Friday, October 29, 2004

Getting to the root of horror (well, movies, at least)

There's an interesting, if brief, piece in The Times of London examining the German Expressionist roots of Western horror cinema, and the genre's not-so-subtle shift at the start of the Cold War:
Hollywood was quick to seize on Expressionism and its strong links with Gothic fairytales — its swirling fog and village settings. But Hollywood horror played up the fable-like aspect of these tales, so that the settings, even when contemporary, often had a mythical once-upon-a-time feel to them. Castles were usually involved, even in The Wolfman, with Lon Chaney, which opens with its star (before his hirsute transformation) driving a car. Horror was safely located in a fictional universe full of gypsies, forests and simplified versions of society: ruddy-cheeked peasants and their tweedy masters. ...

But the key generalisation about classic Expressionist horror is that the setting was exotic. The viewer was taken into a dark, warped, foggy world beyond the village limits. And this, crucially, is the reverse of modern horror, which brings the strangeness in from outside. One can pinpoint this conceptual shift to the 1950s, when America’s Cold War thinking hardened the fear and suspicion of otherness. Fifty years on, mainstream culture works overtime to celebrate otherness, so one of the biggest problems for modern horror stories is finding potent taboos to help to exploit this fear without giving offence.
The article covers a lot of ground, also touching upon the appeal of Japanese horror:
... Japanese horror films operate in a culture that still has a weighty reverence for supernatural notions, with fresher versions of what ghosts look like. It is still a land of believers who have yet to be rendered self-conscious by endless Scream parodies.

And yet the conceits and mechanisms underpinning Japanese horror are not fundamentally different from secular Western horror, eg, spirits return to haunt the living, either for revenge or out of anger. And the ineffable acts at the centre of these stories would be no less traumatic in the West — a child murdered by her own mother, a family murdered by its own father (he even drowns a kitten). This is very similar to the big secret in The Others: the mother’s suicide and murder of her two children while deranged.

What Hollywood is so taken by is the style and the mood of Japanese horror — the careful, patient, dread of ambient horror. Japanese horror films are stealthily quiet, with throbbing, discordant, unsettling soundtracks. The American remakes tend to have more obvious scores and more obvious Big Jolts.
And because The Times loves me, it tops off the article with a list of "10 Quiet Chills":

  • Frankenstein (1931): The Monster picks petals with the girl he will drown
  • The Birds (1963): Crows gather one by on
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Finding Mia Farrow in the kitchen nibbling raw liver
  • The Exorcist (1973): Linda Blair wets herself and brings the party to a halt
  • Jaws (1975): A head floats through the hole in the boat
  • Alien (1979): John Hurt pokes his finger into the alien egg pod
  • The Shining (1980): The whirr of the boy’s tricycle around the hotel
  • Poltergeist (1982): A snack turns into worms
  • Silence of the Lambs (1990): Lecter’s finger brushes against Clarice Starling’s
  • Jurassic Park (1993): The ripple in the glass of water heralds the T-Rex