Saturday, 11 October 2014

Spooky exhibition

Back in the height of midsummer, a music venue in Brighton hosted a thoroughly seasonally-appropriate art exhibition on the theme of "Spooky".  Featuring heavily were massive paintings of cats, mutant hybrid skeletons and chokingly-thick billowing clouds of incense.  A thoroughly engaging event, and a slightly worrying glimpse into the peculiar psyches of some of Brighton's artistically-inclined residents.  Below are some dingy and badly composed photographs...

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