Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Horror, the Horror

I'm sure everyone has seen some film version of Donovan's Brain, Curt Siodmak's classic about the disembodied brain of an evil genius, controlling people telepathically. (Orson Welles did it as a radio show in the 40s, and the story started life as a novel -- the idea has amazing cross-media vitality.) Here's something interesting Siodmak wrote once about cycles in the popularity of horror films:
The popularity of horror films and current historical trends are interrelated. Horror stories and horror movies are safety valves for human anxieties. During World War Two there was a renaissance of the Frankenstein, Wolf Man and The Invisible Man stories. That trend lasted until the war's end. Though the cloud of the horrors of war permeated our everyday lives, motion pictures of heroic soldiers mowing down hordes of enemies only increased anxieties, since everybody knew that one machine gun couldn't liquidate five thousand Nazis and that fathers and sons were in the battleline facing death. But abstract horror movies--the Monster kidnapping the fair lady, the Wolf Man anxiously watching the moon which could change him into a murderous beast--were highly successful thrillers. Their horrors were detached from reality. When the audience left the theatre they knew they had seen a fantasy.

The day the war ended, the bottom of the horror movie industry fell out. Even Germany, having shed the Nazi spirit, liked only "Schnuitzen," insipid love stories, all sugar and spice. Horror pictures couldn't even be given away. In the United States the musicals and comedies had their heydays. Then, with Truman's cold war policy, with Russian and American atom bombs and other apocalyptic weapons against which there was no defense, horror pictures returned in quantity. They peaked in the early 1950s with the election of Eisenhower and with the cold war abated for a time. Then, they again faded away. But with the Kennedy, Johnson and later administrations and renewed world tensions, the horror movie cycle returned. Again the world's accelerating insecurity tried to find release in horror films and horror novels. As the danger for humanity increased even more with sophisticated weaponry, so the theme of horror pictures grew in magnitude. Disaster pictures like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake tried to top each other; the mental horror films like Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen presented stories of devilish possession as though the world were ruled by Satan and humans had no power.

And here's something I found while trying to find out how many more horror films are being made now than before the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq:

Top grossers
More guts and more gore mean more money at the box office

By Bonnie Britton

March 19, 2006
Moviegoers -- especially the younger ones -- are flocking to horror flicks these days like gulls to Tippi Hedren in "The Birds."

But you won't find too many flicks like those tame Alfred Hitchcock classics or movies starring Dracula, Frankenstein and the Werewolf.

Many newer horror films, including "Saw II" and "Hostel," come splattered with blood and guts. Flicks that revel in dead teenagers, rollercoaster crashes, serial killers, creepy things in the woods/town/building and finger-lickin' cannibals are becoming common fare at multiplexes.

[....]

Lionsgate's bloody and brutal "Saw II" took in $87 million domestically in 2005 ($131.4 million worldwide), making it the top-grossing horror film of the year. That's more than the Academy Awards best-picture winner "Crash" took in, which ended its domestic run with $53.4 million.

The article quotes, um, authorities on the subject:

Purdue University Professor of Communication Glenn Sparks, who studies the effects of mass media, offers a reason why people enjoy scary movies: "The feeling of fear generates a lot of physiological response."

Sparks said studies have found that watching horror movies causes the skin to release moisture and increases a person's heart and respiration rates.

Well, duh.

"People come out of these films oftentimes feeling a sense of euphoria," he said.

Yes, but why? Could it be that sense of relief -- "It wasn't real, we're all OK?" There's not much more depth in the analysis of studio execs. Or maybe they know the truth, but don't want to bum people out?

Marc Weinstock, executive vice president of marketing for Screen Gems/TriStar, calls horror movies a "communal experience. When you have 300 people all being scared at the same time, there's a lot of energy in the room."

Yes, but that wouldn't explain why there's money to be made in direct-to-video horror flicks, typical viewings of which result in one, two, or maybe as many as three people all being scared at the same time in the same room. Maybe when Weinstock talks about "energy in the room", he's really thinking about all the cash in the till back at the box office.

For a sense of what all the splatter is about, maybe we have to go back to Curt Siodmak, who spent about 90 of his 98 years writing, a lot of it in the horror genre, most of it forgettable (or in some cases unforgettably bad) but some of it truly timeless:

Horror stories and movies of anxiety are here to stay until the world's tensions diminish. To a writer's mind, global catastrophe might accelerate the world's quest for a solution to its problems. All this sounds rather grim. It is. Many great minds work on plans of how to rearrange the world we live in without fright and fears. The blueprint of the continuation is being worked on. Does mankind have the will to carry it out? When the monsters die for good, the world might have died with them. Or we might have found a way to live together with a sense of social justice and ecological stability.

I'm all for that, so long as it doesn't result in a food chain where my neighbor has a right to eat my brain if I forget to compost my lawn trimmings. Film treatment coming next week.

28 Comments:

At 12:22 PM, Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

I hope horror movies are here to stay forever, but have to confess I must be getting a little prudish in my middle age ... I wish today's horror movie directors would as much accent on suspense as they do simple gore

 
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