Fear Factoring: Part I

The Shower Scene from Alfred Hitchcock's classic, Psycho (1961)

What elements categorize a horror film? Monsters? Murders? Mood and atmosphere? In this first of a two part examination on the subject, our resident macabre master argues that unlike other cinematic genres, the basic tenets of the terror experience can be difficult to clearly delineate.

Imagine a boring Saturday afternoon. You turn on the TV and find there a film that you've never seen before. You've missed the title, but decide to watch it nevertheless. During the next two hours you witness a damsel in distress, an evil villain, and the death of several people. By the end of the story, you have probably already determined, in a rather unambiguous manner, that you've been watching a horror, crime, or western genre effort.

Arguably, such a verdict is grounded on our previous experience as cinemagoers. Indeed, after years of watching a wide variety of films we become aware of clichés and other recurrent visual and/or narrative elements. As a matter of fact, this knowledge is required not only to categorize, but also to recognize the aesthetic qualities of the effort we have just watched. Such a complex intertextuality means that our appreciation of a film at any given moment depends, in a rather intricate manner, on other movies, magazines, and books that have been available to us in the past. Thus, the full meaning we assign to a film, or to any other cultural product for that matter, depends on our cultural background.

In particular, we know that we are watching a horror film, mostly because we have seen horror films before and we know what they are all about. Such an empirical conceptualization and categorization probably is enough to get us through life, to communicate with others about our interests, or to help us choose the movies we want to see or avoid. However, if we have more than a casual interest in the genre, and we want to provide an objective, all-encompassing, sound, timeless, and reliable definition of what exactly a horror film is, then we face insurmountable challenges.

Defining horror, or any other cinematic genre for that matter, is a rather complex problem that has preoccupied critics, scholars, academics, fans, and even filmmakers and distributors for many decades. In an attempt to shed some light on these issues, this installment of Dread Reckoning will take a glance at some of the problems encountered when we attempt to give meaning to the words: "horror film".

To begin with, one could argue that generic names such as horror, science fiction, or western are mere labels used to categorize subject matter. So, if we envision a structural approach where we designate a list of characteristic elements to each label, then it would appear trivial to assign one label to each movie. However, this labeling system is likely to be completely subjective. That is, the list of those structures that distinguish the horror film is bound to be dissimilar from person to person, and across different historical periods.

Thus, we need to be rather concrete and think about general traits instead of specific details. In this regard, perhaps the easiest way to attempt to define horror cinema is by its characteristic iconography. Arguably, the imagery and symbolism most recurrent in movie macabre centers around a monster -- a creature different from "us" that transgresses biological or physical boundaries. But this is not enough: to prevent Superman and E.T from becoming horror movies, we probably want to add the requirement that these monsters need to challenge our cultural and moral values, becoming a threat to the natural and social order.

Some of the early historians of the genre embraced this definition of horror film. For instance, Carlos Clarence in An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films (1967), Dennis Gifford in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), and William K. Everson in Classics of the Horror Film (1974), clearly stipulated that horror films are required to have a fantastic element in its narrative. For these authors, movies about vampires, werewolves, zombies, aliens, ghosts, and other supernatural entities were obvious members of the genre. Even the eminent film scholar Noel Carroll relies on this definition in his groundbreaking study of the genre The Philosophy of Horror (1990).

The main problem with this understanding is rather trivial to observe. That is, undisputable classics such as Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Friday the 13th do not feature otherworldly monsters, and therefore they do not satisfy our structural requirement to become horror films. Clearly, this conclusion is in conflict with the most recent studies of the genre by Carol Clover in Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992) and Cynthia Freeland in The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror (2000), and with the personal experience of most moviegoers.

Arguably, such an oversight on the early film books was due to historical reasons: Clarence, Gifford, and Everson published their books before movies with serial killers and psychopaths became popular during the mid to late 1970s. Of course one could amend this omission by allowing "human monsters" into our definition of horror films. Unfortunately, in this case the genre becomes too broad as we would have to include movies in the vein of Dirty Harry, Black Sunday, and Die Hard, as well as TV shows such as Law & Order: Criminal Intent and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Once more, we could attempt to correct our definition by claiming that a horror film has to gravitate towards the suffering of the victims, and not on the police procedures used to trap the monsters. But then again, horror favorites such as The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en would remain outside the genre, while a wide variety of real life dramas would satisfy the new requirements.

Similarly, movies often labeled as horror such as Jaws, Anaconda, and Snakes on a Plane, would not be considered in this category because their monsters are real life animals with no fantastic elements. And perhaps more dramatic, there are films such as The Final Wave, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Sorum, and several adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's works that feel as if they should belong to horror, but do not present any type of monsters or creatures. Obviously, a definition of the genre based on its monsters has to be fine tuned for a wide variety of films, which is an unacceptable feature from a formal theoretical perspective.

Likewise, we could think about characterizing the horror film by its visual structure. For instance, bleak images of gothic spaces, graveyards, and decrepit churches appear to be characteristic. But then again, we can also find this imagery in non-macabre efforts such as David Lean's Great Expectations, Luis Bunuel's The Discrete Charm of Bourgeoisie, as well as in several entries from Ingmar Bergman's oeuvre. And in any event, horror movies may take place in brightly illuminated suburban spaces such as the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead, the wilderness of a tropical jungle in Predator, or in the vast desolation of an American desert in The Hills Have Eyes.

We could also argue that genres such as horror, comedy, or porn could be categorized by the physiological reactions they have on the audience (fear and revulsion, laugh and giggles, and sexual arousal, respectively). But this is an equally problematic scheme. For instance, a WWII film about Nazi racial policies such as The Pianist is likely to be terrifying, but it is doubtful that it should belong to the horror genre. On the other hand, Re-Animator, Bad Taste, and Evil Dead 2 are classic horror movies made with the express purpose of making us laugh at the many onscreen excesses. And ultimately, the physiological response of the viewer may be based on his psychological character and cultural background, making this system completely subjective.

In addition to these complexities, we also have to account for films that appear to belong to more than one genre. Consider the case of generic hybrids such as Alien and Frankenstein. Their transgressive and aberrant creatures are more than enough to make them horror flicks. But in addition, because Alien takes place inside a spaceship in some distant future and Frankenstein showcases the results of science gone awry, they both neatly fall into the science fiction category. More sophisticated instances of generic mixtures include Angel Heart (horror and film noir) and Westworld (horror, science fiction, and western). In this regard, perhaps a more difficult question is to attempt to decide if, for example, Alien is more horror than science fiction, or vice versa.

Clearly, all these intricacies reveal that cinematic genres are not rigid, absolute, hermetic, and immutable. Instead, a genre appears to be a fluid and permeable intertextual cultural construction. As we will see in the next installment of Dread Reckoning, this means that generic conventions are continuously revised and updated, and a classification that makes sense at some point in history may become problematic a few years later.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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