Tuesday, October 16, 2012

genre & brown paper bags: intro to an incomplete horror film countdown


Between now and Halloween I'll be making a series of mini-posts on various horror films I like, or, more accurately, films I like that could be considered horror films. I define a "horror film" as any movie that aims, at least in part, to inspire, provoke, or instill a sense of dread or discomfort in the viewer. This can be for the entire length of a film or for only a few minutes. Such a definition results in many titles appearing on my list that won't fulfill the requirements or expectations of genre fans, which I say only so that anyone stumbling here via Google won't feel cheated if they decide to watch one of my choices. Another name for this series could be "a list of horror films by someone who doesn't particularly like horror films."

A few years ago I was determined to make a list of the best horror films I'd seen, and in preparation I made an even bigger list of all the potentially good horror films I had yet to see, and in doing that lost all interest in the project (the process was mostly filled with watching the first third of a lot of terrible movies). I ended up narrowing my selection down to about 75 titles—many culled from years of watching films unrelated to the list-making task I'd assigned myselfand it's from this selection that I'll be making my current picks.

While
trying to make my original list, I noticed that the best horror films were generally the ones that least easily fit the genre. Because genre exists for its own specific endsin the case of horror, to scare, or in some cases, merely to gross out, the viewercut-and-dry definitions of "horror" are usually the result of a director making a film specifically to fit the confines of something else. Most of the time, unfortunately, the only "art" on display in these type of films comes from the prop and makeup departments, which no doubt has a lot to do with why most horror films feel empty, impersonal, and utterly pointless.

Good films may indeed fall into specific genres, but if they do, it's often only incidentally. Most of the great horror filmsDreyer's Vampyr (1932), Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983), Browning's Freaks (1932), and Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973), to name a feware examples of directors trying to use the horror genre to express their artistic vision, not directors trying to fit their artistic vision into the confines of something else (genre). Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)one of the most haunting of all filmsand Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), are examples of films that could be considered horror films but which don't precisely fall into the genre in any traditional or convenient way. My list will include films from both camps, though it leans more in the direction of the latter.


Don't Look Now (1973)
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)


THE BROWN PAPER BAG MOVIE

In an article for the AVClub in 2008, Scott Tobias wrote the following:

"My friend and current Esquire critic Mike D'Angelo once wrote that the ideal way to see Takashi Miike's Audition is to have a trusted friend that knows your tastes hand you an unlabeled copy in a paper bag, so you have no presuppositions about what it is and where it might be going. Sadly, just by including the film in Horror Month, I've already given some of the game away, and the majority of posters, box covers, and publicity photos do likewise. Still, I would strongly advise iron-stomached newcomers to Audition to take leave of this column now and salvage at least some of the surprises this nasty little film has to offer. And though you won't have a clean slate, you can at least appreciate what the experience might have been like if the DVD had arrived on your doorstep in a blank sleeve, like a gift from a mean-spirited prankster."

While working at a video store a few years ago I was fortunate(?) enough to see Audition in exactly that way. The store had a small selection of foreign films that I blindly worked my way through (for lack of more promising choices to use my free weekly rentals on), and Miike's film was sitting on the shelf without a cover box. Just a locked, plastic sheath holding the DVD labeled "Audition: Foreign." I don't even think I saw that it was rated "R." When I finally got around to watching itby myself, at nightthe way it was shot initially reminded me of a soap opera, though I soon became interested in seeing how it would progress, especially after one of the questions the main character asked one of the women he was vetting as potential date material was whether or not she liked Tarkovsky (the skeleton-key question for any long and happy marriage). By the time this happened, I was pretty much settled in to the mood that the film had been very careful in establishing, so when it eventually took its abrupt turn I was unpreparedshocked, confused, and in for a scary night.

The strength of Audition lies solely in the ambush. It that sense, it's sort of a gimmick-film. Everything about it is constructed to ensnare you, and Miike sets the same trap for the viewer as he does for his protagonist, carefully lulling you in with a false sense of security only to shock you out of it without warning. I suspect that's the reason why so many people who came to the film only after finding out about it through clips from Bravo's "Scariest Movie Moments" were left feeling disappointed. The trap had been sprung in advance.

Naturally I like the idea of The Brown Paper Bag Movie, and there might be a couple of films that will lose their potential to ensnare solely by appearing on my list. I don't have much in particular to say about any of the films I've selectedthis is primarily the ever-present-but-mostly-meaningless-and-fun-to-compile "list"—so there's no need to worry about any other type of spoiler if you're inclined to do so.

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