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Welcome to the first entry in Spectrum Culture’s new “we’ll publish these on whatever schedule we want to” feature Genre Exploration, wherein two of our esteemed writers take time out of their busy lives to educate our loyal readers on genres they are certainly familiar with, but may not be aware of all they have to offer. For our debut, we’ve chosen to speak about horror, which gets a fairly bad critical rap, but according to Morgan Davis and Danny Djeljosevic has much more to offer than you might think.

Horror 101: An Introduction to the Concepts of the Genre

Morgan: What would you say are the main ingredients to a classic horror film?

Danny: My bloodthirst tends to trump any desire for tension, but any good film has tension, so would that be one of the things that separates a good horror film from a bad one?

Morgan: Well, I think if you look at what I perceive to be failures, like Saw and company, versus recent films that have added to the canon, such as The Descent or Funny Games, the main difference is that one group can’t survive without gore and the other could work with or without. Not that I have a problem with gore, mind you — I can’t imagine Alien without the stomach burster, for instance — but what made that scene so startling was how visceral it was. You’re led to just think this guy is sick, he’ll be all right, really, and then the parasite bursts out of his chest.

Danny: Saw’s a good example of gore and “fucked-up shit” being ineffective as a proper movie outside of opening Friday at midnight with the teens.

Morgan: Precisely. And it has also locked itself into a box, really, because it has to up the gore each time or it fails commercially. Because now there are hordes of competitors that offer more gore. Which is what brought down horror a couple decades ago, too, the dreaded rise of the slasher. What social context do you feel horror films provide and what makes them enduring?

Danny: For one thing, it sates people’s ongoing need/curiosity for blood, gore, and the macabre. Barring mindwipes or something, that’s something that will always endure. Going not-incredibly-far-back, even a lit class staple like Macbeth ended with MacDuff brandishing Macbeth’s decapitated head. It also plays on our fears and frustrations. We all have a fear of the unknown, and horror films force us to acknowledge them.

Morgan: But why do you think during down economic periods they’re more prevalent? The Reagan era was one of horror’s peaks, and the downtrodden ’00s are looking to be the same.

Danny: It’s all about pessimism and negativity being put on screen. The ’80s had unkillable serial killers to go along with AIDS, Reagan and the seemingly imminent doom caused by the Cold War that refused to end. Now we’ve got mazes constructed by mysterious people that torture and kill you to go along with terrorism, a confusing ongoing war and soldiers that torture their prisoners.

EASY ENTRY:

1. The Exorcist
2. 28 Days Later
3. Alien
4. Shaun of the Dead
5. Ginger Snaps/From Dusk till Dawn (tie)

Morgan: I almost want to say Shaun of the Dead is the best film to introduce someone to the genre.

Danny: It’s gory, tense, well-written, incredibly funny and stars Simon Pegg & Nick Frost. Everything you could want in a horror flick, but what makes it work so incredibly well is that Edgar Wright and company didn’t just set out to make a parody film — it’s become clear that any idiot can do that. They wanted to make a real zombie movie.

Morgan: It’s also driven by human interaction, which makes it easier for someone new to the genre to get into it. These are everyday people dealing with extraordinary things; furthermore, it works in a dramatic sense in the same way its novel counterpart The Walking Dead does: bad things happen and not everyone makes it out alive.

Danny: You end up caring about all the characters, and the film isn’t afraid to do some seriously bad things to them.

Morgan: If someone makes it through Shaun and enjoys it, I’d think the logical next step would be 28 Days Later, which explores a similar premise, but is more psychologically taut and has some truly horrifying scenes, particularly those involving the soldiers.

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Danny: 28 Days Later is a mean film. Danny Boyle proved to be a great choice for a horror film, considering how he treats his characters. Even something like Slumdog Millionaire requires the viewer to sit through borderline atrocity before the inevitable happy ending. Where Shaun of the Dead is enjoyable for the entire runtime, 28 Days Later challenges the viewer to endure it. I haven’t seen every Danny Boyle film, but I think everyone I have seen has a happy ending that has to be earned through great difficulty, be it running zombies or heroin addiction. Any good horror film makes a viewer squirm a bit. Or a lot.

Morgan: It’s true, he makes his characters and viewers endure huge obstacles, which is why he probably worked so well as a horror director. The endurance factor is probably a big component of what makes The Exorcist so frightening as well. Especially since all the horrible things happening to Linda Blair are made all the more terrifying because she is possessed and completely unable to have any impact on what is happening to her body, something that I think all people are afraid of, whether it be from something like cancer or AIDS.

Danny: Then there’s the body horror element of her movements… the reverse crabwalk, the spinning head… it’s not quite David Cronenberg levels of body horror, but it’s still a body compelled to physical impossibility.

Morgan: And let’s not forget the vomiting and other spewing of various bodily fluids. That loss of control is probably one of the most terrifying things to people because we know it will happen to us eventually, when we get old and lose control of our own body and have to resort to the help of others to do things even as mundane as bathing ourselves. Which is especially important in Alien, a film that is also about possession, albeit in the form of space parasites.

Danny: Alien is a great horror film because there’s really nowhere for those space truckers to escape to. You’re either in the spaceship with the acid-spewing H.R. Giger nightmare beast or imploded in the vacuum of space.

Morgan: It also dwells on the concept of sacrifice and utilitarianism that is so prevalent in zombie films. If you know your best friend is infected, will you be able to pull the trigger?

Danny: There’s a bit of 2001 in there, too. Not just in the way it’s shot, but also with the value of human life being determined by artificial intelligence. Man vs. computer may seem like strictly sci-fi, but I’d say it’s science/philosophical horror.

Morgan: It’s like Battlestar Galactica in a way, since the fate of humanity is ultimately in the hands of something we created. I would argue that it’s a comment on the Cold War era idea of mutually assured destruction, except Alien came after that paranoia.

Danny: It’s the value of human life vs. the value of something like a spaceship or a mission to some authority, be it a government or, in the case of Alien, a corporation.

Morgan: Which in our economic era may be even more frightening than it would otherwise be… Ginger Snaps, however, relies on a different fear altogether; the fear of what comes with growing up and the awkward changes our bodies go through. I think it’s one of the most innovative horror films in ages. I think you went with From Dusk Till Dawn as your choice though, right?

Danny: Yeah.

Morgan: I’m interested in hearing what you think makes it not just a good entry point but a great horror film.

Danny: As an entry point, it has the appeal of being made by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, whose utter glee for films and filmmaking is infectious. It’s not a major work for either of them, but they’re clearly riffing on one another and having fun with it. What I love about it is how it breaks the rules of filmmaking. It spends the first 30 minutes of the movie not even giving the hint of supernatural. If you showed someone the movie without telling them anything, he or she would just think it another violent Tarantino flick… then the vampires appear.

Morgan: In a way, that’s similar to how Ginger Snaps unfolds. The bulk of the movie is an insightful, profound look at being a teenager who thinks they’re alone and too different to be accepted which, frankly, is every teenager. The only person the protagonist relates to is her sister, and they have a deep connection tied to their refusal to grow up, they both refuse to acknowledge that not only will their bodies soon be changing, but so will their minds and their lives. When the unnatural happens and our protagonist finds herself changing after an encounter with what she assumed was just a large, feral dog, she gets brushed off by the authority figures she tries to tell about the incident, who take her remarks about growing hair in weird places and feeling unnaturally lustful and aggressive as just the basic steps of puberty. Like so many of the classic horror films, Ginger Snaps is about us not having control of our bodies, for one reason or another. But it’s also about already feeling like an outsider and then having the supernatural push you even further out, like the recent Let the Right One In also did. I suspect that there is a certain amount of outsiderness to Dawn too, right?

Danny: Yes. You’ve got the violent criminals on the run played by Tarantino and George Clooney that abduct Harvey Keitel (a reverend going through a crisis of faith) and his family and end up in a Mexican strip bar populated by vampires. It’s like the vampires further point out the other-ness of the human characters. There’s a bit of “growing up” in From Dusk Till Dawn, as well. The young woman is thrust into this world of violence and vampires (after having to deal with being held at gunpoint by criminals) and has to learn to deal with it.

DEEP EXPLORATION

1. The Thing
2. Re-Animator
3. The Host
4. The Fly
5. Dawn of the Dead

Morgan: On the subject of more advanced notes, The Thing deals with that otherness in a decidedly different way. Fans of Battlestar Galactica may be particularly interested in the way The Thing rides on the notion that you have no real way of knowing whether the person you’re working with is truly with you or is an infiltrator. Add to it the arctic wasteland and it may as well be the hollowness of space that the characters are trapped in.

Danny: What do you think it says that The Thing bombed at the Box Office? It came out a couple weeks after E.T.

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Morgan: People would rather their aliens are cuddly and harmless rather than cold, silent, chameleon-like murderers? No, I think ultimately its problem was that it’s too cerebral. For one, it’s not as gory as a lot of horror fans would like, and two, it requires a lot more patience and perseverance than a traditional audience is willing to give. I think people unfortunately have a problem getting into John Carpenter films immediately; it says a lot that his work is infinitely more influential than the rest of his peers and tends to provoke the creation of sub-genres rather than succeed. They almost always wind up cult classics, too, mainly because his work relies on so many parallel levels that you have to see it multiple times to truly appreciate it. Moving on, we went back and forth on Re-Animator and Evil Dead and ultimately Re-Animator triumphed. They’re both ridiculously entertaining and tongue in cheek, but I don’t think Re-Animator is on people’s radar the way Evil Dead is.

Danny: The story Re-Animator is based off of is great. Just two dudes running around, robbing graves, and making genetic monstrosities, which makes it sound like Mary Shelley’s Trainspotting.

Morgan: That is an apt description. Re-Animator is almost more infamous than known. It has some of the weirdest, most disturbing scenes this side of Dead Alive and when you tell people about it, they understandably doubt that it’s real It’s funny, because it’s a pretty singular film. It’s kind of a zombie film, kind of not…kind of a Frankenstein-type tale of mad science gone awry…and also just kind of a straight, gross out classic. The reason I prefer it over Evil Dead is because Re-Animator the film falls prey to its own hubris, much likes its characters. It clearly aspires towards greatness at some points, and at others you just have to wonder what the hell was going on during filming. It’s also amazing that it was ever financed and released. Evil Dead, for all its gore, is surprisingly commercial and it’s no wonder that it’s easy for people to get into and obsess over. It’s full of one-liners, a charismatic lead and at heart is just a story of a guy trying to triumph over evil.

Danny: That was the intent of the original Evil Dead: to make a drive-in late night movie people can shout at. If Evil Dead is just a story of a guy triumphing over evil, what is Re-Animator?

Morgan: I’d say Re-Animator is a look at the sometimes psychotic lengths science goes towards in hopes of prolonging life. I’d argue that the scientists that do things like electrocute frogs or decapitate dogs and sew their heads onto new bodies don’t find these things macabre at all. They just have a relentless need to learn and find answers and eventually use those answers to help mankind. And if you’re doing things like that all the time, no matter what the goal, you have to figure you’re missing some vital components in your brain, and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine someone going a little too far. And once you’ve plummeted over that edge, like in Re-Animator, well, why stop? Why not just throw caution to the wind and go all the way?

Danny: Considering science is this big limitless thing, it sounds like Herbert West is going as far as he can before something eventually rips him apart.

Morgan: Which ties very nicely into The Fly and, well, roughly half of the work of David Cronenberg. The part of The Fly that always gets to me the most is how Jeff Goldblum’s character starts out almost relishing the skills he picked up from the fly he merged with. He doesn’t even think this could necessarily be a bad thing, all he thinks about is indulging his curiosity, his need to learn.

Danny: Eventually that curiosity leads to horror, as most cinematic science does.

Morgan: Horror doesn’t really have a high opinion of science. It’s interesting that even liberal directors like John Carpenter or David Cronenberg have that view in their films, too.

Danny: In horror films, science tends to be this big uncontrollable thing that doesn’t work the way scientists wish it would, which is kind of what science actually is. Someone makes a breakthrough and people struggle to figure it out. It never becomes sentient or transforms anyone into a monster (not literally, at least), but it’s always something to wrestle with. I don’t know if I’d say it’s a conservative view of science, but it’s definitely not an optimistic one.

Morgan: Which really just boils down to the thing most horror has in common and preys on: fear of the unknown. I thought The Host was one of the best uses of this fear in recent memory.

Danny: There’s a bit of Shaun of the Dead in The Host… a very funny genre film without a hint of parody.

Morgan: It’s true, and I think part of why they both did so well is because they are clearly tributes to a genre more than anything else. So as a result, it was easier for fans and newcomers alike to enjoy them; you get more out of the experience if you catch the references, but the experience does not hinge on this.

Danny: Shaun of the Dead is about a slacker coming into his own and growing up to get the girl… romantic comedy in extremis. What’s The Host?

Morgan: Hmm, in those terms it’s a little more difficult to define. On one hand, it’s a look at how people try to define stuff they don’t think could be real or could possibly be happening to them and as a result, the way authorities try to force something into an easily covered up answer.
You could easily tie it to government-provoked disasters like Katrina, or the Asian tsunamis (which I think specifically the film was referencing, right?).

Danny: The major commentary is on American presence in Korea. The formaldehyde catalyst was an actual incident.

Morgan: Yeah, I meant more the way the crisis is explained, and how the country refuses to let others help (although, strictly speaking, others were who caused the incident in the first place).
And on the other hand, it could go back to the science/military debate, that we create our own problems by trying to control things we can’t or by ignoring our problems (in this case, disposing of the waste of our experiments). I think The Host is more macro than Shaun of the Dead, almost fitting in closer to the realm of Cloverfield in how it makes us see the big picture by showing us how the small pieces experience it.

Danny: What makes the two movies so good are the characters, though. Every family member in The Host has something to prove amidst the crisis. It’s a dysfunctional family putting itself back together, made only sweeter by monsters being thrown in. Which brings us to Dawn of the Dead.

Morgan: You know, I’m interested in why you pulled for this one and not Night of the Living Dead.

Danny: The original Night of the Living Dead is a great little movie, but I think Dawn is more iconic and far more epic and ambitious than the original. Night might be the cinematic model for survival horror, but Dawn is so much more.

Morgan: It has a bit of humor about itself as well, do you think that helps it?

Danny: Definitely. Romero’s zombies in Dawn of the Dead go from frightening to comedic and not lose any of their impact. There’s that wonderful (if a bit obvious) visual gag where the zombies are walking around the mall as if they’re shoppers.

Morgan: The “pie in the face” moment is probably one of my favorite scenes in all of zombiedom. It could have fit into Shaun of the Dead without anyone batting an eyelash.

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Danny: Refresh my memory…

Morgan: It’s during the zombies as shoppers bit, when the survivors figure out that the zombies in the mall are relatively easy to dispense with because they’re so slow and dumb. But then the motorcycle gang shows up and ruins it all. One of the motorcycle guys drives up to a zombie in a business suit and pies him in the face. It was just so absurd, but at the same time, it reminded you that these are all people who have had to go through hell and they’re going to get their laughter where they can and it’s probably going to be grotesquely morbid.

Danny: That idea hasn’t been explored enough. Gallows humor in survival horror.

Morgan: I agree, especially since I think for a lot of people, the easiest way to deal with trauma and tragedy is to joke about it.

Danny: The best part of Dawn of the Dead is how the survivors attempt to rebuild society in the mall and the threat of zombies just disappears for a good long while. I haven’t seen the movie in years, but I feel like it’s three hours and a good hour is spent enjoying their new little society.

Morgan: Then those bikers show up. Damn bikers, always ruin everything.

Danny: There are some classic zombies in that film. Like the Hare Krishna zombie.

Morgan: I love the little visual gags Romero throws into his movies. I think I already talked to you about the blood pressure machine one, right?

Danny: Yeah. Was it a zombie in the BP machine?

Morgan: Well, at first it was just a random biker, but then he got eaten and his arm was pulled off and left in the machine, so I suppose you could say it wound up being a zombie.

Last Thoughts

Morgan: I think something that’s intriguing to me is the more self-reflexive aspects popping up in horror films today. You and I recently talked off-record about the new film Make Out with Violence, which seems like even if it’s a failure, will at least be a spectacular, highly entertaining failure and is little more than a horror mix-tape of sorts.

Danny: Seems like once a genre or medium has enough work done in it for there to be an established canon and some thoughtful study, we start seeing self-reflexive pomo-type stuff. Which is why books and paintings got to that point first. The modern horror film has only recently had enough history to look back on, it seems. Or maybe the world’s going to end and we now have to reflect before Cthulhu sucks the marrow from our bones.

Morgan: Do you think the remake-trends will help boost the concept of horror’s history or create a dead end?

Danny: There are remakes only because it’s an easy branding thing. People want familiarity, so even kind of knowing that Last House on the Left was an old movie at least suggests that the original was good enough for there to be a remake. Oh, and constant sequels. I think many of them will be forgotten except as part of the greater trends. The Wes Craven remakes, for example, are part of the brutal torture zeitgeist of the George W. Bush era.
Which brings me to a question…So Obama is President and everyone immediately began acting like Utopia had finally been attained despite that the world continues to fall apart around us and we’re plummeting toward Apocalypse whilst we talk about movies about killing people. Regardless, there’s a bit more hope that things are going to be alright. Where does that leave our horror films?

Morgan: That’s an interesting question. I think the fear that we have right now is a different fear than what he had just a year ago. Then, people were terrified of the concept of the unknown, of the terrorist ideal of someone just killing you because they simply don’t like you (see Saw, Hostel, Hills Have Eyes, The Devil’s Rejects ET. AL.). Now, I think we’re going to see a lot of films about the end of the world, or how people will react to economic collapse. I predict there will be a lot of films similar to what was happening during the Carter administration…Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic pictures about worlds without resources and what people do in that world. I think even recently you have Repo: The Genetic Opera as something that, in the hands of the right creative team, could have been a success with its theme of harsh economic reality.

Danny: We can only hope! My guess would have been something like the Clinton era when it seemed like all we had to fear were ghosts (The Sixth Sense) and perverse serial killers aping old horror movies (Scream). I guess we can expect that sort of thing if suddenly everything’s alright.

Morgan: Well, there’s that self-reference again. Scream is probably the best example of that. When everything’s good, you take a look back at when things were worse to give yourself perspective.

Danny: It’s almost like a threat that will return… which it did.

Morgan: That’s a great way of putting it. And I’d love to see that applied to something more contemporary.

Danny: The earliest example of self-reference I can think of is Fright Night, wherein there’s vampires living next door and the kids team up with an aging parody of Peter Cushing to go kill them.

Morgan: Lost Boys did a bit of that as well, taking these kids who are basically just average comic geeks and having them apply these skills they’ve learned from reading the things no one else cares about.

Danny: I believe Monster Squad was a similar thing as well, albeit under the guise of a kid’s movie, which is even more perverse and wonderful.

Morgan: There really need to be more horrific kids’ movies. People forget how gruesome the Grimm Brothers were. I mean, Cinderella of all things has self-mutilation at its core.

Danny: Yeah, and that’s even after they cleaned up those stories. Have you ever seen Monster Squad? It’s really mean and ballsy for a kid’s movie.

Morgan: I vaguely remember it but like most of my childhood memories it all flows together.

Danny: Revisit (wink, wink) it. You won’t be disappointed.

Morgan: On the childhood memories note, what do you think drew you into this genre? What makes you keep coming back?

Danny: I was a sensitive lad, so people getting killed in movies always kind of distressed me. Cloak and Dagger made me cry! I don’t know how I got into horror movies. Probably as I grew desensitized and irritated I had a need that could only be satisfied by people getting their heads exploded. Evil Dead was a turning point for me, which was in high school. Maybe it’s an outsider thing. Once you realize you don’t belong with normal folk, you get into sick horror movies to quietly lash out at the world.

Morgan: I think my entry was a little different, haha. I’ve always been too curious for my own good, so in a way, horror was how I learned about death and subsequently became way too interested in the different ways things go wrong with our bodies. Cronenberg remains one of my favorite directors just because of the way he uses the human body. I’m always simultaneously disgusted and enthralled by what he does. I don’t know if my curiosity made me desensitized or if I already was and thus was more likely to be driven towards that curiosity. I mean, hell, as a kid what did I want to do when I grew up? I wanted to be a freaking entymologist. Who even knows what that word is as a little kid let alone wants to be one?! I was always a weirdo.
So, I know this is supposed to be a primer (thanks AV Club, your check is in the mail! please don’t sue us!) about horror for those not well-versed in it, but what would you say people need to go into a horror film expecting?

Danny: Like any genre, they should expect something worth watching, but they should be open to violence, gore, and mean things being done to (sometimes) undeserving people. Check your stomach at the door.

Morgan: Do you think it’s necessary to view horror with your sense of humanity turned off? Or do you feel horror works best through revulsion?

Danny: It’s right there in the name. Horror is meant to get a reaction from people. It works best with normal, moral people who object to people getting murdered in graphic ways.

Morgan: Do you feel that horror aficionados are incapable of experiencing horror the way it should, then?

Danny: It would depend on the person (some people never get over their fears and queasiness), but a film effective enough can affect even the hardened veterans. It’s just that many of them aren’t very well made. The less-versed will get the effect because on some level they don’t care about how well-done the film is so long as it does its job on Friday night.

Morgan: What about horror’s rewatchability then? Would you say it’s nonexistent?

Danny: A horror film can be rewatchable if it’s any good. Once you’ve gotten over the trauma and spectacle, hopefully some deeper meaning comes up or at least a good bit of entertainment you can laugh at because you’ve lived through it.

Morgan: John Carpenter and David Cronenberg are the directors that I continuously feel are immensely rewatchable. Mainly because their films use spectacle as a way to distract you from what’s really going on and also because they pack their films with so many details they practically demand rewatching them. Even if it’s just so you can watch someone’s head explode in slow motion just to see how it’s done.

Danny: Which I did watching Scanners the other day.

To be continued

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