Scream (1996)

People in movies often refer to movies.  And why, not?  They are a big part of our world.  However, when it comes to remakes, it is necessary that the characters in that movie be unaware of the original.  For example, in the remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the characters exist in a world much like our own with one notable exception:  it is a world in which no one has seen the original movie.

Remakes aside, sometimes the ignorance of the characters in a horror movie about movies is laughable. The very title of the movie I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) tells us that this is a late entry into the genre.  And yet, when the law enforcement officers are perplexed about the nature of a recent murder, Pepe the janitor (Vladimir Sokoloff), having looked at a photograph of the murder victim, tells Officer Stanley (Guy Williams) that the boy was killed by a werewolf.  Stanley acts as though he has never heard of such a thing, and Pepe has to explain to him what a werewolf is.  In real life, Stanley would have said, “Oh yeah, there was a wolfman in the Abbott and Costello movie I saw last week at the Bijou.”

I can’t say that An American Werewolf in London (1981) is the first movie in which people have an awareness of werewolf movies, but it is the first one to do so in a big way.  Two American college students, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are hiking through England.  They stop at an inn called the Slaughtered Lamb, and one of them comments on the pentangle on the wall, saying, “Lon Chaney Jr. at Universal Studios said that’s the mark of the wolfman.”  After they leave, they are attacked by a werewolf.  Jack is killed, but David is only wounded.  Jack comes back from the dead to tell David that all that stuff about werewolves is true, and that David has become one himself.  It is interesting that though these two characters are Americans, yet the setting is in England.  In other words, in the Old World, there really are werewolves; in the New World, there are only werewolf movies.

The next stage in the evolution of movie awareness in horror films came with There’s Nothing Out There (1991).  Several teens decide to spend spring break in a house in the woods.  One of them, Mike (Craig Peck) has seen every horror film that has ever been made, and he begins to notice all the warning signs typical of such movies.  He enunciates some rules needed to stay alive, such as not wandering off by yourself in the woods and not going skinny dipping.

It eventually becomes clear that there is an alien creature intent on mating with one of the girls.  After all, it is a given in such movies that human females are the most sexually desirable creatures in the universe.  At first, Mike begins using his horror movie knowledge to thwart the alien, but he eventually comes to suspect that he and his friends are actually in a movie.

The ideas in this film reached their apotheosis in Scream (1996).  The movie begins with a scene in which a Casey (Drew Barrymore) is home alone at night in a fully-lit house that almost seems to have more windows than walls.  She receives an ominous phone call, and instead of hanging up immediately, she keeps talking to the caller.  This is typical of women in such movies who receive such phone calls, where they say things like, “Why do you keep calling me while I’m naked?”

But instead of the creep on the phone asking her what color her panties are or whatever, this guy asks her trivia questions about horror movies.  And this is just the beginning of such allusions.  As audiences of Psycho (1960) were said to be shocked by the fact that a major star like Janet Leigh was killed off early in the movie, so too is Drew Barrymore’s character Casey likewise killed off earlier than one might expect for a star of her standing.

Casey and her boyfriend are killed by a character that eventually came to be referred to as Ghostface, who is both scary and funny.  When thwarted in his attempt to stab someone, he takes what might be called variations on pratfalls.  And yet we are brought back from these scenes of mirth to horror when he succeeds in plunging his knife into one of his victims.

Though seemingly a minor character, the most essential person in this film is Randy (Jamie Kennedy), a teenager that works in a video store and is an expert on horror films.  He is like Mike in There’s Nothing Out There, except more so.  His expertise in this area allows him to correctly identify one of the two killers early in the movie, and he further acts as a guide through the movie by drawing inferences from horror films to the situations the teenagers find themselves in.  In the sequel to this movie, he draws inferences from sequels, and in the third film he draws inferences from trilogies.  But Randy is not the only one doing this.  The two killers, who take turns dressing up as Ghostface, are also guided by their study of horror films.  One of them says that they even took notes while watching them.  And just as Mike in There’s Nothing Out There wonders if he and his friends are actually in a horror movie, one of this killers in Scream tells his girlfriend Sidney (Neve Campbell), protagonist and ultimate target of Ghostface, that life is a movie, “Only you can’t pick your genre.”

It is possible to go further with this principle of people in horror movies referring to horror movies, shaping their behavior according to what they have seen in horror movies, and even believing they are in a horror movie.  The Cabin in the Woods (2012) is a good example of that.  But the question is whether it is possible to do better than Scream with this idea.  I don’t think so.

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It (2017)

It is set in Derry, Maine in the late 1980s.  Ben, a chubby kid who has recently moved there, says, “Derry is not like any town I’ve ever been in before.”  Well, that’s for sure.  In Derry, the bullies-to-victim ratio is so high that bullies have to stand in line to get their turn at tormenting their victims.  Said victims belong to a group known as The Losers Club.  Ben quickly gets to join, for it is clear that he is Loser material, especially when the chief bully, Henry, carves his initial into Ben’s belly.

Another new member of the group is Beverly, who was introduced to us sitting on the toilet while mean girls poured filthy water on her for being a slut.  At least, that’s the rumor.  What those girls don’t know is that Beverly could not have been having sex with half the boys in town, because her father has been molesting her for years, and he is too possessively jealous to allow her to have anything to do with boys.

And she is not the exception.  You see, in the town of Derry, after the Losers spend the day being bullied by all the kids in school, they get to go home and be bullied by their parents.  Actually, even the bullies get bullied by their parents in Derry, Maine, as when Henry’s father ridicules and humiliates him in front of his friends.  But it’s not just parents.  All the adults bully the children in this town, because it takes a village.  For example, when we first meet Ben, he is in the library reading about the history of Derry.  The librarian belittles him for spending time there reading books.  “Don’t you have any friends?” she asks derisively.

In other words, Derry is a nightmare town, a place where children are continually tormented by those around them.  So, Ben was exactly right when he said that Derry is not like any town he had ever been in before.

Oh wait!  I almost forgot.  Ben wasn’t talking about all that.  He was talking about the way people, especially children, disappear at a rate of six times the national average, and it is especially concentrated in recurring periods of twenty-seven years.  As he and the other Losers soon find out, the culprit is Pennywise, the Dancing Clown.  You see, it’s not enough that they have to live in a town where the natural torments of bullying and child abuse are unrelenting.  They get a bunch of supernatural horrors piled on top of that.

Well, there’s a lot of running around and being scared by special effects, especially when the Losers finally decide they have to do something about Pennywise.  They figure out that he is in this old house enclosing a well.  At one point, Pennywise gets hold of Beverly and puts her in a trance, at which point she begins to float slowly upward.  Her friends realize that all the other children that have gone missing over the years are floating above her.  They pull Beverly down, but she is still in a trance.  Then Ben kisses Sleeping Beauty, and she wakes up.

You see, Ben has had a crush on Beverly for a long time, and he gave her a postcard with a love poem on it.  Beverly was deeply moved.  And so Ben and Beverly fall in love, right?  Wrong!  How could you possibly think that little chubby kid would get the girl?  Obviously, it is Bill, who is slender and a little taller, that Beverly wants.  In fact, she was disappointed to find out that the poem was not sent to her by Bill, but rather by Ben instead.  And so, poor Ben is bullied not only by Henry and his gang, and not only by the librarian, but also by the people that made this movie, who deliberately added to his torment by making him a loser when it comes to love on account of his looks.

We don’t get much by way of explanation as to the how or why of the supernatural in this movie.  There is some suggestion that Pennywise feeds on fear.  Well, no wonder he thrives in Derry!  Other than that, we never really find out what’s going on.  I admit that I have never read the book on which this movie is based, nor have I seen the miniseries based on this book.  Maybe there is an explanation somewhere in all that, but you won’t find it in this movie as a stand-alone story.  At the very end of the movie, the words “Chapter One” threaten us with a sequel, so maybe everything will be explained in that movie, but I doubt it.  In any event, I’ll never know, because I certainly won’t be watching it.

After Pennywise is dispatched, presumably because the Losers are not afraid of him, though they damn well should be, the floating children start to descend.  What does that mean?  Are they going to be brought back to life?  Are they going to be able to go back home so they can be bullied by their parents?  Are they going be able to go back to school so they can be bullied by their classmates?  Are the bullies that went missing going to be able to return and start making other children miserable again?  The missing children may not be left hanging in the air, but we are.

One more thing.  Beverly finally got tired of being her father’s sex slave, so she killed him by hitting him on the head with a toilet lid, leaving his body in the bathroom.  There is no hint of an investigation of this homicide.  I’m not saying this movie was obliged to present us with a big trial like the one in Peyton Place (1957), but without there being even a reference to what happens when you leave a skull-crushed father lying around, such as Beverly saying she’s glad that the grand jury believed her story, that too is left hanging in the air.  She just tells Bill she is leaving town to go live with her aunt.  Then they kiss.  Too bad for you, Ben.

Let us step back for a minute and examine the theme of this movie, which is fear.  Fear is a useful emotion, causing us to avoid danger or to flee from it.  But it is the dangers of this world that cause our fears, not the other way around, as this movie seems to suggest, which is that it is our fears that cause the danger, and that if we could just get rid of our fears, the dangers would go away.  There is such a thing as being unduly afraid of something, as in the case of phobias or superstition.  But Pennywise aside, the dangers in this movie are real.  They are not the imagined fears of a neurotic.

Now, it is certainly true that we sometimes have to overcome our fears in order to eliminate the danger, as when Beverly splits her father’s skull by whacking him with the lid of a toilet.  But it was not her fear of her father that caused him to molest her.  Or consider Ben’s situation with the gang of bullies.  Are we to believe that if he had not been afraid of them, his troubles would have been over, that they would not have held him while Henry carved his initial in his belly?  This movie conflates the perfectly reasonable notion that we sometimes have to stop being afraid of our enemies in order to defeat them with the nonsensical notion that our enemies exist because of our fears and that they will be eliminated by the mere absence of that emotion.

Blacula (1972)

Obviously, Blacula is a blaxploitation film.  It is about a vampire of African descent. The movie is all right at first, but then it goes stupid. The detective knows he is after a vampire, and he knows all the rules about killing vampires with sun exposure or a wooden stake through the heart, and he knows that a cross will make a vampire cringe. But when he goes to the place where he suspects that Blacula keeps his coffin, he goes with cops who are armed with nothing but pistols, which are ineffective. So cops get killed left and right. But the detective has a cross for himself, of course. Oh well, it could have been worse. Blacula could have been played by Christopher Lee in blackface.

It Follows (2014)

When it comes to atmosphere and creepiness, It Follows does such a good job that one can only be dismayed by the inclusion of a couple of unnecessary absurdities.

Jay is a young woman in college who has sex with a guy named Hugh.  Then he chloroforms her, takes her to a remote location, and ties her up to a wheelchair.  Eventually, a slow-moving, zombie-like ghost appears, heading in their direction.  Hugh explains to Jay that this ghost will follow her unrelentingly until it catches her and kills her.  She must avoid it until she has sex with someone else, thereby passing the curse on to him.  The only people that can see this ghost are those who are presently being pursued, like Jay, and those who have been pursued by it in the past, like Hugh.

Needless to say, it is an act of evil to pass this curse on intentionally, so at first one wonders why he didn’t just have sex with Jay and then leave her to her doom.  The reason, as Hugh explains, is that once it kills Jay, it will then go back to the previously cursed person and follow him.  So, Hugh wants Jay to know what is happening so that she will avoid being caught by this ghost long enough to pass the curse on to someone else.  In other words, he wants Jay to stay alive and pass it on for his own selfish reasons, not out of any concern for her.

The first absurdity in all this is the whole chloroform-and-tied-to-the-wheel-chair bit.  Hugh could have had sex with Jay and then explained what he had done to her while waiting for the ghost to show up without bothering to drive somewhere else. Since the ghost was already on its way to him anyway, there would not have been much of a wait.  Furthermore, he must have known that Jay was sure to tell the police after being abducted, whereas if he had simply told her the story and let her see the ghost, the police would have ignored her had she repeated it to them.  There would have been less risk for him that way.

Those unnecessary melodramatics aside, the next absurdity is Hugh’s encyclopedic knowledge on the subject.  In the novel Dracula and in many vampire movies based on it, there is a Van Helsing character, a learned professor who, among his many accomplishments, happens to be an authority on vampires.  He explains all the rules, the ones involving crosses, mirrors, sunlight, and wooden stakes.  So informed, the characters in the movie and we in the audience know what needs to be done.  The question is, how did Hugh become the Van Helsing to this ghost that follows people around?  How does he know all the rules?  In particular, how does he know that if Jay dies, the ghost will start pursuing him around again?  Later, Hugh, whose real name turns out to be Jeff, says he caught the curse from some woman he picked up in a bar whose name he didn’t even know.  So, how did he know that sex with her was the cause of his troubles?  Did she chloroform him and tie him to a wheelchair too, perhaps bequeathing those items to him, saying, “Here, you can have these things now, I won’t be needing them anymore”?  And for that matter, why didn’t Hugh/Jeff pass these items on to Jay?  After all, when she gets through passing the curse on to some hapless fellow who just thought it was his lucky night, won’t she need to chloroform him and tie him to a wheel chair too?

If the curse is passed on through sex, there must have been a first person who acquired it spontaneously and not through sex, otherwise, we would have an infinite regress.  There is no reason to think this first person would have known the rules, even if he had lived long enough to pass it on, which seems unlikely, since no one would have told him why some slow-moving ghost was walking toward him, especially since no one else could have seen it.

There was no need for the abduction scene, and there was no need for Hugh/Jeff to have Van Helsing-like knowledge, only what he had acquired from personal experience, which need not have been much.

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

In Eyes Without a Face, mad scientist Docteur Génessier, whose specialty is transplanting tissue from one person to another, is working to overcome the tendency of the recipient to reject the foreign tissue.  He also has a practical purpose, which is grafting a new face on his daughter, Christiane, who was disfigured in an automobile accident that was his fault.  His Igor is Louise, played by Alida Valli, whose disfigured face was restored by Génessier, for which reason she is extremely loyal to him and willing to aid him in his evil doings.  In particular, Louise picks up young women who look the way Christiane did before her disfigurement, takes them to Génessier’s house so he can remove their faces and transplant them onto Christiane.  Unfortunately, he has thus far been unsuccessful, the result of which is that a bunch of dead women’s bodies without faces keep turning up, all of whom seem to be of the same physical type.  In fact, we see Louise dump one such woman into a river at the beginning of the movie.  One way in which all the women are similar is that they all have blue eyes.  Now, this makes no sense, because Christiane’s eyes are fine, hence the title:  she has the eyes; what she needs is a face.  So why the women whose faces are being removed have to have blue eyes is a mystery.

Génessier identifies the woman found in the river as his daughter so that people, including her boyfriend Jacques, a doctor who works in Génessier’s clinic, will think she is dead and not wonder where she is, for only Génessier, Louise, and Christiane know of her horribly burned face.  In the meantime, Christiane wears a mask around the house so as not to gross everyone out including herself.  The mask is an immobile version of what she used to look like.  One of the amazing things about this mask, which allows us a clear view of her eyes, is how expressive her “face” is.  We have all heard the expression, “The eyes are a window to the soul.”  This movie really demonstrates it.  We get a good sense of what Christiane is feeling and thinking as she walks around the house owing only to the expressiveness of her eyes.

Louise’s next victim is Edna.  She tricks her into getting into the car with her, and the next thing you know, Edna is strapped to the operating table having her face lifted, so to speak.  We actually get a glimpse of her face after the skin has been removed, squarely placing this film into the category of Grand Guignol.  At first the transplant seems to be a success, but eventually it becomes necrotic and has to be removed again.  Back on goes the mask.  For some reason, Génessier keeps Edna alive, as if he is doing her a favor, but she leaps to her death.  Adding to the creepiness of this movie are all the big, howling dogs Génessier has locked up in small cages to be used for his transplant experiments.

One of Edna’s friends reports her missing.  She tells the police about the woman that Edna said she was going somewhere with, but all she can say by way of identification is that Edna said the woman wore a pearl choker (Louise wears a choker to hide the scar on her neck).  Later, Jacques receives a strange phone call from Christiane, who misses him terribly.  She only utters his name, but he recognizes her voice.  He goes to the police, and when Inspector Parot mentions the pearl choker in passing, Jacques thinks of Louise.  As a result, she and Dr. Génessier become suspects.

A woman named Paulette, who fits the profile of missing girls, blue eyes and all, is picked up by the police for shoplifting.  Parot and another inspector threaten her with prosecution unless she acts as a decoy.  She agrees to go to Génessier’s clinic and fake an illness.  And here is the point in the movie where police incompetence becomes so absurd that it is laughable.  Do they have a plainsclothes officer watching the clinic to see what happens to her when she is discharged?  No.  And so, when Paulette is released late at night and walks down the street to get a bus, she is offered a ride by Louise and accepts.  Too bad nobody is around to see her get in the car.

Jacques calls Inspector Parot to let him know Paulette has left the clinic.  Parot concludes that this puts Génessier and Louise in the clear, since they obviously did not kidnap Paulette, but let her leave the clinic instead.  However, Parot decides to make sure she got home all right.  Gosh!  She never got home.  So the two inspectors drive out to Génessier’s clinic just to be sure.  They ask Génessier if Paulette was released from clinic.  Yes she was, he tells them.  The inspectors shrug and go home, concluding it was just a false trail and the choker was just one big coincidence.

Before Paulette’s face can be peeled off, Christiane releases her from the table, stabs Louise in the neck right through the choker, and releases the dogs, who then go after Génessier, ripping half his face off.  Christiane wanders off into the woods with one of the doves she also released perched on her hand, just to give the movie a little symbolism.  You see, this is a French film, so you can’t expect it to make sense the way a Hollywood production would.

Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu has the most horrible looking vampire of any movie ever made. It is hard to believe that when they made Dracula in 1931, they just picked Bela Lugosi and let it go at that. The connection between the Black Death and vampires, which antedates this movie, is emphasized. It suggests either that vampires were a supernatural explanation for the plague or that deaths from vampires were dismissed as being the result of disease. This combines ominously with the movie’s suggestion that there is a connection between the vampires’ need for blood and sexual desire, in which case vampirism might be a metaphor for syphilis. Count Orlok (Max Schreck) gets very excited when he sees a picture of Ellen (Greta Schröder) and speaks of her beautiful neck. The fact that she is a “sinless maiden” makes her especially erotic, so much so that she is able to keep Orlok drinking from her neck when he knows he should be getting back to his coffin where he will be safe during the day.  As a result, he gets caught by the rising sun and is destroyed.

A point of trivia: this vampire casts a reflection in the mirror, unlike in Dracula, for we see his reflection while he is drinking Ellen’s blood.

Repulsion (1965)

In Repulsion, a movie written and directed by Roman Polanski, Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is a woman with some kind of psychological problem concerning sex. She lives with her sister, whose sexual relations with her lover disturb Carol. Carol is very much upset that her sister is going on a two-week vacation. During that vacation, Carol descends into madness. A man who has been harassing her and stalking her breaks into her apartment because he just had to see her. She bludgeons him to death. Then the landlord stops by to get the rent and decides to rape her as long as he is there. She slices him up with a razor and he bleeds to death. Then her sister returns to find the corpses and a catatonic Carol. In the very last scene, we see a photograph, previously alluded to from a distance, of her family taken years ago. In it, we see everyone smiling and looking at the camera, except for a pre-adolescent Carol, who is looking with dread at a man to her left, presumably her father. In real life, such a picture would mean nothing, but its emphasis in the movie after what we have seen tells us that she was molested as a child, which further explains why she was so upset that her sister was going away. As a child, she would have been safe from her father as long as her sister was around.

The idea that Polanski, having made this movie illustrating the terrible consequences of child molestation, would then go on to molest a child himself is ghastly. Having made such a movie, he doubtlessly had thought the matter through. For him to molest a thirteen-year-old girl when he believed that such an act could produce consequences like those in this movie is especially disturbing.