Thursday, July 22, 2004

The nature of horror

I have been pondering what makes a story frightening.

I remember my mother told me once that when she saw the original Frankenstein with Boris Karloff (made in 1931) she was about 11 or 12 years old and literally crawled up her mother's coat sleeve because the movie frightened her so much. Unlike my youngest sister and me, she does not like horror movies, books, or anything scary. Beanie and I love horror, but we differ on the type of horror, although there are some horror books/movies that we both like. I prefer psychological horror to bloody slasher movies like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. Thomas Harris is one of my favorite authors, as are Dean Koontz and John Saul, all of whom share that quintessential something that takes the every day, turns it on its head and makes it horrific.

I just finished watching Unbreakable with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, which was made by M. Night Shyamalan. I have seen several of Shyamalan's movies and they all have an almost laconic movement like a person just out of a decade-long coma who is still feeling their way about their new reality. I didn't realize until halfway thru the movie I had seen Unbreakable before and I don't know why I didn't remember the movie because it certainly is riveting. Bruce Willis is understated and nearly silent as he moves thru his life, seemingly out of place and yet still a part of the events. It is something I've noticed that is peculiar to all the lead characters in all Shyamalan's movies I have seen. There is always a twist at the end that ties up the loose ends, that makes sense of the slow progression thru each event, a twist that is telegraphed throughout the movie, but which you do not always immediately understand. Shyamalan makes a stately progress thru the events, taking his time and carefully, methodically gathering each and every loose thread of the project, weaving them into a coherent whole.

I am surprised by Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson's performances, not only because they tend to be more bombastic, more larger than life at times, but because of the quiet depth of their characters. I am not sure if this is due to Shyamalan's direction or because of something Shyamalan has written into the scripts, but it works least as far as I am concerned. And still there is an incipient horror in each movie, but a psychological horror of what is perceived as mundane until you know the secret--and there is always a secret.

So, what makes good horror? Is it the blood and gore dripping from the pages or taking the mundane, turning it on its head (or the viewer on his/her head) and shining the light from a different angle the way children shine their flashlights under their chins and make themselves into monsters and ghouls?

As a horror reviewer, I read a lot of so-called horror and most of the time I find it difficult to sleep without a prayer of protection because every bump, twitch, shift, and sigh in my silent house could be horror creeping upon me unseen or invading my thoughts and dreams. Most of the time I am surprised to find a book labeled as horror because, other than some colorful language about insides being turned to the outside, there is little or no horror in what could have been quite frightening. For instance, I just finished two novels (Family Inheritance by Deborah LeBlanc and The Wind Caller by P. D. Cacek.

LeBlanc's book took horror to the level that frightens me the most (and gave me nightmares in the bargain) with the mix of psychological and mythological elements and threw in a good dose of Voodoo that forced me to finish the book as quickly as possible to prevent further nightmares. However, Cacek's book had the same elements of psychology and mythology, and even included a healthy dose of good old-fashioned anger and vengeance, and failed to mix the elements with a deft hand, leaving me with a story that could have been wonderfully horrific but remained flat and lifeless. There was plenty of blood, guts, and mayhem, but the violence was gratuitous at best and thrown in for effect at worst, and still the story failed to frighten me or really do more than leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.

How is it possible to take the same elements and good writing skills and turn out two such different novels? It's like giving top quality ingredients to two people and asking them to bake the same cake, one of them turning the ingredients into a cake fit for the gods and the other a cake fit for the trash. Reminds me of one of Michael Cunningham's characters in The Hours. Actually, it reminds me of my ex-husband Nick who could not turn bread, butter, and Velveeta into a simple grilled cheese sandwich that didn't look and taste like crap.

What is the difference? Level of skill? LeBlance and Cacek have turned out wonderful stories in the past, so the level of skill is about equal. Ingredients? They both had the same ingredients, albeit from different parts of the country--LeBlanc used the mythology of the Cajun bayous and Cacek used Hopi mythology. So what made the difference, set their stories so far apart? Good day? Bad day? Vision? Maybe Cacek needs glasses or a piece of the Snow Queen's mirror made in hell to sharpen her horrific vision. Who knows?

It is doubtful I will figure all this out in this post or even in the very near future, but you can be sure I will continue dissecting this particular cadaver to find out all there is to know. Meanwhile, I think I'll go darken the atmosphere and watch Red Dragon again. It's too bad I don't have Silence of the Lambs so I can shiver listening to Anthony Hopkin's soft voiced menace as Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter once again. I do so love the shivers he gives me.

One more memory pops into mind, the memory of relating the story of Silence of the Lambs to my now-ex-husband Nick who had refused to go see the movie with me. The lure of telling the tale in Lecter's deeply menacing soft voice was too strong to resist, as was the complete and utter joy of watching Nick crawl up the back of his chair and up the wall to get as far away from the voice and the story as he could. Some horrors are worth revisiting . . . and that is one of them. Mmmmmmm

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