

    I think its your way of saying I'm right, but still...

  7. What I meant to say is that you tend to write statements of fact, in that I agree with you and have little to add or dispute. Because you're right, usually.

  8. Congratulations, you now officially post once a month. Maybe. That gives you a deadline, you know.

  9. I'd already written it by the time you posted.

    It was a shock to see McNulty be the bastard, I can tell you.