Saturday, August 07, 2010

 Three Modern Approaches to Horror
“Horror,” Boris Karloff reportedly once said, “is what you feel when you see a dead child. I make terror movies.” In spite of Mr. Karloff’s objection, horror is what the genre is called and, as time has passed, the appellation has become more and more apropos. Witness three recent approaches to the subject. The first is a mainstream Hollywood movie, the second is a current midnight movie favorite that is already becoming a cult hit, and the third is one of the nastier examples of those particularly brutal horror movies that are coming out of France these days.

The first is Splice, an interesting, by-the-book thriller starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. Splice is the story of two ambitious scientist trying to create new life through—you guessed it—gene splicing. There is a touch of Frankenstein in this story, but the film resembles the work of David Cronenberg more than that of James Whale. Polley and Brody make an interesting couple, primarily because neither fits the Hollywood matinee idol mold. We believe them as scientists and that goes a long way toward propelling this movie forward. The state of computer graphics these days is such that creating a monster that doesn’t look like a tall man in a latex suit is not the problem it once was. At the start, the creature here resemble a cross between a baby doll and a kangaroo rat, but this is a film about mutation, so don’t expect this thing to continue looking adorable. The creature is played by French actress, Delphine Chanéac, who might actually be cute in other circumstances, here she is just appropriately weird-looking.

As the story progresses, our scientists get less and less sympathetic—seldom a good thing—and more and more inscrutable. The end effect is that as we become more engrossed in the story, we are simultaneously pushed away. In the end, the moral of the story seems to be that science corrupts and absolute science corrupts absolutely.

But the biggest problem with the story is not the lack of sympathy. I’ve come to expect that from most modern horror movies (see Living Death, starring Kristy Swanson for what is surely the ultimate example of this). The problem is that I felt like I had seen every thing in the movie somewhere else already. I found myself thinking, “That’s The Fly, that’s Jeepers Creepers II.” After a while, I began to wonder if this film should have been directed by Quentin Tarantino, who, at least, makes no excuses for his scene-lifting. Splice is not a bad movie, but it is a mainstream Hollywood film, which means it never goes anywhere that won’t safely appeal to the American mass-market.

The same cannot be said of The Human Centipede (First Sequence). Even before most people had seen this, it was already tallying up a substantial collection of angry posts on IMDB. People were outraged, and the makers of the movie did nothing to abate this. It is hard to talk much about The Human Centipede without giving away some major plot points, but I don’t think many people are going to see this movie without some idea of what they are getting into. Crazed Nazi scientist, Dr. Heiter—played with delightfully over-the-top glee by Dieter Laser—wants to sew people together, one after another, to form a long chain. Why? Who knows. To paraphrase Hazel Motes in Wise Blood: A man who's an evil Nazi don’t need no justification. When two fairly unsympathetic young women stumble onto Dr. Heiter’s home, he is ready to begin his experiment.

The most remarkable thing about this movie isn’t its Grand Guignol grotesqueness, it is its tastefulness. Yes, you heard me right. The cinematography is crisp and dreamy, the sound is as clean as a Hollywood production, and the music is effective and understated. Although there was plenty of potential for this story to dip into the realm of lewd misanthropy, it never goes there. Two of the subjects are attractive young women, but this doesn’t seem to be important to Dr. Heiter, so it never becomes important to us. What little nudity there is here is handled discreetly. Normally a mad scientist this over the top would live in something resembling a castle, but director Tom Six wisely chose to place the action in a suburban house as mundane-looking as a subdivision home in Phoenix.

The end result is a film that is never as disgusting as the subject matter suggests. I kept wondering, as I watched it, what the film would have turned out like if T.V. Mikels or Joel M. Reed had been the director. It certainly would have been twice as offensive, and a lot more shocking. Tom Six claims he is making a sequel that will make this film look like My Little Pony. I, for one, can’t wait.

While The Human Centipede (First Sequence) disarms us with its humor, the same cannot be said for Martyrs. This is one of that new breed of horror that is coming out of France these days. France—long the bastion of romantic comedies and social commentaries—has gone dark of late. Films like Haut Tension, Irréversible, Ils, and À l'intérieur (know as Inside in the US, and easily the best of the bunch) push the boundaries of horror. They are gruesome and shocking, but without the happy gusto of the American horror films. While the torture-porn of Hostel and Saw may gross us out, they never bring us to that place of darkness and fear. We watch dispassionately, like the sex negatives in Café Flesh. Not so with the French films, which peel back our skin and show us the darkness that lies within.

It’s been said that all French films are about love. This is certainly true of Haut Tension, Irréversible, and, to a lesser extent, Ils and À l'intérieur, but it is not true of Martyrs. In terms of concept, there really isn’t anything like this film. The central theme of this movie is this: What would you do to experience divine ecstasy? I’m not talking here about the sexual pleasures that the creatures in Hellraiser are after, but true, touched-by-the-hand-of-God ecstasy. the answer in Martyrs is: almost anything. We follow two orphans, now grown-up, who go about trying to find out what happened to one of them when she was young. From this point on, the film takes more surprising turns than last year’s sadly over-looked Revanche. When we finally get to the theme of the film, we know we are entering freaky new territory.

I am hesitant to say I enjoyed Martyrs, because it’s about as enjoyable as Salo, but I did find myself thinking about it later, which I always consider a good sign. I was surprised by the story, which happens all too rarely in psychokiller films. Obviously the director knew he was going somewhere dangerous when he made this film because he appears at the beginning of the DVD to thank the people who liked the film and to apologize to (and sympathize with!) the people who didn’t. You’ll never see Paul Verhoeven do that.

1 comment:

Jim Morton said...

My friend Michelle King commented that the creature in Splice looked like a cross between Björk and a jerboa.