[27 March 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
One of the great things about art is its ability to make you see the common and the familiar in a totally different and unique light. Painting puts a stylistic impression on the world, while music translates ideas and feelings into sound and sonic expression. Film is perhaps the most endemic of the many formats. It allows for the greatest combination of facets, plus is relies on reinvention and reinterpretation to stay fresh and alive. This is exactly what happens to the horror film in Ben Rivers deconstructionist delight Terror! As part of Provocateur DVDs new Experiments in Terror 3, this brilliant breakdown of the standard fright flick is so radiant, so drop dead eye-opening in what it says about the genre, that it should be required viewing for all scary movie buffs.
As they have in the past, the Experiments in Terror series collects unusual and outsider examples of sinister short films from around the world. Past participants have been Damon Packard, Bill Morrison, and J.X. Williams. This time up, we are treated to six sensational examples of avant-garde artistic invention. Williams shows up again with the Christmas themed Satan Claus, while famed underground legend Mike Kuchar conjures up the mummy mania of Born of the Wind. Rivers’ Terror! costars with Jason Bognacki’s The Red Door (more of a trailer for an upcoming feature than a full blown film), Carey Burtt’s toyland expose of The Psychotic Odyssey of Richard Chase, and the silent film fascination of Marie Losier and Guy Maddin’s Manuellle Labor. Add in Clinton Childree’s It Gets Worse and a pamphlet describing each offering, and you’ve got a killer compendium - both figuratively and literally.
It all starts with the animated atrocities of insane maniac Chase, a real life criminal who believed he was a vampire. Inspired by Todd Haynes and his Barbie doll based Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Burtt using basic stop motion techniques and some careful framing to tell the sensational story. There are moments of high comedy and sequences of unsettling psychological damage on display. By using the innocent items associated with youth, Chase’s crime become more compelling - and disturbing. Similarly, the black and white turn of the century cinematic techniques displayed by Losier and Maddin, as well as Chidree, change the entire nature of the horror film narrative. Both feel like malformed comedies, humor derived from death, birth, and the mutations that accompany each.
Elsewhere, Williams works his magic on the Mexican kiddie classic (and Mystery Science favorite) Santa Claus. Taking a subplot involving the rich boy and his inconsiderate parents and turning it into a tale of devil worship and demonic possession - with a little Profundo Rosso thrown in for good measure - we wind up with a wicked Yuletide treat. Even Kuchar manages a bit of bedevilment in his typical homage hysterics. This 1964 farce features the standard company from the underground icon and a plethora of his peculiar motion picture style. There’s high camp, over the top sexuality, significant gore, and a last act reveal that’s so outrageous it hurts.
Oddly enough, the only outing which lacks true impact is Bognacki’s Red Room. There are hints of incest, abuse, spirituality, and murder in this music heavy promo. Just as things start to sort themselves out, we get that most dreaded of creative con jobs - the tag “to be continued”. In fact, much of this prostitute vs. John vs. phantom presence plays like a music video for a forgotten ‘90s Goth act. All we need is Marilyn Manson showing up with a jaw spreader in his craw and we be rockin’! This is not to downplay Bogmacki’s talent - the material looks fantastic, and the post-production touch of placing an animated scar across the ghost’s eyes really works. Too bad it’s all in service of something insignificant and incomplete.
But everything here, no matter its value, is raised several substantive notches by the inclusion of Rivers’ genius dissection of modern fright. Terror! takes several recognizable films - everything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween to City of the Living Dead and Friday the 13th to showcase the standard cinematic stereotypes and formulaic filmmaking techniques involved in manufacturing fear. We get the simple set up, the shot of feet stumbling in the dark, the unexpected reveal of the villain, the last girl struggles, the inept desire to explore the unknown, the sudden shocks, and most significantly, the gruesome, gory end game. This last facet is the most fascinating element in Rivers’ routine for many reasons - many of them very telling indeed.
Like pornography, horror’s unwholesome relative, there is a definite desire on the part of scary moviemakers to start out somber and build to a climax. All throughout Terror! , we anticipate the killings to come (especially once the individual films reveal themselves) and then spend nearly 20 minutes waiting for the payoff. All the while, the normal beats that keep us on the edge of our seats become delayers of our gratification. As Rivers randomizes the edits, drawing us closer and closer to the blood orgasm to come, we truly want the relief - and when it comes, it’s almost sickening in its satisfaction. Of all the films made about fear and the movies that monopolize said emotion, this is one of the very, very best.
And that’s par for the course when it comes to Provocateur and its itinerary of titles. One should simply sit back and expect the unexpected, whether it’s action figures and crayons creating blood-drinking dread or a famed filmmaker using his love of antique Tinsel Town for a fabulous play on words. No matter the age, ability, or aspirations, all of these ‘experiments’ succeed in showing that talent in any form - feature length or substantially shorter - can lift even the most mediocre of overdone genre. Horror definitely fits into such a mangled category. For all the good work done, there are thousands of genuine junk piles. This trip into terror is significant for many reasons, the least of which remains their artistic integrity. Like all good masterworks, they mean as much in retrospect as they do in reality.