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Note: The following essay deals with what I will call “straight” horror, i.e., horror films not intended to be tongue-in-cheek and do not contain elements of self-parody or intentional humor (with the possible exception of the reference to Dead Alive). So, none of the Bruce Campbell Evil Dead movies or the various aging slasher franchises will be dealt with. Nor will it deal with television/net-based series.
If you have at all seen the American horror movie The Brain that Would Not Die you probably saw it on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in which “Jan in a pan,” the decapitated head of the girlfriend of the mad scientist in the movie, kept alive through methods he perfected in his twisted perversion of medical science (he was a doctor specializing in transplant medicine and reconstructive surgery the set-up tells us) visits the bots and Mike from the Gizmonic Institute during intermissions. I was not so lucky. At the age of 10, maybe 11, I suffered through the film in all its stomach-turning awfulness, unmitigated by the quips and comments from the MST3K team, and was rescued from its twisted if ineptly executed story only by ads for the local car dealerships and some guy in Indianapolis who really, really wanted to sell you guns. Lots of them. And frankly, I was glad he did because I knew I would need them badly if that thing locked in the secret experimental operating theatre in the basement ever got out.
You see, that “thing” was the key to the horror of the whole film … er … movie. This piece of cinematic waste does not deserve that sometimes-noble appellation. Sure, the movie had key elements of the horror genre in the west, to wit:
- The real existence of evil. In this case, embodied in the person of a man of science who to all outward appearances is upright and even altruistic in his motives, in addition to being intellectually brilliant, but who, in reality, is psychotically evil, putting his obsession with pushing the limits of what science can do past the outmost edges of what science morally ought to be allowed to do.
- Innocent and/or helpless persons in danger. In this case, the innocents are subjected to hideous experiments in the hands of (1) above as he perverts and warps science beyond all bounds of human ethics. That one of the helpless persons is the mad scientist´s own wife and the other some unwitting beauty just raises the level of pity for the victims and revulsion at the evil of our mad doctor. This evocation of our pity and fear responses is all in good Euripidean/Shakespearean style and would be familiar to the Aristotles, Drydens, Lessings, and Diderots among us as well.
- Suspense born of danger experienced vicariously through audience identification with the innocent/helpless persons. In this case, that danger comes from the scientist´s intent to kill a beautiful woman — any beautiful woman will do for him, as long as she´s a looker — and transplant his wife’s bodiless head onto her still-living body. The other woman´s head — and brain and mind — would just be thrown away, presumably. The threat here is really one of complete dehumanization, of turning two women into objects of unwilling medical experimentation to satisfy the demented intellectual and sexual pleasures of the man performing the experiment. The approach to the fulfilment of this monstrously hideous plan is what generates our suspense.
- Evocation of moral revulsion, visceral fear and physical disgust at the efforts of (1) to inflict (3) on (2) and the results of those efforts. In particular, these reactions are triggered by the living result of the mad doctor’s previous experiments in his monstrous corruption of medicine, the aforementioned “thing” locked in the experimental operating theater, as well as the very idea that the mad doctor might be able to really carry out his intentions described above.
- The evocation of the uncanny or invocation of the malign supernatural. By this, what is usually meant, in horror films, is some supernatural element of inhuman, demonic, or diabolical influence on/control over humans. Here, it is merely the “thing which should not be,” a tortured, mutilated, experimental “patient” of the mad scientist which (it was once a man but does not even qualify as a “who” anymore, that’s part of the horror) has somehow been kept alive as a twisted parody of human form … at least we are led to think that by the dialogue. Said dialogue also implies that there is some mental link between “Jan in a pan” and the “thing” from the lab. Which gets me to my point:
Why is the “thing” and not the head in the pan the object of real horror in this film? First of all, because the bodiless woman is more of an object of pity as she is played, but she also turns into something of a Fury in the Greek-est sense: It is her voice that convinces the “thing” to act, destroying the lab, thereby put an end to freakish misery to which the woman´s demented doctor boyfriend has condemned them, as well as killing the madman and turning all of his notes about his techniques into ash.
The filmmakers had to put the “thing” on the screen for that particular scene, and in doing so they did the one act that turned this film from a potentially mediocre piece of cinematic horror into a real dog with fleas: The director lets us see it and find out just how low the movie´s budget really was and how inept the make-up man. There had been, in the dialogue, some terrific build-up for this unfortunate monster, and everything I imagined it being in my 10-year-old mind was orders of magnitude more terrifying, more deserving of the title “horror” than the laughably latex mask on the face of some poor contract player from central casting. Seriously, episodes of the original Outer Limits (contemporary with this movie) like “The Architects of Fear” had better special effects make-up than The Brain that Would Not … shut up … er … Die.
That decision, repeated hundreds of times and with increasing frequency is precisely where the horror genre has gone wrong in the last 30 or so years: The decision to give free rein to the impulse to show the audience what should not be shown but instead left to each audience member’s individual imagination.
Just to take a couple of well-known examples: The 1931 Frankenstein with Boris Karloff and the 1994 Frankenstein with Robert DeNiro. The former film only hints at the most pity-and-fear inducing event in the monster´s career: his accidental killing of the peasant girl. Nor does the film show much of the making of the monster. Before you say “censors,” the 1931 Frankenstein came out before film censors were hugely concerned about possible gruesome content in films, though this film was still preceded by a warning for the faint of heart and weak of constitution in most theaters where it was shown. More than 80 years later, everyone still recognizes this face:
The 1994 film shows us everything, including some of the worst performances in the careers of its main cast (Kevin Branagh as Victor Frankenstein, DeNiro, Helena Bonham-Carter, et al.), and for the sake of that cast, I hope that I and film freaks like me are the only human beings on the planet who remember this lamentable waste of time and talent. It has been forgotten, and deservedly so, and I think its excesses completely explain its fate.
The same fate has rightly befallen the 1999 remake of The Haunting. The first film version from 1963 did not show us much of anything of the unquiet spirit haunting the titular mansion, but got its jump scares and sense of dread and fear from what is only implied through sound, shadow, and excellent acting. Again, in the competition for evoking those fear, pity, revulsion, and anxiety responses in the audience the older film wins, the younger film loses.
This has been generally true of the whole genre since at least the ’70s. Once directors such Tobe Hooper began actually showing more and more graphic depictions (not necessarily realistic ones) of the violence that is by the genre’s nature part of what makes horror films horrifying, they began a sort of arms race in latex and fake-blood-splatter which Peter Jackson took to its absolutely absurd extreme in Dead Alive.
The fact that special effects make-up technology has advanced in the last 40 years or so does not wholly explain the apparent compulsion to use it to depict the gruesome acts of monsters and men with the hearts of monsters, either. That, I think, lies in the character of the whole “arms race”– what was shocking yesterday and effectively evoked fear, disgust, and pity no longer does next week. A director who decides to depict a naked woman being bisected in the middle of a sex act can only do that once and expect the image to shock his audience.
That example demonstrates a principle that has worked very much against the genre: Special effects that once would have evoked those fear and pity responses became more and more conventional, prompting horror film writers and directors ever-more-grotesque and depraved images to put on the screen, and people become increasingly inured to them. The results have been the whole torture-porn wave that started in the late 1990s, the Hellraiser movies (which are also dreadfully boring), Saw 1 through … what is it now … Saw 8,000? And I don’t know how many variations on Hostel. None of them leave any work for the audience’s imagination and all of them have now run their course, leaving audiences and critics, well, bored with the whole idea of horror.
The few exceptions to this trend have been the horror films that are staying with the culture … for now anyway … and that is an important demonstration of the validity of the thesis that “less is more” in horror. The Blair Witch Project, now 20 years old, famously showed the audience nothing of the titular Connecticut witch but instead let atmosphere, dialogue, and acting carry the story. It supplied all of the elements of horror film, without showing us the evil stalking our protagonists. The film is still talked about as a result.
Likewise, A Quiet Place kept its threat to the family we identify with out of sight for most of the film and brilliantly used sound – and silence—to produce the requisite suspense, anxiety and pity responses until near the end. It has been rightly called the smartest horror film of the century to date.
Get Out also mostly relied on psychological build-up to generate its sense of the ominous and horrific, and did not turn on the gore until the very last act. That, too, could have been toned down without any detriment to the story or the psychological involvement of the audience. It did not depend on those elements to tell its tale, while in lesser horror movies, the elements of gory, gruesome depictions of depraved acts of violence and torture are the whole point.
Personally, I viewed the production and popularity of such films that emphasized the cruelty, and the depravity that produced it, to be a sign of a soul sickness in our culture. I hope we really have seen the end of that particularly appalling trend, which hope is based in part on the success of the Paranormal Activity series and films like those mentioned above.
The trade magazines like The Hollywood Reporter have been talking about the demise of horror for over a decade now, though box office has shown no clear trend — receipts have been up one year, down the next. 2014 was particularly bad, 2017 particularly good with Get Out contributing to both box-office and critical success. 2018 was a strong year thanks in no small part to the new Halloween and the aforementioned A Quiet Place.
Whether and how the genre continues to develop or succeed will, I think, depend on writers and directors continuing to move away from the gore-and-entrails approach and back to the key elements of the genre identified above.