Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part VI): Amer (2009) dir. Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani

Logline: A triptych of sex and death. In the first segment, Ana (Cassandra Forêt), a young girl, has strange and frightening encounters with her wraith-like grandmother on the eve of her grandfather's funeral. In the second segment, Ana (Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud), now an adolescent, savors the sensory delights of the world and the attention of men during a trip into town with her mother (Bianca Maria D'Amato). In the final segment, Ana (Marie Bos), now an adult herself, returns to her abandoned childhood home to confront her past and is instead confronted by a black-gloved killer brandishing a straight-razor.

Analysis: Amer is about the perils (and pleasures) of psychosexual development gone horribly awry. Freudian psychoanalytic theories have long been entwined with horror cinema on both sides of the Atlantic, but rarely so explicitly as they are in this Belgian-French thriller. The film dramatizes an extreme case of sexual repression, with our patient-- the young, adolescent, and finally middle-aged Ana-- confusing Eros and Thanatos during her latent stage of childhood development. To confuse, perhaps conflate sex and death at such a delicate period in one's life will create obvious issues later on. Thus, we watch as Ana grows up into a woman who simultaneously courts and resists sexual attention, as if the prospect of sex is akin to a primal threat of violence and a gateway to the ultimate sensual pleasure.

We witness the root of Ana's repression taking hold in the film's first segment, when Ana walks in on her parents having sex immediately before the family is to attend its decrepit patriarch's funeral. The film tells us that this is a key moment: Ana's eyes go wide, and glass cracks and breaks across the the image of her face as the lights illuminating the screen shift between vibrant primary and secondary colors. She sees her mother on her back in a fit of ecstasy, looking much like a corpse on a slab, or like the corpse of her grandfather in the other room. Her father's sexual thrusting looks like the mindless violence of a killer thrusting a knife. The damage is done.

Ana has this traumatic encounter after being chased around the house by her ghastly, witchy grandmother, who is perpetually veiled in black lace to conceal her horrific visage. For the child Ana, this elderly presence, with its extreme age, opaque habits, and proximity to death, exists as a personification of death itself, always in pursuit of us mortals from the day we're born. However, these feelings don't dissuade Ana from her attraction to the death that the elderly figures in her life represent. We see her recklessly spy on her grandmother's arcane activities, and she steals her dead grandfather's jewelry from his corpse (going so far as to use a crucifix to pry it from his rigor mortised hands). The threat and presence of death will continue to have an allure for Ana.

In the film's second section, we watch as Ana's mother recognizes a connection that Ana has already made: through her daughter, who has now grown into sexual maturity, she sees that she is being replaced by a younger copy of herself and thus becomes aware of her own mortality, recognizing (as Ana already does, in her own twisted fashion) that the price of sex (read: reproduction) is death. As the two women strut into town in their sundresses and consciously attract the gazes of the men they're passing by, each is acutely aware of the other's position in life. Ana sees her mother's graying temples and smugly smirks; her mother sees her daughter's budding sensuality and tries desperately to hold its hand like a mother would a small child, to prevent it from blossoming.

But, for Ana, her blossoming is a complicated life event. We notice as the wind blows onto her body and an ant crawls across her skin that Ana has become keenly aware of the sensual pleasures that the world now has to offer her. Thus, the sexual attention of the men she encounters on this trip into town is somewhat appealing, but it's also clearly threatening. As she walks, alone, past a large group of rugged and dangerous looking motorcyclists, we understand her to be pulling her windblown dress down out of both feigned modesty and a genuine sense of fear. She's intrigued by the pleasure these men have the potential to now offer her, but she's also cognizant (however rightly or wrongly) of the danger in embracing such sexual pleasures.

In the third section of the film, we learn that Ana's predicament has resulted in a frigid and apprehensive adulthood. She has forsaken sexual activity, imagining every male she encounters in her daily travels as a threat to her safety. We meet her as she is returning (for reasons unknown) to her family's abandoned villa, the site of her traumatic experience and the catalyst of her sexual repression. While there, wandering the villa's empty rooms and hallways, her psychological troubles come to a head as she is stalked by a masked, black-gloved madman who is attempting to violate her (in one way or another). Is this villain the rugged, dangerous-looking cab driver who drove her there? After all, he knows where she's staying and that she's staying there alone. Have Ana's fears of the men around her proven justly founded?

The reality of Ana's situation is more psychologically complex than baseless paranoia. The killer she encounters (who first attacks her while she's getting perhaps a little too comfortable with her own body in the bathtub) is no one but herself, projected outwardly into the world by her psyche as a separate entity. She lives in fear of her own desire for sexual pleasure, imagining this desire as a faceless, psychotic male waving around a phallic straight-razor. For Ana to express her sexuality in any form (by herself or with a friend) is to beckon the violent reaction of this other persona, who appears to have taken the place of her grandmother in her psyche as the primal figure of Death. While her mind primarily views this entity as something separate from herself and looking to punish her, she also opportunely uses the persona to punish others: when the cab driver eventually does show up at the villa (for purposes unknown but probably no good), Ana, adopting this persona, brutally carves him up with her razor. For all, the price of sex must be death. Ana is certain of this.

So certain is Ana of the correlation between sex and death, that she stabs her personified sexual desire in the gut to avoid confronting it, inadvertently causing her own death by gut wound. When we next see her, in the film's final images, she's on a slab in the mortuary, being delicately, perhaps sensually manipulated by the hands of an unseen mortician. Her expressions, in death, mirror those of her mother during sex, and the soundtrack is filled with low, ghostly sighs, as if she's actually responding to touch. In death, her confusion of Eros and Thanatos is reconciled if by nothing more than the fact that there's nothing to fear from the death that has already caught up to her. This isn't an unhappy ending: we discover that for Ana, the price of death is sex. And, as we see in the final frames before the credits roll, a little bit of much-needed postmortem physical attention has the ability to break down psychological barriers and animate the coldest and clammiest of souls.

Technical Merits: The technical merits of Amer should be immediately obvious to anyone with working senses. It's one of those "every frame deserves to be screencapped" pictures. Directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are practitioners of a high style, using sound and image to communicate their story and its themes without the use of exposition or dialogue. (The few small snippets of dialogue in the film's first segment don't serve as meaningful exceptions.) The technique the the pair employ switches frequently and with ease, like when transitioning from the first episode's Jan Svankmajer-style frenetic focus on abstracted actions and objects to the second segment's Spaghetti Western-inspired protracted dramatic tension. Amer's style is also a jumble of visual and aural associations from Italian fantasy-horrors of the 1970s: Cattet and Forzani's framing plucks exact shots from the work of Argento and Bava, and their soundtrack effectively repurposes the music of Stelvio Cipriani and Bruno Nicolai. Pilfer they might, but they pilfer from the greats.

Relevance: Despite the popular consensus that Cattet and Forzani's Amer is a blatant (if possibly egregious) homage to the Italian giallo thriller, the truth is that the film's homage extends to most areas of Italian exploitation cinema of the 1970s. Sure, the film's longest episode is given over completely to giallo elements and imagery, but signifiers throughout the remainder of the film call to our minds other genres, like the Argento-style supernatural horror film (as in all of the first episode), Leone-esque Spaghetti westerns (as in the incessant, tension-filled close-ups on eyes in the second episode), and poliziotteschi crime films (as in the use of several soundtrack selections recycled from genre classics).

Amer doesn't strive to be a flashy contemporary giallo; rather, it succeeds on its own merits by taking a recurrent giallo theme (the Freudian sex/death confusion), filtering it through the kaleidoscope of '70s Italian cinema in toto, and then translating it into French, creating a lurid and often dizzying demonstration of the artistry inherent in the era's diverse sights and sounds. In this sense, Amer could be seen as a celebration of others' work, and that it is, but its originality lies in its complex rearrangement and intensification of those cherry-picked motifs and visual/audial elements. In flaccid-- if more digestible-- terms, it's less of a Greatest Hits than it is a collection of recognizable but undeniably distinct (and weirdly alien) remixes. Thus, Amer is brain candy for any critically-minded viewer of Italian horror cinema, alternately numbing and igniting the synapses as it stalks its merry way across the cortex.

To grasp the subtlety of Cattet and Forzani's approach to their material in Amer, one need look no further than their follow-up feature, The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears (2013), a study in cinematic excess and incoherence. Minus the Belgian duo's still obvious talent as visual filmmakers, their relentless experimental tendencies, and their expert use of genre soundtrack greats, their sophomore effort all too frequently resembles what Amer's detractors claimed that film was: a cluttered, pretentious film-school appropriation of the giallo. Put into juxtaposition with one another, Amer must now seem the more tasteful approach to lovers and haters all.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part V): Lake Mungo (2008) dir. Joel Anderson

Logline: After the accidental drowning of their teenage daughter (Alice, portrayed by Talia Zucker), the surviving members of the Palmer family have trouble sorting out their collective grief. Their problems are exacerbated by the alleged appearances of Alice's ghost in their home and abroad. This pseudo-documentary seeks to determine the existence of Alice's spectral afterlife and uncover the lingering mysteries of her corporeal days, long buried in the sands of Australia's dried-out Lake Mungo.

Analysis: When we see Alice Palmer in old photographs and video footage, those taken both before and after her untimely demise, we can't shake the feeling that we're looking at a ghost. Perhaps, as the film hints, she was always a ghost, in one sense of the term. We learn over the course of the film that she has encountered her own ghost, has dreamed of her later life as a ghost, and has taken actions that she will later take again as a ghost. Alice Palmer haunts Lake Mungo. The appropriateness of the film's title and its reference to New South Wales' famous dry lake is manifold. At the film's climax, Alice encounters a specter of her future at the dead lake, only to later die in the active waters of another, different lake. Later, she is seen haunting the lake she died in, and yet she was already haunting the dry Lake Mungo while she was alive. Lake Mungo itself materializes within the film as a phantasm, as a visual monument to a place both dead and curiously alive, lingering on as a palpable presence and vacation spot. The temporal circularity of Lake Mungo leaves the dry lake and Alice stuck somewhere between life and death, existence and nonexistence. Lake Mungo laments the tragedy of such a fate, and one way to read the film is as an ode to those sad souls like Alice who can anticipate their own ends through the troubling way they lead their lives. Alice is haunted by her own ghosts: the knowledge that her actions are leading her swiftly towards death and her resignation over the fact that no one can help her, not even those closest to her.

But I think there's a far grimmer reading to be dredged from the bottom of Lake Mungo, one derived not from Alice's personal demons but from the gross negligence of her family in recognizing her trouble before (and after) it was too late. The Palmers loved Alice, certainly, but it's clear they never really possessed any awareness of what was going on in her life. They're ignorant of her fear of death, her use of psychic counseling, and her bizarre sexual affair with the next-door neighbors. We're told of the chilly relationship between Alice and her mother, June (Rosie Traynor), who could never manage to give herself fully to her daughter. After Alice's death, each member of her small family attempts to grieve in a different way: Roy (David Pledger), her father, distracts himself with his work; Mathew (Martin Sharpe), her brother, inexplicably forges fake evidence of her ghost's presence in the family home; and June steadfastly clings to the hope that Alice might not be dead at all. With the exception of Roy (who is eager to forget Alice entirely), the family's expressions of grief are based in the logic of guilt. They don't want Alice to be gone from their lives entirely, because if she is that means they've failed her in some way, and that June's fear that Alice will have died not knowing how much they loved her is fact. Thus, the family colludes to keep Alice alive, in one form or another, until they feel absolved of their own guilt over not being able to help her during her existential depression, of which they were clueless.

It's the act of uncovering Alice's secrets in the year that follows her death that makes her family think they've finally put her spirit to rest. The film's most melancholy and heart-wrenching horror is that they're wrong. In their desire to move on with their lives, the Palmers were distracted by the superficial revelations about Alice's troubled life and were thus unable to see that her deeper problem was her inability to seek solace and assistance within her distant family unit. During the film's denouement, a masterful montage of separate psychic meditation sessions with mother and daughter conducted a year apart about an unknowingly shared dream, we learn that Alice has been trying to communicate to her family her continued existence, to no avail. In the end, her family abandons her, moves to a new house free of her association. But perhaps they had already abandoned her, back when she was alive, sobbing with fright at the foot of her parents' bed but unable to bring herself to awaken them. The film's conclusion leaves Alice's family ignorantly, blissfully sleeping on, and Alice herself haunting empty hallways, alone, in death as in life.

Technical Merits: The effectiveness of Lake Mungo's documentary approach to horror storytelling goes a long way towards lending legitimacy to the documentary/found footage horror subgenre. The film's documentary form suits the material, allowing us to glimpse Alice Palmer only through ghostly family videos and photographs, in which her vibrant life is captured in flat, lifeless celluloid and digital pixels. The documentary form allows writer/director Joel Anderson to keep Alice and her mystery at a distance from us, but it also enables him to slowly unravel a lot of the plot's big revelations in a way that feels organic to the constructed nature of a documentary, and which would probably feel cheap or unearned in a traditionally shot horror feature. Watching Lake Mungo, we're always aware that we're in the hands of a skilled documentarian who wishes to lead us gently from one mystery to the next, with the film's sheen of faux-reality making us feel (however fleetingly) like collaborators, following the leads placed before us. As if we're watching a segment on Unsolved Mysteries, and right before the commercial break we'll be flashed the phone number for the tip hotline.

Much of the film's success as a faux-documentary can be attributed to that fact that it's wonderfully shot and edited, with a keen awareness of the proper balance of static talking-head interviews, moody scenery and location shots, and amateur found footage. Like the best actual documentaries, the screen is subtly kinetic and layered, with the assembled images providing for the viewer a narrative beyond the information given through interview and observation. For the sticklers out there, you could easily (and cruelly) convince a fellow viewer that it was a real documentary (I have!), as it only very rarely stretches credibility or verisimilitude. (The only obvious flaw in this aspect of the film is the repeated occurrence of random folks around town discovering important-to-the-narrative images/figures/ghosts in their barely discernible amateur-recorded video footage. A bizarre, unnecessary form of crowdsourcing, we might say.)

Relevance: If the television series Twin Peaks (and its prequel film, Fire Walk with Me [1992]) had been filmed as a faux-documentary and lost all of its oddball humor, it would look a lot like Lake Mungo. Of course, there's no murder mystery acting as Lake Mungo's narrative backbone like in Twin Peaks, but otherwise the similarities are pertinent: a beautiful, locally adored teenage girl (also with the surname "Palmer." Imagine that...) dies tragically, her family's grief affects the whole town, a mystery (of a sort) is unraveled as the characters discover the seedy secret life of the dead girl, and eventually all gives way to a creepy, half-decipherable supernatural world. This affinity for the intrigue and narrative twists of Twin Peaks-inspired dead teen girl mysteries is actually a partial detriment to Lake Mungo, though not a fatal one. All of the focus placed upon Alice's secrets and hidden quasi-bad girl persona distract from what is, at its core, one of the most emotionally despondent horror films out there. The film drowns itself in sadness, and yet it's no less frightening for its embrace of that emotional tether. Lake Mungo is far from the first film to try to make us feel sympathy for a scary ghost, but it's one of the best at making us realize the crushing, inescapable humanity of those storied chain-rattlers.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part IV): Calvaire (2004) dir. Fabrice Du Welz

a.k.a. The Ordeal

Logline: Heading to the south of the country to perform at a Christmas gala, corny traveling musician Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is stranded in the swampy Belgian countryside after his van breaks down. He stays the night at the defunct inn of a local proprietor (Jackie Berroyer), with his intention being to see a mechanic and continue on his journey the following morning. However, things don't go quite as planned, and Marc's mild annoyance at a prolonged stay at the inn quickly turns to abject horror when his deranged host reveals his true intentions.

Analysis: Despite its conventional horror movie trappings, the horror in Calvaire sprouts from a fear far more existential than that of being held prisoner by a madman in a remote area: it exploits the fear that we exist in other people's minds not as individual, autonomous beings, but as objects that can be manipulated and transformed to fit others' desires. Worse yet, the film implies that we're helpless to stop others from forcing this metamorphosis upon us. We are prisoners of others' characterizations of us. Marc, the film's protagonist, winds up in his bound and beleaguered position because his host, Bartel, decides that he faintly resembles his absent wife, Gloria. (The resemblance? They are both singers.) We know that Bartel understands that Marc is not Gloria, but we eventually learn that it makes no difference to him: Gloria was not so much a person to Bartel as she was an idea, and if he has to use Marc to occupy the place of that idea in his mind (and thus fill the void in his life), then so be it. Marc has no options other than to wear the dress and smile or to attempt (and fail) to escape.

The objectified relationship between Bartel and Marc is not an isolated incident within the film. Nearly every character treats Marc similarly. The old folks and nurses (including the ever-lovely Brigitte Lahaie) at the assisted living homes he performs at see him as a dashing lover who will sweep them away from the death and decrepitude coloring their lives. The violently perverted villagers of the town Marc's stranded in decide to agree with Bartel and thus also choose to see Marc as Gloria, who they are certain will fill their lives with love and carnal pleasures, as of old. Furthermore, this displacement and confusion of individual identity for self-serving purposes extends beyond Marc and his relationships with others, which we see in the villagers' use of livestock as proxies for human lovers and the man-child Bruno's insistence that a calf is his missing dog.

The titular ordeal that Marc faces is his struggle to accept and embrace that he is only what others want him to be. Thus, his ordeal (and the viewer's) ends in the film's final moments when he assumes his given role as Gloria and (in a truly horrifying flourish) demonstrates his sympathy for those who have objectified him. Marc learns that the role of an object is to provide selfless comfort and absolution for others. As implied by the moment halfway through his torture when Bartel literally nails Marc to a wooden crucifix in his barn, the objectified person is a martyr, dying for the sins, vices, mistakes, and emptiness of us all.

Technical Merits: So very drab. The impossibly cold earth-tones and wintry, overcast gloom of the film's interiors and exteriors encourage one to feel that if the film had been toned in sepia it would have resulted in a picture with little discernible difference from the actual final image. This drabness of the visuals is oppressive for the viewer, and rightfully so: we are invited to share in the ordeal and to feel the same slow, dreary restrictiveness (figurative and literal, of course) of the backwoods locations. 

Though director Fabrice Du Welz's films have become more overtly stylish in the last few years, Calvaire is marked by its near absence of style. All events, from the ordinary to the sickening, are filmed with the same flat disinterest by the camera. Violence is incidental; traumatic horror is routine. This anti-style reflects the senses-deadening weight of these characters' continued existence, in which objects and experiences blur into one another. The unremarkable cinematography also keeps the film's more surreal elements grounded in far-too-uncompromising reality. The only moments during which the film breaks this spell and implements a deliberate style are during the piano waltz that the villagers dance to in grotesque zombie-like fashion while gathered in the local bar (shades of Bela Tarr's Damnation [1988]) and the frenzied camera's whirlwind capturing of enthusiastic laughter and faces in closeup at the climax. The former, in limb-severing medium shots, awkwardly displays the villagers' equally as awkward attempts at feeling anything at all, while the latter dizzily demonstrates the intoxicating but ultimately deadly power of experiencing an actual emotion. These moments of style are brief and illustrative. Like its world, the film has little room or tolerance for enthusiasm.

Relevance: Calvaire is the second herald of what I called the mini-Belgian Horror Renaissance in my write-up of Left Bank (2008). However, its place in this contemplation of the past decade in horror cinema could just as easily belong to Du Welz's followup thriller, Vinyan (2008), an enigmatic tale of a couple who make the dangerous journey from Thailand to Myanmar in search of their possibly abducted child. Vinyan might even be the better film, but Calvaire is the one I have the most admiration for as a piece of horror filmmaking. It's rather stock horror set-up (man's car breaks down in woods, man stays at creepy rundown inn, man is made to suffer for this decision) is rather quickly subverted by far stranger narrative impulses, resulting in a film that could have been made by the hypothetical deformed offspring of Bela Tarr and Robert Aickman. Is it religious allegory? An unhinged love story? A waking nightmare? Whatever it is, it's far from typical. 

Plus, its refusal to linger on its implied acts of bodily torture and depravity makes it a quasi-torture porn film for the squeamish. In truth, the film hardly feels like an entry in that most abhorred of horror subgenres. It's impossible to recall another torture porn film that goes so far out of its way to avoid depicting on-screen gore as Calvaire does. Isn't sexually-charged splatter the whole point? But, then again, isn't it so much worse to imagine your captor and tormentor telling you how much he loves you before he goes to work tenderly on your flesh? In order to create those audience nightmares, there's no splatter necessary.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

PODCAST: Satan's Blood (1978) dir. Carlos Puerto

a.k.a. Escalofrio; Don't Panic

Add together two couples, two podcasters, one creepy doll, one flaming Jesus portrait, one dead dog, and a pinch of Satan, and what you've got is a not-quite-figurative orgy of horror. Join Richard and I this week for a discussion of Satan's Blood (a.k.a. Escalofrio; Don't Panic; 1978), a Spanish erotic horror movie (with a screenplay by Samuel Beckett or Bertolt Brecht, probably) that unambiguously proves the existence of demonic forces in this world. Or does it simply prove the demonic quality of body butter? I can't recall. In either case, you'd be best served by cutting the cheese, downing your wine, and pig-slurping up the audio entrails we're offering you. Trigger warning: We make tasteless jokes about Spanish nightclub miscarriages and Clint Howard's face, and there's really only one excuse for that: Satan made us do it.

You can listen to the episode by visiting 
the show's Podomatic page or by examining the show archive.

(Note: the following video is, uh, NSFW)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

ESSAY: Terror for Tots: My Adolescent Fascination with Horror

Illustration by Jim Kay, from the novel A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Abstract: A personal reflection on the enchantment that horror movies held over one particular child's psyche during his developmental years. Why did he love monsters so? Was he a monster himself? (Well...) What did fictional monsters teach him about his own life? We reveal that his world felt a whole lot safer with fantastical cinematic monsters roaming around in it, as those creatures were easily vanquished when contrasted with the invulnerability possessed by the mundane horrors of growing up.

This essay features discussion of:
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) dir. Wes Craven
The Monster Squad (1987) dir. Fred Dekker
Little Monsters (1989) dir. Richard Greenberg
Gremlins (1984) dir. Joe Dante
Stephen King's IT (1990) dir. Tommy Lee Wallace

I can remember the exact moment when I stopped being afraid of monsters.

For most of my early childhood, my parents had been members of Moose International, which invariably meant that on Friday nights they would cart my two brothers and I over to Moose Lodge #644 on East Genesse St. for dinnertime and a couple of the surrounding hours. Typically, my younger brother and I would race through the bar area to the claw crane machine resting against the back wall near the bathrooms. We'd bust open a fresh roll of quarters and then try our skill (or was it blind luck?) at acquiring as many worthless stuffed animals as we could with the time and coins provided. We had a routine.

But one October, the week before Halloween, Moose Lodge #644 underwent a redecoration. When we arrived, we were ushered from the usual entrance to a new ramshackle facade leading directly into the dining area. We were told by those guarding the entrance that the dining area's stage and dance floor (which did indeed feature a disco ball suspended high above it) had been converted for the night into a haunted maze, populated by Moose Lodge members dressed in costumes and waiting patiently behind freestanding walls for the moment to jump out and scare us. The maze was providing tonight's only entrance into the Lodge. Naturally, I was terrified.

Even after being repeatedly reassured by my parents that those costumed creatures waiting for me in the dark were harmless diners and bar patrons whom I saw every week at the Lodge in their human forms, I refused to enter the maze. I'm not sure I knew what specific dreadful thing would happen to me if I did enter the maze, but I was certain I didn't ever want to find out.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Eventually, after much coaxing and probable bartering, a compromise was reached: my much braver older brother would traverse the maze first, soaking up all the scares and asking the costumed volunteers to refrain from jumping out at the next fearful travelers who passed them by. Those travelers were my father and I, with me in his arms, hugged tightly to his torso, head buried in his shoulder to escape the sight of whatever lingering horrors might remain in the maze. As we began our trek through, I was relieved to discover that my brother had done his job: none of the monsters were trying to scare us. After a few jolt-less twists and turns, I had enough confidence in my bear-hugged safety to open my eyes, if only for a brief moment, to examine my frightful surroundings. 

What I saw was Freddy Krueger hiding behind a wall that we'd already left in our wake. He was smiling and waving his clawed hand in a friendly, if somewhat mischievous, greeting. At me.

Deposited safely at the other side of the maze, I was stunned. I hadn't seen any of his movies yet, but, like every kid of the late '80s and early '90s, I knew Freddy Krueger. (Remember, this was the brief era when, even if I wasn't directly familiar with any of Freddy's screen adventures, something as innocuous as supermarket sticker vending machines would have had no trouble informing me.) Sure, I knew this Freddy was just some Lodge member in a cheap store-bought costume. But boy did it look convincing through half-shut eyes in the blood-red lighting dimly coloring the maze. If I wanted to, I could believe it really was Freddy Krueger, and that what he'd made at me was a gesture of civility, signalling peace between my world and the world of horrors he represented.

In a daze, I wandered over to my customary stool at the far end of the bar, near the unoccupied shuffleboard tables. Like he always did, Norm, the bartender, sauntered over and gave me a free Shirley Temple and a bag of Andy Capp's Hot Fries. "I just met Freddy Krueger," I told him, "He was a pretty nice guy."


I looked at monsters differently after that night. I'd always enjoyed horror movies, but like most children I harbored a vague fear of the monsters contained within them. Laying in bed at night, I was certain that the Blob was stuck to the ceiling above, waiting to drop down upon me and start slurping; most mornings, I knew for a fact that Jaws himself was swimming in the carpet under my bed, patiently awaiting the moment when I would foolishly stick my foot over the edge. These were far from crippling anxieties, but they were the sort of feelings that kept me at a slight distance from the genre, carefully (if subconsciously) metering out my exposure to these films so as to prevent any more nightmare creatures from entering the repertoire.

Detail of Monster in My Pocket - Monster Mountain packaging
But, soon after Freddy Krueger waved at me, my fascination grew. Horror-- in film, in print, as a feeling-- became my obsession. I'd spend what felt like hours browsing through the VHS box art in the supermarket video store's 'Horror' aisle, imagining what terrific treasures lay within those spools of magnetic tape. I would be glued to the television for most of the month of October, absorbing every Halloween-themed sitcom or commercial that aired. The only childhood birthday party I can remember being thrown in my honor was themed after Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series of horror folktales and urban legends. My favorite toys were the small, soft plastic figurines of the Monster in My Pocket toy line. What better evidence of my newfound fuzzy feelings towards monsters than the fact that I'd keep pint-sized replicas of them in my jean pockets at all times? Monsters didn't frighten me anymore; they'd become my figurative security blanket.


I suppose it's not surprising that my favorite childhood horror movies were those in which children befriended monsters. In Fred Dekker's The Monster Squad, a group of monster-loving adolescents become friends and allies of Frankenstein's monster (Tom Noonan) in a prophesied battle against all of the other classic movie monsters (Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, Gill-man). Little Monsters finds Fred Savage being pulled down into a netherworld of creatures both frightening and friendly by the monster under his bed (Howie Mandel). Gremlins features young Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) discovering that his adorable new pet monster has the unintentional ability to multiply and create a wicked horde of more diabolical devils. I think it's interesting that all of these films characterize monsters as beings that are simultaneously both good and evil, and capable of embracing either tendency at a moment's notice. Feed Gizmo after midnight and see if he's still a fuzzy sweetheart. Regardless, there's no denying that my childhood's monsters were demonstrative of a general weakening of the role of cinematic monsters in American culture. As I discovered, even Freddy Krueger was blurring the line between hero and villain in the later entries of his series, with his corny quips and cackling demeanor making him a rather perverse children's icon, worthy of being immortalized as squishy dolls and yo-yos.

What this child-proofing of the monster in late '80s and early '90s American horror cinema says about our culture at the time is probably worthy of another essay, but my affection for this new breed of monster is easily explained: I liked these gentler monsters best, in spite of the latent threat that remained within them, because they were a testament to the idea that the truly horrific could be revised into something more benign. I was never especially terrified while watching the movies containing these monsters; instead, I was comforted. In one sense, these horrific monsters had been tamed, and I knew implicitly that if any of their inherent monstrousness were to be unleashed, it would be adequately dealt with by the adolescent protagonists sometime in the third act, restoring the balance. I understood that these monsters were products of essentially happy narratives, and that any horror they wrought would be converted for me into entertainment or catharsis.

The Monster Squad (1987)
The only problem for me was that this sort of controllable monster was restricted to the VHS tapes that they came to me on. I can still remember the things that actually frightened me as a child. I remember when, in my adolescent desire to become more worldly, I dedicated myself to watching national news programs every night. What I saw was Waco, the Rwandan Genocide, the Unabomber, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and the Oklahoma City Bombing. I recall watching true crime television programs like Unsolved Mysteries and being flabbergasted by the depths of human depravity they would detail. The real horrors of my childhood weren't contained in the monster movies I was spending all my time with, but out in the world that awaited me as I grew up, like a monster lurking around a corner in a poorly lit maze, anticipating his pounce.

Perhaps my fascination with horror as a child was a naive form of psychic shielding through fantasy. Maybe I was maintaining a belief for myself that the horror in the real world could be controlled like it was in my movies, that it could be altered to a more pleasant outcome. Trapped in these films, I wouldn't ever have to face those everyday horrors of adult life, both the grave and mundane. I could tune out the news, and pop in my tapes. I could wish all the horror away. At the very least, I could wish it into a more cuddly form.


The desire to rid myself of the horrors of reality explains my reaction to the only film that ever really traumatized me as a child: Tommy Lee Wallace's made-for-TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's IT. The film scarred countless children of my generation, and it's not difficult to see why: its villain, Pennywise the killer clown (Tim Curry), is another, albeit more sinister, variation on the alternately comforting and horrifying monster. On the one hand, he's a dancing clown who blows balloons and cracks jokes; on the other hand, he eats children. But his confrontations with a Monster Squad-esque group of kids in a small Maine town play out far differently than the Squad's encounters with Frankenstein and the bunch: Pennywise becomes for the child protagonists a symbol of the horrors of growing up, deceptively personified as that most comical figure of adolescent innocence. As in life, the dancing clown of childhood leads you blindly into the gaping maw of adulthood.

Stephen King's IT (1990)
When I braced myself to watch the entirety of IT, I was thrilled by the climax of the first part, in which the children literally wish the monster away by refusing to believe in him. In that moment, they had the power my subconscious so desperately wanted and that I derived vicariously from all the monster movies I consumed. But then came my viewing of the second part of IT, and I was crushed (for far deeper reasons than the reveal of Pennywise as a giant alien turtle). The children's wishing away of the horror of reality had failed. The monster still lurked out there in the maze of life (or, concretely, in the labyrinthine sewer system of Derry, Maine). Worse yet, I was forced to reckon with the fact that these once so imaginatively powerful children had grown into aimless and depressed adults, living out horrible lives filled with humdrum horrors. One of them even kills himself to avoid facing the reality of his life and his failures. Was this what I had to look forward to as I grew up into the world? When added to all of the very real tragedies and atrocities littering the planet, it didn't seem like I had much to look forward to. It's no wonder I'd want to comfort myself through horror films, to reassure myself that the monsters could be controlled or wished away. Like Eddie Kaspbrak (Adam Faraizl), I wanted to feed battery acid to the slime of existence, and I wanted it to do permanent damage.

But it's not possible to wish monsters away. I think deep down I knew that, too. Wishing them away is also what Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) tries on Freddy in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, and her success doesn't last long either. Freddy would return time and time again in numerous sequels to haunt the dreams of her and others, and there wasn't anything anyone could do about it as long as the films kept making New Line Cinema money (another reality of the adult world). Even horror movies with ostensibly upbeat endings had taught me while I was young that there's a certain fragility to the tranquility and happiness achieved in one's life at any age, as if those states have a built-in expiration date. Gizmo can't stay dry forever, the portal that sucked up Dracula will spit him out again in some distant century, and children from Derry, Maine will continue to go missing, even if all the clowns leave town. Given enough time, the monsters always emerge again from the dark of the maze to pounce upon the next weary traveler. And there are always more monsters deeper in the maze, biding their time, waiting to swallow you whole. The trick is in convincing them to smile and wave instead.

A friend.