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The Silicon Chip Inside Her Head Gets Switched to Overload: On-Screen Mania and Off-Screen Motives….

And daddy doesn’t understand it
He always said she was good as gold
And he can see no reasons
‘Cos there are no reasons
What reason do you need to be show-ow-ow-ow-own?

I Don’t Like Mondays, The Boom Town Rats

I have to admit, I have a soft spot in my heart for cheesy horror films. Not necessarily all of them, as there’s a lot of dross out there, but I have to admit that there’s nothing like a well-constructed scary movies. I was watching Scream again, this time with my gran in preparation for Halloween, and I enjoyed it yet again – I think it’s a fascinatingly clever look at the slasher genre, and a movie which is as relevent today as it was when it was released, untouched and unspoilt by the wave of inferior imitations that we’ve seen in the years since. There’s a line towards the climax of the film which got me thinking about these sorts of films, and how they’re scary. Asked to provide a motive, the killer responds, “Did we ever find out why Hannibal Lector liked to eat people? Don’t think so! See, it’s a lot scarier when there’s no motive.” Is the unknowable that much scarier?

Psyche!

Of course, the sad irony is that, in the years since Wes Craven unleashed Scream upon the world, we did find out why Hannibal Lector liked to eat people. Thomas Harris’ long-awaited and relatively disappointing sequel, Hannibal, included a flashback to the killer’s childhood, providing a motivation that was really quite trite. I won’t spoil it, but I do think one of Ridley Scott’s better decisions was the choice to leave that material out of his big-screen adaptation. Of course, Hannibal Lector’s origin did get the big-screen treatment in the adaptation of Hannibal Rising, a book and a film I’ve been unable to summon up the courage to approach.

Hannibal Rising represents something of a trend in modern cinema. Superhero movies like Batman Begins introduced the term “origin story” to describe the template of a movie built around establishing or explaining a character, putting their “strangeness” in context. While Tim Burton’s Batman made no attempt to explain why an orphan would dress up as a giant freakin’ bat, Christopher Nolan sought to construct a plausible psychological theory about the kind of person who would wear a mask like that. It works, because his version of Bruce Wayne feels more like a real person. That’s not to suggest that Tim Burton’s is without merit, as I find the idea of such an inexplicably broken Bruce quite tragic. Burton seems to suggest that Bruce is as much a “freak” as any other leading character in a Burton film, and he wears his outfit for the same reason the eponymous character in Ed Wood dresses in women’s clothes. They’re just different.

Food for thoughts...

Horror films in recent years seem to be following a similar model. They labour under the belief that audiences will be fascinated with a psychological explanation for the evil that their lead characters commit. In many ways, quite a few of the recent remakes and reboots of popular franchises have shifted the focus away from the victims of these incredible attacks, and more towards the people committing them. We’re not watching Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake to follow the virginal Jamie Lee Curtis character survive, but to give us an insight into the mind of Mike Myers. The “star” of the new Nightmare on Elm Street was an Oscar-nominee, and he wasn’t playing a victim. It’s an interesting evolution, and one that might reflect a broader change in societal attitudes.

Is it a reflection of a society that seeks a wider understanding of those responsible for violent crime, rather than opting for a simplistic “innocent or guilty”dichotomy? Is it a sign that the public’s taste for horror itself has changed, and that the films are playing to a more sinister part of the mind that roots for the villain? Do these films suggest the audience should pity or understand the villain? Is it a confession that many critics of the slasher genre are correct, a concession that the victims in these stories never served as real characters, but as playthings for the villain to slice and dice? Is taking screen-time away from the victims to focus on the killer a more honest expression of an idea that’s been at the heart of the genre for decades?

I'm not sure if I'm more scared of this Mike Myers or the other one...

I don’t know, I’m just throwing those questions out there. These occur to me when I think about modern horror films, and I’m not sure I can articulate a proper answer. However, I do genuinely feel that this sort of focus on these iconic screen villains does rob them of something very powerful, and that any attempt to grant us greater insight into the mind of these boogeymen undermines their credibility as horror threats. Perhaps it isn’t as obvious as the way that the cheap sequels and crossovers and knock-offs have reduced them to parodies, but I don’t think that the modern approach of dealing with them as “real” characters is the way to remedy the years of decay each of these icons has endured.

Keep in mind that I’m not talking about what could be described as “motive.” I don’t think that a monster has to be without any hint of reason to be scary. After all, horror movies are full of “revenge” stories, with the killers having any number of possible reasons for stalking young teens and killing them – Freddie’s vow to avenge himself, or Mike Myers’ fixation on his sister. I’m not talking about these types of rational motivations, as I don’t think that they are what makes the monster so monstrous, for lack of a better word.

Claws for concern?

In Scream, the killer claims a broken home motivated his killing spree. While it makes sense in context, there’s never any attempt to explain why the killer is so messed up he responded by becoming a masked psycho killer. That’s the sort of reasoning gap that makes monsters scary – the missing piece of the puzzle that explains why they react differently to those base desires than normal people do. I think that a motive makes these things just understandable enough, but it’s the missing step between the motive and the action that makes them terrifying.

I subscribe to the idea that things are scarier when we know very little about them. I think that a lot of our childhood fears (bogeymen, monsters on the cupboard, that sort of thing) arose from the fact that we had little faith in “absolutes.” A few years of watching nature documentaries, and an introduction to basic theories of mass, serve to make the idea of a monster living beneath our bed seem ridiculous, but the threat seems very real to children because they don’t know any better.

Is a threat scarier the more alien that it is?

As we grow up, the world around us tends to scare us less, because we know more about it. That house down the road isn’t haunted, it’s just abandoned. The sound at your window isn’t a ghost trying to get in, it’s the wind blowing through that bamboo you planted last week. The fears we experience as we enter the adult world are logical successors to the fear we had of children: they stem from uncertainty. We fear losing our jobs, not because we’re incompetent, but because of the unpredictable economic climate. We fear terrorist attacks, because there’s no way to know where or when or how they will occur. We fear bad things happening to our children that we won’t even see coming.

Arguably even the fear of death itself is an extension of this principle. We fear not being. We don’t know what happens next, if anything happens next. On the other hand, some might argue that the fear of death simply stems from the realisation that we know pretty much exactly what it involves – nobody wants to be “dead”, because we quite like being alive. I can understand that perspective, but I still think that there’s a strong uncertainty around it that frightens people – we don’t know how or whenwe will die, and it could happen at any moment, completely at random.

Grateful Undead?

So I think that bad things are scarier when we know less about them. This obviously applies to monsters as well as villains and killers. I think that one of the best things about Romero’s Night of the Living Dead trilogy was his refusal to explain the resurrection of the dead – leaving it up to the viewer to decide if it was science or religion or something else entirely. Of course, Danny Boyle provided a rational explanation for his “zombie” (or “infectee”) apocalypse in 28 Days Later, but he replaced the uncertainty about the zombies with the uncertainty about his characters. The human cast were unknowable and predictable, and capable of anything.

Of course, there’s a catch, and I do feel a bit of sympathy for the filmmakers involved. Critics are very quick to attack horror films as intrinsically shallow pieces of cheap core with very little characterisation or depth. While I’d agree there are a lot of horrors like that out there, this is a perception that initially latched on to any number of classic horror films, and which the genuine classic films had to struggle to overcome. So, it makes sense for people making these films to look at these criticisms and try to add some shading and complexity to their movies. They are responding to constructive criticism, aren’t they? Trying to build a real character?

Getting all fired up...

I see the logic in this argument, but I’m not convinced. My skepticism might stem from the fact that certain attempts to humanise these sorts of characters seem quite weak, bordering on cliché. Rob Zombie’s attempts to portray Mike Myers as a tragic victim of circumstance and fate (while acknowledging his own problems to start with) feel a little forced and trite. The background we get on Hannibal Lector feels like a cheap cop-out, the kind of bad idea that any executive could have tossed out without a moment’s thought. Very few of these central characters feel any more three-dimensional than they did before they have a motive or a background. In fact, I’d argue Hannibal Lector is less of a complex character as a result of the revelations.

There’s also something slightly distasteful. This attempt to make these characters easier for the audience to understand too often feels like an attempt to make them sympathetic, suggesting that they are only “the way they are” because of a variety of external factors. It feels rather cynical to try to win the audience over like that, but it also robs these villains of something that makes them “monstrous.” I think that approach works very well in other genres – drama or even thrillers – but it doesn’t work quite as well within the confines of horror. I don’t subscribe to the idea that a horror needs to supernatural or paranormal, but I think a good horror film needs a good monster – not necessarily one that isn’t human, as peopl can be monsters too (Norman Bates from Psycho, for example).

Something to sink our teeth into?

I don’t know, maybe I’m just rambling, but I find it interesting to think about this modern trend in horrors of “explaining” away the serial killers or the monsters. A monster is a creature that is as much an illusion as magic: once you know how it works, the illusion is ruined forever.

2 Responses

  1. “Rising” was just awful. I couldn’t even finish the novel. That’s saying something considering the number of times “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs” have come out of the library on my card.

    The movie was, of course, also awful but never really stood a chance, considering the source material.

  2. Unfortunately, every screenwriter doing horror thinks they are writing “Law and Order” – with the identity of the killer, as well as his actions, playing second chair to the reasons why he did it.

    I don’t feel insulted by hints but it will always be a blow as a viewer when a piece of fiction forcefully spells it out for me.

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