What Does Horror Mean To You?
Written by Laurent Hasson
I am starting to write this article right after I just finished watching Dario Argento’s Stendhal Syndrome for the third time in about two years. I am fascinated by it because it is likely Argento’s last good/great film (Dracula 3D doesn’t look very promising so far), and because surprisingly, what disturbs me the most is the brutality of the film and that Dario put his own daughter Asia at the center of it. Talk about a Freudian setup. Additionally, the movie is gorgeous. Yes, its use of digital effects is very crude, even for the time, but the film is otherwise very polished in the greatest Argento tradition. I appreciate that. I also appreciate Asia greatly.
I take my horror films seriously. I expect to be disturbed or shocked, or emotionally shaken. If that doesn’t happen, then the film fails. It’s like when you watch a comedy and if you don’t laugh, then the film has failed in a big way. And I play the game: I am not the kind of guy who tries to deconstruct the movie around its failings, or minimize its impact with inappropriate giggles. One of my pet peeves is when people cheer and applaud during death scenes. All that is to me is a defense mechanism to cope with the violence, to battle the impact of a film by ridiculing it in some way. Of course, many horror films do deserve that type of response as they are unintentionally funny, or are meant to make you giggle in the darkest of ways (think Jackson’s Dead Alive). But, I have been in many theaters watching horror films and hearing giggles and laughs that I felt were clearly inappropriate. I for one really suspend disbelief for a moment and see if the movie takes me somewhere interesting and unexpected.
Every horror fan should stop once in a while, do a bit of introspection and think about why they enjoy horror films. For me, it’s more than the gore, although I do love splatter fests. It’s primarily about creativity, about pushing boundaries, and about emotional and intellectual stimulation. For example, I love The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The movie’s technical ingenuity is often underappreciated. It features incredible sound design and cinematography which really help create the right mood around the brutalization of Sally. Leatherface is the scary boogeyman and the central figure of the film, but Sally is the character I empathize with and feel for. She’s the emotional anchor. Those close-ups on her terrified eyes, the crazy family who took possession of her… I have seen that film a dozen times and it still manages to terrify me.
Another film that profoundly affected me is Aftermath. Besides the fact that the film itself is so gorgeous, in the most macabre way, and even though I knew all along it was all props and really well executed makeup effects, I went in all the way. I felt funny the next few days, thinking about whether I really cared about my carcass once I died, and more pointedly, why anyone would or should. You can view the film as violence perpetrated on the body of someone who used to be alive, a desecration of what was once a living human being. I instead watched it as a portrait of a really fucked up man, whom I may have crossed in the hallways of a hospital one day. That was much creepier to me, when horror stops being fantasy and starts to become reality. This is when I have crossed into another realm. I don’t mean realistic in terms of the gore (although that helps keep the mood when it’s well done), but in terms of the characters and situations. You KNOW that somewhere in the world, something like what is portrayed in Aftermath did happen. Somewhere.
Based on that, it comes as no surprise that Irreversible is another one of my favorite Horror films that profoundly touched me in all sorts of dirty ways. This is a movie I have watched three times now, and every time, I curse myself for having gone through it yet another time. It’s been an emotionally and physically trying experience each time. Yet, because of the unusual structure of the film (told in reverse with scenes composed of a single shot stitched together with digital mastery), each time brought me a different kind of emotional experience. The first time, I was just stunned, bruised, depressed, sad. The second time, I knew about Alex’s state, and the infamous rape scene became all the more powerful to me. So did Marcus’ rage. The film’s emotions became amplified. And then the third time, I realized that Marcus didn’t know, and I thought that knowing this film inside out by then would soften its power. It didn’t one bit and there are other truths I discovered. If anything, it was even more powerful the third time.
Finally, last year’s brilliant Red, White & Blue took my heart, trampled it, and continued on with raping my soul. This is another movie that deeply affected me, mostly because of the central relationship between two people who seem to have lost everything else in their lives. That young yet profound relationship became the last straw for despair to hang onto. These were characters I could relate with at some level and feel for. This revenge film explored truly dark emotions and didn’t back away.
This brings us to a classic film I watched for the first time only a few weeks ago. Let me be clear, although I do enjoy having my boundaries challenged and pushed, I can’t say that it’s a pleasure. I am not a masochist as far as I know. Watching films like Aftermath, Irreversible or Red, White & Blue is like running a marathon: it’s hard on the body, and it takes a few days to get back to normal. But when that happens, I know it was a great film. As a result though, there are films I actually avoid until I feel it is the right time. Although I love Gaspar Noe I am keeping his latest film Enter the Void on my shelf until I feel it’s the right time to watch it and enjoy it fully. It may take a year, I don’t care. Another film I avoided like that for years is Pasolini’s Salo, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom.
That film is really what pushed me to write this article. Although not classified as a horror film per se, it absolutely is one in every graphic and emotional way possible. It’s also a terrifyingly hard film to watch because of its realism and devastating philosophy. It reminded me of the article about I Stand Alone (another Gaspar Noe creation) that Marc wrote back in November 2009 which I caught completely by chance one day while clicking the Web away to kill some time, and which got me hooked to Brutal As Hell since. Horror is not a narrow genre of ghosts, zombies and gore mayhem (however lovable that all is when it is well done). Many films that may not fit neatly into the category according to classic definitions are nevertheless brutal and challenging, disturbing and offensive, and therefore can be categorized as Horror At Large. To me, these end up being the best horror films. They are brutal, they have depth, and they display enormous courage in the portrayal of their chosen topic and go all the way. That’s artistic integrity. Follow the white rabbit all the way to where it leads you, even if that means you can find yourself looking at the darkest aspects of the human soul. What’s scarier? Some big fantastical dude with a hatchet who cannot die? A Witch that makes your eyes pop out? Come on! Reality will always be scarier than fiction.
Salo is one of those subversive pieces of art that is carefully constructed to challenge you in every possible way, to expose front and center the misery of the human condition. I can only imagine how Pasolini must have felt while creating this film. He wasn’t filled with brotherly love and respect for the human race. The best way I can describe it is as a political act of violence, using film as its medium. It was devastating for the Italian political establishment which so easily brushed away horrors committed by Italy under Mussolini during WWII. He was murdered in mysterious circumstances shortly after the film was completed. There is likely no link between the film itself and his death as Pasolini was already a very complicated and controversial character before.
To fill in those unfamiliar, Salo: The 120 days of Sodom follows a group of Italian Aristocrats at the height of Mussolinism, in Nazi-occupied northern Italy, who decide to take nine young men and women, sequestrate them for 120 days, and unleash on them all the ultimate horrors, degradation, torture and decadence they can imagine. From forcing them to literally eat shit, to raping them, gouging their eyes out, skinning them etc., this is a film that cannot leave you untouched because in addition to the extremely graphic things shown on screen, it is wrapped in a rigorous philosophical package that is bound to offend you, even if you are fully aware of the underlying meanings. You cannot remain unaffected. It is nihilism at its worst, combined with fascism and plain feudalistic class warfare. It treats the human experience as meaningless, and empowers the experience of the perpetrators and obliterates that of the victims. The pleasure that those aristocrats feel is proportional to how dirty they feel in desecrating human lives. The more abject and decadent, the better it feels to them. This is the worst of human emotions, and it’s scary because it’s dormant in most people, and has erupted throughout history countless of times. That sort of things is what should keep you awake, or populate your nightmares. I was also overcome with the thought that those aristocrats may in fact be committing moral suicide before their own demise that they may expect. The war was coming to an end and so, having been staunched Mussolini supporters and Nazi collaborators, they may expect the worst. I was expecting the film to end with a collective suicide given that they had blown way past any point of no return during that enterprise. Ultimately, these are a group of people who near their potential end, decided to go with a bang of depravity and unspeakable horrors committed on innocents young men and women, rather than seek final redemption in their hearts and souls. How is that for the ultimate Evil? There was absolutely no way back from where they had gone.
The horror genre is way too interesting to be restricted with a few linear definitions. What does horror mean to you? Are you expanding your horizons? Films that explore the dark corners of the human soul have a special place in my heart. All those emotions most of us manage to keep inside instead of acting them out in violent and destructive ways represent powerful source material for great scary stories. If those films are done in somewhat graphic ways, then they deserve to be called horror films. But then, I ask you, should being graphic even be considered a prerequisite? One of the most violent and ugly films I have ever seen was Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf, and there wasn’t one hatchet or drop of blood during the whole running time!