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The little things that make villains super-mega scary

On the day of his daughter’s wedding, Vito Corleone can’t refuse a single request, no matter how eccentric. Yes, of course he can help you pay for those restaurant renovations. That Hollywood producer is giving you a hard time? Don’t worry. He and Vito are going to have a chat. What’s that Fluffy? Sure, Vito’ll scratch your neck. You like that, don’t you, Fluffy. Yes you do. (Yes you do.) So does Vito. He’s always loved cats. And in just a few scenes, he’s going to do something to a horse that really sticks it to the Hollywood suit.

Vito Corleone may be a cruel monster, but his cat *loves* him. And as any cat owner will attest, that love is duly earned. Sure, they’ll brush up against your leg, maybe let you pet them a little. But the Corleone cat is rolling around on godpoppa’s lap, showing him the bellied goods. That means Fluffy and Vito have a history that Vito’s taken the time to nurture.

If anything, that’s what makes Vito Corleone so scary. Sure, he’s a ruthless murderer who wouldn’t give a second thought to pumping your torso full of holes. But he’s also a cat person, which is so…ordinary.

I’ve always been more freaked out by average folks who are capable of great evil than fantastical serial killers, like Freddy Krueger. Psychologist Dr. Deborah Serani says that makes perfect sense. “Any human being…is far more frightening than a distilled, flat-dimensional psychopathic character,” she explains. “The reason that it’s creepier is because we are all human and complex. And when we discover that someone just like us can do evil, terrifying things, it causes us to wonder how close we can be to doing such things.”

I’m not sure how close I am to doing any of the things the following movie villains did, but they left their mark because their brand of evil is seasoned with the uncannily mundane.

 

“Wait for the cream.” – Colonel Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds

There’s a lot that’s unsettling about Colonel Hans Landa: his cool demeanour, his inexorable grin, his talent for capturing Jews, and especially his sharp mind. He’s a cultured fellow, having travelled plenty, learned many languages, and tasted a host of different foods.  Yet there’s little he seems to enjoy more than a plain glass of milk. Dr. Serani thinks Landa uses it to assert his authority over the situations he’s in, from confronting the dairy farmer to that unnerving afternoon tea with Shoshanna. That’s certainly the larger subtext of those scenes. But his love of milk seems disconnected to hunting Jews. It’s more like one of life’s simple pleasures, like the icing on the cake, or the cream on the strudel. It does something to his palate, perhaps taps into a soothing childhood memory. So when he has a glass of the farmer’s milk, it feels more like a “don’t mind if I do” than a “what’s yours is mine.” According to Christoph Waltz’s own description of the character he portrayed, Landa is “realistic to the point of being inhuman.” Add that to Quentin Tarantino’s penchant for quiet terror and you’ve got one bone-chilling Nazi.

 

“A hobby should pass the time, not fill it.” – Norman Bates, Psycho

Though Alfred Hitchcock felt Psycho was his answer to the slasher genre, the picture is riddled with suspense. Unlike his other movies, you don’t find out who the killer is (well, not for sure, anyway) until the very end, and during that ride, you have to contend with a mild-mannered, gawky, shy momma’s boy. You know something isn’t right with Norman Bates, but you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Even though he spends a lot time stuffing dead animals and preserving them in lifelike poses. I honestly don’t know what’s more disconcerting: the fact that Norman Bates is a taxidermist, or that he has a hobby. It’s a painstakingly precise craft, and one that takes years to perfect. You have to wonder what kind of boredom and loneliness led him to taxidermy, and how all of those things led him to murder. When we find out that Norman Bates killed his mother and kept her corpse, we come to the eerie realization that what he really preserved was her personality.

 

“Forgive me for prattling away and making you feel all oogie.” – Annie Wilkes, Misery

I’ve always said that there’s a difference between being nice and being polite. Annie Wilkes is too polite from the start. From her disdain for profanity to her exaltation of Paul Sheldon, author of her favourite series of novels, Misery. It’s actually the fictional Misery Chastain that she loves, so Paul Sheldon, as her creator, is worshiped by association. It’s not altogether clear what kind of character Misery Chastain is, but we know she’s a romantic 18th century heroine. We also know that Annie Wilkes found comfort in reading when her husband divorced her. Since she’s bananas, she skirts over the fact that her husband left her because he got wise to the whole “my wife’s a nutty serial killer” business. Whatever the case, reading is what kept her cuckoo under control, and it’s when Paul kills off Misery that Annie loses it. Who knows what it is about Misery that kept her sanity in check, but Paul’s misery grows exponentially until he writes her back to life.

 

“I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone.” – Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood

Did your parents have a specific activity they didn’t want you to interrupt? My mother doesn’t like being bothered during Entertainment Tonight. Oprah’s okay, but don’t you cut into her Mary Hart time. Daniel Plainview feels the same way about bookkeeping. Don’t come a-knockin’ when Plainview’s on a date with the general ledger. It’s pretty much the only thing that matters to him. He relishes it so much he’s given to psychopathic behaviour if anyone intrudes. He’s crunching numbers when his adopted son tells him he wants to branch out on his own. Plainview goes into a blind rage, calling his son a “bastard from a basket.” Then that brat Eli Sunday comes around asking for money when Plainview is busy counting it. And without an ounce of sympathy, Eli gets some sense beaten into him with a bowling pin. Sure, Plainview’s hatred for the duplicitous Eli had been brewing for years, but the poor boy’s only sin, here, was bad timing.

 

“Call it.” – Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men

Anton Chigurh is more of a poltergeist than a person. You can feel his effect, but you don’t really get to know him. Yet there’s this thing he does after each murder. He checks his boots to make sure no blood got on them. And the thing is, he’s not worried about leaving evidence behind or getting caught. For whatever reason, he just wants to keep his boots clean. Maybe it’s OCD. Maybe he doesn’t like blood. Either way, he can’t seem to help himself. So he checks his feet to make sure all’s right with the world, and when it is, he carries on. Anton Chigurh doesn’t have too much dimension to him beyond this, but that little neat-freak detail makes me even more curious about him. That and the coin toss. I mean, Buddhist much?

 

Honourable mention: Kristina, Happiness

For no other reason than this quote: “Everyone uses baggies. That’s why we can all relate to the crime!”

23 thoughts on “The little things that make villains super-mega scary

  1. Ah, Misery. Kathy Bates scares the living shit out of me and I LOVE IT. She’s so the typical-weird-lady-that-lives-on-the-hill it’s amazing. The scene with the sledge-hammer is still one of my favourite horrifying scenes of all time!!

    • Oh, she’s so good! I had nightmares about her sweet little voice for weeks.

      And of course, a tip of the hat to you for your insights! :-)

  2. Pingback: What Makes The Villain Scary | Mental Health News

  3. Lovely topic.

    My personal feeling is that the ability to truly, deeply scare an audience is the most abstract in storytelling. Your meditations on the little things are certainly compelling (boy I love Happiness!) and I’d like to add my 2 cents.

    I think the details you write of are certainly essential to fleshing out the mundane and therefore scarily relatable mind of a psycho, but i would suggest that this only applies to the thrillers masquerading as horrors. I would suggest that of the films mentioned above, only No Country comes closest to pure horror, the rest are closer to thrillers. Silence Of The Lambs and Zodiac would also fit here.

    A Nightmare On Elm Street however preyed on very different, primal psychological territories. The pure concept of being hunted in your dreams is still horrifying, and despite the diminishing comedic sequels, I would argue that the brutal “Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare” still terrifies today.

    An example of a wonderful horror film is Blair Witch, which really terrified me and still does. This is a villain we never see or hear. The details are extremely minimal. It is this precise lack of knowledge that burrows deep in our worries and fears. The instinct that we are insects being toyed with by a larger abstraction is utterly gut-wrenching. Ditto with Alien.

    In the right hands, any balance of details can be terrifying, a tribute to the geniuses who composed those films you mentioned above.

    KUDOS!

    • Good points.

      I’d add that No Country and Silence of the Lambs fall into the “suspense” genre, which is different from horror. To roughly paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, in a horror, there’s a bomb under the table, it explodes, you see all the blood and guts and gore, and it’s horrific. In a suspense, there’s a bomb under the table, both people sitting at the table know it, and it doesn’t go off.

      I didn’t target any horror villains because my point was that they’re generally not as terrifying as villains with more “human” traits. In suspense movies, though, I’ve found some of the most interesting, quirky villains. That said, not every movie mentioned above is even a suspense, in the strictest sense. A good villain’s a good villain, and I’m more curious about their idiosyncrasies than the movie they’re in. ;-)

      Otherwise, I was discussing Freddy Krueger last night, and even in the first Nightmare movie, the “kills you in your dreams” thing is more of a gimmick. The filmmakers didn’t even explore the terror of the unconscious. And it’s too bad, because as a concept, it really has a lot of potential. In the end, though, Freddy is the same as Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers: out for the kill, no reason why, you’re gonna die.

      Blair Witch and Alien are fantastic examples of otherwise one-dimensional villains who inspire great terror. But the point of my article was to look at how mundane little things can feed into the terror that villains inspire. That’s why Hannibal Lecter didn’t make it: while he’s tastefully creepy, I couldn’t pinpoint his relatable little pleasure (like milk) or hobby (like taxidermy).

      There are plenty of great villains out there, but I like the ones who are all too human.

  4. Great response. The question of ‘what is horror/suspense’ is certainly one ripe for exploration and linked directly to the style of villain. Quoting Hitchcock is an instant trump!

    I kind of use the novel ‘Frankenstein’ as my template for horror (exploring the darker side of the human condition). So my standards are pretty high, and I think that since the 80′s, the genre has been abused and misrepresented. Hence I consider No Country a horror and Chigurh a man (or poltergeist) with much same motivations as Jaws or Michael Myers and thus impossible to identify with (even when checking his shoes).

    My personal favorite decade for horror was the 70′s. Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and Don’t Look Now have main villains that are extremely abstract.

    I would suggest for Hannibal that indulging in his elegant, entrepreneurial tastes are his relatable pleasures, listening to “The Goldberg Variations” by Bach after one murder, laying out a spotless dinner table while serving up Paul Krendler’s brains, the artistic sensibility in which he hangs certain victims to pay homage to religious artwork.

    Thanks again for a wonderful topic.

    • I get it. Then again, Dracula, though not a gothic novel like Frankenstein, also features a pretty one-dimensional villain. Even horror classics don’t always feature a fully fleshed-out bad guy. I’m not sure standards have anything to do with it. It’s just a convention.

      That said, is Frankenstein a horror in the strictest sense? And who’s more the villain: Dr. Frankenstein or his creation? Because the novel is so overtly analogous to Paradise Lost, and it deals with all the same themes, I have to wonder why we put it in the horror category at all. Is it just because of the monster? Because to me, there’s a much bigger story at play. And horror, I feel, is more about thrills, even if they’re cheap.

      On that, you rightly pointed out gems like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist: both working on a whole other dimension of terror. They’re both brilliant movies that I watch over and over because there’s so much more to discover with each viewing. And in both, there are the “victim” characters, who go on this long, elaborate journey. They’re so much more than your average screaming promiscuous teens. :-)

      No Country operates in a similar fashion: you have the characters around Chigurh, and they help you build his mythology and reign of terror. You also see them develop in their own way, which makes the movie even more interesting. As such, I wouldn’t say that No Country is about Anton Chigurh. Rather, he’s just one of the people in it. Even so, I also pointed out that other than Chigurh wanting to keep his boots clean, I couldn’t discern anything else in his character that suggested “dimension.”

      As for Hannibal Lecter, it’s true that he’s clearly a cultured man, but there aren’t any ticks or discernible little habits to associate with that. I don’t see him selecting albums out of a whole collection and deciding on Bach. I don’t really know that he likes Bach more than any other composer (in the same way that, for example, A Clockwork Orange’s Alex explicitly prefers Beethoven). Culture is part of Hannibal Lecter’s personality, sure. It also establishes his power, if feelings of superiority over his victims. But it’s not wacky; just ominous. Nobody would ever question how creepy he is, but I wouldn’t call him quirky. Or really particularly human. At least, not in the “boring” way that many of us are. And for all his culture, I’m reminded that a person usually requires somewhat elitist teachings to acquire a taste for these things (having benefitted from those elitist teachings myself). This isn’t exactly the recipe for day-to-day, mundane stuff, so it didn’t make the cut. I don’t care that he likes Bach; I want to know if he uses Listerine after each brush!

      This article is really about using little things to characterize evil people. One-dimensional villains can also scare us, but I would argue that I knew exactly what the Jaws shark was going to do. It was only a matter of when. As for Hans Landa, with every sip of milk, I kept wondering what would happen next because I honestly didn’t know. He’s the bomb under the table that won’t go off. To me, that’s just a much better scare. :-)

  5. p.s. I don’t think the horror genre, as we know it today, is something we can strictly attribute to the ’80s. The whole “monster-or-serial-killer-has-it-in-for-promiscuous-teens” template has been around since the ’50s. And there are some deliciously trashy examples to prove it. Kitsch is the kind of thing you can only inherit over time. Give those ’80s horror flicks another couple of decades, and they’ll have a cult following too. ;-)

  6. I hope you don’t mind if I write more about my feelings towards horror. Its just something I love so passionately to discuss and you’ve been kind (and perhaps foolish) enough to keep me thinking!

    Point taken on Lector. And thanks for the clarification, I am in your debt for clearing that up. I feel like I totally get and appreciate your article now.

    In Frankenstein, The Telltale Heart, Misery and American Psycho, or the artwork of Francis Bacon, films like The Exorcist I find my personal purest definition of horror. A ‘meditation’ on the dark psychology of man. Its interesting that Friedkin noted, he considers The Exorcist to be a drama. It is at its center the story of man struggling with his faith. This can be seen in the same way that Hitchcock professed to think of Psycho as a dark comedy. While both outline the fundamental area of grey that results in the conflict of interest in defining genres, from its artistic sensibilities to the response of the audience, I like to harken back to the word mediation as the key notion. The attempt to step into some dark psychological territories, set up camp and then get its hands dirty in a thoughtful way. I believe this to work on a greater complexities of subtext then most (not all) thrillers. No Country being a notable exception. (And this because I believe it to have inherited far more true horror elements then just its central villain.)

    I do wonder why there is a common sense to put horror literature and horror films on different levels, one for intelligent psychology, the other for cheap thrills. And I think Stephen King is equally a hero and a villain in this regard. No one in modern times has done a better job blurring the lines between the two.

    It seems to me that in a far easier definition, suspense should be about thrills as yes, we are waiting for the bomb to go off that never does. And that is easily more thrilling then seeing the blood and guts and gore.

    Great horror however has the ability to examine these insides in the psychological sense, the monster reading Paradise Lost, understanding his existence and then finding that he is even more lost with knowledge. While we would not really watch Rosemary’s Baby for thrills, the horror comes from watching someone search for truth in the hope of saving a life or righting a wrong. In fact she ends up discovering the darkness inside herself with her final choice at the end. Even Blair Witch, which is all about what we don’t see or here relies entirely on the meditation on ones own sanity for its chills (rather then thrills). The suggestion of a one dimensional villain is entirely filtered through the perspective of someone questioning their own mind.

    I guess my point is, there are examples of the genre, like Rosemary’s Baby that prove horror can attain the same high level of quality as the finest works of horror literature. If thats the case, I’ll gladly refer to cheaper horror films as what they are. Very subpar.

    I would see the one dimensional villains and one dimensional cheap thrills of the genre as the unfortunate result of those who somehow misconstrued the meaning of Frankenstein, or the symbolism of Dracula, and considered the monster to be a big green villain, even refer to him as Frankenstein. Hence the reason hammer and ongoing monster-serial killer movies called him that.

    I’m personally not a fan of Dracula for the very reason that I read the book and felt like it had missed the point of the genre, or certainly de-intellectualized it. Playing it for romantic thrills. In its own way though, Dracula, while not getting to the murky psychological depths of Frankenstein, is I think considered a classic not because of the thrills, but because of the commentary it makes on sexual proclivity and remains therefore a ‘meditation’ in a symbolic sense. Dracula is a representation of our virginal fears. Jason, Freddy and Michael are basically watered down versions. Frankenstein is far more complex to water down, so rather he became a camp mockery of himself in the wrong hands and was lost.

    I’m glad to hear you love those films. But yes you are right that we can’t look to the 80′s directly as a cause for a downfall in quality. It just personally bothers me that so much of the wonderfully progressive, intelligent 70′s style was seemingly chucked out at that time and left us clutching at postmodern schlock for our so called thrills. The late 60′s, 70′s felt like a time when horror was right. They just… got it. It started with Peeping Tom in 1960, then later we got The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now and Eraserhead.

    Silence Of The lambs perhaps marks the period when the finest elements of horror jumped ship and found a new home in thrillers and suspense films, creating some fantastically creepy modern villains many of which you have mentioned above.

    Sorry to have strayed so far from the article. The thought of these excellent villains has challenged my sense of genre for dark, deep reasons :-)

    • I don’t know. Although my article was about finding human traits that make villains creepy, and therefore more fleshed out and interesting, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good cheap scare, or even a ridiculous slasher.

      Where Dracula is concerned, what every movie adaptation has picked up on is the book’s undercurrent of sexual deviance. While this kind of theme is more overt in slasher movies, if we put Dracula in its Victorian English context, it’s wild stuff. You have this villain, and while you don’t know a lot about him, when he’s out on the prowl, he completely intrudes on your personal space. In Victorian England, that was more frightening than death. Even in the earliest movies based on the novel, there always seems to be an inherent sensuality to the beast, even when he looks horrific (Nosferatu). Horror movies are like a cultural mirror, and with the Dracula tale, we’re forced to question our own suppressed sexuality. I like that, because slasher movies tend to support suppression. All this to say, I find that kind of profound, despite the one-dimensional villain. And while my article prefers fleshed-out villains, I still enjoy flicks with a rather simplistic, one-track-minded villain because sometimes the movie they’re in is great (e.g. Jaws).

      The first Frankenstein movie didn’t have a green monster, as such. It’s just how it came out on the poster, but that was a reflection of light. It was likely a deliberate representation, given that monsters were considered especially scary if they were of another colour (that good ol’ racist “other”), but even in colourized versions, the monster is flesh-coloured. Okay, so people picked up on the green skin and that’s now the official Frankenstein’s monster colour when you pick up his rubber mask on Halloween. And you know what? The after-effects of a movie are just as important as the movie itself: they really tell you what’s going on in culture at that time. And sure, people confound the monster and his creator by name, but that’s fair enough. In horror movies, it’s supposed to be the monster’s name that comes up in the title. Though, I would argue, in the case of Frankenstein, the villain’s name is definitely in the title; he’s just not the monster.

      As for Rosemary’s baby, I think it’s quite the opposite. Many critiques of the film and Roger Ebert even touched on this: a big part of the horror is rooted in voyeurism. At first, we’re thrilled that she’s being watched by other characters. But that turns to horror as we watch her knowing she’s helpless, and we can’t help her. Her moment with the baby, I believe, doesn’t demonstrate an ounce of darkness. It rather shows tenderness, at a time when it seems unlikely. Plus, at this point, she realizes that there’s nothing she can do anyhow, so why fight it? And when she’s done fighting, which she’s been doing throughout the movie, she just gives in to being a mother. It screws with our heads because we, as the audience, have trouble reconciling showing any kindness towards the devil’s baby, but then, Rosemary’s tired, vulnerable, and, she discovers, completely powerless to change anything about the situation. Even if she kidnaps the baby, it’ll still be the devil’s. Period. What she does in the end is comprehensible, even if reproachable…at least, based on a certain set of values. I think the horror is in the fact that there isn’t any darkness in her at all, but it’s all around her and in the end, there’s nothing she can do about it.

      And you’re right: horror addresses psychological issues and cultural matters, if you will. But when you think about it, slashers, while incredibly simplistic in terms of plot and characterization, definitely feed a need in us. People who willingly go see these movies want to see dismemberment and stylized murder (possibly explaining why each murderer has a different weapon). It feeds a curiosity. It’s something most of us don’t see, and we’re curious about it, in the same way we’re curious about death or sex. Nobody goes to a slasher movie expecting grandiose themes and psychological puzzles. But something that tends to be consistent in slashers is production design and, of course, graphic death scenes. And you know, a lot of work goes into crafting these elements because that’s what slasher fans want to see. The reasons they want to see it are as complex as the reasons you prefer Rosemary’s Baby.

      Otherwise, I wouldn’t say that slasher movies, then or now, are part of a “downfall” process. There’s room for all sorts of stuff in the horror genre. It’s probably the most versatile genre there is because there are so many different levels of it. Those kinds of slashers have been around for a while. They didn’t take a break during the ‘60s and ‘70s (my favourite B-movie era). Sure, the ‘60s and ‘70s produced some great horror, but so did many decades. A slasher doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t “get it.” I think they do. They really “get” their audience. Rob Zombie, for example, knows that people who are actual fans of the slasher genre really loved the Grindhouse era of the ‘70s, so his recent movies have been a sort of revival of that esthetic. To call it subpar is to demean the artistic process that goes into recreating that look and feel. That requires a lot of thought and contrivance, and Rob Zombie achieved exactly what he meant to. Do his movies address the themes of the responsibility of creation or suppressed sexuality? No! But they’re still good movies, and they look fantastic.

      As I argued when Ebert claimed that video games can’t be art: we don’t have to discredit one to like the other. There’s room in horror for psychological thrills and dismembered bodies, as well as whatever comes in between. There’s room for no graphics, poor graphics, and great graphics. When I attend Montreal’s Fantasia festival each year, and see a combination of deliberately bad horror and surprisingly good horror (despite a low budget), I remember that where the director is concerned, it’s all about entertainment. And there’s nothing highbrow about that. Nor does there need to be. Their desire to entertain is no more or less quantifiable than Roman Polanski’s. Roman does it his way, with a big budget; the Fantasia film directors do it their way with none. Both have merit.

      If you prefer the stuff that’s more psychologically engaging, that’s fine. But that doesn’t make slashers subpar. They engage their audience in a different way that doesn’t particularly appeal to you, and that’s fine too. I know someone who simply can’t watch slashers because the sight of blood makes him faint. But if I consider my other friend, a horror film director, who loves Rosemary’s Baby as much as he loves Night of the Demons (I, II & III), I think he really “gets” it, because he sees the point in all of it. And I think that’s great.

      • p.s. One of my favourite horror movies is Suspiria by Dario Argento (Asia’s daddy-o), and this movie makes absolutely no sense. There are only 3 murders in the whole thing, and each victim takes about 15 minutes to die (production design WIN). The “murderer” is hardly ever present, and it’s utterly anti-climactic when you find out who they are, not to mention that their motives are pointless. BUT…the movie looks like an opera feels. Critics tend to like this movie, yet it has as much purpose as Nightmare on Elm Street. My point? Horror is also an esthetic.

  7. I guess you caught me for a loop there. I think I’m still riffing on your quote “And horror, I feel, is more about thrills, even if they’re cheap.” My point was really to try and rebut that by any means possible haha, to speak up on behalf of the more thought provoking entries in the genre or the horror I tend to gravitate towards. I feel like I go to my thrillers and action films for thrills, but my horror films for something deeper. If I can be thrilled at the same time (Blair Witch, Exorcist) then yipee. I’m not saying your wrong in your point, of course they are your personal feelings. But its certainly a point of thoughtful contention.

    Hmm I’m not sure why critics prefer Suspiria to A Nightmare On Elm Street. But like you said:

    “the “kills you in your dreams” thing is more of a gimmick. The filmmakers didn’t even explore the terror of the unconscious. And it’s too bad, because as a concept, it really has a lot of potential. In the end, though, Freddy is the same as Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers: out for the kill, no reason why, you’re gonna die.”

    I agree, and feel like if it had explored the terror of the unconscious, we’d be closer to a deep meditation and thus critics would have seen a film of greater merit then a killer with no reason. While I feel this is true, Jaws is a classic yet the killer has no motive. I guess its because while Freddy is the most thought of character in Nightmare, Chief Brody and his relationship with Hooper and Quint more then make up for motivation. Nancy in Nightmare and her buddies aren’t exactly in that league. I think its fair to say that generic 2D human elements in films cheapen them unfortunately. Now 2D in an unseen force, that can be a thing of beauty.

    I truly do think of dark psychology first when I think of horror, or a world where Nightmare does go deeper with the concept, or Jason and Michael with the sexual commentary but I have all respect for those that think blood and gore first (don’t get me wrong I love all these films, I have a guilty soft spot for Jason X). It may just be that where some find their morbid curiosity satisfied here, maybe I get that from say a western. Or Crank.

    I certainly agree with a lot of the points you’ve made here and I didn’t really intend to come off as having a lower opinion of all horror films that don’t have greater psychological merit. Like I said, it was more to provide good evidence against the “thrills”. Not that theres anything wrong with thrills as you say. It fulfills a lot of vital human needs. I consider Jaws also to be a significant work of horror and it certainly leans closer to thrills then thoughts. I’m a big fan of the first two Scream films and also more unknown and silly entries like Wishmaster. While I wasn’t a fan of Zombie’s Halloween remake I of course enjoyed Devils Rejects immensely.

    My personal favorite quote on the issues you brought up is from Stephen King, he asks why people slow down when they drive past a car accident, and concludes that to see others in worse condition makes us feel better about our own situation. The Descent could be a prime example of this.

    I suppose subpar is a little harsh. In the last ten years or so I’ve become increasingly agitated with how the reputation of the genre has fallen so unfairly, to the point where yes I feel we’re at a place where we are questioning whether Frankenstein was really a drama or a thriller, rather then the seminal work of horror that it is.

    In my experience I’ve found the horror genre to be a place where works of extreme psychological merit can be produced whereas say the action genre, even at its peak (Die Hard, T2) wouldn’t be able to reach. I mean don’t get me wrong, the have extreme value in other ways, for example the way we relate to technology or to each other. Maybe dramas and comedies speak closer to the soul. I personally tend to look at horror for my meditations on the self before I look for my thrills. No Country really is a one of a kind. A hybrid western, thriller (suspense), horror that is somehow able to incorporate the best of everything. :-)

    Last year we had a fantastic mainstream year for horror, with Drag Me To Hell, Antichrist, Paranormal Activity and Trick r Treat. It just might help weather the storm of the increasingly awful Michael Bay produced horror remakes of the decade. I’ve really enjoyed the 6 Saw films. More for mild curiosity, but I thought the 1st and 6th were the best by far. 2 and 3 make me mad because they aim for deep psychology and fail so miserably, 4, 5 and 6 have no such aspirations and are all the more fun for it.

    I suppose we agree on a lot of issues but just differ in our classifications. I would consider No Country a hybrid horror/thriller for the same reasons I would call Silence Of The Lambs a horror/thriller. They really do mix the thought provoking mind psychology of horror with the thrill of the chase that I feel is determined by a genre called ‘thriller’ or ‘suspense’.

    I think its important to keep the dark heart and purpose of Frankenstein, Poe and The Exorcist alive and vital in the horror genre. We are now at a point where the hidden abstract demon of Paranormal Activity is literally facing off at the box office with the next Saw film. Vying for the top representation of the genre in the eyes of mainstream audiences. While I do love me some cheap thrills with Saw, I know which one I’m rooting for.

    • Fair enough. I hear you.

      I find horror thrilling, even if we’re talking about Rosemary’s Baby, because I’m so tense the whole time I’m watching it. So when something *actually* happens, I’m all worked up and “thrilled.” Not everyone views that movie in the same way, and that’s fair enough. But I don’t feel thrills for chick flicks or dick flicks, which is why, to me, that experience tends to be associated with at least the suspense genre, and definitely with horror. I’m also not the only person who got thrills from viewing The Exorcist. Many people remember exactly how they felt when they first saw it, and they classify it as a very unique kind of thrill. Not to mention that it scared the bejesus out of them. But yeah, thrills and horrors? They definitely go together, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks so. Is that the only experience you get from a horror? No, but it’s the reason I buy the ticket. Anything else is just gravy. What you’re talking about is the gravy :-)

      And Saw? I just don’t think any of those movies are particularly deep. I think the premise is an excuse to torture the characters and showcase graphic violence (and how!). There’s nothing wrong with that, I’m just saying that it’s pointless to look for meaning in something that clearly has to create such a contrived scenario to justify the graphic violence. Sure, maybe the “premise” is the reason you buy your movie ticket, but the reason you stay is to see what the hell kind of contraption is going to kill those poor characters, and how it’s going to kill them (and you’re always hoping that “slowly” will be worked into that equation). I like Saw for the creative killings, and that’s about it. I still think it’s art, but, like, the kind that doesn’t really have a story.

      That said, some movies end up in categories despite themselves. Rosemary’s Baby ended up in “horror” because the devil’s in it (even if it’s for, like, a minute) and, I would argue, for no other reason. Sure, there are his worshippers and stuff, and they do commit murders, but strictly speaking, it seems to fit more into what I consider “suspense.” The devil’s kind of a MacGuffin, when you think about it. Otherwise, the movie looks amazing. But then, it’s Polanski we’re talking about.

      When a movie comes out, it’s likely that if it isn’t a slasher, a chick flick or a dick flick, it’ll be a hybrid of two or more genres (even a “western” isn’t just one thing; the “western” part is more of a “where” than a “what”). It’s our tendency, as an audience, to want to classify a movie into one neat category, but upon closer observation, we often find that no one category covers all criteria, and that’s okay. I’m not really a snob about these things. A good movie’s a good movie. If you like a certain type of horror, that’s cool. If you prefer calling it something other than a horror because of reasons A, B or C, I don’t really care. Horror is relative to how you experience it. We use categories to create a common language, but that common language doesn’t always cover the totality of your experience.

      And critics love Susperia because of how it looks. It’s unbelievably grandiose when you consider the ice-thin plot driving the movie. We can’t take visuals out of the equation when it comes to movies, because that’s how they affect us. It’s about 85% of the effect (if not more). That’s the draw of slashers: graphic violence. In more subtle horror, it’s a dramatic build-up of edits, the looks on other characters’ faces, or the ominous hallway with the repetitively patterned carpets in The Shining. Suspiria was constructed like an art film, and critics saw that. The plot is secondary, as is the horror. Many horror film directors were influenced by Dario Argento’s work, so there must be something to it, right?

      And you know, the video esthetic is a big part of what makes Blair Witch so scary. Video, unlike film, is immediate. It puts you right there in the action, while film keeps you at a safe distance from it. It’s almost like there are a couple of additional layers of fiction with film. Paranormal Activity works with the same immediacy to create its terror; that and the idea that what’s on video must be true (as it’s the camera of choice for news broadcasts). And we can’t forget that because of the use of video, the Blair Witch marketing team (which, if I’m not mistaken, was mostly the directors) were able to propagate the rumour that the action in the movie was real.

      Otherwise, I wouldn’t get discouraged over the fact that there’s so much shite in the horror genre. That’s always been the case and will always be the case. There’s no downfall as such, since it’s always been that way. Plus, in horror, there’s always a handful of great stuff that comes out every year. And honestly, there’s more good horror coming out in one year than there are “good” chick flicks or dick flicks. We accept that those last two categories tend to produce shite, so we shouldn’t be too hard on horror. The fact is, only a handful of movies, out of millions, are actually good. And that’s in any genre. There’s no need to be on a mission to save horror. It’s just fine. :-)

      That said, have you seen Martyrs? That movie fucked me up for days. The French are starting to produce more horrors, and apparently, they’ve been suppressing some horrific stuff for decades! I’ve also heard that À l’intérieur is good, but I haven’t seen it yet.

      REC (the original version of Quarantine) is also one of my recent favourites. Another movie that uses video to create its urgent terror. I’ve got a thing about “zombie” movies, which is mostly that I can’t watch them (not that they scare me, but I inevitably end up dreaming about zombies the same night, and those dreams are terrifying; that should be a horror movie!). But the way this movie is done manages to completely distract me from the zombies (though it’s not been established that this is what they are, they’re at least a close relative).

      Some of the examples you mentioned are also among my new favourites. The Descent (with non-U.S. ending), Drag Me to Hell: all great.

      With that, are we cool?

  8. And thanks for insight in the origin of the Frankenstein monster. That was fascinating! Ditto the reading on Rosemary’s Baby. It was always more my mothers favorite and I haven’t seen it in a while. But I love that ending. I just remember it left me conflicted in that deeply satisfying way.

    • You’re welcome, and true that. The Rosemary’s Baby ending is unsettling for sure. What’s unsettling about it varies according to the viewer, but everyone seems to come out of that movie with a puzzled look on their face!

      • p.s. Re: Frankenstein. While it’s not necessary to have read Paradise Lost to understand Frankenstein, we can’t forget that the novel is a reconstruction of John Milton’s epic (with a dash of the Prometheus story). The “horror” element of the work is rooted in the monster, but if anything, the novel asks much deeper questions that have nothing whatsoever to do with horror. Like, how much control can you have over what you create, and how responsible is the act of creation to begin with? If anything, Paradise Lost criticizes “God” for expecting his creation to do his bidding despite having free will, then it criticizes God for not being an effective guardian. The character of Satan – or, analogously, the Monster – plays the role of critic, both in action and in speech. Satan essentially tempts Adam and Eve just to stick it to God, to prove the flaws in God’s plan. The monster does kill, but it’s mostly by accident, and never because the monster is inherently a murderer. Otherwise, Mary Shelley felt the monster was more like Adam, in Paradise Lost. And there, we simply have a being who doesn’t have the wherewithall to know right from wrong, and who only learns by making mistakes (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). But again, where is Adam’s creator when all this happens? Why has God forsaken his creation?

        These themes come up over and over again in movies and novels. My favourite reconstruction is Blade Runner.

        All this to say, Frankenstein can never be a horror in the strictest sense, because the monster and the murders are all driven by the strong undercurrent on creation. And if anything, that’s what makes it so cool.

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  13. I would be so bold as to venture out and say that one of the best villains I have seen in the last 5 years has been Stanley Tucci’s character George Harvey from the movie The Lovely Bones (which was also nominated for the Oscar along with Christoph Waltz in 2010).

    His portrayal of this character terrified me. The vast emptiness in his eyes, methodical planning and just sheer lack of emotion (especially when staring at the safe), rocked me deep to my core. The idea that someone could be that desolate and void of social and personal interactions to the point of driving them to commit these horrible crimes, is astounding. Makes you wonder how many people there are right now that feel this way and it’s just a matter of time before the void manifests itself.

    It is a shame he did not win the Oscar that year. He is still today, one of my favorite villains.

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