Friday, September 26, 2008

Scary stuff

I appreciated the talk today about "scary movies," prompted by Ebert's comment that he didn't find Nosferatu frightening.

Upon further reflection, I think I view a lot of scary movies as more interesting than frightening, but perhaps I don't watch films that would truly frighten me. I'm planning to show the class Psycho later this year (I may change my mind and show a different Hitchcock film . . . but Psycho is such a classic, it seems wrong to skip it), and there's a film that certainly no longer has the ability to frighten but which is certainly involving and fascinating. I think that may be all I ask of a horror film. I like fantasy or science fictional elements, and I like to be surprised, but I'm not sure "being frightened" is what I'm after.

This past week, however, I watched The Mist, written and directed by Frank Darabont and based on the novella by Stephen King. I found the film, in its best moments, truly startling and horrifying, but I think what made me take a break from the movie with half an hour left was less fear than dread. The movie is unrelentingly bleak. Terrible things happen, but it's not the kind of "horror porn" that informs the Saw movies, for example. Films like that are depressing for me (and I avoid them) because there's something so terribly cynical about treating characters that way. The Mist treats its characters as humans, so the existential terror feels more personal.

"Making it personal" is key, to me, in the movie's success. Much of the camera work is handheld. It's not shuddery, like Blair Witch, and it doesn't whip about, like in the Bourne films; only once did I notice it moving in a jarring way that drew attention to the camera work. By and large, it conveyed its handheld nature by moving among the characters and placing us comfortably in the action. The dialogue, too, is largely conversational. People don't say clever things. There's none of the leavening humor or snarkiness that usually creeps into horror films.

Humor gives horror audiences an escape, a release. (Horror porn, on the other hand, relies, I think, on absurdity grounded in disgust and cynicism in order to free its audience, though I'm sure some people simply wallow in such things.) Such humor is often provided by false scares: the sudden noise that turns out to be nothing; the hand on the shoulder that belongs to a friends; the music cue that signals nothing. The Mist provides no false moments. "Are you scared at this moment?" the film asks. "Good, you should be, because something bad is definitely about to happen. And now it's happening." And this is done without providing musical cues, which is part of why the film feels so different than the usual. The musical cues for terror also give us some relief, so familiar and expected are they.

The film does have a few problems, and they turn out to be a mix of script, acting and direction. A fervently religious character, played by Marcia Gay Harden, survives in all her awkwardness from King's novella. Similar to the the main character's mother in King's Carrie, she's obsessed and dangerous, but she's not believably written, somewhat too well spoken to be seen as merely deranged (she uses the word "hubris," which is woefully out of place) and too clearly in charge. A better writer would have portrayed her as a more broken character who just happens to provide a focus for people's fears. Andre Braugher's out-of-town lawyer is also miswritten and misplayed. His responses aren't believable; as written, he seems more mentally ill than the Harden character. However, Braugher plays the character forcefully, so that when Thomas Jane, in the lead role, says the Braugher is acting out of fear, the line doesn't fit; the character seems fearless. (I don't recall that character from the novella, but it's been a long time since I read it.) Darabont wisely leaves out a romance that would seem horribly ill-placed in the film; in the novella, King sells it, but it's unnecessary.


Noah said...

I think films like Hostel are simply a disgrace to society. I agree that they are depressing because of the way they treat their characters, and usually have no plot line whatsoever (Saw is better than Hostel when it comes to plot.) I did find the first Saw movie somewhat interesting because of the surprise ending. It definitely instilled some fear in me to wonder: Is there anyone out there who would go through all the trouble to set up a murderous game for what seems to be entertainment, but then lay in the middle of the floor and not be able to express their satisfaction since they cant move? Well, I don't know. Saw also plays with human emotion to a certain extent, the battle between doing the right thing and survival. Hostel on the other hand, is simply disgusting and horrible in every way except for its beautiful torture scenes. I suppose there are two ways you could find it entertaining: if you are a murderer or if deep down you have murderous urges that you stifle because of fear of consequence. Overall, I definitely prefer a horror film that plays with your emotions on a deeper level. Some films take elements that seem normal, possibly so normal that we never have any second thoughts about them, and twist them into something that goes against the emotions we have rooted deep into our human circuitry. Anyway, I'm out of time but I thought I'd leave a comment. I was in need of some mental stimulation.


WmPreston said...

Noah, thanks for your comment. I like your notion of things that are scary because they take the "normal" and twist it somehow.

Here I think we get into the area of "disturbing" rather than "frightening," but we'd probably need examples to consider exactly the kind of film you mean. For me, some films that are truly disturbing include:

The Vanishing, a Dutch film that embeds itself under your skin. It involves a young couple in love and what the man endures to find out what has happened to the woman after she is abducted. Do NOT see the American remake, which I understand changes the ending.

Seconds, directed by the great John Frankenheimer. Featuring Rock Hudson, the film and TV star, this film is about a man who leaves behind his old life (and body) by becoming someone else. But this new life isn't as perfect as he'd hoped. A truly upsetting film.