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Discussing Horror Moves (Part 2): Horror vs. Terror, & Is SE7EN Horror? Plus, Spooky Scores.

October 25, 2017

Discussing Horror Movies (Part 2) Horror, Terror, Se7en

Does “horror,” as a film genre, have a sufficient definition? Can we decide, once and for all, whether or not SE7EN is a horror movie? Plus, Pat and I list a few underappreciated musical scores from horror movies.

Tony: Do you have a favorite segment of subgenre of horror? Are there one or more corners of this universe that you tend to gravitate toward?

Pat: Lately, I’ve found myself liking the mystery genre. Shows like True Detective that teeter on the edge of that Lovecraftian existential collapse, or movies like Seven (1995) that invoke supernatural terror without ever crossing the line into the realm of ghosts and goblins, are expertly crafted horror stories.

The mainstream tends to avert using the word “horror” to describe these well-thought-out narratives and instead choose to call them “thrillers” or “suspense” stories. I’ve always taken issue with that because on some level, the mainstream finds that, by placing these stories in the horror category, they are devalued.

Maybe “horror” still conjures up images of B-movie vampires in Party City capes delivering cheesy lines before straddling the X-rated line of soft core pornography and excessive (and usually terrible-looking) blood effects. Horror though, is not cardboard ghost cutouts and spooky organ riffs.

Tony: Who doesn’t love a good spooky organ riff?

Pat: So there’s a headscratcher. What is horror? By definition, the term “horror” is a kind of fear of realization. It is looking back on a series of circumstances and realizing they were not what they appeared to be. “Terror” on the other hand, is fear in waiting, like reaching your hand out into darkness, knowing something unsavory is there. A good clarifying example of these two aspects of scary stories is this: imagine you are invited to dinner with a known horror baddie, like Dracula, traversing the Wallachian countryside by dim-lit carriage knowing all the while that you are about to sit across from an ancient being of supernatural origin. This is terror. Now imagine also (as is the case with the real Dracula story,) that you are invited under the pretense of helping this mysterious figure acquire a house in London and only after a series of investigations, realizing that you are in the domain of an undead monster.

This is why so often in horror stories, there is a narrator reflecting back on the events that happened prior. I mentioned Lovecraft before and he was the master of this. Take a look at the passage below, from Lovecraft’s opening paragraph of The Haunter Of The Dark:

Cautious investigators will hesitate to challenge the common belief that Robert Blake was killed by lightning, or by some profound nervous shock derived from an electrical discharge. It is true that the window he faced was unbroken, but Nature has shewn [sic] herself capable of many freakish performances. The expression on his face may easily have arisen from some obscure muscular source unrelated to anything he saw, while the entries in his diary are clearly the result of a fantastic imagination aroused by certain local superstitions and by certain old matters he had uncovered.

This is the beginning of someone recounting the events of a story after it took place. It’s a reflection on a series of odd circumstances that, when retold in its entirety, paint the horrifying picture of what took place. This isn’t unique to Lovecraft. The Blair Witch Project is a log of what transpired in the woods. The Ring is inspired by urban legends and the countless retellings of the same story. The 1998 film, Fallen, started off with the lines, “I want to tell you about the time I almost died.” Go back as far as the novel of Frankenstein, which recounts the mad scientist’s tale up until the point he was stranded in Antarctica. Horror is realization. Looking back and shuddering.

Seven and True Detective... horror or not?

What do you think? Are SE7EN and TRUE DETECTIVE examples of the horror genre?

By that definition, the detective genre to some extent is horror. Of course it’s thrilling and of course it relies on suspense, but at the end of the day, these stories like Seven and True Detective are about piecing together a narrative whose pages are out of order and missing. Then, when at last they have the complete book intact, it’s about standing in the face of truth and realizing that the killer is closer than they ever seemed before.

It’s also important to note that a lot of early horror authors dabbled in the mystery story. Poe famously wrote The Murders In The Rue Morgue but before him, Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers both created stories that involved police intervention. At the end of the day, killers and thieves are to the civilized world what wild animals were to early humans. We built entire societies with organized infrastructure so we didn’t have to huddle by waning fires, hoping we didn’t get dragged away by some ambitious predator. Yet, in the context of society, claws have been replaced with knives and the urban predator carries on the tradition of perpetuating that primal fear among the civilized world.

So let’s call it what it is. It’s horror.

Tony: I appreciate the distinction you made between terror and horror. In other terms, would you say that terror requires a degree of anticipation, one not necessary for horror? Suspense, really.

I doubt I’ve given this as much thought as you have, but for a while now, my functional definition of horror, as a film genre, is one that forces the protagonist to confront a distinct “otherness.” You need a relatable character, and then a mysterious, maybe unknowable “other” entity to which the protagonist must react. Things we don’t know or understand are scary. I mean, they don’t have to be scary, but the vast amount of the world unknown by any given individual is pretty fertile ground for fear. I feel like this fits pretty well with the way you defined the genre.

You make a compelling case for traditional thrillers being horror movies. I admit that I have tended to keep these separate in my mind. Actually, I’ve even considered that thrillers might be better absorbed by yet other parent genres. For example, a lot of thrillers fit pretty neatly on a shelf marked “crime dramas” or even “films noir.”

Seven (a.k.a. Se7en) is an interesting example. It certainly has frightening elements, and it’s also massively suspenseful. In your eyes, do movies that are predominantly about suspense and anticipation, rather than a clear cut confrontation with an “other,” still qualify as horror? I’m interested to hear what you think, because I might argue that John Doe, by the time we meet him, isn’t much of an other. He’s a fully-fledged worldview. I think we understand him just fine, even if we disagree with him. He behaves savagely, but I’m not sure he’s a wild animal-type.

To name another David Fincher movie, even though it’s a stretch… Zodiac. This is kind of an interesting inversion of Seven. On paper, this is a serial killer movie. A lot of people die, nearly die, or live in terror due to the killings. Is this a horror movie? Does the “true story” element or the fairly rigorous historical authenticity conflict with the horror? The killer is to this day not 100% confirmed, so the “unknowable other” box is definitely ticked. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just weird to categorize certain things as horror. Am I being weak here? Is Zodiac really a horror movie, or is this a scenario in which the “mystery/thriller” tag actually works?

Either way, horror movies do seem to have taken on their own set of signifiers, fair or unfair. The word shouldn’t be practically synonymous with a few narrow strands like slashers, “torture porn,” and probably a few others. Now, I don’t agree with that narrow view, but if we’re talking mainstream here, then I would say there is a general lack of appreciation for the level of nuance that can be reached by a well-executed horror flick.

Pat: Horror as the crossroads of the normal and the abnormal is an essential definition of the genre. Your mention of relatability, I think, is in the fear itself. For example, say you are cleaning your hard wood floors and have to move your sofa to get the grime that’s built up behind it for years. When you hoist it out of the way, you see one of those massive furry spiders. Maybe not everyone is an arachnophobe like I am, but at the very least, the sudden realization that an animal, predominantly expected to be outdoors, has invaded the realm of human beings, is an example of the normal crossing paths with the abnormal. However, in this example, the fear is the relatable object. Remove house cleaning and the spider and superimpose a group of friends going to a secluded cabin and stumbling across an ancient , evil tome (like in The Evil Dead). Or superimpose a tired sheriff moving his family to a beach town, only to be confronted with a shark of exceptional size (Jaws). In this way, I think it’s the storyteller’s job to make the fear relatable while it is the audience’s job to find themselves in the characters.

In Seven, the abnormality is not only the murders themselves, but the painstaking calculations that went into planning them. The relatable fear is when John Doe (Kevin Spacey) commiserates:

An obese man… a disgusting man who could barely stand up; a man who if you saw him on the street, you’d point him out to your friends so the could join you in mocking him; a man, who if you saw him while you were eating, you wouldn’t be able to finish your meal. After him, I picked the lawyer and I know you both must have been thanking me for that one. This is a man who dedicated his life to making money by lying with breath that he could muster to keeping murderers and rapists on the streets!

On some level, John Doe speaks to us. When people walk free from crimes because of money or influence don’t we all have a momentary flash of what we would do if we had the power to change things? Of course, it never is more than a fleeting thought, but John Doe’s sentiment presents us with a horrifying realization about ourselves—that any of us, given the right concoction of circumstances, could have been in his place.

Tony: Well said. Horror is in the eye of the beholder. I suppose when you shift the responsibility of relation over to the viewer, one can find the horror in just about anything. Not unlike comedy, if you think about it.

Underrated Musical Scores In Horror Movies

Pat: The score does so much—it manipulates the audience’s feelings and it sets the dynamics of a scene. Here are a few (in no particular order) that I think deserve the spotlight.

Beyond The Black Rainbow (2010)

Composed by Jeremy Schmidt under the alias Sinoia Caves

Nothing fits the bleak, 1980s-inspired horror movie Beyond The Black Rainbow like the brooding tones of a synthesizer. A powerful blend of John Carpenter’s films scores and Neptune Towers, the soundtrack has the ability to both hopelessly terrify you (the track “1983” is complete with panicked breaths) and make you ponder (Sinoia Caves on “Night Mode” is strangely peaceful, like overlooking a city and contemplating its vastness). Worth a listen if you want to hear the evil twin brother of the uplifting synth sounds of Vangelis.

Dracula (1931)

Composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

For some reason, the song “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by Bach has been misappropriated to be the Dracula theme song. While this song may have the old-world grandiosity that fits Dracula’s gothic castle, the actual song, in my opinion, is much more appropriate. “Swan Lake,” originally composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, is a piece whose multifaceted composition encompasses more than the bravado suited for a villain like Dracula. Parts of the song are sad. Parts are lovely. Parts are eerie. Parts are grand. It’s hard to know what to feel when revisiting “Swan Lake.” It’s also important to note that this is the ONLY piece of music in the 1931 film. To me, it’s one of the best.

Hellraiser (1987)

Composed by Christopher Young

To summon Hellraiser’s big baddie, Pinhead, one has to track down the mysterious Lament Configuration, a puzzle box that compels the curious and the world-weary to explore its mysteries. Once the box is opened, Pinhead’s S&M-inspired inversion of religious iconography is revealed. The main theme to Hellraiser, composed by Christopher Young, builds its musical foundation on notes that are eerie and curious. There’s even a hint of naiveté, perhaps an allusion to the innocence of a child’s puzzle box. But the score builds into a larger, terrifyingly triumphant composition that reflects the loss of innocence narrative of Hellraiser.

Tony: I know how much you live Hellraiser, so I’m glad you gave some shine to it’s musical score. I decided to add a few more soundtracks to your list. Musical choices are such an important element of the cinematic experience. I attempted to keep (somewhat) with the underrated theme, because otherwise, any conversation about horror soundtracks probably begins and ends with the many scores of John Carpenter (who, awesomely directed and composed most of his movies). I’m not necessarily saying it’s the greatest of all time, but on The Thing (1982), we actually get both Carpenter AND Ennio Morricone, so that certainly bears mentioning even though it isn’t on our lists.

Alien³ (1992)

Composed by Elliot Goldenthal

I know, I know, we need to move off of the David Fincher movies, but Alien³ (a.k.a. Alien 3) is easily his most formally recognizable horror movie. Fincher aside, this score by Elliot Goldenthal is simply tremendous. It was his first major soundtrack and I think it might be the best part of the movie, which I also find a bit underrated. Entering a franchise with towering scores from legends like Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner, Goldenthal wanted to do something different.He combined furious orchestration with disturbing atmospheric sound effects to create a truly memorable soundscape. It’s a great listen even if you aren’t watching the movie.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Composed by Wayne Bell and Tobe Hooper

It might be a stretch to even call this “music,” but the discomfiting soundtrack that subtly boosts the terror throughout the film is unmistakably masterful. It consists of unconventional instruments create cues that sound like organic effects, only distorted into something that is extremely uncomfortable to listen to. TCSM is an all-timer for me and the unsettling minimalist sound design is a huge reason why.

The Keep (1983)

Composed by Tangerine Dream

As a film, The Keep may be Michael Mann’s bastard stepchild, but it has an atmospheric synth score that really sets the mood. The only available version of the movie is less than half of its intended length (and much-derided), but I don’t think there’s any denying that the music, even in a chopped, less-than-ideal form, offers up a transporting experience.

Finally, I want to recognize a handful of films that go the other route, using little to no musical accompaniment. Movies like Bone Tomahawk (2015), Funny Games (1997/2007), and (1931), to name a few. Come to think of it, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre arguably fits on this list as well.

If you missed Part 1, here it is. Still to come later this week: a look at the history of horror movies, our favorite epochs, holiday traditions, and probably a bit of us acting like curmudgeons. Thanks, again, for reading.

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