Posted by gregferrara on October 27, 2013
***BE WARNED: THIS PIECE CONTAINS SPOILERS THROUGHOUT***
Storytelling has had antagonists and protagonists going back, in the literal tradition, for centuries and in the oral tradition as far back as anyone told stories. Some stories make clear that the choices between hero and villain are choices between good and evil while others make the hero himself an anti-hero, someone compelling and likable whose actions cross the boundaries of good and evil on both sides of the border. Movies have been no different and often the most arresting characters are the ones whose motivations are both far from admirable and yet eminently sympathetic at the same time. But no genre presents the viewer with as endless a succession of weak, ineffective heroes as modern-day horror. Horror, from the sixties on, so consistently provides the viewer with a hero so doomed to failure it seems almost perverse to call him a hero in the first place.
Horror wasn’t always the place to go for utter hopelessness and despair. There was a time when the hero often won. Dracula was defeated, the wolfman stopped and Norman Bates wrestled to the ground. Somewhere around the late sixties, though, the hero began to lose quite often. In 1968, George Romero thrust Night of the Living Dead onto the movie audiences of the world and gave them an ending as bleak and hopeless as they come, except that it wasn’t bleak and hopeless in the big picture, just the small personal one. The zombies appear to have been subdued but our hero, Ben (Duane Jones), lays dead, shot by those killing the zombies, mistaking him for one of them. What’s so devastating is that it didn’t even need to happen. The movie could have very easily ended with Ben calling out for help and the authorities recognizing him as a normal human and not a zombie. There’s an intentional nihilism in the ending that seems almost cruel. Ben is mistaken by those who would side with him for that which he (and they) fights against. It’s a sad, poetic ending that signaled a developing trend in horror, one that continues to this day.
Even when the hero won, as in The Exorcist, he won only by killing himself. Father Karras (Jason Miller) is indeed a hero, and a self-sacrificing one at that, but his victory is devastating, not uplifting. The other hero of the piece, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) dies of a heart attack in the face of a challenge with a demonic spirit (which is what spurs Karras to his ultimate sacrificial triumph). These two may ultimately get the job done but they’re not exactly the cavalry riding to the rescue.
That same year, The Wicker Man took its hero, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), and did the extraordinary: It revealed, only at the end, that he was no hero at all because the missing girl he thought he was saving had never been missing or needed saving. The victim, he discovers to his horror, isn’t her, it’s him! In one masterful stroke, the hero and the victim become the same character.
Four years later, one of Hollywood’s most beloved paternal figures, Gregory Peck, lost as badly as any pathetic, weak and ineffective horror hero has ever lost. In The Omen, he loses everything in a spectacularly futile effort. After seeing his wife killed, a crazed priest impaled, a photographer cohort beheaded and his own child’s nanny nearly kill him as well, finally realizes his boy is the Anti-Christ and moves to take action. This involves a race with police to (ahem) get him to the church on time and then, for all his troubles, gets shot on the altar before he can do a damned thing (or is it undamned thing?).
The seventies also took the phenomenon of the Final Girl and created a whole new way to marginalize the hero. Now, the male hero was even more relegated to the wings but still just as ineffective. No more John Gavin running in to subdue Norman Bates, now movies like Black Christmas ended with the male heroes standing around while evil descended the stairs ready to take another victim, in this case, the Final Girl herself.
In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, our Final Girl escapes but the killer doesn’t die or get punished in any way at all. He’s left dancing around with a chainsaw, in one of the strangest and most compelling images to end a horror movie (or any movie) in any decade.
And in Halloween, Final Girl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) avoids death but so does her would-be killer, Michael Myers (Tony Moran). Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence), the would-be hero, comes in with guns blazing but does little to stop the menace of Myers. But Halloween did more than just continue the now blossoming horror trend of the ineffective hero, it made the killer the focus of the film. That is to say, with its shots from the killer’s point of view, it made the killer himself the “narrator” of the story. While it could be interpreted as condoning the killer or giving the audience the okay to cheer him on (and certainly later slasher movies did, indeed, make the body count into a cartoonish game), it really was more of a narrative device, a way to signal before the climax that the hero and Final Girl will lose because they’re not the ones telling this particular tale.
At the start of the next decade, Carpenter took the idea of the ineffective hero one step further by remaking a classic horror/sci-fi film in which the heroes had won and turned it on its head. The Thing, remade from The Thing from Another World, ends with everyone dead except the hero, MacReady (Kurt Russell), and Childs (Keith David). In the original, the heroes decisively win, electrocuting the alien to a charred veggie burger and living to tell the tale. In the remake, however, it’s unclear whether MacReady has won at all. He and Childs sit and wait to see what happens when the alien can no longer hide and the movie ends. (a quick aside: some theories abound that MacReady’s breath is clearly visible while Childs’ is not and therefore that signals that Childs is, indeed, the alien. However, MacReady is backlit making his breath more easily visible while Childs is not. However, if you look closely, you can see Childs’ breath as well, it’s just not as prominent – click here)
By the eighties on, slasher movies took on such a dominant role that the hero wasn’t just ineffective but non-existent. The killers themselves, from Jason to Freddy, became the heroes, racking up corpses and new fans with each outing. And that’s when that type of horror lost me. Once the hero was completely excised from the story, it became an exercise in make-up and special effects shots, with no emotional connection between viewer and character. And, of course, there were and are still plenty of horror movies where the hero wins, male or female, outside authority or Final Girl. Alien’s Ripley defeats the beast that killed her shipmates and Dracula, even updated, still got killed in the end. But something changed and has never fully gone back. Much of it is for the better, some of it is for the worse. Through it all, though, I can’t help but think if Psycho had been made for the first time in 1980 instead of 1960, the movie would have ended shortly after Arbogast’s disastrous descent down the stairs. He would have knocked off Sam and Lila as well and then turned to the camera in wig and dress, revealing to the audience that it was him all along. The camera would pull back to outside the house as we heard the voice-over, in Norman’s mother voice, “after all, a boy’s best friend is his mother.” And, honestly, I don’t think that would have been such a bad thing.
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