Friday, January 19, 2018

omens of the future

That being said, Carpenter made the choice deliberately to give Halloween II more gore than the original. The director, Rick Rosenthal, was trying to ape the original a little more, but Carpenter altered it, reshot scenes (and I believe shot a few new ones as well). Our friend from the other day, scientist, may think this means Halloween II has gone "off the rails", but the "rails" for films like this were headed toward more gore, toward an increased body count, because, well, that was inevitable.

scientist also argues, "The whole point of Halloween is, after all, that its events have no point." But, while the original film may not offer a specific motive for Michael's kills, it does explicitly namecheck "fate". Every person's fate is to die. Every character in a slasher film (even if at the time, there was no such thing as a "slasher film" just yet) is looking at the possibility that fate will come soon. scientist has a problem with the idea that Michael could both be personally invested in his return to Haddonfield because of his remaining sister and also be a force of nature, willed by or through (keep in mind, the Cult of the Thorn connection will not be made until a few more movies down the line) Samhain. And, while one might see a problem fitting Michael's personal connection to Laurie into the plot of the original film (surely, if she hadn't happened to have come to his door with that key, he would have just lingered by the high school alter anyway until he found her), the Samhain thing also echoes the earlier film's suggestion that Michael is bigger than just this personal quest. That he kills so many other people on his way to Laurie fits the larger view but not the smaller.

But, what is scarier?

For Laurie, the personal element adds something to an already unbeatable monster coming her way. For us, though, making it personal lessens it a little. I'm just five when this movie comes out, so I'm seeing the "boogeyman" in the shape of Michael Myers in darkness all over the place. But, for a purely rational adult (as if such a thing exists), he must be either a force of nature or an indiscriminate killer to be scary outside the context of this film, this story.

But, this is not simply the case with Michael Myers but with Jason Voorhees, with Freddy Krueger. But, also with Harry Callahan. With Paul Kersey. With John Rambo. If you are good enough for sequels, eventually, whatever personal motivation you had to commit violence before must be left behind (for the most part), and you must be something bigger. Whether for good (Callahan, Kersey, Rambo) or evil (Myers, Voorhees, Krueger), your violence must serve something bigger, or must serve your own psychosis. The latter doesn't make for a very commercial film (though, I think I would like it). The former--the something bigger--makes new films possible. This fuels a committed audience. And a committed audience means even more sequels, and then eventually remakes and reboots. (Although, I would love to see Michael Myers with a ragged grey beard poking out from under his mask, his stature a little more hunched, his gait a little more wobbly and slow, but he's still out there killing sinful people wherever he finds them.) The same thing that allows more death--which means more cheering in the action film, more cheering and fearing in the horror film--means that the body count has to rise or, well, each sequel will be effectively a remake of the previous film.

Admittedly, most are in many ways the same. Clover (1987) compares this to folklore (and also to pornography). She writes:

The fact that the cinematic conventions of horror are so easily and so often parodied would seem to suggest that, individual variation notwithstanding, it's basic structures of apperception are fixed and fundamental. The same is true of the stories they tell. Students of folklore or early literature recognize in the slasher film the hallmarks of oral story: the free exchange of themes and motifs, the archetypal characters and situations, the accumulation of sequels, remakes, imitations. This is a field in which there is in some sense no original, no real or right text, but only variation; a world in which, therefore, the meaning of the individual example lies outside itself. The "art" of the horror film, like the "art" of pornography, is to a very large extent the art of rendition, and it is understood as such by the competent audience. A particular example may have original features, but it's quality as a horror film lies in the ways it delivers the cliché. (p. 190)

I love that last line because it is so very true of any genre of film, but maybe especially of horror, of the slasher. A clever twist that transforms a film away from what we want, or subverts our expectations might work, if done well. But really, we head into most films with clear expectations and we want those expectations to be met. The specific details and nuance that come from a particular film matter but only inasmuch as they fuel the delivery of what the audience wants. This is true of any genre, not just horror. Every genre and subgenre has its tropes, its clichés. If every film had to be original, every film had to be entirely unique, there would not be very many films at all.

For slasher films, and for horror more generally, advances in makeup and computer effects combined with changes in ratings standards meant death would be more graphic. It didn't have to be. Which makes me want to come back to that line from Friday the 13th director Sean S Cunningham I quoted the other day, how

he had been eager to limit violence and gore in Friday the 13th. 'Most scary movies aren't scary', revealed Cunningham [to journalists], '[t]hey're just disgusting. A face hacked into four pieces isn't scarier than a face hacked into two pieces, it's just more disgusting' (quoted in Chase, 1981a, p. C8). (requoted in Nowell, 2010)

Even that first Friday the 13th, where the director wanted to limit violence and disgust, includes Kevin Bacon getting an arrow pushed up through him and out his throat. Not that Cunningham doesn't have a point. In the hands of a bad director, gore can be a cheap replacement for suspense. But, in the hands of a good director, gore can augment a kill, and sometimes even replace a kill in a way that stimulates the imagination of the audience (e.g. Event Horizon). The rule is not, and should not be, that gore is inherently bad because disgust is different from horror; rather, the distinction should be made between one author and another, one director's execution (pun intended) and another. That is, gore became part of the cliché as soon as gore was possible and allowable. What matters is how that cliché is delivered.


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