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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.

In Fright Night (1985), a teenager who regularly watches an eponymous late show, one in which movies about vampires are featured, gets the host who starred in some of those movies to help him deal with the vampire that moved in next door.  Information gleaned from those movies helps them in their efforts.

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.”

Going one step further, the sequels of Scream include as a plot point a movie called Stab, which is based on what happened in the movie Scream, and it has sequels paralleling the sequels of Scream.

It is possible to go even 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.

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.

Re-Animator (1985)

There are two mad scientists at Miskatonic University, and that is one too many.  First, there is Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), a member of the faculty, who is motivated by lust, fame, and power. Not unsurprisingly for a man driven by such strong passions, the principal goal of his research is the location of the will in the brain.

The other mad scientist is Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a medical student. West is dedicated to the truth, and cares nothing about women or fame. The principal goal of his research is reanimation, bringing dead people back to life, for which he has a reagent. Hence, he is the title character in Re-Animator, the movie based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft. West is so cold and devoid of sympathy that he is indifferent to the pain he causes when he reanimates the dead, supposing himself to be doing them a favor.

West is openly contemptuous of Hill, whose intellect he regards as inferior to his own. Hill finds out about West’s reagent and tries to coerce West into letting Hill get credit for it. While Hill’s back is turned, West chops his head off. Then he reanimates the separated head and body, all in the name of scientific research, of course. The body knocks West out while he is examining the head, and then it picks up the head and the bowl it is in, which is filled with the reagent. All this leads to a final struggle between these two mad scientists, with Hill in control of reanimated corpses from the morgue. The movie is replete with hilarious horror and gore, including Hill’s body holding Hill’s severed head so that it can violate the Dean’s daughter, Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton).

It is unfortunate that the director’s cut resulted in many deleted scenes that should have been left in. First of all, these include scenes that make it clear that Hill has mesmeric powers. It is fitting that the man whose research focuses on the location of the will in the brain should have the power to control the will of others. More importantly, it helps us understand why Hill has so much influence over Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson); we understand how he can control his own body with his severed head; and we understand how he can control the corpses he has reanimated in the morgue. Without these scenes of mesmerism, we don’t fully understand how he can do these things.

Second, several of the deleted scenes further develop West’s character. Both in his physical appearance and his manner, he reminds me of Dean Stockwell’s portrayal of Judd in Compulsion. Judd, of course, was that movie’s version of Leopold in the notorious Loeb and Leopold case, in which two psychopathic geniuses decide to commit the perfect crime in order to prove they are Nietzschean supermen. Without seeing the deleted scenes, I might not have made that connection.  It may be that the director, Stuart Gordon, never intended such a connection, but he should have, because it fits perfectly.

Third, there is a great scene where West is discussing with Dan (Bruce Abbott), his roommate, what they are going to do about Dr. Hill. West seems to be bothered in some way, and he lurches to the bathroom. When Dan goes to see what West is doing, he finds him with a syringe of reagent, about to mainline himself. West assures him it is just a weak solution, just enough to keep the brain sharp, so he won’t have to sleep. Dan helps his shoot up, after which West is all pumped up and ready to go.

Gordon said he deleted these scenes because he felt that they slowed down the pacing, and that is a shame. The scenes are included in the second disk of the DVD, and it is worth making the effort to watch them. Not every deleted scene should have been kept in, of course. The dream sequence, in particular, does not belong in the movie, and its deletion was appropriate.

It is still a great movie, but with some of those deleted scenes left in, it would have been greater still.

Jaws (1975) and Poltergeist (1982)

In producing the movie Poltergeist, Steven Spielberg employed the structure that worked for him in Jaws. In the latter movie, there is an Everyman, Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider), and his family, corresponding to Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) and her family in the former. The shark is a monstrous creature terrorizing Amity Island just as the demons terrorize the Freeling household. In Jaws, we have the mayor who lets the expected revenue from tourism jeopardize the safety of those who plan to swim in the ocean, while in Poltergeist, Steve Freeling’s boss jeopardizes the safety of the Freeling house and the entire neighborhood in an effort to save money by not moving the bodies of a cemetery before building houses on top of them.

Once the shark proves to be too menacing to ignore, a scientist, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), is called in from the Oceanographic Institute, just as three parapsychologists are called in to investigate the weird happenings in the Freeling house (one gets the feeling they inspired the movie Ghostbusters (1984)). But science alone cannot do the job. Therefore, someone with personal, practical experience is needed. In Jaws, this takes the form of Quint (Robert Shaw), an old salt who has been a sailor all his life and has dealt with sharks many times. In Poltergeist, we have Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), a woman with psychic powers, who knows how the other world operates.

Ultimately, however, it is Everyman Brody who kills the shark, when science and practical experience fail, just as Diane must save her children herself after the parapsychologists and the psychic have failed to completely do the job.

Unfortunately, the final attack by the demons after everyone thinks it is safe is a little too much. It would be like having the shark make one more attack after Brody thought he had finally killed it.

On the Effect of the Supernatural in Horror Movies

This is the season for horror movies, what with Halloween being less than a week away.  And so it is that we may expect to see a lot of horror movies offered on television for our entertainment.  Now, what we want from a horror movie is to be scared, and the question is, Does the presence of the supernatural in a horror movie add to its ability to frighten us, or does it detract from it?

The answer to this question undoubtedly depends in large part on whether one believes in the supernatural.  For people who are really superstitious, their belief in the supernatural may be so strong that they find horror films about witches, ghosts, and demons too frightening, and will not watch such movies as a result.  I actually knew a girl like that when I was in college, and I decided not to continue dating her anymore as a result.  It’s not that I minded her being superstitious.  It was her refusal to let me take her to the Halloween special being offered at the Triple Threat Drive In that made me realize there was no future for us.

As for myself, I have quite the opposite reaction.  The presence of the supernatural in a horror movie so lessens its believability that, all things being equal, its capacity to frighten me the way I would like is diminished to the point that I am likely to lose interest.  Mind you, some of my favorite horror movies involve the supernatural, but that is in spite of it, not because of it.

Of course, most of the monsters in a horror movie correspond to nothing real, however realistically they may be depicted, even where there is no supernatural element.  There are no Frankenstein monsters, no pods from outer space taking over our bodies, no zombies trying to eat our flesh.  And yet, as unrealistic as these monsters are, as unbelievable as they are, their ability to frighten us is enhanced by their being either the work of mad scientists, aliens from another planet, or threats arising from natural forces not fully understood, rather than being the result of demonic possession, witchcraft, or the like.

An interesting example in this regard is the movie Häxan:  Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922). It is not always clear in this movie whether the scenes depicting witches, demons, or Satan himself are mere visualizations of what people once believed, dreamed, or were forced to confess, but in any event, when these supernatural creatures are being depicted, they really have a good time, and so do we.  Beautiful naked witches are seen making love to horned demons, while other demons furiously churn their butter as they watch the witches cavorting about. In one such scene, monks are seen to be terrified by the presence of Satan.  But later in the movie, we see religious authorities torturing a poor old woman in an effort to make her confess to her participation in a witches’ Sabbath, and we are given to believe that she is completely innocent of witchcraft, especially since the general thrust of the movie is that there is no such thing as witches.  It is this part of the movie that is truly disturbing, whereas the supernatural scenes are enjoyed with mild appreciation.  In a similar way, The Conqueror Worm (1968), which is about Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), Witchfinder General, and his assistant, John Stearne (Robert Russell), is more horrifying than a story about real witches would have been.  All things being equal, a movie about men like Hopkins and Stearne, who use their position of power to satisfy their greed, lusts, and sadistic delight in being cruel, is far more likely to horrify us than a movie about actual witches flying around on broomsticks.

Just as we see that natural horror is more frightening than supernatural horror when we compare movies about witchfinders to movies about witches, so too are horror movies about natural maniacs likely to be more frightening than movies in which madness arises from supernatural influences.  Psycho (1960) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) were inspired by an actual person, Ed Gein, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) is based on the life of Henry Lee Lucas.  But even if these movies were not inspired by actual serial killers, the mere fact such men actually exist makes it easy for such movies to frighten us.

On the other hand, consider The Shining (1980), a movie about a family that moves into a haunted house, the result of which is that evil spirits take over Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), the husband and father, causing him to try to kill his wife and child.  As we all know, men sometimes murder their wives and children, and so a movie about a man chasing his son through a house trying to hit him with an axe could be incredibly terrifying.  But since Jack’s mania is inspired by demonic spirits, most of the terror is drained from the movie.  Of course, the silliness of the “Here’s Johnny!” scene, which was played for laughs, was probably sufficient on its own to put ironic distance between us and the mayhem.  This was no mere comic relief. That scene made it impossible to take anything that followed seriously.  Still, the fact that Jack Nicholson’s character is under the influence of demonic forces actually provides even greater distance.  Too much distance, in fact, the result of which was that I was quite bored by it all.  The Babadook (2014), on the other hand, is more effective.  First, there is no “Here’s Johnny!” scene. Second, the movie seems to be more about madness than the supernatural. As a result, the mother in this movie is far scarier than the father in The Shining.

One reason why the supernatural works against a movie’s ability to frighten us is the same reason we don’t believe in the supernatural in the first place: it doesn’t make sense.  In The Omen (1976), it is clear that Damien is the Antichrist, and as various people in the movie become convinced of this, they try to destroy him.  Now, I generally try to get into the spirit of a movie when I am watching it, and in this case, I tried to suspend disbelief and accept the premise of Christianity on which this movie rests.  But I couldn’t help myself. I found myself wondering why everyone was so upset about the appearance of the Antichrist when his existence confirmed the prediction that some say is made in The Bible.  This would mean that everything is unfolding according to God’s plan, the Day of Judgment is at hand, and all of us are about to go to Heaven (well, not me, because I am an atheist, but as I said, I was pretending to be a Christian while watching the movie). Presumably, killing the Antichrist while he is still a child, before he has a chance to really do anything, would be thwarting the will of God, so I would think that the rational thing to do would be just to kick back and relax.  In other words, I really could not get into this movie.

In a similar vein, one of the problems with the story of Faust, the man in the German legend who sold his soul to the Devil, is that we never understood why anyone would make such a foolish bargain in the first place. A few decades of wealth, power, fame, and sex in exchange for an eternity of burning in the fires of Hell? Evil may be fascinating, but stupidity never is, and we quickly lose interest in the fate of anyone dumb enough to make that deal.  One reason that the movie Angel Heart (1987) works so well is that Johnny Liebling (Mickey Rourke), the man who makes a pact with the Devil, knows of a ritual that will allow him to substitute someone else’s soul for his own, so that after reaping the benefits of a pact with Lucifer, some other poor slob will pay the price while Johnny gets to go to Heaven, with God shaking his head, saying in exasperation, “Another sinner gets off on a technicality!” Things don’t work out well for Johnny, of course, but at least the ritual in his possession makes his decision to make a pact with the Devil a rational one (sort of).

Regarding the story of Faust as told by Goethe, Nietzsche said, “A little seamstress is seduced and made unhappy.  Surely that could not have happened without supernatural interference? No, of course not!  Without the aid of the incarnate devil, the great scholar could never have accomplished this.”  Right.  He sold his soul to the Devil in order to get laid. It is hard to regard anything so silly as being tragic, especially when some angel butts in at the last minute and says Gretchen, the seamstress, is redeemed, just as Faust is redeemed for no good reason at the end of Part II. Men have been seducing young girls and abandoning them since caveman days, and every such instance is more tragic than the one told by Goethe involving the supernatural.  And don’t tell me we are supposed to understand this story allegorically, because allegory does not work when the story taken literally makes us roll our eyes.

Not only are horror movies involving the supernatural somewhat incongruous in this or that particular, which puts a strain on the rational intellect, but they also tend to offend our reason by having no rules or limitations at all, at which we point we give up and quit thinking. Natural or man-made monsters are not like that.  Whether it is Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or the Terminator, we know they have their limitations, allowing us to try to figure out, along with the good guys in the movie, how to stop them.  Though I don’t care for vampire movies, at least they have rules involving exposure to the sun, dread of crucifixes, and wooden stakes through the heart.  But a lot of movies are like Poltergeist (1982), where we have no clue as to what will happen next, nor any sense of what can be done to stop the evil forces until the very end.  As a result, all we can do is passively accept whatever.

In some cases, there are rules, but we haven’t the slightest idea what they are in advance of what happens.  One of the worst offenders in this regard is The Devil Rides Out (1968).  In this movie, when the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) discovers that a young friend of his has become caught up in Devil worship, he reveals that he has been studying the subject for years, and so he knows just what to do, because he has it all memorized.  There must be fifty-seven varieties of rules, rituals, and incantations you have never heard of, which we learn about only when Richleau pulls them out of his hat. As a result, reason is suspended, for we are reduced to waiting to find out about the next new rule.

If a movie must be about the supernatural, the least it can do is have a strong character who sneers at such nonsense.  All supernatural horror movies feature some characters that are skeptical, for it would be unbearable for everyone to be a believer right from the start.  But all too often, the skeptics are minor characters quickly brushed aside.  In the really good horror movies of the supernatural subgenre, the nonbeliever holds out for a long time, giving us someone to identify with, thereby easing us into the necessary suspension of disbelief as that character slowly comes around. Thus, we have Holden (Dana Andrews) in Night of the Demon(1957), Luke (Russ Tamblyn) in The Haunting (1963), and both Father Karras (Jason Miller), who is losing his faith, and Chris (Ellen Burstyn), an atheist, in The Exorcist (1973).  And finally, there is that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), when Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is being warned by a friend that it is unwise to meddle in certain mysteries.  Indy dismisses his friend’s concerns, comparing him to his mother, and saying that he is talking about the bogeyman, a bunch of superstitious hocus-pocus.  “Besides,” Indy says, “you know what a cautious fellow I am,” as he tosses his forty-five pistol on the bed.  In other words, it’s all right if supernatural stuff goes on in the world, as long as the hero has contempt for such things, at least until close to the end.

And so, generally speaking, as far as my preference regarding horror movies is concerned, the less there is of the supernatural the better, and none at all is better still.  Of course, that girl I knew in college was of exactly the same opinion, though for totally different reasons.  Maybe I should have compromised and taken her to see a Godzilla movie instead.