Visions of the beast: the changing shape of horror movies Geoff Lealand Screen and Media Studies University of Waikato
This presentation is aligned to… NCEA Media Studies US 7468 Describe the history of a genre and explore its present role in society Or NCEA Media Studies AS 90602 Explore the relationship between a media genre and society
However lowly in the grand scheme, horror films are best viewed as unsavoury lab experiments on public anxiety … measured by the degree to which it evokes and probes the normally secreted collective angst, in upsetting images and disquieting concepts. Michael Atkinson, Sight & Sound Sept 2007, p. 56
The preceding quote … Comes from a review of the film 1408, released in 2007 and starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson as ‘the newest launch from Stephen King Corp”. The premise of the film is that Room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan is haunted by poltergeists and ghosts--which may be manifestationsof failed writer Mike Enslin’s (Cusack) uncertain grasp on reality. The room seems out to kill him. It is monstrous and horrific.
A hotel room … Ought to be a safe and certain haven--’a home away from home’? An anonymous refuge from the unsettling C21st century world beyond the Do Not Disturb sign? Conversely, can hotel rooms also be places of secrets and sin? A place for fantasies, beyond the public or domestic gaze. Places where strangers meet, secrets are exchanged, violence and horror planned or executed (cf. Bates Motel on Psycho)?
Horror films as genre …in horror films generally, the mechanism of disruption, the monster, produces increasing disorder until by its death a form of order is finally restored…What a genre provides is coherence. R. Robertson, ‘The narrative sources of Ridley Scott’s Alien, in Orr & Nicolson (1992)
Genre (generally) Genre is what we collectively believe it to be Barry K. Grant Genre films essentially ask the audience, ‘Do you still want to believe this?’ Leo Braudy
Horror (1) Horror is the feeling of revulsion that usually occurs after something frightening is seen, heard or otherwise experienced. It is the feeling one gets after coming to an awful realisation or experiencing a hideous revelation. wikipedia [an experience as varied as seeing footage of massacres in Rwanda, Saw II ... or the final moments of the France vs New Zealand quarter- final in the RWC?]
Horror (2) Horror is any film that gives me the willies. Willies is a very technical term. http://shoottheprojectionist.com/2007/09/31-flicks-that-give-you-willies-more.htm
In 2007 … • What horrifies us? • Where do monsters lurk? • How do films express or mirror our fears and anxieties? • Is horror, in horror films, something different from what it used to be?
Three movie trailers (1) The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsEw9b7HeUc Frequently interpreted as an allegory for ‘Red scares’ and mass hysteria generated by Joseph McCarthy in the USA in the early 1950s, and the general social and political conformity which prevailed through those years--when the majority of the population consented to a narrow set of beliefs and values, which needed to be protected from external threats (communism?) Conversely (and less frequently), the pods are read as the ‘virus’ of communism, taking over free will and individual identity (You’renext!)
Three movie trailers (2) The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Philip Kaufman) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQTpVxCghXk&mode=related&search= Can be read as an allegory for the 1970s obsession with self-improvement and self-help (a peculiarly American--or Californian--trait?). Leonard Nimoy (cf. Spock) plays a popular self-help guru who initially dismisses fears about the alien duplication, then endorses the invasion. The setting shifts from small town California to San Francisco. There is a prevailing sense of post-Vietnam War paranoia (anti-government fears; conspiracy theories), as well as an inconclusive (pessimistic?) ending. The alien-pods are seen in their sticky, horrific forms and they possess new powers eg shrill screams to alert others to the presence of non-duplicated humans You’ll never close your eyes again, Pauline Kael, renowned US film critic
Three movie trailers (3) The Invasion (2007, Oliver Hirschbiegel) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOfXGrI26Eg The latest re-make. A star vehicle for Nicole Kidman, who plays a psychiatrist (cf female protagonist; Scientology). The story begins with a space shuttle crash; the crash site is contaminated by alien microorganisms. In a rather confusing narrative, the alien/humans are instrumental is stopping wars around the world (Darfur Ceasefire). The central premise of the film appears to be: What makes for a better world--one with war and independent thought, or a peaceful one where everyone is part of single, unified mind-set? The film has not be well-received by critics eg ..The Invasion ranks as one of themost misguided and ultimately terrible genre films in years (www.bloody-disgusting.com/news/8824)
Horror or sci-fi? Horror films should attempt to horrify their audiences. If they don’t, they’re not horror…it’s simply nonsense to claim that genres possess clear, stable and identifiable boundaries. R. McInnes, ‘Genre is dead--long live genre’, MediaMagazine no. 11 Feb 2005 The horror films aims at psychological effects; the science fiction film at logical possibilities. R. Soloman (1976), Beyond Formula: American Film Genres
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers Is both horror and sci-fi (combinant or cross-genre films). There are sci-fi elements: the threat or contagion (spores) from outer space But There are more numerous horror elements: possession or de-humanisation; inexplicable horror; people turning into zombies (monsters?); allegories of larger, external anxieties?
These films illustrate changes which are a consequence of … • Changes in the nature of genre film (the development of cross-genre or ‘hybrid’ genres; more graphic SFX) • Changes in expressions of representation eg gender roles; the place of the individual in society • Changes in social norms eg attitudes to the portrayal of sex and violence • Changes in the source of fictionalised horror (the monster is now us?)
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers… Tapping into themes of individualism and conformity, personal freedom and social control, the idea of soulless ‘pod people’ has become an all-encompassing metaphor that finds a sociopolitical relevance whatever the period. The Invasion films add up to a veritable catalog of anxieties that have plagued the American psyche in the last half-century. D. Lim(2007), Same Old Aliens, but New Neuroses, New York Times 12/8/07
Such a catalog of anxieties Might well include: new pandemics to terror threats to extreme makeovers and genetic engineering (Lim, NYT) Also • threats to civil liberties and personal security • environmental degradation and dwindling natural resources (the end of life as we know it?) • a world increasingly out of control (cyclones; the melting polar ice caps)? • the presence of real-life ‘monsters’ (racial genocide, serial murderers, cannibals)?
finally The nature of horror, in its fictional representations in film and literature, has changed dramatically over the decades. The ‘beast’ or ‘monster’ is no longer tangible nor readily visible (such Frankenstein’s Monster or Dracula were); they are now more frequently invisible (a virus) or hidden (in some cave, somewhere) or just plain ordinary (such as the guy with shifty eyes sitting next to us on a plane!) Nevertheless truly effective form of horror still reflect our ambivalent or mixed feelings about monsters--think of Hannibal Lector or Tony Soprano!