Friday, October 17, 2008

The Fall of the Fall of the House of Usher

During the first After Dark Horror Fest, I dropped out after movie five, The Abandoned.

This was the one movie that got a release (albeit a limited one), the one they felt was most worth the risk of distribution costs. And it was the one that, within the first five minutes, I knew was exactly the sort of film I hate.

I call them "House of Usher" films, and they're a specific genre that roughly follow the pattern of Poe's story.

Basically, it's when the characters are doomed, typically by a supernatural force, and nothing they can do will change the outcome.

It's a lazy writer's genre. The Blair Witch Project was like that, though I didn't hate that as much as most. (Nobody would've noticed that movie without the William Castle-like ad campaign, though.) But it doesn't matter that they lost the map or followed the stream--good or bad, they're doomed. And, really, if you're paying attention, you know this very early on. (It's actually a lot like a slasher flick, only generally with a very static feel.)

But there's a fine line. Quarantine doesn't count, in my book, because mostly it's the characters' failure to apprehend their situation that causes the problem. Everything follows logically from their actions (which are not, themselves, logical).

The "Usher" movie refuses to reward the characters for any logical or effective action. The deck is stacked against them from the get-go and the exercise borders on the sadistic. Fatalism, despair and nihilism are the primary themes. The only kind of hope is false.

Ultimately, of course, this is a matter of taste. I just don't like that sort of thing. I also don't like the self-destruction genre that the movie critics are so fond of. (See Leaving Las Vegas and Under The Volcano.) This is almost a sub-genre of the "Usher"-type movies, except the forces aren't supernatural, they're psychological. (Although it's a question of taste, I'm perfectly willing to entertain the notion that people who like the self-destruction genre have serious emotional issues.)

Many movies straddle that line, of course. Cube is an example of a movie where the characters might survive, even though the forces working on them are virtually supernatural and all powerful. (And I think one or two do survive, or at least potentially survive and the movie leaves it ambiguous.)

Somewhat ironically, The House of Usher itself is not an "Usher" movie, really. The lead character is really the non-Usher guy, and he's not doomed. Richard Matheson wrote a story focused on the young man wooing the young Usher woman, and it's not even clear that she's doomed in his story.

'60s and '70s horror is rife with examples of this kind of movie, because nihilism was very trendy back then. The infamous Manos: The Hands of Fate feels like that kind of movie, but maybe only because the movie spends about 20 minutes doing nothing but driving.

Many of the current Asian horrors have that feel, but sometimes they get around it by making a convincing ploy for hope. The Ring, for example: Is there hope? There seems to be, though it's a rather dark one. That one worked because the actions taken by the lead to discover the truth have an impact, just not the expected one. The Grudge, on the other hand--well, once you're in the house, you're just plain screwed.

Curioiusly, one of my favorite of the After Dark films, the Japanese Rinne (Reincarnation) could probably fit into the Usher category. It basically concerns a young woman who's on a movie set making a movie about a decades-old massacre, and through some unknown force, everyone on the set was actually part of the massacre, and have been reborn. As people start dying, there's a definite Usher feel, but we are at least engaged in the mystery.

Rinne violates Blake's rule of filmed reincarnation, which is that audiences will reject movies about people who die and come back as completely different looking characters (see What Dreams May Come, Dead Again). Although it's a perfectly sensible idea of how such a thing might work, movie audiences identify character too strongly with physical presence for it work.

I found it to be an engaging mystery, since there's a mystery: Which of the people working on the movie is the new incarnation of the murderer? So, for me, this works, even if it does fit into my hated Usher category.

You can read the original Poe story online here.


  1. I love horror movies, and I can't wait til we're past this "torture porn" phase; I won't see "Hostel" or any of those

    I've been trying to work up the nerve to see "The Descent." Everyone I know who has seen it says it's great. I'm just nervous because it's supposed to be so brutal.

  2. If you go to this post and scroll down, you'll see a little quoted section on "torture porn". It's really a sidebar, but I don't have a format for it.

    Basically, I don't consider a movie to be "torture porn" unless you're expected to enjoy the suffering. Hostel might appeal to some sadists, but it's pretty clear you're meant to empathize with the victims. ("What would I do? How long could I survive?") Much like the Saw movies.

    You have to go back to the '70s to find real torture porn, at least from anything released to theaters.

    Now, if you're talking about graphic violence, yeah, we're in a phase where it's common to present things very, very graphically.

    Descent is actually not like that. There's a whole lot of darkness and implicit horror. The only graphic part that I really recall is a compound fracture.

    It's fairly good. The ending shown in the US theatrical release makes little sense. They took a few seconds off the end to make it a "happy" ending.

  3. One of the weird things that happen when you are married is that you have to make a compromise on what movies to watch. Well not weird but you know what I mean. My wife hates, I mean hates horror movies because if she sees one she can't sleep and jumps out of her skin at every noise. When a commerical comes on for one she covers her eyes so she can't see it and goes la la la la la so she can't hear it.

  4. Yeah, that's not gonna wash around here.

    One of the blessed things about the children's mother is that she's the anti-chick flick chick, and into the funny, and even horror.

    She just doesn't like to watch horror before bed. But, you know, when else you gonna watch anything around here?


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