Sunday, June 21, 2009

In memoriam.

For Jacob Rhys and Joshua Spenser, in loving memory on Father's Day.
I miss you boys. I miss who you would have been and who you would have become.
All I could give you was an end to suffering.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

On horror.

First, thank you for all of the happy birthday wishes. S. and I had a very nice day together, and like I told her, the best gift I could get was getting back a little bit more of the woman I love. We had a nice lunch at a favorite diner, went to go see "Land of the Lost" (wasn't one of Will Ferrell's best - closer to "Blades of Glory" than "Anchorman"), and did a little shopping. I picked up a copy of The Road by Cormac McCarthy and a few DVDs. All of which happened to be horror movies. Which brings me to the topic of this post.

Since we lost the boys, I've been watching a lot of horror movies.

I've probably mentioned this before, if only in passing. I'm not sure what it is that draws me to watching scary movies. I've always enjoyed them to one degree or another, moreso as an adult. But since we lost our sons, I've found it much easier to watch them, almost reassuring in a way.

Maybe it's that sense that somebody has it worse than me, if only in fiction (a concept the pros call downward comparison). Maybe I've had my capacity to feel fear dulled by such a traumatic experience, so it takes longer to hit my threshold for the sort of scares I used to get. Maybe it's because there are a shit-ton of good horror movies coming from all corners of the world, and it's much easier to see these movies in the age of the Internet than it used to be. Or a mixture of all of these. All I know is that I've been watching a lot of scary shit as of late. Some of it enjoyable, some of it not.

Conversely, almost anything involving children makes me really angry. Kids on television, kids in movies, people becoming parents, the trials and tribulations of parenthood. I would honestly rather watch somebody get their leg sawed off than fumble to get the quadruplets ready for their school field trip. Some might find that a little perverse. Honestly, I don't care and anymore I don't have the patience to keep up appearances.

Both are probably products of the same urge. We are afraid of what's out there in the dark. We have stories to explain lightning and thunder and fire and rain and snow and disease and birth and death. Our beliefs, our ideologies, our faiths: All torches against the dark. We open ourselves to horror stories because fictional terrors are manageable terrors. We inoculate ourselves against fear this way, by letting in just enough of the dark to keep from being overwhelmed by it. We celebrate birth and children for the same reason - we stave off the idea of oblivion by reassuring ourselves that through children our legacy will live on. As long as our bloodline continues, we never really die. As long as we have children, we will never die. Whitney Houston was right: The children are our future (and also, that crack cocaine is fucking fun). In the hopes of future generations, we light a candle against the dark.

Which brings to mind the movie "The Village." But I'll get to that.

Almost anything having to do with children fills me with grief and sadness and frustration and rage. Not exactly reassuring. So I no longer have that as an option. But I can open myself up to the horrors others envision and that alleviates the sadness for awhile. I've also been spending a lot of time with apocalyptic imagery lately. But that's for another post.

So, horror.

I want to get this down before I get to the pithy part. As I'm writing this out, I keep thinking about the movie "The Village." If you haven't seen it, go see it. Get it from Netflix or something, I'll wait.


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Okay. So as I'm sitting here writing this post and working these ideas out, it occurs to me that "The Village" is sort of a literal instantiation of the stuff I'm talking about here. You've got a bunch of people who have been traumatized by the death of someone close to them and decide that the sane response to this is to abandon the modern world for an invented pre-industrial agrarian society. Which is a fiction intended to keep real horror at bay. And these people have kids, and kids being kids they know that the kids are going to want to explore life beyond the village, but since life beyond the village is what drove the adults to create the village in the first place, the adults don't see that as an option - no rumspringa here. So the adults create "those of whom we do not speak." They invent small horrors to keep their children safe from the larger horror of the outside world, from which they have made themselves safe with their own invented village. Their protective fiction has its own protective fiction, complete with pantomime raids and sacrifices and costumes hanging in a shed at the edge of the woods.

And yet, they can't keep trauma and violence at bay. One of their own, for reasons nobody can fathom, does something horrible. Something for which nobody's fictions can account. Death and tragedy lie outside of reasoning and explanations and platitudes. And their only chance to avert the monster they ran from, reappeared in their midst, is to send someone out into the world to retrieve medical help. They send a blind woman - a woman for whom the dark isn't just my clumsy metaphor, but life itself. She fumbles out into the dark beyond the village, guided only by necessity, without the comfort of fiction to keep her safe. No matter what narrative we construct, be it community, tradition, birth and growth, or monsters in the closet, it always comes back to the dark and all the ways we shelter ourselves from it.

So that was quite the tangent.

So I'm going to share with you some of the horror movies I've enjoyed lately - I wouldn't be surprised if I'm the only one who finds solace in them, but it works for me.

Basic:
Suitable for most people.

Pulse - Based on the Japanese movie Kairo, this is basically a technological ghost story √° la The Ring. Not qute as good as that movie, but sufficiently somber and spooky to be effective, with more of an emphasis on mood and atmosphere than cheap scares.

Cloverfield - A verité take on the giant monster movie, sort of like The Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla. The protagonists can be really irritating, but I think that's sort of the point - this is pretty much exactly what it would look like if a bunch of clever New York yuppie types found themselves running for their lives from something that can play tiddlywinks with skyscrapers. A little slow to start, but once it does, it doesn't let up until it ends.

The Descent - A prime example of what I like to call the "just when you thought it couldn't go any more wrong" movie. Interpersonal drama between a group of women on a caving expedition leads to disastrous consequences...and then things get really weird. There are bad things happening on about two or three different levels at once, and the tension keeps racheting up and ratcheting up masterfully.

Shrooms - A solid teens-in-trouble film. A group of more or less annoying college students go to Ireland looking for psychedelic mushrooms. Of course, they happen to go looking in a part of the country with a decidedly shady past involving a brutal order of monks and feral orphans, and nobody's sure if what's happening is real or not because they're all tripping balls. Sufficiently creepy, gory but not overly so, and well-plotted.

Intermediate: If you're not fond of horror movies, approach with caution.

Halloween (remake) - I don't understand why this remake attracted so much negative attention, it's not like the original is no longer available. Plot-wise, it's very similar to the original, which was pretty much the first slasher movie, but Rob Zombie's aesthetic makes all of the difference. This is an actively hostile movie. It aims to make you uncomfortable and succeeds. This is a good thing. Every death scene in this movie looks like a crime scene photo, messy and horrible in its banality. Everyone suffers, physically or emotionally, and the portrait painted of humanity is bleak. Puts the "horror" back into "horror movie."

The Abandoned - A haunted-house story about inescapable destiny, in which a woman travels to rural Russia to check out the family homestead she's inherited, and instead finds all manner of creepy shit. I don't want to say much else for fear of ruining it, but this movie has atmosphere in spades and will freak you out.

The Mist - Based on the Stephen King story of the same name, it's one of the better adaptations of his work. Like any other good scary movie, it works on psychological and supernatural levels at the same time - the situation the characters find themselves in could be something as simple as a really bad snowstorm or the bizarre invasion with which they're actually dealing, and there would still be the equally terrifying human factor to deal with. The ending is a real kick in the teeth, though, and although I commend the director for having the sheer balls to include it, it's also the reason I'm listing it here instead of under Basic.

Quarantine - Oh, this one is scary as fuck. Like Cloverfield, it's told from an immediate point of view. The conceit here is that a TV journalist and her cameraman are out riding along with a group of firemen for a human-interest story when the firemen are called to take care of a medical emergency at a small apartment building. The medical emergency goes very bad very quickly, and the cameraman keeps rolling, if only to document what's happening. The screws tighten very suddenly and very quickly and the ending spares you not at all. The original Spanish version, titled [REC], is equally recommended.

Advanced: Approach with great caution, not for the average movie buff.

The Ruins - A much bleaker take on the teens-in-trouble genre, where a group of spring-breaking boys and girls in Mexico run off in search of an archeological dig and meet a really grisly end. Ostensibly, the movie is about a malevolent force of nature. But, like The Mist, the people involved do as much damage to each other as the antagonist does.

Hostel - Famous mostly as the progenitor of the so-called "torture porn" genre of horror film, we once again have a group of college-age boys engaging in spectacularly bad decision-making and paying dearly for it. Although this movie does not skimp on the graphic violence and suffering typical of the genre, I think critics of this movie miss the black satire underneath - this movie has a lot to say about capitalism and industries designed to cater to a particular set of desires. One man's spring break is another man's murder holiday, perhaps. It's also much more plausible than, say, The Ruins, which rattled me more in the actual events of the movie, but it's much easier to imagine the situation outlined in Hostel actually occurring. Which leads me to the next movie...

Shuttle - I'm not sure this is actually out on video yet, but it's great. It has a simple, elegant premise - what if the bus driver didn't take you where you wanted to go? - and builds up twist after twist, spiraling it into deeply disturbing territory and an ending that neatly wraps up everything that has come before with the force of a blow to the stomach. The last images of this movie haunted me for days afterward. And I find the premise of this movie even more plausible than that of Hostel, which makes me genuinely nervous. It takes a lot to affect me any more, but this did it.

Martyrs - A young girl escapes her imprisonment in an abandoned slaughterhouse, where she was beaten and starved by a mysterious group of people for reasons that aren't made clear. As she recovers from her ordeal, she makes a friend and trusts her to keep her secret - that she was followed out of imprisonment by a shadowy creature that mutilates her periodically. Flash forward several years, to the same girl murdering a family as they sit down to breakfast. From here, what seems like a psychological thriller turns into something both stranger and more noble - a meditation on devotion, loyalty, suffering and transcendence that reminds me more of Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark that anything else. And like that movie, this one can be really hard to watch, especially in the last 30 minutes or so. It doesn't offer easy answers, and in some ways it doesn't even offer clear moral choices, something horror films usually do. Not at all a scary date movie, this one will leave you shaken.

Honestly, I think scary movies get a bad rap. Like science fiction, they're mostly treated as genre trash - something cheap and disposable - and certainly there are plenty of films in both genres that are. But there are also films that refuse to pander, that hold difficult ideas up to the light and present them clearly and honestly. And it's been my experience that that's the best you can hope for when faced with real trauma and loss, so in a way I respect that in my entertainment as well.

Or, you know, I'm being all pretentious and shit.