Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Notes on Theories: Noel Carroll's "A Philosophy of Horror"

As a part of my being something of a genre-freak, I've built up a reasonably substantial collection of books on horror theory.  Picking apart favourite books and movies to poke at their innards certainly isn't everyone's cup of tea, but then I'm one of those that tend to watch all the DVD extras and then look up all the trivia about films I've just watched.

One of the common subjects in these very varied theoretical texts is an examination of the definition of horror.  Previously, I'd generally felt that horror was quite self-evident - you know it when you see it.  (Clues including: black / red / lurid video covers; lashings of gore; creepy spooks; actors who are still mainly waiting tables.)  However, in the course of reading these books, it has become evident that numerous theories exist relating to what exactly constitutes horror, and how the genre relates to existing philosophical and psychoanalytical thought.

As a fan of the (sometimes maligned) horror genre, it heartens me to discover that so much thought has gone into analysing horror, encompassing not just the highbrow but also the trashier end of the spectrum.

Here I'll attempt to summarise the horror definitions of some of these theorists; people far more competent and thorough in their research than myself, beginning with the first book of horror theory I ever got my mitts on - Noel Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart.

The opening chapters of the book are concerned with offering a definition of horror - specifically what Carroll terms "art-horror" (as opposed to horrific occurances in real life.) As demonstrated in his statement regarding the purpose of the text - to offer "an account of horror in virtue of the emotional effects it is designed to cause in audiences" (p. 8) - Carroll's approach is focused on the responses of the reader / viewer to the text, and he takes the generation of these responses as the basis for his definition of the genre. Carroll raises an interesting point in support of this theory; namely that the genres such as "horror" and "suspense" are named for the emotions aroused, in contrast to, for example, musicals and Westerns which are defined by their structure and setting respectively. However, Carroll's parameters for horror are somewhat restricted - he puts much importance on the presence of supernatural elements, and especially the presence of "monsters" as a prerequesite for a work to be considered "art-horror", to the detriment of many notable examples of the form. Carroll terms non-supernatural horror e.g. Peeping Tom , or the works of Poe as a different catergory: "tales of terror". This seems something of a false distinction - whilst there are many examples of works that hover on the edge of the genre (eg Alien; Delierance), to eliminate all non-supernatural horror is to exclude many works which strongly evoke the art-horror affect in the consumer - the primary defining characteristic of horror according to Carroll's own reasoning.

An example of what I see as Carroll's problematic categorisation is his classification of the Stephen King novel Cujo as a thriller / suspense as opposed to a horror, due mainly to the fact that the antagonist is non-supernatural - "just a dog." (p.38) Whilst it would be a mistake to automatically assign all of King's output to the horror category, I believe that Cujo definitely falls squarely into the genre, and the titular character is certainly more than "just a dog." The novel abounds with supernatural imagery - for example the bogey man in the closet and the suggestion that a notorious serial killer may be able to return from the dead. The rabid dog itself serves as a metaphor open to multiple interpretations - in the latter half of the book the narrative is stripped back to a simple confrontation between the family unit in the car versus the inscrutable threat outside. The lack of convoluted plotting enables the reader to view Cujo as symbolic of any threat to safety and security of the family; whether disease, violence, social unrest or the damaging effects of addiction - known to be a personal preoccupation for King at the time. The fact that Cujo is infected with rabies when bitten by a bat - a clear allusion to vampirism - suggests that he may be possessed rather than merely infected; this suggestion brings to mind the literary and mythical archetype of the "demon dogs", such as the three-headed guardian of Hades Cerberus, the beast in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and the vampire's canine form in Dracula.


On the subject of monsters, Carroll raises an interesting point – how what constitutes a “monster” is reliant on the other characters' responses to it. As he points out, a creature such as Chewbacca has an appearance which would define him as monstrous in a horror context, but in Star Wars he is “just one of the guys.” (p.16)  However, the viewer's ready acceptance of Chewbacca as a benign character is not solely a result of character-mirroring - he is also an example of the archetype of the "friendly monster".  This character type is especially prevalent in children's literature, examples including the Muppets, The BFG; Bigfoot & The Hendersons; Five Children & It and Monsters, Inc.  Audience response to Chewbacca is as, or perhaps more, likely to be based on his similarity to an existing and familiar archtype than on immediate response to the characters in Star Wars

Expanding on this, Carroll states that horror take their cues from the human characters – we flinch when they do; start in our seats when they are attacked by the monster, and so on – “Our responses are meant, ideally, to parallel those of characters.” (p.18). Whilst this is undeniably a characteristic of much of the genre – particularly slasher movies, and “tales of terror” such as MR James’ – the audience’s attitudes to the monstrous figure often diverge significantly from those of the characters. This is exemplified by a film that Carroll himself cites – David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Carroll argues that classifying the film as a horror feels “not quite right” (p39), despite the Brundlefly’ “undeniably impure” and “disgusting” nature. By Carroll’s definition, a horrific monster must embody “threat and impurity”, and he argues that the fly monster lacks threat throughout much of the film due to the concerned (but unthreatened) attitude of Brundle’s girlfriend Veronica, who supposedly “cues our response to the fly.” (p40). I would argue that, in this case, the responses of the audience and of the sympathetic character diverge greatly. We are privy to far more information than she is – the hubristic origins of Brundle’s malady, and the way in which he revels in his new-found strength and agility, despite being aware of its transgressive cause. Much of the tension and dramatic irony in the film stems from the fact that we know more than her, and this knowledge alerts us to the threat posed by Seth Brundle. The tag-line for the movie – “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid”, though a line spoken by Veronica towards the end of the film, reflects well the way the audience feel towards her – we fear Brundle, and believe she should too. Rather than taking our emotional cues from her, we are frustrated by observing the danger she is ignorant of, and desire her to “Be Afraid”.

Again, Carroll disregards the metaphorical significance of the monster-figure, an aspect that I feel is central to the definition of any text as a horror. Brundle’s mad-scientist nature reflects anxieties about the progress of science, with advanced knowledge being in the hands of a few; his bodily transformation / disintegration evokes concerns about the fluidity of identity and fear of disease. I believe that The Fly’s audience would regard the Brundlefly as abject, monstrous and threatening, despite a lack of direct mirroring of theoir emotions by the characters in the film.

Despite my reservations about some of the stricter definitions of “art-horror” that Carroll puts forward, his analysis is highly instructive and enlightening. It is also edifying to learn later on in the book that, along with the higher-brow regions of Hitchcock and De Maupassant, Carroll sees fit to apply serious analytical such works as Killer Crabs and Attack of the Giant Leeches (canonical masterpieces I have , sadly, as yet failed to track down.)

I have only discussed the first chapter of the book here – Carroll goes on to examine topics such as structures of horror narratives, the paradox of enjoying horror fiction, character-identification, and Todorov’s theory of the fantastic. The Philosophy of Horror is often cited by other academic texts, and is a major reference point in academic study of the horror genre.













Friday, 4 April 2014

Lights Out; or How To Boost Sales Of Lightbulbs

"Lights Out" is a short film by David F Sandberg which has been pinging about on the internet lately, efficiently terrifying people in just over two and a half minutes.  The premise is simple and classic - what if there was a figure that appeared when you switch off the lights?  Whilst not wildly original, the idea is extremely well-executed - a strong feeling of claustrophobia is established in the corridor where a silhouette is first glanced, and we quickly gain sympathy for our nervous protagonist as she huddles under the covers, attempting to operate the lamp from the supposed safety of the bed.  The shock payoff is effective, avoiding cliche with an unusually-designed look for the apparition - an extra layer of uncanniness by the fact that the same actress plays both parts.

I genuinely (and rather shamefully) hesitated a fair while when going to switch off my bedside lamp the evening that I watched this - irrefutable evidence of a scare well-delivered.

This film also makes the horrific and ethos-shattering suggestion that gaffer tape may be fallible.  Truly terrifying...


Lights Out

For more of Sandberg's work see his website here.


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Classic Horror: Bride of Frankenstein

There's a quite considerable gap in my knowledge of the horror genre, much of it being the early classics.  In an effort to address this, I've been consciously trying to actually view the films which broke the ground in the early years.  It's surprisingly easy to know a lot about such canonical works, through films which they've influenced or critical texts which cite them; to the point that you almost feel you've experienced the source material.  (Case in point:  I got through an entire English Lit. degree without ever reading Hamlet or seeing it performed.)

Considering how many later works it has influenced (anything in the mad-scientist vein, featuring doomsday devices or sympathetic monsters), Bride still feels fresh and relevant and there are some very chilling moments. At the start of the film, the monster brutally kills two villagers whilst escaping from the burning mill - a reminder to the audience that whilst we may sympathise with the monster's plight, Frankenstein has unleashed an unstable being that has hugely destructive force.

By the time of the sequel, Victor Frankenstein has sworn off hubristic life-creating antics, and decided to settle down for a quiet, married life. His old mentor Dr Pretorius has now taken up the mantle of power-crazed scientific genius, creating miniature humans that he keeps in bell jars. The scene in which Pretorius shows Frankenstein his creations is deliberately light-hearted in tone, with the miniature humans being given comedic personalities and having petty squabbles. The scene does, however, demonstrate Pretorius's attitude to life and humanity in general - that it is something which can, and should, be under his control; a belief shown again in the probable murder committed in order to obtain a heart for the Bride.

The most effective moment is probably the Bride's awakening and realisation of the intent behind her creation. After the long and tense build-up, her confusion and horror at being introduced to her intended mate exposes the folly in Pretorius and Frankenstein's endeavours. Her jerky, unnatural movements mark her out as another thoroughly unhuman creature, her screams wordlessly condemning the doctors for their arrogance and hubris.

There are parts of the film which seem somewhat dated, though these are fairly few. Una O'Connor's performance as Minnie (Elizabeth Frankenstein's maid) is a tour-de-force of over-the-top hysteria, which though adding excellent comedy value distracts somewhat from the subtler elements of the film. It's also difficult to hear Frankenstein's cry of "It's Alive!" without the vast number of samplings of it springing to mind.

As a classic, Bride of Frankenstein has certainly stood the test of the decades (and has a rare place in the hallowed Hall of Good Sequels) - the many references and homages to it over the years doing little to diminish its importance and impact, even upon a first-time viewer jaded by consumption of some of its paler imitators.







Thursday, 20 March 2014

Creepy Things Around Town

A side effect of having horror as a staple in one's consumption of fiction is the tendency to see parallels to horror everywhere you look. A short woman in a red raincoat? Don't Look Now. An arts festival brochure? Pan's Labyrinth. This advert for a telly? Practically shot-for-shot the elevator scene from The Shining.

Sometimes, however, things crop up in everyday life that are so unecessarily creepy they serve as proof that it's not your FrightFest-addled brain imagining things: there must be people out there doing their utmost to randomly terrify the population at large. Exhibit A: Freaky Mannequin It must be a tricky task to design a mannequin that isn't a bit unnerving - gingerly treading a tightrope stretched over the uncanny valley, and trying to get past the associations with TV serial killers. The main options appear to be:



Unfortunate Decapitation


 
Totally Blank-Faced and Inhuman



Budget 70s Sex Doll

Bad Acid Trip




But there really is no excuse for this:



Seen in my local camping shop and clearly a nightmare hybrid of Damien Thorne and the children of Midwich; someone, somewhere seems to have watched the opening credits of American Horror Story: Asylum and thought: "That look would really help to sell outdoors leisurewear!"


Oh Dear


Thursday, 25 April 2013

Links List

I've been trawling about the internet looking for interesting / informative horror-related sites - here's a few good ones that I've dredged up.  In no particluar order...

Rereading Stephen King
A blog by James Smythe on the Guardian newspaper's website.  He's reading every Stephen King book in chronological order and writing a commentary on each work.  James' reviews are balanced and insightful, and it's intriguing to follow his rediscovery of older works, and the way in which the interpretation of a book can change when revisiting it at a later date. There are also summaries of common Kingian themes and connections, and a handy Randall Flagg alert.  As a bonus, this blog has a Comments section used by readers who universally polite, friendly and well-informed. (Quite a rarity for a Guardian feature, comments on which are generally of the snide / sarcastic / pompous variety!)

Horror Personality Test
Another Guardian link - slightly silly but amusing questionnaire article.  Comments below the line somewhat prove the above point about Guardian readers' comments...

Classic Horror Campaign
A site dedicated to the classic era of horror.  Full of splendid stuff - a campaign to get the golden scream-fests of yesteryear back on the telly; horror-related news; screenings and events, and reviews of pre-'80s horror movies.  It's run by a certain Cyberschizoid, a most gracious chap who even allowed some of my half-baked scribblings to appear as reviews on the site.

New York Times - The Critique of Pure Horror
An article examining the old question: why do so many enjoy horror fiction - an inherently unpleasant medium?  The author (Jason Zinoman) briefly discusses some of the major academic theories surrounding this question, and the article works well as an introduction to some of the works most often cited in horror theory.

Good Reads: Horror
A fairly comprehensive-looking list of books about horror.

 Horror Studies Journal
An academic journal which promises to "inform and stimulate anyone interested in a wider and deeper understanding of horror".  There's an interdisciplinary slant to it, with artforms outside the the more usually discussed film and literature being examined.  The only drawback is the cost - eighteen US dollars per article (about £11.65)  Happily, however, the first issue is free to download! Just avoid the temptation of looking at the contents of later issues, unless your bank balance is squarely in the black.

 Journal of Media Psychology
An article by Glenn D. Walters, Ph.D. entitled "Understanding the Popular Appeal of Horror Cinema: An Integrated-Interactive Model".  I haven't actully read it yet (update forthcoming when I do...), but from first glance seems fascinating.

Contamination
A rather enigmatic site, that nonetheless has an abundance of useful lists - horror theory books, DVD covers, reviews and the like.

 A Humean Definition of Horror
Another interesting academic article I haven't yet thoroughly read... but shall...  From a quick skim, involves thorough discussion of Noel Carroll's 1990 work "A Philosophy of Horror".  (Also much recommended!)

Backtrack
An upcoming independent film featuring psychological horror, past-life regression and camping on the South Downs.  I came across this project via a poster stuck on a bin, which in my opinion shows admirable dedication to the old-school advertising methods - in your face, Twitter!  (Okay, so it's on Twitter, too: @BacktrackFilm.)






Sunday, 7 April 2013

Review: The Beast Must Die (1974)

The Beast Must Die was produced in 1974 by Amicus – rather wonderfully described on the DVD cover as “the studio that dripped blood.” It is a classic in the “eccentric millionaire invites guests to secluded mansion, horrible deaths ensue” mould. The eccentric millionaire in this case is Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockheart), who invites people he suspects of being werewolves to his country estate (fully equipped with surveillance equipment) in order to fulfil his hunter's ambition of bagging the ultimate predator. Newcliffe gathers his guests and explains to them the reason for his certainty that one of their number is a werewolf – all have been in the vicinity when unsolved animal-like killings have taken place. There is also a werewolf expert, Dr. Lundgen, on hand to enlighten all as to the nature of the beast (a splendid performance by Peter Cushing's cheekbones.)

Our intrepid hero does his best to rile his potentially lupine guests – he points out the full moon, serves up almost raw meat, sprays wolfbane pollen liberally about, and instigates the the exceptionally awkward parlour game of Pass-The-Silver-Candlestick. The wolf thus baited, night falls and the hunt begins...

This is truly a cracking movie. It's short, punchy, entertaining and does exactly what it sets out to do. One of its notably quirky features is the gimmick of the “werewolf break”. At the start, an ominous voice informs the audience that one of the characters is a werewolf, and they must figure out who it is. Helpfully, we the viewers are provided with a thirty second pause in the action to gather our thoughts and decide on a culprit. The film stops and a clock appears, ticking away the seconds in a scene so reminiscent of Countdown that one feels a slight but distinct urge to tackle an anagram or do some mental arithmetic.

Special mention must go to Mr. John Hilling, for providing Lockheart with such superb costumes – his wardrobe including an impressive array of jumpsuits, diamante-studded shirts, PVC jackets and the widest flares ever seen on someone not performing in a glam-rock band.

The Beast Must Die has a thoroughly enjoyable effervescence to it – from the funk-sountracked opening chase to the final dramatic reveal of the identity of the werewolf. It is a film unlikely to ever be regarded as one of the great classics of horror, but by my reckoning is well a worth 80 minutes of anyone's time.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


Despite this being near the top of my Things To Watch list, it took me quite some time to get around to actually seeing it, likely due to a slightly subconscious view of silent films as somewhat “difficult”. (There never seems to be a perfect time to just kick back and watch a revered silent film of historical importance, featuring surrealist set design and lashings of German Expressionism.) In any case, the moment did arrive, during an altruistic mission to ease another's illness with multiple DVDs and a selection of fine snacks, and I'm heartily glad I got round to viewing it in the end.

As the first acknowledged horror film, Caligari sets the bar high. The plot cracks along at a fast pace, and at only around 70 minutes' running time (less than even a Police Academy film), there's not a great deal of time to fit all the action in. The plot centres around a fair in the town of Holstenwall, at which Dr. Caligari exhibits (after experiencing some clerical difficulties at the Town Hall) his somnambulist, Cesare. The somnambulist awakens on command, and utters a prophecy of death to one of the audience. When the audience member is found dead the next day, suspicion falls upon Caligari, and the investigation takes a distinctly uncanny turn.

The genius of Caligari lies not with the plot, but with the atmosphere conjured by the scenes presented to the audience. Much has been written about the incredible set design – and in a far more eloquent and knowledgeable way than I am able. I will say, however, that the peculiar asymmetric sets add to the feeling that the story being told is not rooted in real life, and is more akin to a fable – something deeply metaphorical and of universal importance. Here is also perhaps the first instance in film of the sympathetic monster – Cesare does not willingly murder, but does so under the influence of his master. He is a tragic creation in the vein of Frankenstein's monster, and Conrad Veidt manages to inspire sympathy simply through the act of opening his eyes – the pained expression he displays shows in a few brief seconds both his character's reluctance to be a pawn, and also his helplessness and inability to resist.

Surprisingly for a film made in 1920, there are many elements of the film and its marketing that are thought of as distinctly modern. There is a twist at the end (which I must admit to having not foreseen), an element that seems to be almost mandatory for recent creators of horror films. There was also, apparently, a viral advertising campaign when the film was released – a key phrase from the film: “Du musst Caligari werden!” appeared on posters around Berlin with no further explanation given. So, it seems all those Blair Witch shenanigans were pre-dated by some ninety years.

In conclusion, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is mesmerising, haunting and a must-see for anyone with a love for any aspect of the fantastic genre that we call horror.