Sunday, August 30, 2009

The future (and past) of horror

Warning -- this contains a few spoilers. So if you see a movie mentioned but haven't seen it yet, skip a few sentences.

In keeping with long-standing tradition, I rented a non-Laura-approved movie while she was out of town last week. The movie: Phantasm, which might have been 1979's creepiest movie*. I hadn't seen it since the late '80s, and was curious if it was still creepy. And, it really wasn't. I was almost impressed with how non-creepy, almost funny, some of the "scary" scenes were. I wonder how much of this is due to the evolution of film as a medium -- that is, due to the fact that today's audiences and filmmakers are so much more genre-savvy. And this works both ways. We're less scared by things that are now cliche; when we see a guy open a door from the right camera angle, we just know a bad guy's going to be standing behind the door when it closes; the first time we saw this happen (Halloween, I think), it made us levitate out of our seats. Also, a modern filmmaker has a different set of expectations to exploit. They know their audience, they take advantage of our assumptions, and those assumptions are different than they were 30 years ago.

I wonder how a 1979 audience would react to a really creepy modern movie -- The Grudge, maybe, or The Descent. I suspect they'd wet their pants. Some of the creep factor comes from our assumptions being broken; in the beginning of The Grudge, when Yoko peeks into the attic, we the audience are conditioned by years of horror movies to expect that it's a false alarm, that we're about to get a false scare, maybe a mannequin falling over or a cat jumping out. It's too early in the film for us to really meet the creepies. When the ghost grabs her, it's doubly shocking. It's a scare, and it was totally unexpected. Plus, the level of allowable gore has changed significantly; Phantasm's silver sphere spewing a stream of fake blood while attached to a man's head is less than a shadow of the moment in The Grudge when we meet the girl with her jawbone torn away, her tongue waggling in the gaping space.

Dehumanization is also creepy; Linda Blair's head spinning and her spider-walking down the stairs in The Exorcist were among the film's scariest moments, largely because she had blatantly crossed into the realm of no-longer-human. Phantasm tried this too, to less effect than The Exorcist, and extremely less effect than The Grudge. Phantasm's mutant dwarf reanimated-corpse attacks are much less creepy than the first time Toshio opens his mouth unnaturally wide and the only sound to emerge is the screech of a cat. We saw glimpses of this in some earlier movies, but the concept has been taken to a new height in recent years.

The Grudge is also scarier on a deeper level. The heroes in Phantasm learn of something odd going on in the old mortuary, and their quest for the film is to solve the mystery of what's happening, and to defeat the servants of evil (or aliens). In The Grudge, every character who enters the house dies. The quest is to figure out the house's history, mostly to pass the time until the evil that dwells there snatches you from between your own bedsheets after driving you insane with fear. There's no fighting the curse, no winning over evil; our heroes (and, by extension, the moviegoers who put ourselves in their shoes) are all doomed from the beginning. It's a more existential horror.

So, my question is: what will horror be like in another twenty-five years? What will they be doing then, that will make a 2009 audience member wet himself? Unless movies shift to virtual-reality simulators, I can't even guess at the next paradigm shift.
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* 1979 was a good year for creepy movies, with The Amityville Horror, David Cronenberg's The Brood, John Carpenter's The Fog, and the film adaption of Stephen King's Salem's Lot....

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