Wednesday, October 19, 2016

31 Days of Horror, Part 2: It's All In The Kidneys

What makes a horror movie? It is not enough to say violence, which transcends genre. It is not enough to say monsters, because not all horror movies have one. You can't say any film that gives you a sense of dread, or else you could nominate An Inconvenient Truth

I think the unique effect of a horror movie comes in two parts. The first part could and should be broken down in much more detail, but to put it broadly it is a combination of narrative and score. There is a long list of tropes, settings and characters that form the building blocks of horror (these familiar tropes or themes are part of the reason horror too frequently falls into narrative ruts, though it's the fault of unimaginative storytelling more than the trope itself). Combine any of these themes with a conflict that threatens the wellbeing of the characters (a masked assailant, a giant shark, a horde of zombies, a character's own mind) and you have the skeleton of a horror movie. Add to that an effective and unnerving soundtrack, which is more important in providing tension and tone than in any other genre. For example, try watching Psycho's famous shower scene with and without Bernard Herrmann's music. This is only the roughest examination of the elements of horror, but the point of this post is not to dissect the genre. If you want to watch a clever and self-aware reflection on horror's many moving pieces, watch The Cabin in the Woods.

Jaws (1975)
The second part of horror seems abstract at first but comes down to our own biology. It is the reason, strangely enough, why some people watch horror movies in the first place. It is the same reason other people avoid them. It is a combination of fear and suspense, and often but not always some form of shock or disgust. You will probably not respond to Paranormal Activity the same way you will to Hostel, but the connection is satisfyingly physical: a horror movie isn't working if your body isn't releasing adrenaline into your bloodstream. When you sense a threat, your brain tells the adrenal glands in your kidneys to release epinephrine, or adrenaline. It initiates the "fight or flight" response that we experience in times of stress or danger. This is the reason we pay to get into haunted houses or onto roller coasters, and it is the same feeling we get before a musical recital or sports game or public speaking event (for most of us, anyway). This is the real thrill at the heart of horror.

Halloween (1978)
This October I am trying to watch as many horror movies as I can, regardless of year, country or subgenre. I will cross any and all lines of good taste and self respect in my chase for the ultimate cinematic adrenaline rush. If it can reasonably be called a horror movie by any qualifier, it is fair game. You can read my part one here. My nominating process for these films, at least for now, is haphazard. I use a combination of personal recommendations and online lists to make my selections, filtered by my current mood. It is somewhat more focused than a child falling from a tree and grabbing wildly for branches on the way down. Surely I am looking for the sturdiest limbs but I will invariably grab some weak sprigs on my way to the ground. 

Without further ado, here is the next batch of films.

Cronos (1993)
Director: Guillermo del Toro (1993)

The Setup: A kind and elderly antiques dealer stumbles across a powerful and ancient device, and that is just the beginning of his troubles.

Before Pan's Labyrinth or Hellboy existed, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro was fascinated with dark fairy tales and complex characters. His directorial debut established many of the trademarks we have come to know him for now: insects, clocks, religious overtones and gothic parable storytelling. It also established a long-time friendship and professional partnership between del Toro and Ron Perlman, who steals scenes in Cronos as a goonish American expat who is a begrudging pawn in the machinations of other men. Perlman took a substantial pay cut to work on this $2 million production, which was the most expensive Mexican film production at that time. Cronos is a colorful and imaginative take on the vampire genre, and it foretold good things to come from an ambitious storyteller.

Availability: Digital Rental on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and YouTube

They Look Like People (2015)
Director: Perry Blackshear (2015)

The Setup: A man coming out of a long romantic relationship is reunited with his old childhood friend. But that doesn't stop the voices.

Human Swiss Army knife Perry Blackshear wrote, shot, produced, directed and edited this economical horror movie about two men struggling with their own separate perceptions. You might say that it could more precisely be called a dark psychological drama, but it certainly has enough of the elements of a horror film to keep it in the genre. Without the resources afforded to a larger and more expensive production, TLLP wisely focuses on the dynamic between the two main characters and the human qualities that make them relatable. The effects employed to blur the lines of reality are sparing and effective, and the film is all the more frightening for it. It is a disquieting reflection on mental health, and the fragile connections that keep the loneliness of human existence at bay.

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Digital Rental on iTunes, Google Play and YouTube

The Devils (1971)
Director: Ken Russell (1971)

The Setup: In 17th century France, a Roman Catholic priest is put on trial for witchcraft and heresy, amidst fears of Protestant uprisings and political unrest. 

Now this is a juicy one. Ken Russell's The Devils starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave was blasted by many critics at its release, not to mention heavily censored and outright banned in many countries. Warner Bros deeply edited the film and even warned people on the posters that it might not be for them. The historical plot of the film is based partially on the Aldous Huxley book The Devils of Loudun, as well as the 1960 play The Devils by John Whiting. While the intense emotional, physical and sexual violence certainly makes for a harrowing experience that will definitely alienate whole groups of viewers, this is not a simple shock film. The impressive set design and cinematography, along with dynamic roles from Reed and Redgrave elevate this to a level of cinema that shouldn't be discarded as sheer exploitation. 

Availability: Good luck

Dead Snow (2009)
Director: Tommy Wirkola (2009)

The Setup: A group of friends spends an unforgettable winter weekend in a remote cabin, where the night sky is bright, the snow is perfect powder and the Nazi gold awakens vengeful, fascist zombies.

Tommy Wirkola's Norwegian thriller was made for under a million dollars, and rests gleefully on the shoulders of movies like Dead Alive, Brain Dead, and Dawn of the Dead. Its zombies are a mix of the classic shuffling corpses and the more spry and treasure-loving draugr of Norse mythology. It is very much a movie made by horror fans for horror fans, a cheekily self-aware bloodfest that delights in its own absurd premise. Rosemary's Baby it ain't, but if you find the phrase "Nazi zombies" even a little amusing, you will probably have some fun with Dead Snow

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Digital Rental on Amazon

- Jonathan Ross

1 comment:

  1. I've never considered the physiological rationale behind why people enjoy this genre, as the lack of sleep it causes seemed like reason enough to stay away, yet your explanation makes sense and even shows me why I may even have begun to somewhat enjoy these movies. I would be interested as to what the link on narrative and score leads to (I think the link may be broken). Great read! Enjoy your last 6 days of horror movies before it becomes all soppy family movies for the holidays.