Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Horror as Transgression

One of the reasons (not the only one) I enjoy the horror genre is very similar to the reason I like rock music - it's about rebellion. No genre is more suited to exploring the transgression of strict moral codes than horror. And whatever you might say about the need for rules and order - because I actually agree - it is just as necessary that we explore the transgression of those rules, and keep an open dialogue about why we follow the rules we follow, or whether we should really be following them at all. That is far more important to freedom and equality than blind allegiance.

And that is why I take special offense to horror filmmakers - no less - having the gall to suggest that horror is about following strict rules and blindly adhering to stale formula. Maybe that's a problem in some parts of the industry, but it's not what horror is about, and it's not what makes horror good. Horror is about making you feel uncomfortable because all the rules you rely on in your everyday life (like that that stranger is probably not going to kill you) are being tossed out the window. You're losing your safety net (except that it's still just a movie, otherwise it wouldn't be scary fun, it would just be scary). Horror is not about reciting a standard script where every viewer knows exactly who's going to die and in what order, where people get off on being able to say, "that bitch is a whore, she deserves to be mutilated, and I can't wait to see it."

And you know, that's actually what makes Funny Games such an effective horror movie (unlike The Cabin in the Woods). In taking away your safety net of expectations about how people are supposed to act and what sort of things are supposed to happen in a horror movie, it leaves you guessing and puts you in uncomfortable situations the other horror movies you've seen before may not have put you in. Now if only true horror filmmakers were more concerned about making films like this without wasting time trying to wrap them up in some pretentious commentary on the state of the genre, they'd alienate less fans and improve the genre overall, reducing the need for criticism as stale as the movies it criticizes.

I mean, the way Funny Games is shot, it seems to want to be saying that deriving entertainment from violence is wrong. The film shows all the horror and trauma of the situation, but makes a deliberate and successful attempt to avoid much in the way of explicit gore. It seems to think it's doing a good job of denying the viewer the pleasure of seeing gore, while forcing him to endure the uncomfortable reality of how violence affects people. What it doesn't seem to realize, though, is that it is an effective horror film in its own right, even without the gore. I'd prefer to believe that that is its message, because I'd rather believe the filmmaker is a horror fan who just happens to prefer subtlety to shock value, because I'm not too thrilled by the idea of putting a person on the Commission to End Violence in Media in charge of making a horror film. You might just as soon charge a conservative pastor to pen a rock song.

But then, as the viewer, we're still deriving some kind of entertainment value out of watching people suffer, even if we don't see the gore. I have a hard time believing someone would think that being entertained by gore is problematic, but wouldn't think the same of someone being similarly entertained by people's non-gory suffering. For me, it seems like the question of gore is immaterial (or simply a matter of taste). And anyway, if you're going to show the horror of violence, part of that is the gross-out of gore - whether some people find that entertaining (in the movies - beware anyone who thinks movies are the same thing as reality, which this movie also seems to subtly be saying) or not. It's as if this filmmaker doesn't understand that there are horror fans who enjoy horror because it's unsettling, and not just because seeing people exploding into giblets makes them happy. In other words, he doesn't understand horror. It's what I can only assume is pure coincidence that he managed to actually make a good horror movie, quite in spite of his attempts to frustrate the very people he intended the movie for...

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