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Discussing Horror Movies (Part 1): Gateways, Themes & Motivations

October 23, 2017

Discussing Horror Movies (Part 1): Gateways, Themes & Motivations

Why do we love horror movies? What makes them so cathartic? My friend Pat and I begin to scratch the surface of these and other questions in Part 1 of our wide-ranging horror movie conversation.

Tony: Have you seen anything horror or horror adjacent lately worth mentioning? Classic or new? Good, bad or other?

Pat: Tony, I have to say—horror is near and dear to my heart. I use that line deliberately because we usually use that term “near and dear” to express fondness. Horror, to me, truly is near and dear because it is a kind of celebratory ritual. Horror celebrates goodness because this kind of fiction frames our psyche in a way that forces us to imagine what  it is like without the things we love most. Friday The 13th forces us to imagine what it is like to lose youth (as at some point in real life, sadly, we hear about high school friends who never made it into their twenties). Frankenstein forces us to question the foundation on which moderns society is built by scrutinizing its technology (and in turn, its ethics and the idea of what is good).

So horror is near and dear to me because it reminds me of what I hold most dear by taking me through a psychological exercise of loss. And in that way, horror is immediately related to love. Horror threatens us because we love. In my opinion, the best horror stories are, on some level, love stories.

Love is a huge theme in a recent movie I watched called The Invitation. Debuting in 2015, starring Logan Marshall-Green and directed by Karyn Kusama (whose eclectic track record includes Æon Flux and Jennifer’s Body), The Invitation took me by surprise.

the invitation movie 2015

The short of it is that Will (Marshall-Green) and his new girlfriend are invited to the home of his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) who is hosting (alongside her new husband), an ad hoc reunion for Will and many of his old friends that he hasn’t seen in years. Throughout the story, it is revealed that Will and Eden split because their son was killed in an accident, and afterwards, Eden and her new husband joined a new spiritual movement called The Invitation. Weirdness ensues.

To say this movie is tense is an understatement. Take a layer of tenseness, drop on globs of discomfort and awkwardness, heave on some social taboos, then smash it all together with a sledgehammer and you have an idea of how weird this movie gets. I compare it to the dinner party episode of The Office, except The Invitation is the psychological horror version of that.

But, the movie’s greatest strength is that it explores so many different kinds of love. Eden’s new friend from The Invitation, Sadie, uses her sprite-like charm to kiss liberally, calling to mind that kind of flower child “free love” mentality. Gina, Will’s old friend who hasn’t seen him in years, says that her absence after the loss of his child wasn’t because she was running away, but she wanted to give Will space. Will responds by hugging her and murmuring a platonic, “I love you.”

Maybe one of the greatest uses of horror though, is the love two parents have for their child. Eden and Will used to be married but their child died and their lives, in horrible (emphasis horror) spun out of control. Eden sank into prescription drugs and attempted suicide while Will turned to the bottle. In the flashbacks throughout the movie, we see a time before their child’s death and the characters are almost wholly unrecognizable. Smiling faces. Youthful, bright eyes. Loving glances.

Seeing them in the present is an exercise in understated body horror. It’s not the repulsive transformations of David Cronenberg’s The Fly but it’s a subtler route. Will’s hair is greasy, beard long, and eyes tired and always cast down. Eden is picture perfect, presenting herself in an all-white gown, as if she has transcended her pain, but in her eyes are always the first bubbles of tears that never seem to run.

That is horror. It is horror because it shows us what the world could be like without the ones closest to us. It simulates the absence of love so when we leave the theater, we hold the ones we are meant to be with closer than before.

Question for you! So, I am not a father but I was still affected by the plight of characters losing their child. As a dad, do you find it hard to watch movies where a child is in danger?

Tony: First off, I’ll interject a quick personal statement since you so eloquently state what horror means to you.

Until probably college, I was never even interested in horror movies. I actually avoided the genre for most of my life until something clicked. The earliest memory I have of being scared of a movie was watching Temple Of Doom on home video. Over the years, I allowed a few historically popular ones to invade my psyche, mostly due to teenage peer pressure (The Blair Witch ProjectSigns, and The Ring, the 2005 one, are biggies that come to mind). Then, in college, I slowly began to bite at opportunities to discover classics of the genre. I remember where I was during my memorable first viewings of Night Of The Living Dead (1968) and The Evil Dead (1981).

Today, along with some other genres like science-fiction and fantasy, I see horror as one of the most purely cinematic film genres. I love how, should they feel so inclined, filmmakers can find artistic truths within these genres while also transporting viewers into a world they would never be able to experience otherwise. Isn’t that a big part of what cinema is all about? It doesn’t have to be a faraway world. It could be a place that mirrors the world we know almost exactly, yet somehow conveying a heightened element of danger. As much as I love a well made traditional family drama, I still tend to feel most alive, as a movie goer, when I feel like I’m seeing something that breaks new ground.

To answer your question: As a parent, I’ve definitely become more attuned to movies with children in danger. It actually comes and goes unexpectedly, and interestingly; it’s not always horror movies that trigger a reaction. I can probably scrape together a few examples…

Aliens is a movie I love and have seen many, many times. Even though it may augur more toward action than horror, it has a great child character by the name of Newt. The last time I watched this movie, her plight didn’t really strike me any which way for most of the run time. But later, that great, heroic scene in which Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has to go into the monster’s den to save Newt… that part, for example, feels more meaningful now.

Also, this is not a movie, but for a series that prides itself on not having any true villains, Game Of Thrones depicts some chilling moments of unflinching evil. No spoilers, but there are a number of scenes in which very small children suffer horrific fates. The most recent time I watched these scenes, they hit me much harder than they did before I had a child of my own.

Steering back toward the horror genre proper, and since you mentioned David Cronenberg, I recently had the chance to catch up with two of his movies I hadn’t previously seen: Rabid (1977) and Dead Ringers (1988). Rabid is Cronenberg’s second professional feature, and it’s a great example of how to make a creepy little movie with grand aspirations on a shoestring budget. It’s also an early example of Cronenberg’s trademark obsession with body horror, plus other goodies that he’s frequently revisited like sexual dysfunction, bodily fluids, and an uneasiness toward medical professionals. There are a lot of things I liked about Rabid but between the two, I much preferred Dead Ringers.

Dead Ringers is definitely a high point for Cronenberg, if you ask me. This one features Elliot and Beverly Mantle, twin gynecologists, and both portrayed (magnificently, I might add) by Jeremy Irons. The twins are based loosely on a pair of real-life doctors, and this movie plays out as a pretty unique biopic with a subtle infusion of horror and typical Cronenbergian themes. It’s not outright terrifying, but the Mantle brothers share an eerie connection that so deeply runs their lives practically to the point of shared personhood. To top it off, the film doesn’t always come right out and say which brother is on-screen, and despite Irons’ expert dual performance, the viewer is occasionally left to make inferences about which brother is up to what. It’s really great stuff and right up there with Cronenberg’s very best.

Pat: It’s funny you mention sci-fi and fantasy because (as is probably the case with all people who are self-proclaimed nerds) these genres are my bread and butter. What I like about sci-fi and fantasy is that you have a predominantly absurd context (aliens bursting out of chests; elves fighting undead wizards and what have you) and it isn’t until the end of the movie that there is the realization that the movie was “about something.” The alien ends up representing sexual violence. The elves are 1970s protestors dismembering the establishment. The “old switcharoo” is the technical term, I think. But with horror, you have the opposite. The context is rather mundane. A house. A school. A hospital. And from there, it enters the absurd and the weird. And isn’t that a big part of horror? The sudden realization that we are not wading through symbols to find reality, but that we are presented with symbols and challenged to find our way back.

Speaking of symbols…

dead ringers poster

Though I’ve never seen Dead Ringers, it’s interesting that the idea of twins (or doppelgängers) pop up so frequently in horror. The Shining comes to mind. Vertigo also. Raising Cain is another. John Carpenter once said there are two kind of horror stories. One is where we are all sitting around the campfire and the storyteller points to the woods and says, “there’s something in those woods.” The other type of horror is when the storyteller looks at each of the people in the fire circle and says, “there’s something in one of you.” Essentially, the latter is is a fear of self — the suspicion that the evil could be within us. It’s the acknowledgement of our primal selves. It’s turning the volume up on those thoughts that skate in and out of our minds. Jung called it “The Shadow” (not the movie with Alec Baldwin). I think when we analyze the symbol of “the twin” it is essentially a personification of our other self—the less inhibited self.

It’s a symbol that recurs throughout mythology. Hypos (sleep) and Thanatos (death) are famous twins in Hesiod’s Theogony. Romulus and Remus founded Rome. Isis and Nephthys were invoked during Egyptian funerary rites. Anyway, without making this too academic—there is a clear relationship between twins and the devine. As we know, the devine, or the metaphysical, or the paranormal, is the gateway to the world of horror.

Or (and this theory is way less researched) twins are just ind of weird. They are an oddity. Yet, we all know a pair of twins. It’s a good way to slowly suspend an audience’s disbelief. Start with the twins. Establish the strangeness. Then slowly, like a billionaire yanking a one dollar bill attached to a string away from a prattling toddler right before he reaches it, the director can gradually lead us into that “other world.”

A final thought about twins is that the can also represent the destruction of self. Especially in the western world, there is a huge emphasis on the individual. We all like to believe, in some way, we cannot be replicated. But having a twin strikes at our vanity. It’s suddenly realizing that we might not be as special as we think we are.

Tony: With the John Carpenter anecdote, you touched on one of the many ways we might delineate the genre. The “something in the woods” vs. “something in you” edict is a simple, yet effective way of doing this. Actually, the “there’s something in one of you” idea pretty succinctly captures the spirit of a lot of my favorites, including a number of Cronenberg’s movies, and Carpenter’s own The Thing.

Pat: I have one more short point (and a question!). Concerning Aliens—I’ve always found Ripley’s urge to protect Newt kind of sad. At the beginning of the movie, we learn that Ripley has outlived her daughter due to waking up late from cryo-sleep. So, to compensate for the void in her life, she becomes the pseudo mother for Newt, making her reckless in the process. That’s a stark contrast to the Ripley we knew in Alien, who wouldn’t even let her crew member aboard the ship when he was infected by an alien. To me, it seemed like Ripley was suffering from survivor’s guilt—first outliving her crew, and now her own daughter. When she jumps at the chance to protect Newt, it seems like an impossible task, and appear quite like a death drive—where she can ultimately end her anachronistic existence in the fantasy that she, this time, was there for her child. What do you think? Why did she go back for Newt?

Tony: Movie character motivation is always a fun thing to explore. Ripley is a particularly interesting character in general, as she’s gotten treatment by a slew of different writers, and in four different films. In Aliens, Ripley certainly shows some survivor’s guilt, although I think that’s just her emotional baseline for the story, thus allowing her to put herself in harm’s way once more. In this regard, I have to give James Cameron a hat tip for setting the emotional stakes just right for this sequel. The survivor’s guilt is a result of what happened in Alien. She doesn’t want her suffering and the crew’s demise to have been in vain. Fast-forward to when she is voluntarily descending into her own hellish nightmare to retrieve Newt, and I think that’s pure maternal instinct. Ripley sees a little girl in need, and she springs into action—something she wasn’t able to do for her own daughter. The sneaky-sad part of this, for me, is that she missed out on that opportunity with her real daughter, whom she was fully expecting to reconnect with following the events of the first movie.

Additionally, it must be noted, that whether it was maternal instinct, feline affection, or just screenwriter trickery, Ripley had displayed this type of behavior before when she went back to save Jonesy, her cat, in the first movie.

jonesy alien gif

Stay tuned this week as the remaining parts of this series will be published in the run-up to Halloween. In future installments, Pat and I will attempt to define the genre, determine the difference between “horror” and “terror,” list our favorite musical scores, discuss seasonal traditions, and much more. Thank you for reading!

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