Monday, February 2, 2015

Horror: America vs. Everyone Else

Image from: Wikipedia
[About halfway through the post I start talking about the endings of horror movies, and talk in detail about several of them. I've marked that happens, so you should be safe to read everything up until then, but if you don't want to chance it...y''s your warning.]

Over the weekend, my wife, my brother, and I rented the movie The Babadook, a little indie horror flick that had been catching lots of attention among the people I follow on Twitter. After seeing the trailer, we all decided it was worth a watch.

The short of it is: yes, it was. It was awesome. Very effective. Very well done. The pacing was great, the acting was brilliant, and it had a smart script.

Watching The Babadook, though, made me think about one of my favorite movies to come out of the past few years: Oculus. Eventually, I started thinking about horror movies in general, and the similarities and differences, especially depending on the country of origin.

If you only fish in one hole, you never know what other kinds of things you can catch, and the same goes with whatever media you consume. If you only ever watch American Horror movies, you may never be exposed to some really interesting horror concepts. In that vein, I've been trying to watch more movies from outside of the US.

The Babadook and Oculus are very similar movies. Both deal with some supernatural thing haunting heroines, both are combined mostly to one house, and both deal with experiences in the past haunting the main characters. In The Babadook, the main character's husband dies in a car crash on the way to the hospital while she's in labor with her son. In Oculus, it's the main character's brother killing their dad after he goes nuts and murders their mother.

What I found interesting was the differences in the execution of the scares. With Oculus, while a fantastic movie, there was still a bit of that American JUMP/LOUDMUSIC/AAAAH scares that don't really add much to the movie. Oculus, thankfully, is much better about that than most American horror movies of late, but it's still there some. Meanwhile, The Babadook doesn't really have that. Most of the scares in that film are less INYOURFACE and more subtle. It's unsettling sounds, eerie noises, disturbing imagery that leads into something actually happening.

One example of what I'm talking about is a scene in which the main character is watching TV. She almost looks bored, and she casually glances over to see her son lying on the ground with his throat slashed open. She stands up and starts to panic and cry. When her son calls for her, she snaps out of it, realizing that he's actually, okay, but that she does appear to be approaching him with a knife in her hand.

All of this is done with no music, which makes the cut to her son's slashed throat almost more unsettling. All you have going on is the terrible image on screen the mother's horror at what she thinks she's done. A quiet moment of horror. Contrast that with any number of similar scenes in US horror. The scene would have cut to the boy, and there would have been an explosion of strings or horns toning and clashing and creating a great noise. Probably a loud crash or flash sound effect as well when the delusion ended. US horror doesn't seem to have confidence that you'll understand that this is horrific, the music seems to be there to remind, THIS IS SCARY, DON'T YOU SEE THIS IS SCARY???


Now, let's talk about narrative for a second because The Babadook does something very interesting with their ending.

US horror movies ending the same a lot of the time. The supernatural horror outwits the heroes, either by deceiving them into thinking they've beaten it and going into hiding only to appear later to surprise the audience, or--as in Oculus--the supernatural horror outwits the heroes and leads to their immediate downfall or demise. US horror movies often end on a down note, as if to say, you can win the battle, but you can't win the war. These things will always come for you. The Possession ends with one of the awesome helpful side characters being killed in a "random" accident that clearly the supernatural enemy orchestrated. Sinister ends with the supernatural enemy following the characters to their next home. Oculus ends with the mirror causing the brother to accidentally murder his own sister.

None of these are bad endings. They're just very similar in how the supernatural thing is dealt with. And it's understandable to a point. Afterall, the characters in these movies are only humans. How on Earth can you defeat something science doesn't even recognize as existing? Freddy Krueger can't be beaten because he's magical--he goes beyond the realm of natural law. And evil always exists, so you get my point. The downer endings where the baddie ultimately gets the upper hand makes sense.

However, The Babadook doesn't do this. I don't know if it's just because it's a very clever movie, or if it's significant because of Australian culture. I'm not sure. But in The Babadook, the main character sort-of defeats the monster, but doesn't utterly destroy it. In fact, they come to a sort-of living arrangement, almost keeping the Babadook as a very dangerous pet. They dig up worms in the garden, and the mother goes down into the basement where the Babadook has taken up residence and feeds it.

But it's not all neatly checked boxes either. While she clearly intimidates the creature in the climactic battle, when she goes down into the basement to feed the creature, it rushes up at her, gets in her face, nearly knocking her over. It intimidates her as well. She has to smooth-talk it, soothe it. Keep it calm. She has learned to live with the evil, to co-exist, but this balance is delicate, and there's very little, if anything at all, from stopping the creature from killing her and her son.

Obviously, this ending can be a metaphor for learning to live and cope with any number of dark things that really plague people in the real world, from chronic pain, to depression, to any other hardship. But the fact that the monster doesn't exactly get the upper hand, and isn't defeated, is very interestingly gray.

I also would like to mention another movie I saw a while back. As I said, I'm trying to watch more foreign films. My first real foray into this was a Chinese horror movie called Dumplings.

The movie's description on Netflix did not tell me what it was actually about, however, just based on the fact that it was a horror movie called "Dumplings" I assumed cannibalism of some kind. And I wasn't wrong. But it's execution was much different than I expected.

The movie is about an aging actress who seeks out help from a mysterious woman who claims to be able to reverse her aging and make her stay young through a change in diet--eating her special recipe dumplings.

The most fascinating thing about this movies was the execution of the "twist." The secret to her dumplings, the thing that keeps her and the main character youthful, is that she uses aborted fetuses. (Yes, I know, gross, but...I IS a horror movie, guys.) This obviously has a special connection in China due to the "one child rule" that was effective for so long. (I'm not sure if it still is or not? The movie seemed to imply that it no longer was.) What was interesting was this is revealed right up front, from the start of the movie, and not just to the audience. The main character knows exactly what she's doing when she goes to this woman for dumplings.

Narratively, it follows a pattern that you would expect: she eats some, gets a little younger, discovers unexpected and bothersome complications, but ultimately becomes dependent on them and will do anything to eat them again, at great personal risk. But in the US, the actual reveal of what was in the dumplings would have been saved for the end. She'd stumble onto the woman chopping up the ingredients and panic and vomit or pass out or something. There'd be an explosion of music, the woman would go into hysterics, the film would possibly fade to black. Not here. She does sneak into the kitchen and peek into the process at one point, and she does get nauseous and try to flee, but since we all knew what was going on from the start, the focus of the scene isn't on the horror of what's being done, necessarily, but the woman's reaction to the horror.

Ultimately, while a little slow, I actually really enjoyed Dumplings, even if the ending sort of just...stops. I guess that's not fair, since the movie sets the main character up as continuing the dumpling-making thing for herself, but very few of the other arcs are really wrapped up so the movie feels like it just sort of goes, "Okay, you get the idea. CREDITS!"

But, as I said, I enjoyed it. It was interesting to see how another culture interprets and makes horror metaphors out of their own cultural trappings. For a similar example of this (in audio form) for British culture, I recommend listening to "Lost in the Fog" by J.D. Beresford on Pseudopod. Alasdair Stuart explains the relationship of that story to British culture in a way that I never would have realized if it hadn't been pointed out, since I'm not a part of that culture.

Ultimately, I'm hoping to find some good quality foreign horror to both learn what other cultures find scary, and to see what other cultures emphasize: the horror of eating fetuses vs. watching a woman deal with her choices emotionally after seeing something she knew but hadn't SEEN; defeating an evil only to have it one-up you later vs. learning to coexist with the evil; slow quiet dread vs. surprise.

Do you have any foreign horror films you like and would recommend? Leave a comment. I'd love suggestions.