Posted by David Kalat on October 15, 2011
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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