Monday, April 9, 2007

Today's Horror Prescription: More Carpenter

I have spoken in the past of John Carpenter’s influence on helping shape modern horror. After all, it's the main premise of this Blog A Thon. There would be no Freddy Kruger, no Jason Voorhees, no My Bloody Valentine, no Terror Train, no April Fools Day without Halloween. The special effects of The Thing helped usher in a new level of creature effects in horror and sci-fi. And quite possibly there would be no Robert Rodriguez the director without Escape From New York.

But in looking at the current state of horror movies, I think we’ve lost sight of what made Carpenter's movies so great. Halloween had little to no blood in it. Same with The Fog. And Christine. Granted The Thing was filled with grotesque images, but still it was central to the story. The horror was in seeing this creature take the shape of an everyday human.

I guess the definition of the word horror has changed. To me, what made a movie horrifying was in the telling, not the showing. The idea that one day a harmless little boy could dress up in a clown suit, kill his sister and then become a possessed serial killer is far more terrifying then watching him chase down and kill babysitter after babysitter. The scene where Michael stands in the doorway with a white sheet draped over him still scares the shit out of me. I remember that scene far more than the strange and different ways people have been killed in the Final Destination or Saw movies.

In a recent article Eli Roth says that people are looking to be horrified. They want to scream. But last time I checked, I never screamed when I saw someone’s intestines falling out. I screamed when I watched Michael Myers’ face slowly appear out of complete darkness right behind Jamie Lee Curtis. Or when I watched a person I thought for sure had been dead, suddenly sit up from a hospital gurney and walk across the room in The Fog. Or when an unknown figure passes in the foreground and a crew member asks "who's there?" in The Thing. Or when I see the headlights of Christine appear out of the darkness and charge down the road at bullet speed. It's not about the kill, it's the build up. How long can you sustain the suspense and still make it suspenseful.

I think in a constant effort to continue to show different instead of better, we’ve lost track of what’s scary. Even Carpenter himself is guilty of this. He seems to be taken with the current state of horror, even abandoning his signature touch opting more for gore with movies like Vampires and Ghosts Of Mars. What I think everyone needs to do is to get back to the roots of horror. More theater of the mind and less theater of blood. The Blair Witch Project was a smash hit and it never showed the witch or one ounce of blood. Malevolence, a movie I have reviewed recently, was made just a few years ago and it proudly resurrects all the old traits of great horror movie making.

Roth seems to be constantly searching for reasons to justify his movies and others like them. He says that today’s horror movies are just a reflection of our current society. To me, the idea that one day a dirty bomb could be released in New York City is simply terrifying. I don’t need to see people’s faces melting from radiation to make me more scared. He even goes on to blame Tarantino, saying that ever since the ear removal scene from Reservoir Dogs, violence has become more prominent in movies. Not sure when the last time Roth has seen Reservoir Dogs, but Tarantino never showed Madsen cutting off the cop's ear. Nor did we ever see Hannibal Lector bite off the woman’s tongue. We saw it in our heads. And that’s far more terrifying than anything we could see on the screen.


Anonymous said...

I think Roth is confusing terror with horror. Carpenter, and those scenes you mentioned that scared the crap out of you, built up terror and the implication of what MIGHT happen.

Showing blood and guts and gore is just gross - and stating the obvious.

Neil Sarver said...

I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing. I mean, the director of The Thing seems like as bad an example to use against gore in horror as the director of Frenzy is against nudity and bloodshed in thrillers.

I think somewhere in both of the careers a message about how to create suspense and build, but I think it still leaves the lesson of how to pay it off something that needs to be decided case-by-case and goal-by-goal.

PIPER said...

For me, the gore in The Thing was central to the story. Just as watching the werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf was central to the story.

You had to see the transformation. It ain't pretty, but you had to see it to get the horror of not wanting to become this Thing.

And The Thing is an exception in Carpenter's career, not a rule. Look at Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, Christine, The Live and even Prince Of Darkness. The focus was not on how gross it was, it was in the suspense of the scene or the story.

It goes back to the simple idea of the story. Just as a bad story is dressed up with good special effects, a bad horror story can be dressed up with lots of gore. You don't need that shit if you have a good story.

The Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare movies became less about maintaining a story or introducing new parts of one and more about killing people off.

It can be case by case, but I can't look at one new horror movie (aside from the two I called out) that even come close to where horror began or has been.

And it still doesn't address the original argument which is: Eli Roth misunderstands what being scared is about. It's not about gross, it's about fear.

Seeing a severed head or blood spurting doesn't give me a scared feeling. Seeing a toy clown disappear from a boys chair and then reappear behind him and wrap his red and white arm around his neck still scares the shit out of me.

There was a time when horror became about comedy around the release of House. I didn't care for it much, just as I don't care for this time as much. Craven was able to re-invent himself and bring comedy and fear together with Scream.

If someone can bring gore and fear together, I'll listen.

Until then I'll just be depressed.

Neil Sarver said...

First of all, I'm certainly not a fan of Eli Roth. I've liked aspects of both of his movies, but felt both failed as a whole. I also can't help thinking I wouldn't personally like him, as he seems pretty obnoxious most of the time I've heard him speak.

That said, he doesn't sound like he's doing anything more than a kind of carnival barker routine in that routine, "Come see the amazing geek! He slices! He dices! He bites the heads off live chickens!", so, while I'm generally disinclined to defend him, I have trouble taking those recent quotes seriously enough to debate the merits of them in themselves.

As far as recent horror, all around, I think the least of their problems are gore or lacktherof, although I seem to run into people insistant on one side of that debate or the other. There's certainly active movements of hard "R" as well as the continuing movement of "PG-13" horror movies and almost all of both are garbage, but I can't think there's much either can learn from one another.

I think there are far too many examples of people who have made challenging movies that involve, even revel in, gore. David Cronenberg, Dario Argento, George Romero, Lucio Fulci all tell stories that fascinate and horrify me. I also found the goriest scene in Carptenter's "Cigarette Burns" to be the only truly compelling moment in it. And some of the scenes that make me scream in all of those are indeed gory.

I don't want to come on here and be argumentative.

I strongly agree with your essential point that horror directors of today could learn a lot from the expert building of tension and release that Carpenter has shown, including, in many cases, restraint. I stand by the most important thing isn't what you show or don't show, but why and how you do or don't show it.

PIPER said...


Never took this as argumentative. I'm glad you have these thoughts and I think ultimately we are on the same page. I love having a back and forth on this kind of stuff and am glad you're taking the time to do such.

You make good points about Romero, Argento and especially Cronenberg who is among my favorites.

Neil Sarver said...

I'm glad you didn't take it as such. Cronenberg is also a favorite of mine... well, all of the filmmakers listed here are on one level or another, but Cronenberg certainly influenced my tastes more and starting much earlier. People interested in showing the explicit details of the human body could all take a lesson from his always thoughtful and thought-provoking movies.

And we are indeed completely on the same page on the core of your message, that the people making horror movies today should really take a second look (or perhaps a first look) at Carpenter's movie and examine why they work as well as they do. I believe doing so was very helpful to me, as I said in my entry.

PIPER said...


Cronenberg is one sick bastard, but his examination of the human body as you said, and the skin itself is really terrifying/fascinating.

What I love about his movies is that they always have a big finish. A big reveal or something that always took me back. The Brood was an excellent example of this when he finally confronts his wife. And Scanners. Even Rabid. There is this dread that creeps through all of his films. I've been to Canada only a few times and have loved it, but he really does it no justice in his movies because they are all so cold and sterile.

And Romero especially helped shape my love of horror. Did you catch the tribute to Day Of The Dead in Planet Terror when Tom Savini gets ripped in half?