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.

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