Sunday, 25 September 2011

The TIFF Question - "Why do we like being scared?"

Now that the Toronto International Film Festival has wrapped up, the red carpets have been rolled up and the stars have all gone back to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, it's time to reflect back on a few of the films and hear what a some of the horror/thriller genre's finest directors have to say about the nature of humans and why we like to be scared.

To begin, TIFF saw the world premiere of Francis Ford Coppola's first dip into the horror genre since Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1992.  In Twixt we meet Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), a "bargain basement Stephen King" in the middle of a second-rate book tour promoting his newest second-rate horror novel in a small town with a serious murder problem.  With the aid of wannabe-novelist town sheriff Bobby LaGrange (Bruce Dern) he starts putting the pieces of the puzzle together while discovering ideas for his new book, though soon into his search he begins to have strange dreams involving a dead girl, Edgar Allan Poe, a haunted hotel, a clock with six faces that never tells the correct time, a serial child killer, goth teenagers, vampires...  yeah, this is definitely a Coppola film.

While definitely a creepy film with all kinds of interesting imagery, it's continual dream-like state makes the plot somewhat incoherent and difficult to follow.  Not surprising since, according to Coppola, the story evolved from a strange, vivid dream of his own as a basis for the story.

Since this was the first of the horror films I would be seeing at TIFF, I decided to ask Mr. Coppola the main question that I've been examining with this blog to see what he'd say.  The response wasn't exactly a true answer to my question, but it was a start:

"Well, I was a drama counselor when I was, you know, 17-18 and I had nine boys in my bunk and they loved me to scare them.  I read them the entire Bram Stoker’s Dracula and I told them all kinds of stories, you know, to go to bed, and they loved it.  I, myself, would get taken to the movies by my brother and I love those scary movies.  In this case, Poe really created a number of genres that we know, he created the detective story, he created cryptology.  

"But the beautiful young girl in chains in the basement behind the wall brick, that was his expression of his tragic having to witness his beautiful young wife and cousin Virginia – I guess she had tuberculosis – but he watched this girl just waste away, and out of that he created this idea of the beautiful girl in the castle – Madeline Usher – and I was very moved by the idea that even after you die you still grieve all the things you felt grief for during life.  And for me, it was also something of that.  I didn’t intend this movie to turn around and bite me the way it did.  But finally I got to the point where I didn’t have an ending and I didn’t know who killed the girl and he said, ‘You are the one’ and I realized what that meant, and, you know.”

Essentially he avoided the question in favour of promoting his film, and I can accept that.  But what stood out to me was this:  "I was very moved by the idea that even after you die you still grieve all the things you felt grief for during life.  And for me, it was also something of that."  Not exactly a straight answer to my question, but it was definitely an intriguing thought that mirrored his last venture into horror with Dracula.  "After you die, you still grieve all the things you felt grief for during life."  In Dracula's case, his grief for the death of his beloved in life carried beyond the grave for centuries until he came across Mina Murray.  In Poe's case, it was his longing for his "lost Lenore" Virginia that fueled his ventures into the macabre and made his dark works so appealing to us.  

So for Coppola, the attraction to horror seems to lie within our grief for the departed.  Perhaps it's our grief that makes us want that visceral experience, searching for answers beyond the grave that simply cannot be found.

Next up was a film called Intruders from Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, director of 28 Weeks Later (one of the few modern sequels out there as good as the original).  This film, starring the always reliable Clive Owen, started out very clich├ęd in its opening sequence but quickly found its voice and became a great exploration of fear and where it comes from.

When asked the same question, Fresnadillo had much to say on the topic, and even went on to discuss more aspects of fear with other questions that were asked.

“Going to a cinema and watching a scary movie – I would consider this movie more a mystery story about fear – but the idea of whether you want to spend two hours in this room and feel that kind of emotional thing, that primal emotion which is fear, I think because, in a way, you’re going back to that feeling through the movie, I think you’re making a kind of therapy.  It’s like you could cure yourself of those fears if you watch those things on the screen.  It’s like a catharsis.  It’s like you have a very difficult time watching the movie, but at the end, I think you put those fears on the screen.  It’s like you’re taking those emotions of life and putting it out of yourself, which I think is a good thing sometimes.

“When we were developing the story, when you’re dealing with this kind of thing, suddenly you remember things from your childhood you’ve repressed.  I remember specifically my mother telling me dark secrets of my family, and those secrets became a nightmare for many times... I think many people could say that because all families have a dark secret.

“The use of the tale in the story, it’s like some kind of, how your imagination sometimes creates the monster and then you can use your imagination as well to destroy the monster, which is the last solution that this boy had at the end of the movie.  He wrote the story about that monster, and then the monster is gone.  So in a way, storytelling is a good way to destroy your fears.  And that’s a layer in the story that I feel completely passionate with.  And in a way doing that, you’re removing your fear for a period of time, but on the other hand you’re conveying the fear into a tale so the finishing becomes the legacy and the monster can live another time like a story.”

Fresnadillo's take on why we like to be scared by horror films is very much in line with what the ancient Greeks felt about tragic theatre (and what Stephen King wrote about in his essay) - that experiencing fear (as well as any other emotion while watching theatre or film) is cathartic, almost a form of therapy.  We use art to move us to feel the emotions we don't necessarily deal with in everyday life so we are able to feel better and grow as human beings.  I also really appreciate how he goes on to explain that story telling is a good way to destroy your fears.  So the catharsis not only happens with the audience, but with the story teller as well.

Last, but very not least, was one of the Midnight Madness films, Lovely Molly, a fantastic story of possession, addiction and demons from the past from The Blair Witch Project director, Eduardo Sanchez.  This film featured an outstanding performance from its leading lady, newcomer Gretchen Lodge, who, during the Q&A was very humble and soft spoken, an actor truly dedicated to staying true to her character and, in the face of a lot of tough scenes involving nudity, special effects and harsh conditions, "bringing her story to life" (her words to me as a fellow actor - very gracious).

Sanchez, however, had a response to my question that was probably the most original I had encountered, and most interesting.  Without hesitation or time to ponder the question, he responded:

“I mean, look, there are a million theories, but I think that it’s just basically part of, like, who we were as cavemen.  We faced danger every day – the sabre-tooth tiger coming at you, or whatever – we had such short lives and a lot of times violent deaths.   And I think there’s just part of us that kinda misses that.  The whole idea like rubbernecking when you see an accident; 'What happened to that guy?'  There’s something about us that wants to see misery, I think, and experience fear.  Like roller coasters, or haunted houses during Halloween.  But the whole thing about films is that you’re relatively safe, unless you go home and you might have a nightmare or whatever.  But it’s safe, you’re in a theatre, and I think that it kind of touches on something that we lost (unless we live in a really bad neighbourhood), but yeah, the everyday danger of being killed by something, being attacked.

“And I like horror movies because, well I’ve never considered myself a 'horror filmmaker.'  When I went to film school I didn’t make any horror movies.  The thing I like about being stuck, as I am stuck in the kind of genre right now, is that the horror genre has all these sub genres so you can explore.  You have action, you have comedy, you have all these things that you can explore, so you can make a bunch of different kinds of movies within the horror genre.  This movie, it’s definitely a horror movie but it’s like an indie drama, it’s an 'actor’s piece.'  But I love that about horror, that you can go from a totally goofy zombie movie that makes you laugh or a total shit-your-pants kind of movie where you’re just sitting in your seat just dying.”

For being such an off-the-cuff answer, this is actually really brilliant and makes a lot of sense.  When we willingly scare ourselves, we are filling the void of an instinct that we don't use on a daily basis any more.  Coming from the director of one of the most influential horror movies of the last twenty years, I would take that pretty legitimately.  The guy knows what he's doing.

I was able to see a few more horror films - The Awakening, a fantastic ghost story with a twist starring Rebecca Hall, and an insane hit man film that ventures into the world of the occult called Kill List - but without having the chance to ask the same question to their respective directors.  

All in all, I think each of these directors have three very different takes on why we subject ourselves to terror.  Whether through dealing with grief, catharsis or filling the void that evolution has left behind, we seem to be wired to want to enjoy fear in a controlled setting.  We are strange creatures indeed.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

We Love to Hate Them

I recently watched Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects for the first time and found myself, to my own horror, rooting for the members of the Firefly family.  How could this be?  These people make Ed Gein look tame.  I couldn't believe some of the monstrous acts they commit in the film, but at the same time they are totally charismatic and sympathetic.  What's with that?

Villains. Bad guys. We love them. And we love to hate them. Think of any Batman film you've seen.  Before it came out, was the anticipation not "I wonder what gadgets Batman will use," but "I wonder who the bad guys are this time!"

Aren't we supposed to be rooting for the heroes?  Don't we want the protagonists to survive? Aren't we supposed to sympathize with the people who are most like us?

The truth, in fact, is that the villains in a story represent everything we always wanted to be, but never could, whether because of moral, religious, or social restraints.  The fact is, if human beings weren't programmed with a sense of morality, we would all be running around wearing hockey masks butchering hot cheerleaders and their dumb jock boyfriends (though I will confess that thought has crossed my mind many a time.)  This does beg the question: are we, in fact, naturally programmed with a sense of morality, or it is just instilled in us by our parents because of accepted social norms that have been shaped over hundreds of years?  Big question.  We'll have it for another post.

On top of that, when we see an actor having an absolute ball portraying someone so satisfyingly evil, it makes it that much more enjoyable for us to watch because we get to live through their joy of giving themselves into their primal urges to portray these horrible people.

Let's take a look at some examples, shall we? *Full of spoilers!*

1. Freddy Krueger - Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street)

This is a character that everyone, and I mean everyone, loves.  From the initial choice by the producers of Nightmare on Elm Street to market the film to kids, to the continual sequels that allowed Englund to make his lovable serial killer more and more over-the-top and still remain scary - anyone who lived through the 80's knows who this guy is and can't help but get a kick out his craziness.  

The best part is that Englund gets it, and he loves it.  In a recent Q&A at the Toronto Underground Theatre, after rhyming off a great list of A-list actors that he's worked with in some pretty legit films even before he started his stint as Freddy, Englund stated, "I'm fine with horror.  And I'll tell you why.  Because I found you guys.  I found a younger generation.  And not only you here, but in Europe.  Horror - like action movies and science fiction - it speaks the universal language of film.  I could take the three hundred of you here and drop you in Paris, or London, wherever.  Not everyone knows who Jay Leno or Jennifer Aniston is, but they LOVE horror.  They all know Freddy Krueger, they all know Rutger Hauer, they all know The Exorcist, they all know Interview With The Vampire...  You guys, it's this, the universal language.  We're all the same on this level.  This action, horror, fantasy, sci-fi level, we're all in bed together.  This is the big link."

The man's got some pretty solid points there.  In the end, it's people like Freddy who bring us all together.

2. Hannibal Lector - Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs)

Hannibal the Cannibal is a character that audiences fall for, and then are almost ashamed at how much they enjoy the experience of being in his presence.  Why?  Because he's so damn charming and intelligent, you forget that the atrocities he's committing are utterly horrifying.  

By the end of the movie, we're laughing right along with him as he bids goodbye to Clarice by slyly commenting that he'll be "having an old friend for dinner."  Whatever he did to capture the deepest part of our hearts, it worked.  At that moment, we're 100% on his side.  We're glad he was able to elude the FBI, we're impressed by his ingenious escape, and we actually become disappointed when the credits begin to roll because we don't get to see whatever clever trick he devises to lure in and devour his former doctor.  

He loves classical music, chianti, and human liver.  How can you not love this guy?

3.  Catherine Tramell - Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct)

Smart, sexy, confident, successful novelist, elusive serial killer.  She's the epitome of the modern succubus, luring both men and women with her powerful advances and drawing them into her web of sex and death.

Tramell is a brilliant, charismatic sociopath who manipulates everyone around her for her own amusement.  She killed her own parents simply to see if she could get away with it, for crying out loud.  

She is everything both sexes want; she is what we desire, and she is what we wish we could be.  There is a freedom in her sexuality and her indifference to the outcome of her actions that we all wish we could attain in our own lives.

Her power is alluring, her intelligence unwavering.  Truly seductive, truly frightening.

4. Jack Torrence - Jack Nicholson (The Shining)

I think what is equally enjoyable and terrifying about Jack in this film is how utterly free he is in creating this character.  His descent into madness is completely believable, even when he says and does the most ridiculous things.  His iconic line, "Here's Johnny!" could be laughed off the screen if it wasn't for Nicholson's complete commitment to the insanity of this character.  

There is nothing was in the way, there are no judgments, no wrong choices.  It is all truthful, and it is all gold.

5. Jason Voorhees/Michael Myers - The Silent Killers (Friday the 13th Series/Halloween Series)
Ah, yes, it's always the quiet ones.  

There's just something about a hulking figure lurking in the darkness wearing a mask and wielding a sharp instrument of death.  You know they're there, you know it's a bad idea for that character to go running up the stairs when the power's out, but you can't help but cheer on these silent killers.

Granted, the initial killer in the first Friday the 13th film is Jason's mother (which in itself is a stroke of genius - what other petite older woman could have accomplished such creative and brutal killings?  This mom is badass!), but as soon as grown-up Jason finds that goalie mask and begins his vengeful tirade against the camp counselors that neglected him and killed his mother, we fall in love.

And the image of Michael Myers' ghostly white Captain Kirk mask emerging from the darkness behind Jamie Lee Curtis will continue to haunt our dreams - and keep us coming back to this classic film with this iconic villain because we just love him so damn much.

Honourable mentions go to:

Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) - Psycho
Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) - Back to the Future trilogy
Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) - A Clockwork Orange
Nurse Rached (Louise Fletcher) - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Zorg (Gary Oldman) - The Fifth Element
The Shark - Jaws
The Alien - Alien
Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) - The ORIGINAL Star Wars Trilogy
Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) - Die Hard
The Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) - Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) - Harry Potter films

... okay, so we've established Alan Rickman makes a fantastic villian we all love.

But in the end, it comes down to what effect villains have on their audience.  And as Time columnist Richard Corliss explains, every good villain must do the same thing in order to be fully successful at winning us over: "convince the characters he/she is corrupting, and the audience in the theatre, that evil is both plausible and essential, liberating and enthralling."

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Exorcist - From Innocence to Experience

For many people of my generation, when you were twelve years old the question was always, "Have you seen The Exorcist yet?"  As if managing to endure this film was some kind of initiation into pubescence. If you could withstand The Exorcist, you were a real man.

Well, on the night before Halloween when I was twelve years old, a friend and I rented The Exorcist (1973), camped out in his basement and attempted the feat.  We made it to Father Merrin's arrival at the house and decided it was too much in one night to endure the actual exorcism, so we finished it the following morning.  In the light.

Some might say we wimped out.  But the reality is that I didn't sleep a wink that night, because not only did I have the demon's face etched into my brain, I had no idea what the outcome of the whole story was!  That lack of closure was pure torture for the hours I spent terrified in the dark unable to sleep.

Time and time again, The Exorcist is labelled as "the most terrifying film ever made," specifically by Entertainment Weekly and, and it seems to have stood the test of time.  Even though the fashions and hairstyles have all changed and all of the technology seen in the film is insanely outdated (the hospital scenes are often credited as the most gut-wrenching scenes in the entire movie), the themes of this film continue to resonate with viewers today and probably will for decades to come.

Why?  There are many reasons why as a film it works on so many levels.  The acting is flawless on all counts, the special effects and makeup creations are outstanding and as real as anything you'll ever see, and the script penned by the original novel's author, William Peter Blatty, not only provides humanity and honest dialogue, but develops the story and characters at a perfect pace in order for the audience to fully sympathize with everyone involved in Regan's transformation from innocent girl to hideous demon.

And therein lies the real reason why we are continually drawn to this story - the transformation from innocence to experience; when we unknowingly give up the freedom of being a child and spend the rest of our lives trying to rediscover it.  Regan is twelve years old.  The age in which we are still a child but not quite old enough to shoulder the physical and emotional responsibilities of being an adult.  Our bodies are changing, new and interesting feelings are being discovered, but we still hold onto our innocence.

The Exorcist takes that transformation that we all go through and turns it entirely on its head (or, in this case, spins it around).  When we first meet Regan (Linda Blair), she is a cute, rosy cheeked girl of twelve who is happy to create Plasticine sculptures and ride horses - a place where we have all been.  And over the course of the film she deteriorates into this horrible monster that eludes all medical and psychological knowledge and requires the aid of an ailing priest with a past, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), and Father Karras (Jason Miller), a psychologist priest in the midst of a crisis of faith.  Together they perform the rites of exorcism to fight for her life and her soul - as well as their own.

Each character in this film possesses characteristics and traits that we can all relate to - a mother who just wants to help her daughter, a young girl in the middle of her parents' separation, a middle aged man who no longer knows what to put his faith in - and the performances are written and executed so well it's impossible not to find traits we all share with them.  But while the film's major story arc revolves around Father Karras and his journey from emptiness to redemption through faith and sacrifice, the reason why audiences and critics alike continue to be drawn to this story is the fact that it's happening to an innocent child, and it's the innocent child in each of us that we all fight to protect.

As I said in my first post, the horror genre challenges us to accept that some things happen in real life whether we like it or not.  In the case of The Exorcist, we are forced to watch an innocent girl tormented by a demon, a spiritual representation of all of the inevitable changes that come with losing one's childhood innocence - the physical loss of virginity, the emotional loss of the ignorance to the horrors of the world, and the discovery of one's own mortality and limitations - and we can't help but feel that we are all Regan in some way.


Ultimately, through the act of self sacrifice Karras succeeds in driving out the demon, but as we are in life when we lose our innocence, Regan is never the same.  The physical scars remain on her face (much as once virginity is taken, it can never be physically repaired), and when we see her in the final scene her rosy carefree nature is replaced by the guilt of knowing that people have died for and because of her, and a longing to return to the way life was before it all happened - the way most people deal with various forms of guilt throughout their lives and long to return to the innocence of childhood.  We all experience this in our own different ways to various degrees, which is why we are drawn to Regan's journey.  It's shockingly cathartic, and we don't want to admit that we strangely can relate to her experience.

The lines that are given to the two priests in The Version You've Never Seen are very moving:

Karras:  Why this girl?  It makes no sense.
Merrin:  I think the point is to make us despair.  To see ourselves as animal and ugly.  To reject the possibility that God could love us. 

In essence, these are the lies that we constantly tell ourselves.  Whereas the demon chose to possess Regan to attack the people around her and make them feel alone, unworthy and unloved, the demons that we continually deal with - self consciousness, self doubt etc. - make us feel the same way about ourselves.

But the positive aspect of the whole terrifying ordeal is that in the end it's love that wins.  Karras invites the demon into his body, and because of his love for this poor girl he throws himself out of the bedroom window and down the famous staircase in Georgetown before it can re-enter her.  This one final act shows us the true power of love, and what love for self and for others can do to overcome all of the obstacles that the experiences of our own journeys have brought us.

For it is when we love that we can truly live.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Welcome to My Journey

Stephen King once wrote in an essay entitled "Why We Crave Horror Movies": The mythic horror movie, like the sick joke, has a dirty job to do. It deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized... and it all happens, fittingly enough, in the dark... I like to see the most aggressive of them... as lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.  Why bother? Because it keeps them from getting out, man.

For as far back as I can remember, I have been fascinated with things that scare me.  Even as a small child I was drawn to all things dark and creepy.  When I was about five or six, my parents got me a small part in a local theatre production called The Woman in Black.  My job was to provide the voice over for the ghost of a child who drowned in the moors.  I had to giggle, cry and scream into a microphone.  Now, I really had no idea what I was doing, I was just playing around.  And I didn't think much of it until my parents took me to see the show (my payment for my services had been comps for myself and my family).  I don't know who thought it was a good idea to bring a child to see that show, because it deliberately intends to frighten its audience.  And I had nightmares for weeks.

But at the same time I was utterly fascinated.  For as much as I imagined that terrifying woman shrouded in a veil with her dark, sunken in eyes hovering above my bed in the dark, I wanted to see it again.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe I wanted to face my fears head on.  Perhaps I wanted to look for the things that confirmed for me that it wasn't real.  I'm not sure, but her image lingered in my mind for a long time, almost forgotten...

... until BBC released a made-for-TV movie version of The Woman in Black about a year later.  Silly me, I watched it and spent the next few weeks crying to my parents before going to bed, hiding under the covers and leaving the lights on to scare that terrible woman away.

Flash forward to my college years and the invention of a wonderful tool called ebay.  For whatever reason, I found a DVD copy of The Woman in Black, the same one that had terrified me as a child, so I bought it and it was shipped within days.  I put it in and watched it with my then-girlfriend, who had politely humoured my fascination with horror on numerous occasions.

There was one particular scene that I knew was coming (and those of you who have seen this film know of the scene that I am referring to).  In the minutes leading up to that scene, I could feel my heart begin to race, my hands go clammy and my breath come in quick gasps.  My girlfriend looked at me like I was nuts.  But when the scene arrived and scared the crap out of us, I had finally faced a demon that had been haunting me for over a dozen years.

And it made me want more.

Why do we love horror?  Stephen King's essay does make a lot of great points and I agree with the notion of "feeding the gators."  But I think there's something more.  In examining my own feelings and experiences, I don't particularly feel like I'm fending off starving gators for fear they may be unleashed upon the world.  Not consciously, at least.  I do, however, find a fascination with things we can't explain.

To make sense of the world, humans have always tried to provide explanations.  This is why we have the Bible and the vast array of different religions that populate the world.

"How did we all get here?"  "Well, God breathed us into existence in six days."  "Oh, well that explains it."

But no matter how hard we try to fit the physical world we live, breathe and see every day into our own little boxes, there are still things that occur in it that we simply cannot comprehend.

Like lights in the sky that cannot possibly be any man-made aircraft.

Like strange occurrences in creepy old houses.

Like large, frightening beasts living in mountains or lakes that elude our modern tracking technology.

Like how one man can inspire a nation to murder over a million Jewish people.

Like how a person can believe in and defend their beliefs so much they fly a plane into a building.

Like how people who are supposed to serve and protect us overseas end up defiling and torturing their prisoners.

These are just a few things the majority of us who are just trying to get through the day can't always comprehend and truly evoke fear in us - for ourselves and for the state of the world.  And what this blog will explore through interviews, experiences, reflections and the reviewing of films, books, articles, video games etc. in the horror genre is the idea that by creating and consuming horror as entertainment, we as individuals are trying to make sense of the things in the world that don't make sense.

Whether it be Jack Nicholson chopping down a bathroom door or Linda Blair levitating and spewing pea soup, this genre depicts and represents the things in this life that are unfathomable to us.  The horror genre not only offers possibilities as to why these things occur, but also challenges us to accept that these things happen in real life whether we like it or not, and makes us ask ourselves how we can better ourselves so we don't end up like one of Michael Myers' victims - or Michael Myers himself.

And it's all done within the safe confines of a screen or a page in a book.  You can stop it at any time, take a breather, or walk away from it entirely.  You're in control.  You're in the drivers seat.  That's the appealing part.  Because sometimes in life, you don't get to be the driver.

And that's where the real scary stuff begins.