Friday, September 12, 2008

Horrors enough

The Strangers based, it claims happily, on a true story, is about a yuppie-ish couple who are tied up, tortured and, for a grand finale, stabbed to buggery by teenagers in grotesque masks. (The tagline is "Because You Were Home...")
Eden Lake pits a totally different yuppie-ish couple against a totally different pack of ferals (including that obnoxious tyke Thomas Turgoose); totally different torture, slashings, severed tongues and burnings alive ensue.
Donkey Punch is light relief: a pack of morons turn psycho when one of them accidentally kills some tart by walloping the back of her neck during sex on a yacht; savage killings ensue.

Urban violence is apparently the new thing in horror; a strange amalgam of the traditional slasher film, the serial killer thriller and that popular hybrid known jovially as torture porn. Aside from identikit plots and identikit best-horror-film-I've-seen-in-ages-type reviews, these films have this in common: their collective presence at the moment when their genre abandoned the last pitiful vestiges of what we can now see was only ever a cynical and opportunist reliance on fantasy, and the pretence of ultimately siding with the angels.
No longer is lip service paid to the threat being countered at the end, no longer are the monsters different from the rest of us, no longer is there any effort to pretend that mere sadism is insufficient as content, and should not be offered explicitly for the delectation of other sadists. Now, torture and thuggery are indispensable ingredients in horror.
This is a huge milestone moment in the history of horror movies akin to the debuts of Psycho or Night of the Living Dead or Texas Chainsaw.
Think back to the last mini-milestone that was Scream. How cosy does that look, already? These are fast-paced times, folks: look out.

It took just ten years to get from The Curse of Frankenstein to Corruption, a mere twelve from Psycho to Last House on the Left, a piffling fifteen from Silence of the Lambs to Hostel. The last journey may be the most interesting of all, not just because it takes in so many unbelievably bad films along the way - Copycat, The Bone Collector, In Dreams, The Cell, Kiss the Girls, Natural Born Killers - but also because it shows how quickly walls tumble once breached.
The official line on Lambs was that it was an important film, not cheap exploitation, so we all dutifully took it seriously and pretended it was serious drama with serious things to say, and we trooped off seriously to see it and went in with serious faces and came out with serious faces. Watching it, we had a lot of fun. How long before we were just allowed to have fun with this stuff? Fifteen years. And look where we are now, and how commonplace it all is now, and how Hostel barely raised an eyebrow.
And still we talk of films 'influencing' people, and argue the toss about it, as if the people who make the films aren't influenced every bit as much as those watching them! As if this clear progression from the shocking to the commonplace, despite the constant upping of the dose of sadism and degradation and masturbatory clinical detail, does not tell its own obvious story of a culture and a product coarsening each other as they march together. Coarsened sensibilities both are coarsened and coarsen others, and the ride never stops.

The name of the game now is realism. The killers are real, the killings are real, the pitilessness is real, the gloating over sadism is real, the hopelessness is real.
Even when Psycho made it okay for ordinary human killers to be fun-scary, the iconography remained resolutely other-worldly. As late in the game as Halloween and the Friday the 13th series, the threat is always overtly monstrous, bordering on supernatural, the killer signposted as fundamentally different from those around him, not least by the adoption of a signature mask that seems somehow more his real face than whatever lies beneath.
Chucky and Freddy were the most the previous generation had to worry about: one a sort of ghost, one a doll, neither likely to be hanging around the back of your local supermarket.
Even the masks are being let go now; true, the killers of The Strangers adopt such disguises, but only to be scary. Like the killers of the Scream series they use horror masks not because they are an outward manifestation of their psyches but because that's what killers wear in the movies. The arrival of films like Wolf Creek and the Hostel and Saw series shows that art now imitates life imitating art imitating life.

Then, of course, there is The Dark Knight, the essence of modern culture if ever I trod in it: a Batman film passed for twelve year olds in which the kiddies get to enjoy a dead actor playing a ghoulishly made-up psychopath rhapsodising about the pleasures of slow torture and murder with a knife as opposed to a quick shooting, in which guns are pressed to the heads of an abducted child and a mother in front of her screaming children, plus a man in a bat costume with a little pointy-eared mask.
It even managed to briefly rouse the long-dormant pro-censorship camp, with an unlikely new spokesman in the form of Ian Duncan Smith, who wrote letters to newspapers protesting at its 12A rating:
Heath Ledger's Joker... [obligatory praise for this dead actor's hammy and totally uninteresting performance omitted] extols the use of knives to kill and disfigure his victims, during a reign of urban terrorism, laced with torture. It is a relentlessly violent film, filled with dark themes, and as I left I wondered what the board could possibly have been thinking.

Lest he be thought uncool, however, he was however very quick to stress that

I am not complaining about the film: I enjoyed it and thought it very well made.

Bang goes his credibility then. The BBFC responded with a dash of point-missing gibberish (Times, August 5th):

The board maintains that 82 complaints is a tiny fraction of the 4.7 million Britons who have been to see the film. Sue Clark, a spokeswoman for the board, said that the film was at the upper limit of the 12A bracket, but that violence was more acceptable because of the superhero context.The board's website states: "The Dark Knight is a superhero movie and the violence it contains exists within that context..."

There's a scary statistic for you: 4.7 million Britons have seen this film. You're sure to know at least one. As for the board's protestations: good point about the violence existing within a context, that hadn't struck me, but where was the praise for Heath Ledger's brilliant performance or any use of the word 'dark' to approvingly describe the film? Try harder, Sue.

Then, vile unconcern about all this stuff from Carol Sarler in the Times (August 11th), whose blood-boilingly smug one-eyebrow-raised mugshot on her byline sets the tone for the ensuing dreary polemic.
This woman had earlier written a piece about Gary Glitter that had me pondering for some time. Her point was that when a man serves his sentence we presume him to have paid his penance and we either leave him alone and give him every courtesy we would accord any other free man, or else we rethink our entire approach to crime and punishment; there's no middle ground. I couldn't understand for ages why I found it so annoying, since her point was a basically sound one. Then I realised: it was the tone of pleasure articulating this quandary seemed to engender in her, as if she was above the ethical dilemmas of we mere mortals and was looking down and watching us squirm in our moral mazes with benevolent superiority.
That tone, coupled with no new ideas and unbelievable complacency, is carried over here. Virtually every line throws up a fresh howler; the weariness of the arguments is instantly signposted by the piece's title:

Haven't we seen all this before?
We are in the grip of a public obsession with the lifestyle of our young that affects a bewildered unfamiliarity coupled with a prophecy of doom. This, they say, is the end of youth as we know it - yet the truth is the reverse: it is youth precisely as we knew it. In fact, it is hard to think of any apparently shocking story pertaining to the growing generation that does not have a direct corollary with the grown one...
Look at the fuss this week about Batman and the assumed effect upon unformed minds of blades, blood and violence. But wasn't it the same with the gruesome little Chuckie [sic]? And despite the direst of predictions that surrounded Clockwork Orange, there never was an epidemic of tramps being kicked to death in gutters.
“Influences”, of course, have always been the bane of adult life, involving as they do the notion of control beyond our own. Parents of very young girls are up in arms about a doll unsubtly known as Miss Bimbo, who is preposterously shaped and therefore bound to distort - not to mention sexualise - our babies. Yet wasn't the Barbie doll, 50 years old this year, also preposterously shaped?
[A billion or so similar examples making equally self-disproving points omitted]
Knives? Teddy boys carried them. Binge drinking? If you had seen my generation of squaddies at chuck-out time in Aldershot, you'd see scant change now. Drugs? In the 1970s there were an estimated three million people routinely breaking the law by smoking cannabis - and if the names of the substances have changed, their ingestion has not...
The last generation with a genuine excuse for failing to understand its young was that of the Fifties and Sixties; before “teenagers” were invented and before we - yes, we - created the enduring explosions of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. Which is why, instead of parents looking to the State to deal with the “problems” of youth, and the State looking helplessly back, both might do better to look into a mirror.Then calm down; after all, the odd hot-air balloon notwithstanding, most of us got there in the end.

Rarely has the phrase "most of us" been so chilling in its implications.
And teddy boys may well have carried knives, but is it the carrying we are worried about or the thirty-plus deaths in London alone so far this year?
And why are A Clockwork Orange and Chucky different problems from The Dark Knight? Why can't they all go together to form evidence of the same thing? They are the same problem - sorry, "problem" - viewed from three different relatively recent points in its history.
This tendency to view a handful of especial causes celebre as isolated and unconnected incidents is sheer ignorance: we're talking about cultural trends - the new low of one film creates the environment in which the excesses of the second are then permitted, so leading to the third, and so on, each with an obvious and inarguable associative effect upon everyday reality.
And as for that epidemic of people being kicked to death in gutters never happening - depends on what streets you live on, Carol. Does the name Garry Newlove ring a bell? Of course it doesn't: that was nowhere near Notting Hill. Stupid question.
So hateful is this kind of smug remoteness from street-level reality, that dares to pontificate about that of which it experiences nothing and to dismiss the alienation and despair that is now the daily lot of so many gentle, decent people, you end up disgracing yourself by thinking: just once, if these things must happen, at least let them happen to someone like that...
Shameful, unquestionably, but such is the anger.

I'm aware of the difficulties in addressing this issue. I realise that all horror films, even those that now seem the mildest, were all offensive to some in their day, and all pushed at their generation's generally agreed lines of taste and decency. Whale's Frankenstein with its ghoulish imagery of violated graves and post-mortem surgery certainly did. Of course, we can look back and say ah, but there is no explicit detail, and no sadistic killings, and order is restored at the end - and all of this would be true, and would point undeniably to a worrying regression in public taste... but it still wouldn't face up to the fact that horror has always stood outside of mainstream consensus, and that perhaps that is its job.
The Raven, with Lugosi getting obvious sexual pleasure from torturing the woman who spurned him, was felt to be horribly sadistic, and was. The trappings and acting style all distance us from it today, and lessen any serious potential it might hold to shock or disturb, but it would disingenuous to say it was always and intentionally thus.
And yet, irrationally perhaps, I find myself thinking that horror films are a luxury for a people that can afford them, a harmless escape valve for ordered, decent societies that have a strong sense of themselves and a shared certainty as to what ultimate values are being violated on screen. In a flabby society of relative values, weak justice, increasing fear and disorder, such films serve a different and darker purpose. The time has perhaps come, then, to tighten our belts and be done with them. Lugosi does it all a million times better anyway. Watch The Devil Bat instead. See the killer bat swoop on its victims, the ones Lugosi has cunningly doused in the after shave lotion that drives it into a killing frenzy, watch Lugosi explain his cunning plot to a large fake bat hanging upside down from a coat hanger. You'll find you don't need to watch people get tied to chairs and disemboweled.

Richard Mansfield, the American actor who was appearing in a London stage adaptation of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde during the time of the Jack the Ripper murders closed his own production down when newspaper gossip linked the play to the mood of the times, and suggested it might even influence the killer. He made one last performance, donating the proceeds to charity, and afterwards thanked his audience for their patronage and took his leave, explaining "There are horrors enough outside."
Lugosi is all the horror I need at the moment; of the other sort, there is enough outside.