Monsters at work

I know what you’re all thinking. “Knock off the Buster Keaton stuff already, it’s October. Get in the Halloween spirit!” I hear you. For the next three weeks it’s all about the monsters.

And that’s the thing of it–for me, horror movies are monster movies. I’ve even had to adjust my speech to account for this–I can no longer tell people I have a love of horror movies because they assume I mean what the term horror movies now connotes–the graphic mutilation of teenagers. Here’s a handy way to chart just how extreme horror cinema has gotten: my eleven year old son Max loves John Carpenter’s The Thing, and watches it with his friends from school all the time. And I’m OK with that–but I certainly wouldn’t let him watch anything that was hard R!

Good for kids

No, for me, horror movies are monster movies.

Those of you who read this column regularly have already figured out that I define genres by content not by form–that is to say I absolutely believe that you can make a silent comedy in the 1960s as a sound film with a soundtrack, and I believe you can have a film noir that doesn’t have a venetian blind anywhere near the set. By the same lights, I don’t think that gothic horror depends on the visual trappings of the genre–the faux European villages, the foggy atmosphere, the deep shadows and spider webs. That stuff is fun but it’s window dressing.

Dracula 1931

Compare the bookends of Universal’s Classic Monsters cycle. In the early 1930s filmmakers like Tod Browning and James Whale blazed onto the scene with stunning works that bequeath to the studio a lasting set of corporate icons.

[wpvideo T2VwGP53]

Fifteen years later the studio was still excreting sequels that for the world looked like the same thing–they had many of the same actors, recycled the same music and the same sets, but had lost the inner spark.

[wpvideo 1p3tOCJq]

Too often this diminishment of returns of the Universal cycle gets reduced to an issue of money. It is said that the likes of House of Dracula were B-movies, and by comparison were impoverished productions making do with corporate leftovers. True, but not really important. If the quality of a film could be measured by it’s budget level we could just evaluate film history on an Excel spreadsheet and save ourselves the bother of watching these things.

For that matter, witness Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat: made for a pathetic fraction of Frankenstein’s budget yet deserves to be ranked alongside the greats of the genre.

[wpvideo ehgYWhw6]

I could list some of the other truly wonderful B movies of the era that didn’t suffer for their compromised resources, but I’ll leave that to the comments thread.

The difference between the worthiest of the 1930s greats and the slummiest of the 1940s also rans is fundamentally in their meaning, not their appearance.
The early 1930s was a time of drastic social upheaval. A confluence of historic factors had placed nearly every assumption of American society in doubt. The Depression questioned the precepts of capitalism. The return of the wrecked bodies of WWI veterans questioned the validity of war. Scientific advances challenged religious faith. The social and political relations between men and women were rewritten. And, most importantly from the perspective of gothic horror, the fate of the United States was increasingly bound up in the troubles and tribal conflicts of Europe.

The best gothic horrors tapped into these doubts and fears and transformed them into an excitingly new kind of drama.

The problem was that over the following decade, the underlying preoccupations of the nation changed but the stuff of gothic horror didn’t change with it. A new breed of genre movie, full of atomic age monsters and alien invaders, would co-opt gothic horror’s place in pop culture.  The world of classic monsters tried to keep pace with these changes but just ended up embarrassing themsleves.

[wpvideo YARGzsCl]

In other words, gothic horror can still be found today, but to find it you have to look for those movies that use monsters to express contemporary anxieties, regardless of whether they employ the conventional and traditional aesthetics of old school monster movies.

With that in mind, I wanted to recommend a relatively recent film that to my mind exemplifies a modern approach to gothic horror, albeit a film you may not even have heard of.

Robin Campillo’s They Came Back (2005) is a French zombie movie. Emphasis on the French. It has as little in common with the George Romero sub genre as any zombie movie could have yet still be recognizable as a zombie movie.

[wpvideo wHJ7E6P4]

The premise is that the dead have suddenly come back, but instead of coming back as desiccated rampaging hordes of brain-eating ghouls, they just, you know, come back. And having come back, they then just stand around, staring vacantly into space.  Those that return to their old jobs, do them very poorly.

[wpvideo NDoDsqbm]

The rest of civilization has to now figure out what to do with them–do they get their old jobs back? What happens when families have moved on, remarried, started over? Where do the dead fit back in?

In other words, it’s a zombie movie that has no interest in survivalist drama, but on questions of integrating foreigners, reconciling broken families, and public policy debates about refugee camps. It’s a zombie movie that emerges from a French society struggling to define and maintain a French identity in the face of convulsive transformations of its population demographics. French girls wearing head scarves aren’t zombies and it’s a little insulting to make the comparison, even indirectly, but that’s part of what fuels this uneasy and disquieting movie.

[wpvideo 2A4CaBc8]

And for my money, that’s what it takes to make a good monster movie–to say something that shouldn’t be said in such a way as to leave the audience feeling uneasy and disquieted.

36 Responses Monsters at work
Posted By Tom S : October 15, 2011 12:42 pm

I’ve never been able fully to buy it, but I’ve heard that argument made for some of the cruelest of the torture porn movies- Hostel, Wolf Creek, even Martyrs (http://www.avclub.com/articles/martyrs,48752/). I know the argument best for Hostel: that it’s supposed to be about both what American foreign policy, the idea that we’re putting ourselves where we don’t belong and the horror that we’ll face as a result. As I said, I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s surely as strong an argument as the one that connects the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Vietnam.

Even so, I can’t stomach it. Given the choice between the empty trappings of a dead genre and social relevance in as expressed through something genuinely horrific- I’m sorry, I’ll take the dead part.

Posted By Tom S : October 15, 2011 12:42 pm

I’ve never been able fully to buy it, but I’ve heard that argument made for some of the cruelest of the torture porn movies- Hostel, Wolf Creek, even Martyrs (http://www.avclub.com/articles/martyrs,48752/). I know the argument best for Hostel: that it’s supposed to be about both what American foreign policy, the idea that we’re putting ourselves where we don’t belong and the horror that we’ll face as a result. As I said, I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s surely as strong an argument as the one that connects the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Vietnam.

Even so, I can’t stomach it. Given the choice between the empty trappings of a dead genre and social relevance in as expressed through something genuinely horrific- I’m sorry, I’ll take the dead part.

Posted By Tom S : October 15, 2011 1:08 pm

Also, I would argue that one of my favorites among the original gothic horrors- Bride of Frankenstein- represented a left turn from ‘genuinely trying to scare’ and into ‘playing around with the iconography of horror for a mostly humorous effect.’ I think that tension between fear and camp was a vital part of why that cycle is so fun, and while it’s true that they stop working once they’re so outrightly goofy that no real fear is possible, I’m not sure cutting out all the camp fares much better as a strategy. For me, anyway.

Posted By Tom S : October 15, 2011 1:08 pm

Also, I would argue that one of my favorites among the original gothic horrors- Bride of Frankenstein- represented a left turn from ‘genuinely trying to scare’ and into ‘playing around with the iconography of horror for a mostly humorous effect.’ I think that tension between fear and camp was a vital part of why that cycle is so fun, and while it’s true that they stop working once they’re so outrightly goofy that no real fear is possible, I’m not sure cutting out all the camp fares much better as a strategy. For me, anyway.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 15, 2011 4:36 pm

I suppose the distinction between “horror” and “monster” movies is important to make, especially in the case of something like They Came Back. Since those who came back are the undead they would technically be considered monsters, but there do not appear to be any genuine frights in the movie since they don’t eat brains or gnaw on human limbs.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 15, 2011 4:36 pm

I suppose the distinction between “horror” and “monster” movies is important to make, especially in the case of something like They Came Back. Since those who came back are the undead they would technically be considered monsters, but there do not appear to be any genuine frights in the movie since they don’t eat brains or gnaw on human limbs.

Posted By Jenni : October 15, 2011 6:22 pm

Picking on plots here, but at the end of FRANKENSTEIN, the creature is killed. Ditto for the end of THE WOLFMAN. As I’ve not seen HOUSE OF DRACULA, how did they explain the monsters living again? Or was that simply glossed over, and the monsters were just introduced matter of factly?

Posted By Jenni : October 15, 2011 6:22 pm

Picking on plots here, but at the end of FRANKENSTEIN, the creature is killed. Ditto for the end of THE WOLFMAN. As I’ve not seen HOUSE OF DRACULA, how did they explain the monsters living again? Or was that simply glossed over, and the monsters were just introduced matter of factly?

Posted By Tom S : October 15, 2011 6:39 pm

At the beginning Bride of Frankenstein, they find the creature alive at the bottom of the burned out ruin of the mill.

Posted By Tom S : October 15, 2011 6:39 pm

At the beginning Bride of Frankenstein, they find the creature alive at the bottom of the burned out ruin of the mill.

Posted By Jenni : October 15, 2011 8:30 pm

Thanks for that answer, Tom S.

Posted By Jenni : October 15, 2011 8:30 pm

Thanks for that answer, Tom S.

Posted By JeffH : October 15, 2011 9:22 pm

I am curious-Carpenter’s remake of THE THING is rated “R,” but you wouldn’t let your child see a “hard R” film, even though the film does have a person getting his hands chopped off amongst other joyous events.

What exactly do you call a “hard R” film? I would hope the SAW series, HOSTEL, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE and other films of that ilk, along with THE THING, one of the most unnecessary remakes I have ever suffered through.

Posted By JeffH : October 15, 2011 9:22 pm

I am curious-Carpenter’s remake of THE THING is rated “R,” but you wouldn’t let your child see a “hard R” film, even though the film does have a person getting his hands chopped off amongst other joyous events.

What exactly do you call a “hard R” film? I would hope the SAW series, HOSTEL, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE and other films of that ilk, along with THE THING, one of the most unnecessary remakes I have ever suffered through.

Posted By davidkalat : October 16, 2011 8:43 am

Aye, JeffH, that was my ironic point–I used to cherish THE THING as the most extreme movie I’d ever seen, and a threshold of gore and horror that movies ought not to top. But the avalanche of torture porn in recent years rewrote those standards so thoroughly, I now live in a world where THE THING is comparatively mild. My 11 year son loves it (and since I was 11 when I saw it in 1981, I’d be a hypocrite to say he’s “too young”), but I would be appalled if either of my kids decided they wanted to see HUMAN CENTIPEDE.

Posted By davidkalat : October 16, 2011 8:43 am

Aye, JeffH, that was my ironic point–I used to cherish THE THING as the most extreme movie I’d ever seen, and a threshold of gore and horror that movies ought not to top. But the avalanche of torture porn in recent years rewrote those standards so thoroughly, I now live in a world where THE THING is comparatively mild. My 11 year son loves it (and since I was 11 when I saw it in 1981, I’d be a hypocrite to say he’s “too young”), but I would be appalled if either of my kids decided they wanted to see HUMAN CENTIPEDE.

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : October 16, 2011 1:00 pm

Technically, Carpenter’s THE THING wasn’t a remake of the 50s Hawks film. The two share little except the isolated, antarctic setting and the alien spaceship. Rather, it is a new adaptation of the original source material, John W. Campbell’s classic novella, “Who Goes There?” It is much closer to the story, with its shape-shifting monster able to replicate the form of any creature it has absorbed and to subdivide itself. This was made possible by the far superior special effects of the 80s.

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : October 16, 2011 1:00 pm

Technically, Carpenter’s THE THING wasn’t a remake of the 50s Hawks film. The two share little except the isolated, antarctic setting and the alien spaceship. Rather, it is a new adaptation of the original source material, John W. Campbell’s classic novella, “Who Goes There?” It is much closer to the story, with its shape-shifting monster able to replicate the form of any creature it has absorbed and to subdivide itself. This was made possible by the far superior special effects of the 80s.

Posted By CherieJ : October 16, 2011 4:32 pm

Horror seems to be a genre that is silently transmogrified from one generation to the next. The torture aspect of current entries like the Saw series is just something that doesn’t interest me, but I suppose it does the younger set. Although, since I said that, it would be interesting to see this prequel of ‘The Thing’. To me the Carpenter film is quintessential ’80s horror/monster and will never be topped by the dreck they are making at the moment. Showing my age!!!

Posted By CherieJ : October 16, 2011 4:32 pm

Horror seems to be a genre that is silently transmogrified from one generation to the next. The torture aspect of current entries like the Saw series is just something that doesn’t interest me, but I suppose it does the younger set. Although, since I said that, it would be interesting to see this prequel of ‘The Thing’. To me the Carpenter film is quintessential ’80s horror/monster and will never be topped by the dreck they are making at the moment. Showing my age!!!

Posted By Tom S : October 17, 2011 12:08 am

Haha, I’m 26, and I still don’t like torture porn horror- though I think that cycle has largely worked itself through, and the big thing now seems to be the Paranormal Activity style spooky verite thing. Which doesn’t interest me either, but I’ve got nothing against it.

I wish there was more Guillermo del Toro-style horror, though, he’s got to be one of the best horror guys in 20 years.

Posted By Tom S : October 17, 2011 12:08 am

Haha, I’m 26, and I still don’t like torture porn horror- though I think that cycle has largely worked itself through, and the big thing now seems to be the Paranormal Activity style spooky verite thing. Which doesn’t interest me either, but I’ve got nothing against it.

I wish there was more Guillermo del Toro-style horror, though, he’s got to be one of the best horror guys in 20 years.

Posted By Jenni : October 17, 2011 7:52 am

I saw the first Paranormal Activity, daughter rented it, and the 2 main characters were so rude and obnoxious that we began rooting for the ghosties!

Posted By Jenni : October 17, 2011 7:52 am

I saw the first Paranormal Activity, daughter rented it, and the 2 main characters were so rude and obnoxious that we began rooting for the ghosties!

Posted By Commander Adams : October 20, 2011 7:01 pm

The Thing ’82 is one of those movies (along with The Big Liebowski, Fight Club and anything by Fuller or Sirk) that needs some sort of Internet moratorium on further discussion, or at least further discussion that isn’t irritatingly uncritical gushing. Only Plan 9 from Outer Space seems to get more overkill in irrelevant title-dropping in the middle of Internet conversations. All the whining and crying about how the new film was going to “ruin” the story with contemporary effects and today’s trends towards excessive gores and “jump” scares struck me as hilarious considering that they were the same arguments made against the original film nearly thirty years ago. It’s the progenitor of today’s films which prefer to aim towards revulsion instead of actually scaring the audience and view characters as little more than props for the effects crew.

Posted By Commander Adams : October 20, 2011 7:01 pm

The Thing ’82 is one of those movies (along with The Big Liebowski, Fight Club and anything by Fuller or Sirk) that needs some sort of Internet moratorium on further discussion, or at least further discussion that isn’t irritatingly uncritical gushing. Only Plan 9 from Outer Space seems to get more overkill in irrelevant title-dropping in the middle of Internet conversations. All the whining and crying about how the new film was going to “ruin” the story with contemporary effects and today’s trends towards excessive gores and “jump” scares struck me as hilarious considering that they were the same arguments made against the original film nearly thirty years ago. It’s the progenitor of today’s films which prefer to aim towards revulsion instead of actually scaring the audience and view characters as little more than props for the effects crew.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 20, 2011 7:09 pm

I don’t really care for the ’82 version of the The Thing. I saw it about 10 or 15 years ago and wondered why everybody thought it was so great. I prefer the 50′s version. That scene where the Thing gets lit up is incredible.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 20, 2011 7:09 pm

I don’t really care for the ’82 version of the The Thing. I saw it about 10 or 15 years ago and wondered why everybody thought it was so great. I prefer the 50′s version. That scene where the Thing gets lit up is incredible.

Posted By Tom S : October 20, 2011 7:09 pm

So, you don’t like it, and therefore people shouldn’t talk about it anymore?

Posted By Tom S : October 20, 2011 7:09 pm

So, you don’t like it, and therefore people shouldn’t talk about it anymore?

Posted By Tom S : October 20, 2011 7:12 pm

(That was a reply to Commander Adams, not you, Duke)

Posted By Tom S : October 20, 2011 7:12 pm

(That was a reply to Commander Adams, not you, Duke)

Posted By DBenson : October 20, 2011 8:10 pm

I like my monsters old school and theatrical, with minimal gore and a safe level of fantasy. I didn’t like being seriously scared as a kid and I’m still not too fond of it. My favorites tend to play like thrillers or whodunits with a little something extra — an invisible psychotic, a sophisticated vampire, a beast whose innocence doesn’t make him any less dangerous.

Keep your realistic undead and horrifying carnivores. Give me Karloff, who makes soft and calm drip with menace. Or Price, not a psycho but a very, very bad little boy with an operatic flair. Or Harryhausen, whose beasts manage to be both fanciful and utterly persuasive.

Posted By DBenson : October 20, 2011 8:10 pm

I like my monsters old school and theatrical, with minimal gore and a safe level of fantasy. I didn’t like being seriously scared as a kid and I’m still not too fond of it. My favorites tend to play like thrillers or whodunits with a little something extra — an invisible psychotic, a sophisticated vampire, a beast whose innocence doesn’t make him any less dangerous.

Keep your realistic undead and horrifying carnivores. Give me Karloff, who makes soft and calm drip with menace. Or Price, not a psycho but a very, very bad little boy with an operatic flair. Or Harryhausen, whose beasts manage to be both fanciful and utterly persuasive.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 20, 2011 9:30 pm

I know, Tom. We posted at the same time. Hakuna matata.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 20, 2011 9:30 pm

I know, Tom. We posted at the same time. Hakuna matata.

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