An Overture to Guest Writer Aaron Hollander's "In Favor of Horror" Article

   I have a fairly considerable aversion to the horror genre.  With the looming publication of a special guest article about the merits of that particular genre by Aaron Hollander, I thought I would address why I approached him to write it, so that his article will assume further meaning, purpose and context.  After all, the majority of you reading are not privy to the regular debates we have on these kinds of subjects.

  I'll just come out and say it.  I told him to write it as a "Prove me wrong...I dare ya.  I double-dog dare ya" gesture.

   I remember sitting and watching the answer-print of Babysitter Wanted (2008) at PhotoKem in L.A. with its makers present.  I was listening to them talk about how excited they were about the horror fan-base's enthusiasm for the not-yet-released project while witnessing a young woman get disemboweled by Medieval cattle-slaughtering gadgets up on the screen.  In my perception, there is an increasingly unsettling need for elaborate blood-letting and gore within the strange cabal of horror fans, and this is far-reaching when you consider the essence of the genre itself.  This answer-print screening might have permanently affected my thinking about horror.  It was a window for me into the motives concerning how and why such works get produced.

   My philosophy is that the best horror films morph into other kinds of genre films and can no longer be strictly classified as horror films by the time of the final fade-out.  Both thriller and horror film seek to unsettle and to scare.  How can you distinguish between the two, then?  The means.  In my eyes, horror is a genre built upon the foundation of wretched excess, with very few exceptions.  Its fundamental functionality is to show...sometimes way too much.  The thriller, on the other hand, needs not show, but is more often than not build around often profound levels of suggestion.  Hitchcock was, after all, the Master of Suspense -- not the Master of Horror.  This is all admittedly a simplified and general assertion, so allow me to elaborate.

   Modern-day horror films take all this to often absurd extremes, and could be indicted as being most guilty of these charges of wretched excess.   The dubiously "out-of-the-box" horror flick Cabin in the Woods (2011), which I saw involuntary while among a group of friends, does not "transcend" a damn thing within its limiting genre.  Rather, it exploits it.  The newest works at which horror fans make claims of enterprise and vision are, the grand majority of the time, just more inarticulate bloodletting laced with fashionable hipster irony and pseudo-Brechtian skullduggery.  Cabin in the Woods is a meta-film that attempts to lampoon itself while still retaining the identity of that which it is lampooning.  In every other genre, the concept of meta is something that ceased being considered clever when post-modern sensibilities were long considered passé.  One must then ask why horror fans in this age seem to be behind the times in this sense.  As far as I am concerned, I'm just calling a spade a spade.  We have come a long way since John Landis' brilliant An American Werewolf in London (1981), which cleverly turns the form on its head in fun and diverting ways.


   It seems rare to me that general genres have a fan-base.  Okay, perhaps you have "action fans" and "musical fans," who assume the label in a mostly loosy-goosey way, but most fandoms appear to be reserved for subgenres that are more specified.  Think "sports film" and "spy film".  Perhaps the most rabid general genre fan-base is that of the horror genre.  To use an earlier term, the horror fan-base is technically a cabal.  What does this cabal want the most?  Well, these days, it wants "splatter porn" the most.  I can tell you on no uncertain terms that subtle and classy execution does not get a self-proclaimed horror fan into the theater.

   Rosemary's Baby, a film that hints and suggests more than it shows, is largely classified as a horror film.  However, with a director like Polanski behind the camera, the film becomes something wholly other by the time it is complete.  Our imagination becomes our worst enemy as we weigh the possibility of a conspiracy against Rosemary and her unborn child.  Hence, I would classify a "horror film" like Rosemary's Baby as more of a suspense thriller.  My point again is that the best horror films cannot solely be classified as horror by the time a given "good" horror film ends.  This is because horror is a genre that pigeonholes its product...and the films worth anything cannot be pigeonholed in such a way.  I reiterate: both thriller and horror film seek to unsettle and to scare.  The only thing different?  The means.  It also takes someone like David Cronenberg to co-opt gore into a slightly more thoughtful pedigree which he patented, the more diplomatically named "body horror".

   A film like the original Paranormal Activity (2007) is bone-chilling.  I was truly scared at a few points, and there were many times that I audibly exclaimed fright.  As I was meditating on the film after it concluded, I realized that it was not much of a horror film.  The threat in the story is invisible, and all the more terrifying.  it's a home invasion by unseen entities.  The home is one's private space.  To never fully explain what is occurring and hereby keeping the villain ambiguous and unknown (even to the bitter end) is what makes it fly.  The Blair Witch Project (1999) uses the same paradigm and, in this way, it is similarly successful.  "Horror films" (the use of quotations there is certainly intentional) that intimate rather than show and that flip the switches effectively without resorting to empty and perfunctory revelation.

   I have a suspicion that the horror fan-base is turned on by the cutting-edge in gore make-up and bloody effects more than the actual horror stories and narrative models, which are generally standard-operation-fare.  That ain't my bag, to say the least, but it has its place, I suppose.

   I have saddled Aaron with the task of proving me wrong with his article.  In the meanwhile, I have briefly profiled a few horror films that I feel are unjustly neglected and made from the elemental stuff (the guts, if you will) that horror films should be made of.  This is not a best-of-horror list, mind you.  Just a list of buried treasures, some of which are buried deeper than others.

The Blood on Satan's Claw (1970, Piers Haggard) - I was pleased to see recently that, when director Joe Dante programmed an imaginary horror-movie marathon for The Onion last month, he chose Blood on Satan's Claw as one of his selections.  He wrote, "It’s not a very well known film, but it's a beautifully made film, almost an art film.  Its sense of location is remarkable, down to the speech patterns."  The setting to which he refers is the rural Northern England of the 1690's.  The Blood on Satan's Claw is one of the most unsettling films I have ever seen in any genre, and it possesses an episodic structure very unusual for a non-portmanteau horror picture.  As the story goes, the film was originally conceived as three separate stories that would play out individually in segments.  However, when the script was written it was decided to link the three threads into one central story.

Night After Night After Night (1969, Lindsay Shonteff) - This is yet another British entry into my list.  By the way, there's yet another Brit-born horror picture below this one.  This Swinging London-set horror effort about a cross-dressing Jack the Ripper-esque fiend on the loose in what is probably the most sordid and sleazy depiction of London's Soho ever committed to screen.  The film's killer, an ideological brother and counterpart to the later Travis Bickle, disapproves of swinging sixties permissiveness and "the filth and horror of the age," and feels compelled to dress up in leather and a Beatles wig to cut up prostitutes and anything else in a mini-skirt.  The film is a little rough around the edges, which only adds to its seedy mystique, but works on levels of irony (including a real hoot of an ending) that make it well worth investigating.  One caveat, however: the film has its share of unpleasant violence and I do not intend to apologize for certain excesses (allegedly inserted under the command of its original distributor, as to play better at Soho's grindhouses and, later, 42nd Street), but it attempts things that are memorably strange and occasionally wonderful.  There is more than a little ambition afoot in Night After Night After Night.  Shonteff would later helm Permissive (1970/72), a film that has been recently excavated by the British Film Institute.  He was also responsible for a wide range of James Bond parodies.

Straight On Till Morning (1972, Peter Collinson) - British New Wave "It girl" Rita Tushingham stars in this Hammer production about, yes, yet another serial killer.  While a horror film, Straight On Till Morning is also a de facto romance film, albeit with one member of the central couple a vicious killer.  Collinson was something of a low-level auteur around the time the film was produced, so the film is large on atmosphere.  To Hammer home (har har) a common theme in this article, the film becomes more of a thriller to me than it ever is a horror film, but the horror elements are well-executed and somewhat more tasteful than others of its ilk.  The plot summary on IMDb makes the story itself seem more immediately intriguing than the effective atmosphere of simultaneous whimsicality and unease it admirably creates: "Shy Brenda Thompson writes naive children's stories to amuse herself.  Stifled and desperate for a man of her own, she leaves Liverpool, telling her mom she's pregnant, and gets a job in a boutique in London.  She moves in with the promiscuous but good-hearted Caroline but the mod set shuns her for her plain looks.  Then she kidnaps a strange young man's dog, so as to perhaps get to know him while returning it.  The young man turns out to be Peter, a psychopath with a predilection for killing beautiful things.  He renames Brenda Wendy, and they start a hopeful, if strange, relationship.  It might have a chance, if it weren't for Peter's murderous secrets."

Blue Sunshine (1977, Jeff Lieberman) - Shot on an impressive $550,000 budget, Blue Sunshine is a justifiable cult item.  It intelligently exploits post-counterculture remorse and escalates the condition to full-scale movie horror.  For those of you who have never heard of Blue Sunshine, the title refers to a brand of LSD that makes one lose their hair and go homicidally insane ten years after ingestion.  Personally, it is one of my all-time favorite horror films and its audience steadily grows with each passing year.  It is a work that enjoys continued excavation from all manner of cineaste, and rightly so.

The Seventh Victim (1943, Mark Robson) - This now legendary Val Lewton production is most likely the beloved producer's finest hour.  The merging of horror and detective story would make any filmmaker pine to recreate its toweringly creepy tone.

The Pyx (1973, Harvey Hart) - Filmed and set in Montreal, this occult thriller stars Karen Black as a lady of the evening who is murdered in the film's first scene and Christopher Plummer as a police detective trying to get the bottom of her murder, in which a Satanist cult is complicit.  Told with a complex flashback structure, The Pyx wears its horror elements on its sleeve, but also dabbles in Big Ideas concerning grace and decadence.  The film is also very much a character study of Black's heroin-addicted prostitute.  In a second breath, it is a subjective character study through the eyes of Christopher Plummer's detective, who puts the puzzle pieces together and finds himself startled to discover the truth behind the hooker's final moments of life.

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