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Thursday, January 07, 2010


When horror films are sadder than weepies

A while ago my husband rented a horror movie called Hatchet from the library, almost entirely because of its strapline: 'It's not a remake, it's not a sequel, and it's not based on a Japanese one.' Sharing his sense that good copywriting deserved some kind of reward, I settled down with him to watch it.

After about forty-five minutes, I turned to him and said, 'This is making me sad. I don't want to see all these people die. Can we turn it off?'

'Yeah,' he said, 'I think I agree with you.' So we ejected the DVD with most of the characters still surviving, put it back in the box and returned it to the library. I believe everyone dies in the end, but I refused to witness it.

Hatchet is a fairly traditional slasher movie, neither particularly good nor particularly bad, and in itself not necessarily worth making a big fuss over. Its characters were broadly drawn and based on various traditional types, but mostly pretty likeable; while they were the fictional equivalent of skittles, set up to be knocked down, both of us found ourselvess surprisingly reluctant to sit through their various bloody fates.

Which points towards an interesting trend in recent horror films: there's something awfully sad about seeing all those people die.

My husband, for instance, has yet to recover from Wolf Creek, a rather well-scripted gorno in which three extremely nice young travellers meet a terrible fate at the hands of an evil bushranger; the point where the first girl was getting hacked up, he tells me, any sense of horror, fear, shock, dread or any of the other emotions the genre is supposed to evoke were entirely swallowed up in sorrow. Not tragic, cathartic sorrow, but just grisly, miserable unhappiness at seeing such awful things happen to someone.

I don't think this is how horror movies are supposed to make you feel.

Having seen old-time slashers like Halloween and Friday the 13th, they don't have quite the same effect. They, too, involve rather nice people meeting undeservedly ghastly fates, but the effect isn't quite so saddening, for several reasons.

The first has to do with character writing. Partly because of the cheap sound equipment and, shall we say, variable skills of the actors, old-style slasher characters exist in a somewhat dreamlike world. They seem like nice people, but nice people we never get to know that well: there's a kind of distance between them and us. We care for them as disinterested strangers rather than as acquaintances: their personalities are sketched in only roughly, their voices come from far off, and they inhabit the world of nightmare where death is to be expected.

The second has to do with build-up. Old slashers hit the ground running and don't stop to rest: if I remember right, we begin both Halloween and Friday 13th with a killer's-eye view murder. Tension is established quickly with the dispatch of characters we haven't had time to get fond of, and from there, the film stalks. Time without violence isn't hanging-out time, the creation of little story arcs to be cut short unfairly or of hopes and dreams never to be fulfilled: it's time in which death lurks behind every bush, and while the characters may be ignorant enough to be relaxed, we, the audience, are no such thing. Our attention is always forced towards the next outburst of violence: after the horrified start when the bad guy leaps out of the closet there's actually a degree of relief as he plunges his knife home: at least the terrible waiting is temporarily abated. The stretched, nightmarish anticipation of an old slasher pulls us to and fro, making us wait for the next murder almost as tautly as the killer does. Dying characters betray no hopes, because we are never allowed to cherish such illusions: the end is coming and we know it, not just because the poster promised horror but because the film has, and has never promised anything else.

In the 2000 documentary Scream And Scream Again, Mark Kermode points out that later 80s slashers put as much emphasis on the slashings as the stalkings; since then the slashings have been ever more graphic and the stalkings have been ever more edged out by something that's neither: time with the characters where death isn't imminent. Even if we know intellectually that they probably won't last the hour, such scenes viscerally feel as if we're in a film where people's lives might actually be going somewhere. It's a sharp slap to be plunged back into the slashings, like being jerked from one kind of film to another. Older slashers don't have this problem: they're almost all stalk, so the shocks are the clean shock of dread fulfilled, not the shock of genre dysmorphia as well.

The third has to do with death scenes. Old-style victims gasp when the knife comes out and scream when the knife goes in, and that's about it. They don't weep, plead, howl and flail and shudder for their lives. The deaths are quick and stylised, and as such generally evoke shock and fear more than anguish. Even the infamous meat-hook scene of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, (you can watch it here; be advised it's one of the most gruelling scenes of one of the most gruelling movies from the heyday of slashers, so don't say I didn't warn you, and if you're at work you might want to consider what your boss would think) features far more screams than sobs. A scream carries less emotional expression than a sob: it's a generalised distress call, carrying and sharp, but whether it conveys fear, pain or simple shock - or even excitement - is hard to determine; it's weeping that's the really harrowing sound. Recent horror movies tend to run a greater gamut of wails, and that takes it out of you.

So recent horror movies, through their greater vocal range, calmer down times, better sound quality and more thoroughly established characters, make me sad. I was discussing this with a friend, and she raised an interesting question: what about films that are supposed to be sad? Do I avoid them?

The answer is no. And curiously, I don't find them as upsetting either. Now, on the face of it this makes little sense. Why should a film that goes all-out to make me sad sadden me less than a film that's just trying to scare me?

The answer, I think, is that weepies, unlike slashers, respect your grief.

We discussed Fried Green Tomatoes, one of her favourites, which kicks off with the sudden and pointless death of the nicest person you could ever hope to meet and goes right on from there. But here's the thing: it doesn't bounce on to the next scene with a shake of its head. It takes his death seriously. He's a terrible loss, and the film explores that - focuses, in fact, around his little sister, unable for years to come to terms with her adored brother's absence, and his girlfriend, left without him to marry a man who beats her. His absence reverberates, paying his presence its due. Other people die and suffer, and the same thing happens: the characters mourn, making space for us to mourn with them, acknowledging that it's right to grieve for death.

Weepies, in fact, are as much about coping with disaster as they are about the occurence of disaster. Death is absorbed and processed; even the concept of weeping at a film suggests that we're being encouraged to some kind of catharsis.

A sad death in horror, on the other hand, happens fast and sudden and that's the end of it. We're given no space to work through the emotions it provokes. If we've been given no space to build up any emotions about the deceased except the expectation of their death then that's fine; the death itself is the moment of catharsis. But if the character has been shown as a real person, there's nowhere for those emotions to go. The result is unsatisfied grief and frustration.

You might argue that showing the victims as real people and emphasising the unfairness of murder is more true to life, less objectifying. But the problem is, a slasher film is inherently objectifying. If the entertainment on offer is watching people die, however naturalistically you portray them, however tenderly you evoke their lives, what are they ultimately except objects to be consumed? They're there to get killed: that's the function they serve in the plot. It's why they're in the story in the first place. Not objectifying slasher characters is like being expected to bond with a jelly bean before you eat it.

Fundamentally I think that the older slasher films are less hypocritical about death and sorrow. The addled teens are there to get it in the neck, and there's no point pretending otherwise; if you wanted to watch a film that cared deeply about its protagonists you're in the wrong auditorium. You don't like Halloween's attitude to violence, they're playing The Deer Hunter down the street; go there. A film that tries to show the humanity of victims and the unfairness of death, but makes no room for grief, gets the worst of both, and ultimately comes across as more callous. It isn't any less callous about the characters - they're just as dead, in fact they may well die harder, and they aren't given any more mourning time - but it's also callous about the audience.

There are times when I get the whiff of a judgmental spirit in some contemporary horror directors, a desire to punish the audience. You want a slasher? Fine, but I'm going to make you like the characters and then kill them horribly. You want a spook house? Fine, but there will be real corpses. Old horror morality was crude and simplistic, mostly a cautionary-tale affair of sex and drugs (though I've argued before that the only-a-virgin-survives convention of old horror may be less a matter of morality and more a matter of identification, and that at least some recent horror films are actually more Puritanical rather than less), but recent slasher films, existing in a brave new world where misogyny is unacceptable and teen sex is perfectly normal, seem to have cast around for someone to disapprove of and settled on their viewers.

This isn't the inevitable consequence of a more liberal view of sex; the cautionary tale is still a functional trope in our swinging era. Though it regrettably succumbs to the traditional need for a last man standing with some rather contrived catastrophes in the last few minutes, I'd point to Donkey Punch as a rather neat little morality play, in which three girls unwisely go to party on a floating yacht crewed by four boys, getting enmeshed in a drama where the roles of lover and killer become interlinked. The gruesome events point clearly to the more sex-positive but unarguable moral: don't have sex with someone you don't trust. Despite a laddish tone Donkey Punch delivers some good practical advice: girls, don't go somewhere isolated with unfamiliar boys only after one thing; boys, don't listen to your bigmouth mate. The consequences of ignoring these rules are grisly yet plausible: the girls find themselves suddenly changed from guests to captives, at the mercy of young men who, it turns out, actually weren't joking when they joked about not respecting women. The boys find themselves rife with internal division, pre-existing rivalries blooming into full-blown enmities and cooler heads overruled by the panic of the selfish. All of this plays out a set of morals as consistent as you could find in any teen magazine's advice page, and until the need for punitive mayhem overturns the logic of the story the deaths are grim but not exactly sad: their appropriateness to the story means that, as with the long stalk of early slashers, the audience is well prepared for them.

It's all these deaths that set out to prove that death is unfair and strikes at random that create that effect of unassuaged grief that has been so putting me off recent horror. Death often does strike by unjust chance, but if that's the point you're going to make you need to show how people deal with that, because creating some sense of continuum is how people respond to unpredictable tragedy, and just as much a part of life as the randomness itself. You want realism, that includes showing grieving. And if your story is about a serial killer, random is exactly what death isn't, especially when you're following the traditional formula of a hermetic circle of victims picked off one at a time. That's a contrived scenario, highly structured, created for a story in which death occurs in a semi-guessable sequence rather than entirely at random. Like cobbling together the high body count of old slashers and the sadness of other styles, cobbling together the Agatha-Christie-like closed cast with the randomness of death in the real world is a patch job, leading to an unsatisfying result.

It's the old problem of adapting something internally consistent: if you adapt only some elements without working through the whole thing, you wind up with something inconsistent. Something has to give, and in my case it's audience enjoyment. Maybe I'm not supposed to enjoy these new horrors, but that comes back to the issue of hypocrisy: if the directors think I deserve to suffer for renting a horror movie, what do they deserve for making it in the first place?

So I'm wondering what's going on, and at this point I move into political speculation. It's been remarked, as I'll discuss in a moment, that horror films very often channel contemporary anxieties and pick up on the political crises of the day. Slashers are a distinctively American form, which, added to America's political dominance, makes American politics the likely epicentre from which horror shocks will reverberate. Is there any connection?

Cited in Wikipedia - that's how erudite I am, aren't you impressed? - the critic Vera Dika argues that the satisfaction of watching a slasher is threefold:

Catharsis—Through a release of fears about bodily injury or from political or social tensions of the day.
Recreation—An intense, thrill seeking, physical experience akin to a roller coaster ride.
Displacement—Audiences sexual desires are displaced onto the characters in the film

Catharsis, I think, doesn't work unless it's been properly built up. A sad event is just sad without the structured inevitability of tragic form. Displacement, too, I think is problematic: the desire to have sex is less of a problem nowadays than it once was, and the masked-boy-penetrates-pretty-girl-with-knife formula is no longer the staple - the genders and styles of killing are far more mixed and matched nowadays than of yore. Recreation, maybe. But what about political and social tensions?

Reading over what I said about Hostel, which was, after all, a Bush-era film, dark thoughts about neocons started roiling in my brain. The documentary American Nightmare discusses the psychological effects of the Vietnam war on the makers of early slasher films, the anger and horror that boiled over into angry, horrified movies. Hostel struck me as something of an Iraq film, but from less sensitive respresentatives of its country. (Standard disclaimer: I'm talking about America's erstwhile leaders, not every American. If every American thought like that we'd still be under the neoconservative heel, perish the thought, plus the early slashers I've been praising are just as American as the more recent crop.) As a story it doesn't work very well, but I started to wonder if that's because it comes out of a worldview that doesn't work either. It doesn't function because it came out of a psychological place that is profoundly dysfunctional: rather than protesting against the nightmares of its nation, it's been contaminated by them.

Consider Hostel's plot. Our heroes bumble off abroad, stomping around and doing whatever they please, blithely unaware of any reason why the world might be more than their playground; foreignness seizes upon them with a horrifying and, to them, inexplicable violence (the film itself seems to feel unable to explain the hostel; it just is), and suddenly bad things are happening for no apparent reason.

I commented in my earlier post that the hero has to escape by a really remarkable cascade of deus ex machina devices largely because the film hasn't bothered to establish him as possessing any survival qualities other than his extroversion and his nationality (of the other two victims, one is extroverted but foreign, the other American but introverted, so only Paxton, the survivor, has the magic combination), but if we consider it as a political film, perhaps that's part of the point. If Hostel portrays anything political, it can only be the entitled bewilderment that Bush and his ilk seemed to feel at not being universally loved and deferred to, and the fact that the film had to muddle through an escape is part of that: if Paxton had been required to have anything other than his American frat-boy energy to merit survival, that would have interferred with the entitlement. The whole point is that he shouldn't have had to be anything other than an American jock; Hostel isn't exactly clear on how this is going to save him, but it feels that it ought to somehow. It just wades in and assumes things will probably work out. The plot makes no sense because it's the child of a worldview that feels under no obligation to see sense.

And the randomness of who survives and why is by no means exclusive to Hostel. Cause and effect tend to come uncoupled in recent horror: there's a bloodbath, but no one can explain what comes from where. There's a kind of confused aggression about such films, a desire to see torture done and to feel oneself the victim at the same time (it wouldn't be the first time America's films dealt with its sins by switching sides; consider Rambo), a fear that the world is a bad place where unaccountable things happen to you the moment you step outside your safe space coupled with a surprising uninterest in why that might be - the villains become more and more motiveless, lacking even the demonic sexual twist of the slashers' early monsters - and an undirected punitiveness, judgementalism flapping loose and logic mishmashed, that might well be Bush's legacy. Honi soit qui mal y pense, we're having violence and never mind processing the consequences.

A side-note: Not all the recent sad slashers may have this sense of entitlement - non-American ones are sometimes equally dislocated, as with Wolf Creek - but the sense of dislocation persists. Given that they're equally Bush-era, I think some of them might speak less of brashly misdirected aggression and more of confused despair: cause and effect slip their moorings because Bush created a world where meaningless violence carried on whatever anybody said about it. Some slashers seem contaminated by Bushism and some disoriented by it, but they all speak of a world where fairness is completely inconceivable.

This is pure speculation on my part; if there's anything in it we should expect to see some refreshing new departures in horror as the presidency of Obama starts to sink in. If Clinton's 90s gave us the performance-artist serial killer and the knowing self-parody, which is to say an era in which sophistication and smarts were riding high, and Bush gave us gruesome deaths, confused hypocrisy and a resolute rejection of thought, I'd like to see what's coming next. I'm certainly tired of this fashion; it's long overstayed its welcome.

Iced in, so I'm feeling comment-y today.

Not sure I want to address the broader political issue -- I think it may be putting too much weight on the development of tropes of one isolated genre. After all, the same studios that put out such clueless depictions of random death can equally produce a film like A SINGLE MAN, no?

But I was struck by that Texas Chainsaw Massacre clip, and how much it did NOT disturb me seeing it this time (as opposed to the movie theatre). Maybe it was small screen, maybe it was knowing what was going to happen; but while watching it, I kept thinking that "Y'know, baroque ossuaries really did this much better" while giggling helplessly at reminders of Terry Goodkind's Evil Chicken
This is a very interesting post, because to me one of the most important things that some very good horror understands is that horror is also tragedy. It's *sad* that these people are losing their lives in such a brutal way. I think the difference is when you take that and use it deliberately.

The anime Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni does it very, very well, by putting equal emphasis on the blood and fear and on the fact that these are fundamentally normal people, close friends caught up in something out of their control. Even the killer(s) get sympathy, and, because of some supernatural aspects, there's always a little bit of hope for them.
I think it may be putting too much weight on the development of tropes of one isolated genre. After all, the same studios that put out such clueless depictions of random death can equally produce a film like A SINGLE MAN, no?

Hm. I think I differ from you on several points there.

To begin with, studios don't make movies; they finance and promote them, but the content of movies is largely determined by the writers and directors, and those are individuals who do trend in particular directions and occupy more consistent positions. The only studio position you can reliably interpret from any movie is 'We could probably make money off this.'

If studios producing different kinds of movies means we can't analyse historical influences in horror, we can't analyse historical influences in any films, because they're all subject to the same principle.

Also, no genre is isolated. We're all influenced by each other and by the world. And when it comes to horror, there is, at least, a school of thought that argues it's a genre particularly responsive to the social anxieties of the day; a story that sets out to worry you may tell you something about what worries people.

So my theory may well be incorrect, but if it is, I don't think it's incorrect for the reasons you suggest.
I haven't recovered from watching Wolf Creek either. I feel slightly sick every time I think of it.
I have not watched Wolf Creek, but I agree that Hostel was weirdly disjointed - though honestly, I mostly put it down to Very Bad Writing. Having said that, I have a counter-theory to offer about the current direction of horror films.

I blame Scream.

I think that Scream (and its sequels) overtly identified a lot of the consistent elements of the horror/slasher genre. That's not to say that people hadn't observed those things before, just that nobody had incorporated those observations into a film. By making an overt statement about the predictability of those elements (on film), Scream left a lot of film-makers (and, I suspect, script writers) high and dry. If they continue with those conventions, then they're being predictable; but if they don't, then they lose a lot of the structure that the genre requires in order to work. The logical solution is to reinvent the genre, or take it off in a new direction; but that's rather more difficult than playing with minor variations inside an established genre.

So, basically, I think that Scream made it more difficult to create horror films, and there aren't so many film-makers who are good enough to cope with the additional difficulty.
Or, to say that another way, I think that Scream forced film-makers to be more original, and most aren't good enough to cope with that additional level of difficulty.
Also, no genre is isolated. We're all influenced by each other and by the world. And when it comes to horror, there is, at least, a school of thought that argues it's a genre particularly responsive to the social anxieties of the day

Valid point. And it's not a genre that I am particularly familiar with (I don't particularly like having my anxieties poked at, I suppose), so I shouldn't have shot my mouth off about it.

Still wondering why the TCM clip didn't bother me, though.

[verification word: "sperhex", a form of magical miniaturized personal ballista used by Roman Legionaries in a yet-to-be-written Turtledove novel]
@hapax: I don't think you were shooting your mouth. :-)


It's funny; Scream was very popular in its day but I've seen a bit of a backlash against it since.

I don't think I blame it. Yes, it called attention to genre tropes, but the only reason that worked was that those tropes were so extremely familiar that everyone in the audience could recognise them instantly. Which you point out, but the thing is, I think those cliches were killing the genre. Prior to Scream, the slasher film had pretty much been dying quietly precisely because the audiences were so bored with the cliches that nobody much was bothering to go see or make new slashers. Scream, I'd say, revived the genre as much as anything else by proving people would still go to the cinema for it; if it hadn't been for Scream I don't think the gornos would have got funding because studios would have reckoned there was no market for them.

The gorno fashion was kicked off, I have the impression, by two main movies, Saw and Hostel. Of those, the former wasn't a slasher either in tone or structure; it was basically the somewhat stunned grandchild of Se7en. As to Hostel - I'd look more to Quentin Tarantino than Wes Craven if we were looking for a single individual (a dodgy proposition, but just suppose). As with Scream, Tarantino spent the 90s making genre-savvy films that were equally entertaining to genre fans and non-genre fans alike, but after a strong opening moved to things like Kill Bill where the main pleasure seemed to be 'Let's make something that's in this genre' - which is to say, doing the genre at all was the main point, and things like coherent storytelling got shrugged off. Eli Roth was a very public protege of Tarantino, so I think it's conceivable that some of the most influential gornos were influenced by a sensibility that felt all a film needed to do to be cool or entertaining was to identify itself as a particular genre, as if genre was a substitute for story.

Various filmmakers in Scream and Scream Again also point out that when a particular film is successful, other films tend to imitate it and often imitate the furniture rather than capturing what actually made it good. In a way, the incoherence of current films may be a variant of that: rather than just saying, 'Okay, we need five teenagers and a cabin in the woods,' people are saying, 'Okay, we need a film with lots of gruesome deaths.' Genre appearance getting treated as part of the furniture.

It's just a speculation. I still think that real-world anxieties and confusions tend to make their way into horror and the incoherent gornos came out of an incoherent age. But that's just my theory, and time will probably tell if anyone else sees it that way.
I just made my husband laugh by saying this, so I'll add it here in case it amuses anyone else...

The gornos remind me of Tarantino's worse work because they all seem to feel, like I said, that being identifable in their genre is the important thing rather than telling a coherent story. What I ended up saying was this:

It's cinema for people who expect to talk all the way through the film.

Because if you're talking all the way through the film, random plotting hardly matters; you're going to miss details anyway. Genre shout-outs are good, because they give you something to talk about. Like Michael Bay's bizarrely incoherent action scenes*, perhaps, we've been dealing with an era of cinema when at least some directors really don't seem to expect us to pay that much attention to the screen.

Ceasing to hire ushers was the worst decision in the history of cinema.** That's been clear for some time, but now it's affecting the actual movies! Brethren, arise!

*Blogged about here: http://www.kitwhitfield.com/2009/07/big-dumb-cinema.html

**Bitched about here: http://www.kitwhitfield.com/2009/07/if-audiotorium-is-on-fire-women-with.html
Oh, fwiw, you've used the term "gornos" several times.

For those who aren't particularly genre-savvy (like me), am I correct in assuming that it is an analog to "porno" for splatterflix?

(Wikipedia seems to back me up on this)

[verification word: "conce" -- surely a technical term in porno flix, but not one I want to think about in any more detail]
Re: Fried Green Tomatoes - Kit, your retelling makes the movie sound *much* more depressing than it was. There were moments that made me cry, but overall, if somebody would ask me, that's not exactly a movie I'd categorise as "a weepie".
Yeah, 'gorno' is, like 'torture porn', a term to denote the grisly new fashion in horror. Journalists and reviewers in the UK have used it quite a lot, but possibly that's a more local phenomenon than I thought, in which case I apologise to anyone I confused.
There's also a trend of some very sharp horror films out recently, too, in my favorite horror subgenre - funny horror.

Interestingly, many of these films are British in origin. I tend to be less excited about American horror. I enjoyed Saw more or less solely for the cognitive dissonance of seeing Wesley from Princess Bride tied up in a bathroom.

Sean of the Dead, Severance, Black Sheep, Choking Hazard - all of these are recent films with varying degrees of cleverness.

Let the Right One In is most notable - it's not funny, but the horror is very subtle, and stays with you instead of startling you. It seems to emerge long after the film is finished.
If slasher films are supposed to be entertaining because they are objectifying and don't let you care about the victims, then you must, of course, agree that slasher PORNOGRAPHY should be even more entertaining, since it is even more objectifying and dehumanizing to the victims.

I have never understood nor sympathized with the disgusting, subhuman voyeurism that drives people to enjoy slasher movies. Why not combine slashers and pornography to perfect the taste? After all, they are fundamentally identical genres.
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