WHY SO SCARY?
I know that listing is best left to Jack Black and Nick Hornby. But, it’s fun sometimes. The urge to canonize is essential to understanding a medium- or at least, to the fetishization of it- so I thought, with a healthy sense of irony, I could get away with a little play on the classic Top 10 as a weekly feature here at the leh repertwarr. Plus, I’m just too impatient to write things of substance here. Does anyone read this either way?
Believe me, I hate the AFI just as much as you do. So you will never hear me use the words greatest (or American, hopefully) in any of these features. And additionally, I’m going to resist ranking any of the films that I discuss under the headings I come to every week. WHATS MORE! I’m going to try to thread these things together, to have a common factor between each group of films week to week. So, like, if I happen to have included Naomi Watts in my list of the Top 5 Most Obnoxious Australians in Film, I might use the actress and her Lynchian bygones as my TANGENT for the next week’s list: the Top 10 Movies For Which Knowing What Is Going On Is Not Necessary. Get it?
I’m a genre film fan. This is a resoundingly annoying statement, I know. But it’s a fact- I love when cinema finds a way to commute its pretensions to terms of genre, color, and style. I really do think that the greatest (oops!) instances of “high art” have a definite relationship to the opposite end of the spectrum, and that “trash” is an interminably versatile word. But, who the fuck wants to see another discussion of the best Sci-Fi films? Or even of the most interesting instances of exploitation?
That type of list would most certainly get me in trouble, so here’s my alternative: Isn’t it fascinating when genre films disguise themselves as the most serious fare? The system of sensation and spectacle can be so drastically manipulated, and hidden under layer after layer of the high art aesthetic. Because of this, the most exciting trait of the horror genre is, to me, that the monster truly can take any form. A horror film certainly doesn’t need to have a physical villain to cause abject terror, it can draw affect from setting, theme, or mood and cause plenty of skin-crawling:
TOP 5 SCARIEST NOT-HORROR FILMS
AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD (1972)
Doesn’t than name have just the most amazing catastrophe to it? Werner Herzog is amazing, sure. German, definitely. His philosophies are so dark and virile that his films ooze tropes of the horror genre. Sturm und drang seem to compose every bit of his somewhat fucked up string of virtuoso film exercises. DER ZORN GOTTES is no exception.
THE MONSTER: The Amazon. The S. American jungle in this film is utterly horrifying. From the first frame it begins to devour the human capability of it’s conquistador prey. Just like in a slasher film, the supporting characters are unceremoniously taken out by wild aspects of the setting and their own blunders. Klaus Kinski’s slow descent into evil ravings, culminating in the film’s spectacular final scene (monkeys fucking EAT him!), is egged on by the Amazon, and finally succumbs to his insanity and the seething environment the very film’s last dregs of humanity are defeated by nature.
LORD OF THE FLIES (1963)
William Golding clearly had intentions very similar to those of a horror writer with his classic novel about boy castaways. The novel is a beautiful exploration of the way manhood looms in front of a child and, even in the most disastrous of situations, cannot always be achieved before due time. Peter Brooks’ film adaptation is simply one of the best examples of a movie that respects and expounds upon its source text, treating the story as not only a lyrical sort of eulogy for youth, but a terrifying study of boyhood pettiness.
THE MONSTER: KIDDIES! Kids are fucking creepy! Any horror buff knows this. The horrific child is one of the genre’s favorite icons. But, when the Children of the Corn are traded for innocent victims of happenstance, their development into little terrors is all the more affecting. The spectacle of these poor English schoolboys completely deteriorating into raving animals should be revered as an ultimate spectacle of horror.
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)
Peter Wier’s languorous study of summer (and girls) is a hypnotic and, eventually, wholly disturbing example of the effect of filmic tone on the viewing experience. The movie displays a haggle of girls from an Australian boarding school lounging in the haze of an afternoon, under the menacing crag that gives the work its name. When they suddenly disappear, the whole that this loss of characters and the angelic young woman at their lead, creates an empty space in the film that is absolutely haunting.
THE MONSTER: Time, Summer, and GIRLIES! In a sort of centrifugal Antonionian narrative weave, Wier terrorizes his viewer with brief pangs of loss that are felt in both the visual and aural tone of the film. When the girls go missing (have they been abducted? fallen to their deaths? spirited away to another world?), its as if the central binding figures of the film have been torn away. The effect is a severe, creeping sense of doom, and the suffocating heat that oozes off of the film’s gorgeous cinematography only accentuates this feeling.
[SAFE]’s coyly bracketed title perfectly summarizes its affect. The walls begin to close in on Julianne Moore (brilliant, here) from the first frame of the film, and her slow suffocation is the stuff of classic horror.
THE MONSTER: Disease, Paranoia, Modernity. Todd Haynes is self-admittedly obsessed with exploring identity and its influences in a wide range of style. Here, in another slowly creeping horror exercise, he turns his questioning gaze to New Age medicine, pollution, and the generally suffocating aesthetic of smoggy Los Angeles. The protagonist in SAFE is worried that she’s being poisoned by her atmosphere, and it becomes clear that whether or not she’s actually afflicted, her environment is absolutely out to kill her. Her wan figure becomes more and more like a porcelain doll as her home life and the eventual trip to a New Age healing retreat conspire to break her completely. The film’s one rare moment of fresh air is a great example of its horror tropes: Moore’s character is wandering in a California field, thinking for a spare moment that she might actually be healing, and she stumbles on a highway. Modern progress, pollution, exhaust, and the general invasion of natural space by modern shapes is punctuated by the car that blasts by her. The audience definitely shares in her horror.
SALO, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Shortly before being brutally murdered, poet, playwright, homosexual, alleged nihilist and film master, Pier Paolo Pasolini completed what is surely the most revolting cinematic spectacle in the history of the medium. Salò is an impossible film to enjoy; a fable of awful violence, masochism, and torture and… well, it’s just a film that’s pretty hard to talk about pleasantly. But its is an absolutely astounding and necessary masterwork.
THE MONSTER: Spectacle. Salò is the ultimate exploitation film. Based loosely on the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, it features what is probably the most disgusting string of depictions possible outside of snuff cinema (this term is hardly inappropriate for the work itself). It trudges from rape to torture, fascist declarations and sick piques of comedy, and is truly, bodily disgusting. But, the film contains an absolutely destructive social commentary and a statement on the experience of cinema that it is impossible to shake. It’s genius and horror lies in the way Salò incriminates its viewer. It taunts the spectator, dares him to look away but keeps a brutal hold on the eye. It’s as if the film is Pasolini’s final fuck-you to the world that had named his heartfelt, poetic work, and his very nature as an artist, an abomination. It names and condemns the reflexive double-edge of cinema, and truly embodies the word horror!