Wednesday, April 08, 2009


I’m very afraid. I love a good horror flic – in fact, I love a bad one even more perhaps. And though I’ve had my hands full these past couple years, something does concern me greatly. I’m just home from The Haunting in Connecticut and just getting over the sustained trauma of The Unborn and I want to shore some things up for the record:

We’ve had some rehashings. Still are, I suppose, what with Jackie Earl Haley just cast as the new Freddie Kreuger. And I think in these pages I’ve bemoaned the absolute unscariness at the root of these new retellings – I can speak directly for The Amityville Horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, When A Stranger Calls (at least these are the ones that come immediately to mind). With those pictures, in an attempt to revitalize a franchise (or make a few bucks, in any event) the best course of action seemed a remythologization of the original yarn with exhaustive backstories. An unnamed demon reflection in a seventies hell/basement becomes a possessed laboratory where an evil Quaker tortured native Americans. We get names, dates, elaborations and gritty flashback sequences to seat the scary in a story. What was once quipped a doorway to hell now in fact is. Leatherface now kills people because he has facial cancer and yearns to cover his deformity with the faces of others. If that’s not narcissism, I don’t know what is. It seems as though the current filmmakers are far more interested in gussying up a plotline so convoluted (or hackneyed) that we forgo and just invest in the new, neo-baroque digi-pale, CGcrumble and DVrot. In mining these popular stories, the filmmakers (well, more the producers, I would argue) are a) playing party to a common trend of reexploring past narratives to breathe a post-modern life into them b) reanimating dead tales to enact a strange narrative nostalgia c) remaking old movies because more people will see that which they already know than take a chance on the new. These figures (Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, the Amittyhouse) are popular icons with bankable reputations. Of course these are archetypical figures of allegory and all have rather distinct MOs. Nathan Lee has made some interesting observations on these remakes and it’s not my desire to go into them here.

What scares me more than anything that whirs past mirrors and suddenly exposes its rotting flesh is what happens when this elaborate mythology looks towards other horrors, escapes from haunted relics of popular narratology and roams about other mortal ground for its spooks. The Unborn (which I thought was a remake of Roger Corman's 90's killer genetics baby movie of the same name) deals with senility, pregnancy and, yes, Auschwitz to tell its tale of an unborn demon. Sorry, a creature from Jewish mythology called a dybbuk. You see, while experimenting on the eyecolor of children in Auschwitz, the Nazis found their perfect subjects in twins. Trouble is “what is a twin if not a mirror and mirrors are doorways to other worlds.” One such utterance from a fragile concentration camp survivor is accepted, wide-eyed by a protagonist so (rightly) terrified that they’ve got to believe it. Perhaps we are in a manner as well, so jolted by lurching demo… dybbuks from every medicine cabinet, bedsheet and rear-view mirror.

The Haunting in Connecticut starts off with a bang, locating its scary in corpse photography that would make Dana Luciano sit up and smile (if it wasn’t so iPhoto) and gurgling with rivets of black and white gore. But then we’re displaced onto a real horror story. (Poor) Virginia Madsen is taking care of her dying teenage son as he goes through exhaustive chemotherapy sessions. The car ride home to father, (poor) Martin Donavan, is so intense that he stops every mile or so to vomit. One such mile, Virginia stops in the middle of the night, by a house they were considering renting and does so on a whim (to relieve the child of torment, of course). There’s ghosties galore in this new old funeral home, which was the site of séances so intense that ectoplasm was produced. This was effected by carving up the dead, cutting off their eyelids (so that they remain unseen, not to be confused with cannot rest/sleep – eyelids, get it) and burying them in the walls of the house. Of course no one asks how they prepared the séance-goers noses, though I suppose that’s missing the point (beside which, they’re burned to a crisp in the key scene). That the teenage son’s otherworldly torment is muddled with some heinous cancer medications and trés-chic chemo procedures starts to make you cringe in all the wrong ways. These sequences incorporate into the narrative schema and introduce aspects of faith though a faithful Madsen and (the scariest thing the film holds on offer), a befuddled (but game) preacher, Elias Coteas. As the charred skulls of the dead dribble in chunks down a storm drain at the film’s close and through voice over we are treated to Miss Madsen’s appeal that “God works in mysterious ways.” (which is nothing on The Unborn’s line “It is up to you to finish what was started in Auschwitz!”) the fluffy content suddenly takes on a grimly propagandistic tone.

Such shelled narratologies of quite real issues are of course nothing new. Adam Lowenstein’s book, Shocking Representation deals with allegorical use of pop cultural traumas like Vietnam through the very guise of B horror. These present dealings, however, seem to shed no light on the events they address even in the most allegorical of fashions, instead milking them for thrills and for (in the case of The Haunting) reifications of faith. Allowing the post-modern plotlines that unfold la Lord of á the Rings, with their twisting plotturns and tremendous leaps of disbelief might just cuddle some of these issues addressed into the narrative fold, in lieu of using such genre fare to address the mor(t)al issues at hand. But that's not what's going on here and the complex narratives which push the spectator away from their convolution might just inspire the same response to the gravity of pertinent subjects like Cancer or the Holocaust. Then there’s the shelling allegory of faith and Christ to consider that the Haunting takes as its grand prototype. But that’s one embrace that sure won’t see the light of day in these pages…


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