In 1985, I had the chance to see Godzilla on the big screen for the first time since that treasured day in the mid-70s, when my father took me to a matinee of Godzilla vs. the Thing (aka Mothra vs. Godzilla, 1964). On this occasion, the film was Godzilla 1985 (aka The Return of Godzilla, 1984). Like the 1954 original, it had been re-edited by its American distributor, with Raymond Burr shoehorned in. It was also dubbed. I didn’t care. It was Godzilla. When a couple of kids (about eight years old, I’m guessing) called out “Hi, Godzilla!” when he appeared, I barely restrained myself from doing the same. But there was another voice in that theatre. In the row ahead of me, a couple sat with their daughter. She was young enough (four? five?) that it’s possible this was her first movie. Twice during the film, I heard a small voice emerge from the seat in front of me with a quavering, “This scares me.” The first time was early in the film, when a corpse is found on a derelict ship. The second time was when Godzilla’s massive foot comes down on a fleeing crowd. [Read more…]
So I watched V/H/S 2 tonight. I had passed on the original, but heard that the follow-up was a distinct improvement. It was something of a mixed bag, though “Save Haven,” the segment directed by Gareth (The Raid- Redemption) Evans, was pretty effective. The film is yet another found-footage exercise, and while it finds some pretty ingenious ways of using the format (I particularly liked the dog-mounted camera), I did find myself wondering if this was really the most effective way of telling these stories. And so I present a few ramblings on found-footage horror, hoping for at least semi-coherence. [Read more…]
A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a brief Twitter conversation with Teresa Frohock and Fred Kiesche that touched on the virtues of the suggested versus the explicit in the creation of terror. If memory serves (and my apologies if it does not), Robert Wise’s The Haunting (the 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House) was invoked. That film is, without a doubt, a powerful argument for the virtues of subtlety. So is the CGI-laden 1999 version, which proves just how good Wise’s approach (faithful to Jackson) was by doing the precise opposite and failing in spectacular (if entertaining) fashion. That being said, I would like to mount a bit of a defence of explicitness here. More particularly, I would like to say a few words about the value of gore.
Back around the end of the 80s, and the start of the 90s, there was a sometimes-heated debate on this subject. We had “quiet” versus “loud” horror, and this was when the term “splatterpunk” had its greatest currency. While the debates were interesting, the [Read more…]
On January 2, Mike Vraney, the founder of Something Weird Video, passed away. You can read his obituary here. I would like to offer my condolences to his family and his friends and to comment briefly on the importance of his archival work. Because though Something Weird is, of course, a business, it is one with a mission, and Vraney has been responsible for both the preservation and the dissemination of films and voices that would otherwise be no more than entries in film histories, or forgotten entirely.
Something Weird is essentially the Criterion of Grindhouse, relentlessly seeking out and preserving the B and exploitation film. Its mandate goes far beyond horror — the nudie cutie, the roughie, and the rest of the carnival sideshow of cinematic sleaze are at play here. And, sticking to the focus of this column, this is as it should be. Horror is the disquieting guest of the fantastic not just because of the darkness of the tales or the unpleasant emotions it seeks to create, but also because it is disreputable, and always has been. From the Gothic onward, horror has been regarded with suspicion, [Read more…]
I’m dreadfully late to this party, but over the course of the last few weeks, I finally had the chance to catch up on the first season of Hannibal. By and large, I enjoyed it very much, especially Mads Mikkelsen’s incarnation of the title character. I was very struck, too, both by how stylized the series is and how committed it is to bringing full-on horror to the small screen. In this respect, it is a pretty rare animal.*
In his chapter about horror on television in Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes that horror has not been well-served by the medium. One of the big problems is that “television has really asked the impossible of its handful of horror programs — to terrify without really terrifying, to horrify without really horrifying, to sell audiences a lot of sizzle and no steak.” This is back in 1981, and the television landscape has, of course, changed radically since then. There were exceptions to this rule that King could point to then, and there have been even more since, but I think there is still a fair bit of [Read more…]
Friday afternoon, I took part in a panel on horror writing organized by the Manitoba Writers’ Guild and hosted by the Arts and Cultural Industries Association of Manitoba. Chaired by Maurice Mierau, the panel consisted of Chadwick Ginther (author of the Norse urban fantasies Thunder Road and the recently-launched Tombstone Blues), Michael Rowe (in Winnipeg as part of the book tour for his ghost story Wild Fell) and myself. It was a very cozy setting to talk horror while a -30 C windchill howled outside, and while the event is fresh in my mind, I thought I’d touch on a couple points that came up in the discussion (and I thank Chris Borster for the idea of doing so). So here we go; any misrepresentations in the paraphrasing that [Read more…]
A few weeks back, Shaun quipped to me that horror is “fantasy with scary bits.” Even further back, a discussion went around on Twitter as to whether horror and epic or high fantasy could coexist. A few remarks this week (which I will get to in due course) had me thinking about this issue again.
As I’ve argued previously, horror is too polymorphous to be considered a genre — any attempt to define it as such winds up with exclusions and inclusions so remarkable as to invalidate the definition. For example: an insistence that there must be an element of the supernatural excludes the likes of Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and so on. On the other hand, horror’s symbiotic/parasitic nature allows it [Read more…]
It occurs to me, a few columns in, that I should perhaps say a couple of words about the title I have chosen for this series of barely coherent ramblings. While I did, certainly, want to suggest something ghostly, what I also had in mind was horror’s uncomfortable relationship with the rest of the field of speculative fiction.* Horror takes on many forms, but some of those share a clear family resemblance to SF and F. One obvious example is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Though often hailed as the first SF novel, it is also a crucial work in the horror canon (though it is not the first horror novel — that honor goes to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto). As well, what with many writers crossing over from one genre to the other**, or fusing elements, the lines are very, very blurry. [Read more…]
In the last week or so, there have been interesting discussions about the pros and cons of “cozy” fiction by Justin Landon (here) and on Sam Sykes (here). Those exchanges made me think of Roland Barthes’ distinctions between the “readerly” and the “writerly” text. Said distinction is summarized here. According to Barthes in S/Z, the readerly text is one where the reader is passive, “plunged into a kind of idleness […], left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text,” whereas the writerly text’s goal is “to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.” The writerly text places greater demands on the reader, forces an active engagement with the text. It is disruptive and destabilizes the reading experience.
Barthes is unequivocal in seeing the readerly text as entirely retrograde. The distinctions are, furthermore, usually deployed in a way that would see “readerly” and “cozy” as nearly synonymous. I find, however, a certain use in doing some violence to Barthes’ project and using the terms in a more descriptive, rather than prescriptive fashion, at least in the context of the aforementioned discussions. One reason for my caution is that the usual schema of “readerly=easy to [Read more…]
The other day, I was exchanging a few thoughts with Shaun about film, the need to entertain, and the engagement of emotions versus the idea of a film that was a purely intellectual experience. This brought me to thinking about the same topic in relation to horror.
Some years ago, I read an anthology of horror tales that was a success in that the stories were skillfully written, but a failure in that few, if any, worked at all as horror. The reason for this was (what seemed to me) a misplaced desire to “transcend” the field (a subject for another time), coupled with a form of self-referential storytelling that worked fine in and of itself but prevented the reader from engaging emotionally/suspending disbelief/what-have-you. Let me add here that I intend no disparagement to a more writerly (as opposed to readerly) style — each has its strengths and particular uses. However, what this [Read more…]