And you cannot run or ever, ever escape… Some notes on horror films

Cover of "Ju-on (The Grudge)"
Cover of Ju-on (The Grudge)

We love things that are unpleasant.  The pleasure of spicy food is in the pain it causes our mouths.  The pleasure of alcohol is the brain cells that it kills.  And we love horror films.

I’m sure there’s some pseudo-scientific reason why we love horror films — adrenaline rush, heightened emotions, &c. — but what is perhaps more interesting about movies is the way in which they scare us.  When we watch the films, we know that they’re up on a screen and that they are fiction.  There’s something about horror films which bypasses that cynical awareness of reality to make us embody the physical state of fear.

Curious and interested as I am, I watched RingJu-On: The Grudge, and Pan’s Labyrinth in order to understand what it was about the stories and the way they were told which makes me frightened.  A bit of a masochist project, I admit, as my already rubbish sleep schedule was plagued by nightmares that night.

Before I jump in to overthinking horror films, it’s probably worth noting that the films I chose are clearly from a particular style of horror film: the fantasy, absurd, surreal sort of horror.  I’ve never been a fan of slash/gore films and don’t find them particularly scary.  I imagine that the analysis of those films would be easier: we respond to the violence on the screen.  In two of the three films I chose, there’s very little violence.  Something else is going on with these films beyond mere response to the obvious physical threat of people who wish to smear our organs across walls.

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Phantom shadows on the floor… Wreck-It Ralph is utterly dreadful fun #reviews

I remember the first day I played Mario Kart 64.  I played as Donkey Kong because I was yet to discover that Wario was the better character.  It was less than ten minutes between my younger brother (it was his birthday present) opening the box and us racing around Luigi’s Circuit.  Ten minutes.

Thanks to Wreck-It Ralph, I can now imagine what it would have been like if that ten minutes instead lasted two hours.  Freak me sideways.

Wreck-It Ralph is a difficult movie to describe because it’s three mini-plots wrapped up into one film.

Ralph is a video game baddie.  In a moment of existential crisis, he attends a support group for other baddies where he learns the mantra that it’s good to be bad, being bad is okay, and it’s okay to be him.  For the film to end, Ralph must explore this mantra, whether he agrees with it, or whether there is another way for him to live.

Then there’s the story of Ralph trying to find acceptance within his society.  He is told that if he receives a MacGuffin called ‘A Hero’s Medal’, he will be rewarded with a penthouse and invited to live among the community.  For the film to end, Ralph must find this medal and return.

Then there’s the story of Vanellope.  Introduced about half way through the film, she steals the Ralph’s medal in order to enter a race in order to win the right to be considered a real person… or something.

In short, it’s a beautiful trainwreck of interviewing plots.  Vanellope enters the race, and then we explore Ralph’s story about coming to terms with his role in a programmed universe for about an hour or so.  Fortunately, there was enough time between registering for the race and the actual race.  They never would have had three quarters of this film if the logical thing (‘Okay, time to race!’) had occurred.  They even have to make a car for her.  For Jove’s sake.

Nothing about Sarah Silverman’s voice doesn’t annoy me.  For an hour, the audience has to endure her trying to sound even more infantile than she already does.  Why does Vanellope sound like her intellectual development was stunted?  Could it be due to the entire world in which she lives being made out of sugar?  You need to eat your eight serves of fruit and veggies, girl.

The film runs well and truly out of steam by the time a training montage appears.  Acknowledging this, characters end up acting in particularly strange ways in order to keep the plot moving along.  Oh, it turns out a bad guy did something that nobody can remember… but wouldn’t visitors from the other video games realise something was whack?  Oh, it turns out the King (who is excellent, by the way.  The voice actor — one of the non-events from Firefly — did an amazing job of impersonating Ed Wynn’s Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland — although more people would recognise him as Uncle Albert from Mary Poppins) can give Ralph what he wants without all this Mario Kart gibberish?

What makes the film tank?  It tries really, really hard to be clever and insightful but, like most Disney morals, makes for uncomfortable thinking.  We are the way that we’re programmed.  If there isn’t a princess ruling everything, the world is somehow immoral.  We need to accept our lot in life.

It’s also a film that really doesn’t know who the target audience is.  References don’t make sense to kids, and yet the pre-teen market appears to be the target audience.  The film doesn’t work — as some children’s film try — as having two messages: the big shiny distracting message for the kids, and the innuendo, implied message for the adults.  But the video game characters are all from my generation, so there’s no connection for the current generation of children.  Perhaps that says something (terrible) about modern gaming.

The film most like it is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  At the heart of that film was an extremely clever trick: it associated Roger with well-known cartoons, making it feel like we were peering into a parallel universe a little bit like our own, except that Roger was just as famous as Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Droopy Dog.  The trick doesn’t quite work in Wreck-It Ralph, where Ralph’s game is presented to us alongside characters from Street Fighter, Super Mario BrosSonic the Hedgehog, Altered Beast, Pac-Man, &c., &c., &c.  But the emotions that we have towards those characters never rubs off on Ralph like it does with Roger.

Which is a shame, because without that key ingredient, the other particularly clever ingredients go to waste.  Despite being modelled in 3D, the characters in Ralph’s game move in Game and Watch style rhythm, for example.  There’s a post-apocalyptic glow to the gaming universe when the orange ‘Out of Order’ is posted by the human owner of the arcade.  And references.  Tonnes, and tonnes of references.

All of that being said, despite noting every single (and there are many) flaw in this film and the fact that the film is, ultimately, extremely stupid…

… it is also  fantastic fun.

There’s something absorbing about the world presented.  You’re overcome with nostalgia for the characters who make cameo appearances in the world-between-gaming-worlds that you forget that you’re watching a shitty film and start to think about those games instead.  Many of the jokes work as one-liners.  Action pieces are engaging fluff and don’t drag too much.  And, it must be said again, the Mad Hatter King is simply fantastic.

In conclusion, wait for it to come out on television.

Don’t look at me that way… Stop what you’re doing and see #Prometheus #review

I was part of the Classics Society at university.  We had a room right up in the attic of one of the buildings; on the wall was an excerpt from an essay by some disgruntled academic about Homer’s The Iliad.

I forget the exact wording, but it went along the lines of: ‘Why bother praising The Iliad?  It’s what we wrote before we knew how to write proper literature.’

There’s a sense of that watching old films.  Superman2001: A Space Odyssey, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture are wonderful, amazing films, but they are clearly products of a particular time in our science fiction history.  Long, pondering, meandering, and — to be frank — boring explorations of the human condition… in space.

I went to a party a few weeks ago dressed as HAL 3000.  A few people said: ‘Oh, yeah!  I don’t think I’ve made it all the way through that film.  I fell asleep.’

Alien is, in comparison, a much more modern film.  The film follows Ripley as the ship she’s on discovers a lair of eggs, one of which hatches, &c., &c., &c.  Instead of being the typical science fiction movie about humanity, Alien is a horror film.

As much as I love Alien, it has some serious drawbacks.  Characters exist just to be fodder and, really, does the plot make much sense?  What the hell is the android doing?

Prometheus is what Alien would have looked like had it been made today and not two decades ago.  It only looks bad in comparison with Alien if the nostalgia-goggles are so dimmed over that you can’t remember much about Alien.

Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discovers a map from ancient civilisations.  She brings her partner along on a spaceship, Prometheus, lead by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) to find the ‘Engineers’ — the race believed to have somehow created life on Earth.  Vickers’ leads a crew of men and a robot, David (Michael Fassbender).  When they find the planet specified in the ancient map, Shaw’s assumptions are challenged: Who are the Engineers?  What were they doing?  Who are her shipmates? What are they doing?

Don’t go looking for a coherent plot.  It doesn’t exist.  Don’t go looking for deep and meaningful characters.  Outside the three leads (Rapace, Theron, Fassbender), only Idris Elba manages to stand out beyond the cookie-cutter template for a spaceship crew.

Then again — to a degree — you don’t want those sorts of things in this sorts of film.  Prometheus, like Alien, is a horror film set in space.  What you want from this sort of film is terror, and Prometheus brings it in spades.

In a recent post, I discussed the argument that censorship made it more difficult for horror films to be creative.  Prometheus shows that films can still find ways to terrorise audiences without needing to resort to gore.  There’s very little blood in Prometheus, and yet there are scenes which are utterly terrifying.  It finds ways to relive the original thrill of the facehugger — all of the creepiness, all of the shock, and all of the uncertainty — in brand new ways.

Despite being set in the Alien universe, Prometheus does really fresh things with the horror elements.  Although the film depicts things we’ve seen before, they seem fresh and new.  Alien was about anxiety regarding sex, and Prometheus plays uses body horror to play in the same intellectual space.  Lovers turn out not to be who they seem.  Pregnancy becomes a literal alien invasion.  Monsters are amalgamations of genitals in brand new ways.

But there are times when the movie bites off a lot more than it can chew.  There are zombies and alien infestations and alien creatures and alien warmongers all within about five minutes of each other.  Where Alien kept our attention fixed on the life-cycle of one, individual monster, Prometheus plays with a lot of different kinds of monster.  This often feels more like indecisiveness than purposeful.  Characters isolated from the others discover a new monster because there is no chance of the existing three monsters reaching them.

And there are some really uncomfortable ideas bubbling under the surface, particularly about women’s rights to birth control in the future.  Rapace and Theron all but eclipse this film with strong, powerful women.  Thrown into the mix is a medical lab which is able to perform bypass surgeries and, apparently, vasectomies, but can’t perform abortions…

But these quibbles are nothing in comparison to how beautiful this film is.  ‘Retro-futuristic’ barely manages to describe it.  They’ve taken the concepts of what the future would look like from Alien in the most amazing ways.  So where the new Star Trek film gave us a version of the Enterprise which was more modern than that appearing in the original movies (despite being a pseudo-prequel), the Prometheus feels like the sort of ship that would later be used by Ripley.  Sure, some of the equipment is higher-tech (holograms and whatnot), but the overall design fits like a glove.

Overall, it’s not as good as Alien, but I can’t think of many films that are.

If you want a genuinely terrifying experience, go see Prometheus.  If you want to see character development and plots, go see something else.