Saturday, March 22, 2008

Page fillers and the horror movie

Long before blogging became popular (or even possible), there were magazines and newspapers. (Unless you're eight, this should not come as a surprise to you.) Anyway, these printed materials were constrained by certain physical limitations. On the good side, they forced writers to be concise, to not ramble, to get the point across quickly. On the bad side, they forced writers to leave important information out.

On the really bad side, they mandated numbers of pages to be filled. You can't have an odd number of pages. And you really wanted to keep the runs to the same size to avoid certain costs. And if you went over X pages, it cost a whole lot more, but if you were under Y pages, well, that was bad, too.

In this environment, the filler was invented. The filler seems to say things, but doesn't, in fact, say anything that isn't bleedingly obvious--unless it was wrong. Actually, most printed content probably falls into this category.

The filler has survived the physical, tragically, and carried on into the virtual.

I bring this up because of this Times Online article on horror movies. subhed is just awful:

The glory days of Blair Witch and The Exorcist are behind us. Who can save the horror film, asks our chief film critic

What? You have to begin by wondering who the hell considers Blair Witch and Exorcist part of the same tradition. And who thinks that the years from, what, about 1973 to 1997 were devoid of any quality horror. And who thinks Blair Witch was comparable to Exorcist in terms of social impact. (The last is at least debatable.)

The article begins by positing that what scared you as a kid probably still does.

Nah. Sorry. I saw Nosferatu at a pretty young age but I have gotten over it. It seems true that people remember old scares fondly and forget the cheesiness often associated with same. It's probably also true that we perceive things a lot more quickly than we used to: A lot of modern films (horror and otherwise) would probably look like soup to our great-grandparents. Whereas the "short glimpses"--like the technique used to show Pazuzu in The Exorcist--are way, way too long for today's audiences. I mean, it's a chick in some fairly innocuous makeup. (Reminds me of "the brain guy" from the last seasons of MST3K.)

The Boy was positively bored during The Exorcist. He thought Alien was pretty good but he was by no means scared.

All right. We'll cut the author some slack here. But then he gets real stupid:
But the paucity of fresh ideas in the horror genre is now a genuine issue.
No, it's not. Or, at least not any more than the paucity of fresh ideas in any genre. And for any time period. IMDB lists three versions of Frankenstein between 1910 and 1921, just for example.

Besides, nobody cares about "fresh ideas" but jaded film critics. Halloween spawned, I feel comfortable saying, thousands of movies about slashers killing young adults. And they all had the opportunity to be profitable. (I assume most were, in fact, and that's what kept them coming.) He then goes on to suggest that his thesis is proven by the appearance of two foreign-language films in the market. (The Orphanage and Rec.)

Huh. So, does the appearance of, say, two foreign-language dramas, war movies or comedies suggest the same thing of those genres? Or is it really just that some distributor thinks enough people will turn out to see these particular foreign-language films and therefore ponies up the money to send some cans around?

I suspect the latter.

I haven't seen Rec, but The Orphanage isn't particularly novel. (If the article is to be believed, it's novel for a Spanish film, since there is no horror tradition in Spain.) It's pretty standard haunted house/obsession fare, with considerable similarities to the recently discussed Crazy Eights, The Others and the Japanese Dark Water.

Rec is about a group of people locked in a tenement with a flesh-eating virus on the loose. It sounds thematically similar to David Cronenberg's early work (like Rabid and Shivers) but one only has to go back a couple years to Eli Roth's Cabin Fever to realize, it's just not very original.

This is not an insult, mind you. It's just a fact of life: There aren't a lot of fresh ideas anywhere. It's part and parcel of having a 4.5 billion year old planet.

Usually, around the mid-point of a filler article, the author will say something that completely undermines his entire premise. In this case, the money quote comes from Scottish movie producer Hamish McAlpine:

“Horror has basically run out of track. It is repetitive, boring and profoundly unimaginative. It does well at the box office because a lot of kids have not seen the recycled horrors first time around.”

Translation: "People are going to see crappy horror movies other people are making rather than the crappy horror movies I'm producing! This suggests something fundamentally wrong with society!" In fairness to McAlpine (shouldn't that be MacAlpine?) I don't know if his horror movies are crap since I've never seen or heard of any of them.

A quick look at IMDB, however, reveals that three of the ten movies in his credit listing are about real-life serial killers (Ted Bundy, Ed Gein and the Hillside Strangler), while a fourth is a remake of a home-invasion type movie of the sort that were so popular back in the '70s.

So, maybe not your go-to guy for complaining about a paucity of "fresh ideas".

But here's the real thing about that quote: "It does well at the box office...." OK, so, if the movies are "doing well" at the box office, whence the supposed crisis? I don't wonder if critics in the '50s looked at the Hammer studios Dracula movies and said, "Bah! Kids today! Give me Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff over Lee and Cushing any day."

But the Hammer movies offered color, including blood, cleavage (and ultimately nudity when they wound up in the early '70s), and modernization. On top of that, some of them were quite good! (The 1958 version of Dracula is well-regarded, for example.)

I liked the 1979 version of Dracula--which isn't generally well-regarded--but which seemed less cheesy at the time (and had top-notch acting, good effects, and a great John Williams score) than earlier versions of the film. But kids in the '80s didn't turn out to see it, and therefore we didn't get a run of "Dracula" movies like we did in the '40s and the '60s.

The piece just gets goofier from here on out. Here's another priceless quote (Sean Hogan, one credit wonder on IMDB, is being quoted):

“But if the industry does goes bust it's not going to stop the horror,” Hogan continues. “They are dirt-cheap to make. You don't need famous actors. The only difference is that there will be infinitely more crap.”
Forgive me if I scratch my head trying to figure out what industry is going to be producing the horror movies after the industry goes bust. "Infinitely more crap?" Oh, I don't think so, I imagine Sturgeon's Law will hold at around 90%, as always.

This article's cred isn't really bolstered by The Orphanage, which is a solid, well-made film, but not going to set the horror world ablaze. Nor that it references, e.g., the disastrous One Missed Call at the end--but that's probably just a heads-up, not an endorsement.

The takeaway from this article is that horror movies are mostly crap (true), that this is a new-ish thing (false), that new ideas are needed (false: execution trumps ideas), that the only new ideas in horror over 25 years were The Exorcist and The Blair Witch Project (which really defeats the notion that the author's discontent is new), and that the horror genre is danger of going bust but this will not mean that horror movies stop getting made or making money.

Is that about it?

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