Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Taking a Shot at the Canon

Halloween, my least favorite holiday, is once again upon us. In the interest of getting linked to on someone's holiday-themed blogroll, I will consent to post about horror films for the remainder of the week. My resistance to Halloween might seem Grinchy to some, but it's just one of those inexplicable bits of Tim lore dating back as far back as anyone can remember: Halloween just pisses me off for strange and indeterminate reasons. I'd rather celebrate Arbor Day - at least I can get behind a tree.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah.

As much as I enjoy a good horror film, I've noticed something over the years - many of the movies considered to be "classic" examples of horror cinema are just not that good. For instance: going back to the original Wicker Man I was struck by how remarkably boring the movie was, and how - like many horror movies - it only really works if you consent to believe that the protagonists just aren't that bright and will always do whatever is necessary to pull them deeper into the machinations of the plot. The heavy thud of plot hammers in the distance can sap even the most promising material of its thrust.

Long-time readers - and I mean long-time, going back to the first six months or so, the pre-Cambrian age of the Comics Blogosphere - will remember endless controversies touching upon the concept of "suspension of disbelief". True, "suspension of disbelief" isn't a particularly useful concept in critical discourse, as it stands at a foreign remove from the more interesting features of a narrative - theme, subtext, style, context. It has nothing to do with how, ideally, a viewer or reader should engage a given text. No one asks whether or not Ulysses or Midnight's Children successfully suspend their readers' disbelief.

That said, to all the academics in the audience who may engage with genre work on a critical level, I say: phooey. I've been reading and watching genre entertainment for decades of my life. My parents love sci-fi and fantasy, and they raised me to do so as well. (Not so much the horror, however, but there was some of that as well, mostly of the non-slasher kind. To this day I don't think you could pay my mother enough to sit through any type of slasher film.) My reactions to horror films are the same as any sci-fi or fantasy film: I can't engage with it on any level unless it reaches at least some modicum of competence. I've seen too much in the way of crap to waste my time explicating bad movies.

At least, when I riff on bad comics there's a tacit understanding (or at least I hope there is!) between you - my audience - and myself, that we're all basically stuck with these metric shit-tons of bad comic book trivia in our brains, we might as well have some fun wallowing in the filth of, I dunno, Nightstalkers or something. But for the vast majority of this crap, no attempt is made to engage with it on any other level than atavistic nostalgia or unrepentant snark. It would be the height of dishonesty on my part, and just plain foolish, to try and find something deeper in the vast majority of this crap. You’d have to be, in other words, deeply, deeply invested in an extremely blinkered aesthetic to be able to find any kind of thematic weight in even something as relatively "good" as, say, Busiek & Perez's Avengers. There's just no "there" there, and it says a lot more about the people making these projections than the work itself.

All of which is to say, reading some of the critical statements that have cropped up around Wes Craven's 1972 debut, Last House on the Left, is a bit like accidentally clicking onto one of those message board threads where people spend a lot of time defending Moench and Gulacy's Master of Kung-Fu as the great unsung pinnacle of 70s graphic fiction. (I know that's one hell of a straw-man, but I don't feel like pissing off anyone specific.) It's just a poor movie, and I can't see why anyone would have the patience to spend enough time on it to find a deeper appreciation. Wes Craven would go on to do many, many better films. His Swamp Thing was a very good film, effectively creepy and campy in just the right proportions. I haven't seen The Serpent and the Rainbow in a long time but I remember it being straight-up terrifying. People Under the Stairs is an odd little movie that many people have probably never seen at this late date but which presented a good twist on some fairly conventional horror themes. (But, he also directed Vampire in Brooklyn, so there's that).

Last House on the Left has some good ideas, inasmuch as they're the same ideas Ingmar Bergman had when he directed The Virgin Spring. But even if the spirit is willing, the proverbial flesh is weak. I guess if I had to pinpoint the movie's singular failure, it's probably one of ambition. The movie's main trick is juxtaposition - juxtaposition between the grisly murders on display and a deceptively placid early 70s light rock soundtrack, interjections of comedic relief in the form of a bumbling sheriff and deputy straight out of Smokey and the Bandit. The problem is that whereas a more confident director might have been able to pull of these kind of tricks while still maintaining a cohesive mood, the result here is simply a mess. The sad-action / happy-music trick wears out its welcome real quick, making the transition from interesting to bizarre to funny in about the time it takes the girl to get up from being raped and walk to her death to what (for the life of me) sounds like Harry Chapin.

It just doesn’t hang together, and even a few effectively creepy performances on the part of the murderers (who strangely look just like Michael Imperioli, it's uncanny.) can't salvage what is, ultimately, simply a badly directed film - a good effort for an absolute beginner, but of little interest outside of its historical significance. (Incidentally, you could say the same thing about Deep Throat, and at least you might get turned on by the latter.) To see it rate so high on so many horror fans' lists, and to see otherwise intelligent people like Roger Ebert rank it so highly, well . . . it makes me happy to realize that the inbred world of superhero comics isn't the only fan culture with drastically lowered expectations, the Stockholm Syndrome for nerds held hostage by bad media for so long they can't recognize the difference between crap and quality.

Next: Assuming I can actually post something before Halloween, I'll write about my favorite horror movie of all time. If you're a long-time reader, you might remember what I'm referring to.

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