Satanic Literalism

From the movie "The Last Exorcism". I'm not sure why this is scary. It just hurts.

From the movie “The Last Exorcism”. I’m not sure why this is scary. It just hurts.

I love good horror movies. These days, however, they are few and far between. For one thing, as always seems to be the case, horror seems to be a dumping ground for people who believe “just anyone” can make a movie. With the success of The Blair Witch Project, combined with the easy availability of cheap film technology, the market is flooded with simply horrid so-called “found footage” horror movies. Most seem to rely for what passes for “horror” on a teenage sensibility about urban legends, with predictable results.

There is, however, another sub-genre of horror movies, the “possession” movies, that have none of the panache and intelligence of The Exorcist. For their sense of horror, rather than leave room for doubt – as director William Friedkin did, right up until the last moments – there seems to be more than a dedication to typical horror movie tropes or a love of particular effects such as this:

White contacts and a little computer manipulation take a simple scream and tries to make it scary.

White contacts and a little computer manipulation take a simple scream and tries to make it scary.

The most galling, however, is a kind of Satanic fundamentalism that pervades far too many of these cheaply made, horribly written movies. By that I mean that the writers and directors (usually the same person, using the terms in their broadest sense) replace Christian fundamentalism with a literal adherence to legends about demons. Combine this with the aforementioned teenage sensibility about urban legends and the results lead to the awfulness that is a film that begins with a good idea: Inner Demons. Family and friends of a teenage heroin addict stage an intervention, convincing her to go to a treatment center, the costs covered by a reality TV production company. We discover that this young woman has been using heroin to combat a demonic possession. As the drugs leave her system, the demonic entity gains strength, including taunting two other recovering addicts during a group session.

As the film winds toward its conclusion, however, the hapless young production assistant for the TV program who believes the young woman’s story of demonic possession, tries to help her with a makeshift exorcism that ends with everyone but him dead. He, alas, is the new vessel for the demon, called “Moloch”. The ending also shows another trend in horror movies – everyone dies. While Joss Whedon’s reboot of Cabin In The Woods offers a fantastic justification for cast death, these lesser films seem to accept unhappy endings as a matter of course. Rather than a vehicle for confronting our own inner demons, as it were, and conquering them, this new trend in horror films offers no catharsis, no sense that evil can be defeated – regardless of cost – but rather is stronger than our best but meager efforts and our noblest and best of intentions. Satan, it seems, is more powerful than a God who seems interestingly – and tellingly – absent.

There is room for innovation in horror film. As Joss Whedon demonstrated, it’s possible to create an interesting, even fun, take on an old formula. Horror movie fans are far from stupid, yet distributors and production companies continue to flood the market with crap that can’t even be considered formulaic, At their worst, these films offer nothing in the way of hope, yet surprisingly little in the way of horror, either. A recent spin through several of these quickie indies left me underwhelmed with fright, and wondering if any of the people involved in any of these movies understood the purpose of horror fiction, or how to construct something more than a bunch of images strung together from bad YouTube entries and a kind of morbid excess of death.

Horror movies serve an important function in our collective imagination. At their best – The Exorcist, I Was A Teenage WerewolfPoltergeist – they allow us the opportunity to confront our worst collective fears (out-of-control teenagers in both The Exorcist and I Was A Teenage Werewolf; the emerging realization that the bland conformity of the suburbs hides terrors able to destroy families in the original Poltergeist). At their worst, however, they are little more than vehicles for those lacking either imagination or talent to revel in violence, gore, and death without either reason or purpose, celebrating a kind of nihilism that doesn’t offer anything other than itself.

After

This is the story of two strangers, who happened to grow up in the same small town, meeting randomly on a bus ride and are ultimately involved in an accident. They both wake up afterwards to discover that the whole town is deserted and surrounded by a thick black fog that is slowly creeping closer and closer to engulf everything. The two strangers need to become friends and work together to figure out what has happened, what is hiding in the fog and how they can escape. – Recaps, Reviews, And Other Stuff, April 3, 2014

Confronting darkness, will Anna and Freddy find their way to the light?

Confronting darkness, will Anna and Freddy find their way to the light?

When I first saw the film Jacob’s Ladder sometime in the 1990’s, I knew I was watching one of the most visually stunning, terrifying, and beautiful films I ever would see. Somewhere over the decades, I lost the film, but its images and story were so vivid, so arresting, I can recall it all. Since then, movies, television, even music have all tried to tell the story of that odd state we shall all occupy at some point: we are not dead, yet we are not alive. Whether it lasts for weeks or mere seconds (as in Jacob’s Ladder), the premise has been worked over, both poorly and well many times since.

I don’t know that any film will do aesthetic justice to that experience that some call “Summerland” – between death and life; perhaps between death and our final destination – although the final season and episode of the TV series Lost does an admirable job, with the final episode always bringing me to tears. After has many of the virtues of this particular story structure, few of the pitfalls, traps, and sheer bad writing and directing that have led other such films (Kingdom Come was another attempt to tell the same story, but settled for gratuitous nudity and violence, and certainly no sympathy for the characters; when the devil comes to claim them each in turn, I for one am quite happy). The simplicity of the film, limiting it by and large to the actions and relationship between just two people sharing a similar fate, facing the same questions, and trying their best to avoid what they come to understand as a final ending, all the while coming to know one another, appreciate the similarities in their lives and personalities, and perhaps finding more than enough to give them the strength they need to escape the darkness that, while slow, is also inexorable in its movements to swallow them both.

Toss in a horrible monster that like to eat people, as imagined by a younger version of one of the characters, and there’s all sorts of potential not just for storytelling, but character and relationship study.

Part of the unfolding story is the characters coming to terms with one specific day in which their paths crossed in ways both marvelously innocent and tragic for both. Who they are now is directly connected to the events of that day. Overcoming that day and all it still holds for them is the Big Thing of this film: Will they? If they do, what happens then? Does “After” refer to what happens if they succeed?

Actually, the title refers to both characters whole lives after that one moment/ It is, really, just a moment, but it is a moment that has captured both in ways we see unfold throughout the movie before the Big Reveal (and I’ve already said too much).

The film is well written, with very few cliches such as jump scares, constant screaming by the female lead, and macho posing by the male lead. In fact, at one point while he is trying desperately to shoot something, she yells, “You’re a terrible shot! Give me that!” and hits her target the very first time. It is a tension-releaving moment that is very welcome. The story unfolds carefully, not too slowly nor too quickly. There is enough tension and weirdness to keep viewers interested even before you hear the first growl and see the first evidence of the creature in the darkness.

As for acting, the two leads Steven Strait and Karolina Wydra, are affecting as two social misfits who prefer their own company. There are no histrionics, especially as Strait underplays his character for much of the film. That they grew up on the same street yet only crossed paths once is believable, precisely because we come to know these two people not just as types, but as people, living out what has come after that fateful day.

The look and emotional depth and wideness are superb, especially with the film score being just exactly right, employed for emotional impact rather than shock value. This is a small film that achieved high production value by shooting for realism not through gimmickry but rather through excellent story-telling, acting, and direction. The rest fell in to place to serve the story rather than show themselves off.

As for the story’s premise, ever since Jacob’s Ladder, and Lost, and even The Last Temptation of Christ, which employs the same metaphysical question to probe Jesus’s final moments, I have to admit that, whether done well as these three films (and now After) have done or poorly as in other films, I have become intrigued by the whole notion that, facing death, we might well confront not only our lives, but our lives masquerading as horrors that we must, in these final moments, confront and overcome. Perhaps, however, we merely forget who we were, only grasping who we are through a moment that reminds us who we are. That we might be gathered together with others with whom we shared significant moments – the whole premise of the last season of Lost – is a kind of comfort, really. Whether horrifying, comforting, or some combination of both (as in After) the possibility would perhaps give the lie to the constant refrain in our existential age that death is something we face alone.

In After, we not only see how courage overcomes a lifetime’s worth of hiding. We also see the power of human connection, not sappy love but real relating with all that entails, and how it can overcome all the ways we try to hide ourselves away from the world. Nothing, it seems, not even those moments when we find ourselves facing the reality of our death, can escape the liberating, life-giving power of love. We talk about this so often it is almost a cliche. In After we see it as a reality, not with strings and The Expected Sex Scene, but two people who begin as strangers learning to live in this strange world together, to navigate that strangeness – both outside themselves and between one another – first awkwardly then with growing confidence and, finally, an honest but hardly over-the-top expression of mutual affection. That this is the tenderest moment rather than sexual only testifies to how well written this film is. As the whole premise of After is that even small moments carry weight in our lives long “after” they occur, it is not just beautiful but wholly appropriate the moment between Anna and Freddy is quiet and tender rather than naked and sweaty.

This isn’t really a horror film, even though there are frightening images and moments of tension and fear. I would recommend this movie to anyone interested in a good story well-written and presented; a thought-provoking presentation of an idea that is, at the very least, interesting in its implications; and good old fashioned movie making that prizes story over flash, and real human relating instead of skin and sex.

I know I’ll be watching this movie again very soon.

Contemporary Horror Film (At Least One Subgenre Of It)

M. R. James was the master of the ghost story in which an evil from the distant past persists into the present and is visited upon as as a legacy. – David G. Harwell, introduction to “The Ash Tree” in The Dark Descent, p. 40

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The cast from the first season of American Horror Story

The cast from the first season of American Horror Story

When I purchased the first season of American Horror Story last year, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do so. I’m not all that impressed with contemporary horror on film. I was pleasantly surprised by the creep factor in this show, the surprises that weren’t always clear until they occurred, and the way there were even factions in the ghost community in the house. A rewatch this past spring confirmed that, even knowing the story and character arcs, the chills and creeps were still there. That, my friends, is the sign of well-done horror.

And it surprised me to read Harwell’s comment on M. R. James, because it sums up not only the driving force of that first season of American Horror Story, but so much of what passes for contemporary horror on film. It all seems to revolve around this exact axis: the discovery of some past wrong that leaves the present vulnerable to an ongoing injustice. It dawned on me, as these things do (and I’m sure someone far more observant than I will ever be has already written the definitive thesis on this), that such horror is trying to teach us Americans about the necessity of knowing and claiming our past, our history, the ties that bind us both as individuals and communities in this organic process of living through time and being structured by a particular set of circumstances we call history.

We Americans tend to celebrate our ignorance of the past. We wear our urge not to look back as a sign of our national uniqueness. I will confess that I am no different in this regard. I think I too often am mindless in my celebration of innovation and the possibilities of the future without the needed countervailing weight of the most necessary understanding of our past as prologue to what is to come. When we are confronted by our past as unresolved injustice – whether slavery or our genocide of the native peoples; our treatment of women, immigrants, minority religions, etc. – so many of us become defensive to the point of belligerent that we forget this past is real, these injustices are real, that we are who we are as a people precisely because of these injustices, rather than despite them.

At the same time, genealogy is huge, particularly now that doing it is as simple as a few mouse clicks on websites. Just yesterday, Mother’s Day, I posted a one hundred year old family photograph showing four generations of my paternal grandmother’s family. It had my aunt as an infant sitting on her great-grandmother’s lap. Behind them stood my grandmother and her mother. In that photo, taken in late 1914 or early 1915, was a living memory that stretched back before the Civil War. My grandmother told me stories of her childhood and youth. My aunt, a baby in these photos, lived until 2005. The connections, living memory represented not only in that photo, but the ongoing lived reality of our family, crosses much of the life of our country, including the Civil War (my paternal great-grandfather and great-great-grandfathers were both veterans of the GAR), the assassination of Pres. William McKinley in 1901, at the Niagara Exhibition (my grandmother had been taken there by her grandmother as a reward for her good grades in school), both world wards, the Great Depression, which continue to be living memories from my parents, and now stretching off in to the 21st century, as I know my children will live will past its midpoint, and their children perhaps in to the next.

For the most part, though, we shy away from the past being a real thing. Philosophers are at pains to set to one side any claim upon the present made by the past. Christians often quote Jesus’s saying, “Let the dead bury their dead,” as if it meant what they think it means. We are people of The Future, and that future will always be a complete break with the past. In that horror fiction in which a ghost from some past, never-recognized injustice (or at least one yet to be made right), or perhaps from an object or heirloom that holds some kind of infernal grip on the present (Oculus, that concerns both a cursed mirror as well as a past murder not adequately explained) is perhaps the perfect mixture of these two themes. Until and unless we are willing to own our past, which would involve knowing it for what it is, no matter how difficult that may be, these films seem to say, we can never move forward. These films are morals about the necessity of history, personal and communal, in being who we are, and becoming who we could be.

Confronting our past, personal, familial, and communal, can be difficult. My grandmother, for example, could never fully come to terms with the fact that her mother had not only been conceived out of wedlock, but that the man who had married her grandmother was not the father of her mother. I once noted this odd and, to me at least, funny family factoid and was told my great-grandmother was a bastard. Which is a bit like saying, “Gee, I guess you have Negroid ancestry because of the size of your lips.” (This latter is also the case; the words “Negroid ancestry” however are not only offensive in and for themselves, they really don’t matter all that much because it isn’t like I care all that much about the fact). It seemed a big deal to the person who made the observation, as if this particular bit of my family’s provenance was some horrible moral weight that attached itself to me.

Except, of course, I don’t see it that way at all. I’m actually proud of it, in some ways. It shows that folks in the mid-19th century were in many ways, well, just folks. People going about their lives, making decisions, and sometimes mistakes, that they can and do overcome with the course of time. The issue isn’t whether or not my great-great-grandmother was some kind of whore; it is, rather, that she was a woman trapped in a very difficult situation and made the most of it, and her life, despite those difficulties. Owning it, calling it by its name – and not “bastard” – and saying, “Yes, indeed. This is part of who I am” helps release any negative moral claim the past might hold over my own present.

So, too, with our collective past: When we acknowledge that  much of our national wealth is the product of stolen labor; that at one time we promised our former slaves recompense that was never given; then denied how much of our national wealth continues to be influenced by slavery and that, as such, is a living debt we owe to the great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren of slaves. Until we as a nation do this kind of contrition- among the many owed to so many for our unjust actions – that past will haunt us, an avenging spirit that will continue to exact its toll on our lives, our fortunes, and our name.

Such horror fiction offers us the opportunity maybe, just maybe, to recognize the injustice and curses in our pasts, claim them as having a hold on our present lives and hopes for the future, and perhaps take the opportunity to make amends. That is always what seems to end the haunting, settle the spirits, and quiet the threats they pose.