Wednesday, 31 August 2011

A Peculiar Atmosphere Of Cranky Scholarship

I took great exception to the review of Final Destination 5 that was recently posted on It wasn't the notion that a film so banal and meaningless as to qualify as pornography should be so lauded which got to me (“five headsplats out of five”, no less). Rather, it was this unforgivably assumptive summation:

“If you like watching blandly attractive people getting burned, maimed, twisted into anatomically unlikely heaps of quivering flesh, well, then you're a horror fan.”

I'm a horror fan, and yet I find the idea of anyone, be they “blandly attractive” or not, being so dispensed with for the sake of entertainment to be exactly the opposite of my idea of fun. In fact, a few years back I found myself sadly declaring that I just don't like horror. I just found the notion of getting your kicks from such gratuitous slaughtering as passes for "horror" these days most upsetting.

Turns out, though, that it wasn't horror per se I found (and find) so abhorrent. Rather, it's modern horror. Put simply: I'm convinced that, by-and-large, people have forgotten how to make a good horror film.

I was reminded of just how beautiful and chilling the genre could be yesterday afternoon when, whilst passing a very agreeable afternoon in the BFI Mediateque at the Derby Quad, I was given the opportunity to watch the original 1968 Omnibus version of Whistle & I'll Come To You for the very first time.

That, friends, is how you do horror. It's not about the headsplats or the flayed corpses. It's about spookiness, creepiness, atmosphere and the undying power of suggestion. The ghost in Whistle... is little more than a sheet blowing in the wind (or, later, lifted slowly from a bed). However, I found such images – when taken in the context of the rest of the film – to be of the most genuinely unnerving I've ever seen.

And I have seen a lot.

What really struck me, though, was the film's minimal approach to storytelling. There's no music and very little dialogue – and much of what dialogue there is forms a similar role to that which is found in such quasi-silent affairs as the first half of Holy Mountain and even Mr. Bean. It's mumbled, subdued and clipped: It serves to move the story forward whilst creating a vaguely-otherworldly feel. In this case it also functions to make our hero – played impeccably by Michael Hordern – come across as eccentric, bumbling and completely adorable. His final fate, then, is rendered all the more affecting because we simply cannot help but love him.

This is a far-cry indeed from the disposable ciphers found in much modern horror who only seem to exist in order that they may be maimed in increasingly appalling ways. Whistle... relies upon solitude, eerie winds, wide-open spaces, overcast skies, fears of the dark, bumps in the night and outstanding performances in order to deliver its thrills. It's anti-spectacle, but for me it's 42 minutes contain more substance than the combined running times of all five Final Destination films (or all 724 Saw films, for that matter).

I'm not calling for a blanket ban on blood and gore in cinema. Far from it. Let the gorehounds have their bloodbaths. So long as I don't have to watch, everybody's happy.

What I can't stand, though, is the idea that films are being constructed around these scenarios rather than the other way around. It cheapens the genre, gives it a very bad name (as if it wasn't unfairly maligned anyway) and leads to horribly cynical fare such as The Human Centipede II, the Guinea Pig series and, yes, every single Saw sequel that ever has and ever will be released. These films have been specially made to court controversy and, in some cases, to be banned. I struggle to think of anything more tedious than contrived controversy. It's of no benefit for anyone, and any film-maker who rubs their hands in glee at the notion that they've achieved notoriety deserves to be subjected to exactly the tortures which they take such delight in dreaming-up.

Well, that's a little extreme. Perhaps instead these tedious twats should be invited to a viewing of Whistle... in order that they can be reminded of just how marvellous, dignified and timeless the form can be.

Though, so wired, jaded and desensitised are they that I imagine that they'd squirm through such a viewing and consider it as torture.

Shame. On my part, though, next time I find myself depressed by yet another pornographic remake of a classic (“Now in 3D with extra-eye gouging!”), rather than declaring my dislike of horror, I'm instead going to remind myself of how beautiful the medium can be when it's not trying to cater for such erections as are induced by slit-throats and Rube Goldberg implements of death.


  1. Well put I have read a few things on Kill List that may be the beginning to a return a more subtle form. Although it still seems a bit too gory for me, maybe its an age issue audiences for the films you mentioned are often younger than me ... I'm too old for horror?

  2. Whilst I agree with you that the vast majority of modern mainstream horror films are pretty cynical and worthless efforts, I’m afraid I find the gist of your argument rather unhelpful.

    Firstly, I don’t think the makers of modern horror efforts are so much *ignorant* of how to make a classic ghost story (indeed, contemporary fanboy-type directors like Ti West can give you subtle, low-key ghost stories ‘til the cows come home). Instead they’re merely aware that, for better or worse, they’re making a different product for a different audience, and criticising a multiplex horror sequel for not being like an M.R. James adaptation seems akin to criticising Death Wish IV for not being like an Agatha Christie mystery.

    Secondly, horror films – and indeed, films in general – have always made their money on the promise of violence, controversy and the lure of seeing forbidden sights, and ‘extreme’ gore type movies (the vast majority of which are, as always, far less grotesque than their advertising would tend to suggest) simply take that notion to its natural conclusion. And whilst I broadly share your dislike for most of these movies, it’s worth bearing in mind when rallying against what you perceive to be ‘pornographic’ and distasteful in modern cinema that a lot of upright citizens of a certain age were probably writing in exactly the same tone about Hammer and Amicus films when they were in the cinema – each generation, the cycle just goes round again.

    Actually, what I find most offensive about modern horror flicks isn’t so much disturbing violence, it’s the *lack* of it. My favourite pub bore argument has always been to declare that I find movies like ‘Scream’ far more objectionable than more explicit and controversial films – the reason being that through the ‘70s and ‘80s, horror movies sold themselves as being a nasty, disreputable, outsider-ish concern – you watched them with the understanding that you would see something a bit weird and wrong and upsetting. ‘Scream’ marked the point at which the genre lost this kind of forbidden aura, and the idea of a bunch of teenage girls being murdered was basically presented as easy-going entertainment aimed at ‘normal’ people, with anything that might make a mainstream audience uncomfortable carefully airbrushed out… and it is the way that subsequent films have followed suit, presenting violence as a kind of thrill-ride devoid of accompanying emotional (as opposed to merely physical) discomfort that really bugs me, if you see what I mean..?

    I’m rambling on here anyway – best stop now.

  3. I see your point Ben.

    But when I use the term "pornographic", I'm not using it in a Mary Whitehouse "ban this sick filth" sort of way. Rather, I'm using it to denounce these films as devoid of any merit other than the satisfaction of base desires to see people turned inside out.

    I'm all for "distasteful" films. I just vastly prefer it when all the severed limbs point to something - even if it's just self-parody, like with Peter Jackson's earliest offerings.

    And, yeah, there has always been a market for torture porn (for want of a better term - goreporn? Grang Guignol et al) - it's just that these days there seems to be so much of it that saturation has been achieved, and now it appears that the majority of people will only watch something which classifies itself as "horror" if it's more disgusting and distasteful than that which they saw last week.

    I'm thinking of those League of Gentlemen nerds - "how many killingsh in this one?"

    And, yeah, people like that have probably always existed.

    I just don't like the way that, as a fan of horror, I'm sort of expected to subscribe to such things, if you see what I mean?

  4. 'Whistle..' has long been a favourite of mine and I fully agree with your criticism of modern horror.
    You might find these interesting, my musical tributes to Whistle and also, Blood On Satan's Claw..

  5. I love 'Whistle..' too, it's been a favourite of mine for many years. However it is unfair to judge all 'modern horror' by the standards of the current teen orientated multiplex fare.

    Whilst mainstream US horror is generally not in the greatest creative shape today, the genre globally is doing great things. For every 'Final Destination 4/5/6' or 'Texas Chainsaw Remake' there is a 'Let The Right One In', 'The Orphanage', 'Enter The Void', 'Skeletons'...

    Hasn't this always been the case? One of my favourite horror films is 'The Haunting'. That same year (1963) Herschel Gordon Lewis released 'Blood Feast', widely regarded as the first 'gore' movie.

  6. Yeah, it has always been the case.

    I suppose my point is that, when exposed extensively to the mainstream, it's easy to forget that there's a whole world out there.

    I don't think of the likes of "Whistle..." as a standard by which all others can be judged. Rather, it's something of a reminder that there always has been and always will be people on my wavelength. It's comforting like that.

    The four films you mentioned ('Let The Right One In', 'The Orphanage', 'Enter The Void', 'Skeletons') can indeed hold their own against the triumphs of the past and, with the likes of Monsters, Troll Hunter & Kill List (the latter two I'm yet to see but cannot wait to do so) I've nothing but hope for the future.

    It's just that I know that these such endeavours will always exist on the fringe.

    But yes, that's how it's always been and, according to Ben, that's how it should be.

    I think we're agreed on that.