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30 May, 2009

Too Much Horror?

Recently, my 15-going-on-25 year-old niece was visiting the Crypt, and asked to borrow my “… scariest movie.” My reply to her was that she wasn’t going to see my scariest movie, and she finally settled on WHITE NOISE, an inoffensive little ghost story from 2005. She asked me, though, what film I would name as my scariest movie, and I must admit the question gave me some pause. With over 2,200 genre films in my collection, and that number growing all the time, picking out the scariest is a challenge.

But as I thought about it, I realized that few, if any, of these movies actually have the power to “scare” me in the traditional sense. As the old saw goes, familiarity breeds… well, if not contempt, then at least a feeling of comfort. The monsters and I, even latter day creations such as Michael, Freddy, and Jason, are old friends; old friends that inspire no fear in the Unimonster.
There are films with the power to both frighten and disgust me, though—movies that are lumped in under the term “Horror”, but in truth bear a much closer relation to the exploitation films of the 1950’s, designed to appeal to the most lurid, prurient interests in the viewer. I’ve watched three such movies in recent weeks, and in each case was left wondering why anyone would watch such films for entertainment.

NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM STRANGERS—(1960): Though ostensibly a cautionary tale about child molestation, this unusual Hammer production becomes an indictment against those who would take such crimes lightly. It is a well-written, thoughtful film; however its subject matter keeps it from being an enjoyable one.

The movie is set in a small lumber town in Newfoundland, Canada. The patriarch of the leading family, the Olderberry’s, (played convincingly by Felix Aylmer…) has the disturbing habit of inviting the young girls in the area into his home, then asking them to strip naked and dance in exchange for candy. Due to his social standing, and the power his son holds, the community is reluctant to take action, despite the insistence of the parents of one of the girls so abused. When the authorities are forced to act, and the old man is placed on trial, his defense attorney shreds the young child’s testimony, and her emotional state, mercilessly. In order to spare the child further humiliation, the prosecutor withdraws the charges against the old man. The girl’s father resigns his position as principal of the local High School, and the family prepares to leave town.

As the girl goes to say good-bye to her best friend, they encounter the old man. They flee into the woods, as he pursues them. The end result shocks and rebukes the small community, as well as those viewers who might place themselves in the shoes of the conflicted villagers.
As I stated earlier, NEVER TAKE CANDY… is not a pleasant film to watch, especially the courtroom scene. The defense attorney seems to be the perfect embodiment of every negative stereotype imaginable regarding his profession, as the young girl withers under his incessant browbeating. The lawyer appears to relish his attacks upon the child’s innocence, accusing her of welcoming, even enticing, the old man’s attentions. I couldn’t help putting myself in the place of the girl’s father, as I felt a strong urge to beat the old man’s attorney about the head and neck with the witness chair.

NEVER TAKE CANDY… is an engaging movie, it is an involving movie, but it is also a hard movie. The fact that it isn’t graphic in it’s depiction of the horrors experienced by the girls is scant comfort; the viewer’s mind fills in the voids, and takes us into the shadows with them. Usually when a film accomplishes this, I rush to sing its praises… but not when the subject matter is so completely repellent.

LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT—(1972): Wes Craven’s debut film, this story of the rape and murder of a young girl and the revenge her parents extract from her attackers is a surprisingly complex and well constructed film, based loosely on Ingmar Bergman’s far superior THE VIRGIN SPRING. Though Bergman’s film is far more literate, and has a more positive ending, the parallels are undeniable.

Two young country girls, Mari and Phyllis, head into town for a night of fun, during which they have a chance encounter with a member of the notorious Stillo gang. He lures them back to the gang’s hideout on the pretense of selling them some drugs, where they quickly become the captives of the gang’s leader, Krug Stillo. (David Hess, in a memorable performance…) The criminals soon head out into the woods, taking the girls with them. Their car breaks down, and they decide it’s a good spot to finish off their hostages and dump the bodies. After the girls are tortured, raped and murdered, the killers seek shelter at the home of the Collingwoods, the only house in the area. What the Stillo gang doesn’t know, to their detriment, is that it’s the home of one of the young girls they just viciously slaughtered. When the parents of the murdered girl discover what has happened, and who was responsible, they go on a rampage of violence, one that makes the murder of the two girls pale in comparison.

Craven, who today is one of the most influential filmmakers in Horror, working with Sean Cunningham, who eight years later would create the most successful Horror franchise ever with the first FRIDAY THE 13TH, had a stated goal of wanting to produce a film that would jar audiences, shaking them from a metaphorical stupor they felt had been produced by sterile, bland Horror Films. That they accomplished this goal there is no doubt. They also created a damn good movie, one that is arguably the CITIZEN KANE of Grindhouse Cinema.
But that “… damn good movie …” is also a violent, brutal, in-your-face tale of rape, torture, murder, and vengeance. The assault upon Mari and Phyllis is presented in graphically realistic detail, and consumes much of the first half of the film. The second half, dealing with the parent’s discovery of their daughter’s murder and the revenge they wreak upon the gang is no less harrowing to watch, and includes possibly the most gut-wrenching scene ever filmed—at least for male viewers.

The film’s famous tagline is, “To avoid fainting, keep repeating, ‘It’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie.’” If only it were that simple. The truth is that Craven is a gifted filmmaker, and he set out to create a film that would engender a specific emotional response from his audience. The wonder of it isn’t that he succeeded; it’s that the film remains as effective as when first released, nearly forty years ago.

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE ~aka~ DAY OF THE WOMAN—(1978): Every bit as violent and misogynistic as LAST HOUSE… but lacking that film’s solid writing, direction, and performances, Meir Zarchi’s ‘masterpiece’ is a stomach-turning, audience-abusing, 90-minute exposé of the worst parts of Grindhouse and Exploitation Cinema. Where LAST HOUSE… could at least boast of quality behind the camera, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE is the purest form of Shlock Filmmaking, lacking any subtlety, or any plot other than what was absolutely necessary to drive the action.

The film stars Camille Keaton, (the granddaughter of silent film star Buster Keaton) as a writer from Manhattan who takes a country home for the summer to work on her novel. Four local toughs become interested in the beautiful young woman and take her captive, raping her repeatedly. She somehow manages to gain the upper hand, and murders the men in an orgy of righteous vengeance—in an imaginative variety of ways.

This film is nothing but that hoary old Exploitation Film staple, the “Roughie”, redressed for the ‘70’s; the age of feminism. But that redress is only superficial; the film is little different at it’s core than Dave Friedman’s 1965 film THE DEFILERS, or the early efforts of Mike and Roberta Findlay. One step above (or below, depending on one’s point of view…) hardcore Porn, Roughies were the logical result of the explosion of “Nudie Cuties” in the late ‘50’s—early ‘60’s. As hard as it may be to believe, audiences could get bored with nudity, and Friedman, who had been in the production/distribution end of Exploitation Films since the ‘40’s, recognized this fact early on, and decided to give the audience something new, something with an edge… and the Roughie was born.

My reaction to the Roughies in general and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE in particular, is that these films are distasteful in the extreme. While in general the Exploitations could claim that they were just harmless, good-natured fun, focusing on and playing up the vices that all of us are heir to, some movies pushed well beyond the boundaries of bad taste. Movies such as the Findlays’ …FLESH trilogy, or Gualtiero Jacopetti’s MONDO CANE, or Zarchi’s I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, do nothing to entertain the viewer or to provoke thought about the subject matter… they simply leave the viewer with a vague sense of uncleanliness.

Those are three films that leapt to mind when my niece posed that question to me; there are others, but those will suffice as examples of the type of movies she’ll never see, at least not from me. Horror Films, to my mind, build legitimate scares with suspense, with atmosphere, and with a sense of unreality. The original HALLOWEEN is a prime example.

In John Carpenter’s 1978 original, Michael Myers was an enigma, a soulless, evil slayer. There was nothing human remaining in him; you’re made to wonder if there ever had been. Carpenter expertly creates a wholesome, welcoming, familiar point of reference for the viewer, and then drops this evil creature into the midst of it. The result is the best of the Slasher genre, and one of the best Horror Films of the last 35 years.

Rob Zombie’s 2007 version, however, strips away the enigma that is Michael, instead walking us through, step-by-step, the creation of a serial killer. There’s no mystery, no intrigue—never do we see Michael as anything other than what he is… a twisted, depraved human being, victimized for most of his childhood, until he one day decided to be the abuser, rather than the abused. The result is undoubtedly horrifying—but it isn’t Horror. At least, it is not my definition of Horror. And that can be said for most of the so-called “Horror Films” produced today… films such as SAW, HOSTEL, THE STRANGERS… horrifying, yes. Horror—no.

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