Saturday, October 11, 2014

David Cronenberg Classics VS Modern Horror: The Battle

Well, it's almost Halloween again, so that means I'm actually going to have to talk about horror movies at some point! Yes, I know, what a shocker. But enough about that. Let's talk about David Cronenberg.

If you don't know him, well, you'll want to after this – the man is famous now for making movies about Robert Pattinson riding around in limousines, but back in the day, he was famous for horror. Really fuckin' good horror, too. The kind of horror that was unique, creative, weird and trippy, full of social commentary, interesting characters, interesting, they were just so goddamn good. What do we get now? Dime-a-dozen exorcist possession flicks, remakes and torture porn. It's just about enough to make you want to build a time machine and head back to that time to experience it all firsthand.

I mean really, where's the contest? In The Fly, Cronenberg wowed us with a tale of a man tampering with science and turning into a monster. There was also a subtext about aging and disease and even a bit near the end that tackled pregnancy in the face of disease. It was a powerful film and was actually about something. Through Jeff Goldblum's frenetic performance balanced against the horror of his on-screen co-stars, there's a real sense of tragedy and horror at what he's going through which mirrors real life decay, disease or just aging – as well as the terror of a man messing with science.

What is Dead Silence about? A fucking dummy makes dumb ghost stories happen while the worst detective in the world digs up puppet graves. Where's the social commentary?

Real horror doesn't just come from the director shoving something scary in your face and saying “boo.” There has to be some kind of story or concept that reflects something in reality – or else, what incentive is there to give a shit? Yes, to some degree horror movies can just be mindless entertainment, as any genre has a subset like that. But we've reached an oversaturating point when movies intended for that purpose fail at being entertaining.

In Videodrome, Cronenberg lays on the satire thick, weaving a tale of the modern day obsession with violence on TV and making it into a warped, psychedelic tale of a smarmy TV station exec who becomes embroiled in a strange otherworldly cult's conspiracy to take over the world. It's completely bizarre and insane, but you do get the point driven in – if with the subtlety of the nails hammered into Christ's hands.

What do we get in Sharknado? “LOL, bad movies are hilarious! Look how bad we can be! Isn't it totally ironic and crazy how bad we're being? But it's on purpose, so you can't criticize us at all!”

There's just no comparison here. In the old days, movies weren't afraid to be totally off-the-wall crazy to drive a point in, in the name of both artistry and entertainment. A film like Videodrome, despite being completely batshit, had a real direction to it and a point to what it was trying to say: modern TV is too gratuitous and violent. And it wasn't afraid of using the most over the top, grotesque imagery to get there, because that's what satire is supposed to be – going all the way back to A Modest Proposal, satire is about being as subtle as a jackhammer to the face. It's about being totally off the wall and ridiculous to drive home a point. (Well, yes, you can be subtle about it too. But that's not the kind I'm talking about here.)

Movies these days don't seem to get that on the whole – a lot of films these days are ashamed to be that way, as being over the top is seen as bad and not cool. So instead, we just get stuff that's ironically bad, removing itself from criticism by going “well, I meant to make something horrible.” Surprise, that's not how it works – you won't be remembered.

In Scanners, Cronenberg tells a surprisingly emotional and dark tale of the journey of a special psychic man (a “Scanner”) to help save the world from what he's told is an evil Scanner. I don't want to spoil too much of it for those of you who for some reason haven't seen it yet, but it's actually a very deceptive story about trusting in large powerful corporations (or whatever deity holds its influence over you) and about belonging to a group – nothing is as it seems. The film is a tortured epic and tells a story about corruption and lies.

One thing the film is great at is explaining its very complex and multi-faceted universe – as this is a science fiction tale about things we don't normally experience in real life, it's obviously necessary to have some explanation and exposition in there. But it's done tastefully. When this movie explains shit, it keeps those explanations short and lets you know the facts without being egregious about it. And you do care, because you want to see the main character succeed and you're interested in what the hell's going to happen next – so the explanations have more gravity. Going off that, you also have NO CLUE what's going to happen – it's not a predictable film and so you're actually sitting there wondering what's going to happen, and thus the exposition is important for that reason.

In The Conjuring, the exposition and explanation are there because the movie has no story. When the psychics Ed and Lorraine Warren are telling the characters what's going on, it's really just because the film had no other substance – there's no real emotional connection or depth to this story, no reason for the audience to care. It's just explaining and explaining and explaining, followed by jump scares, with a possession exorcism climax.

What am I supposed to be invested in there? The film's story – what scant little there is – has already been done a thousand times over, so you can't even fall back on the novelty of a unique idea to cover up for the lazy writing.

I don't even think Scanners is necessarily a perfect film – it's got some flaws. I don't think lead actor Stephen Lack is that great (certainly not good enough for the amount of screen time he has) and, as the movie goes on, I do find it gets a bit slow at times. However, its intrigue, message and overall journey from beginning to end are satisfying and interesting to watch. You at least got the sense of a powerful story being told overall. With The Conjuring, it's just empty – empty “go quiet followed by loud noise” jump scares, empty story clumsily trying to fill its own inadequacies with more exposition...there's just no imagination.

In The Brood, Cronenberg weaves a cautionary satiric tale of new age hippie medicine and healing practices, combining that with a very dark and surprisingly touching family story about a father trying to do what's best for his little girl, while also struggling with his wife who's gone crazy. Lead actor Art Hindle is just incredible in this, delivering one of my favorite lead horror actor performances. You get a real sense of his struggle and the weight on his shoulders. I especially like the scenes where he interacts with Susan Hogan's character, his daughter's teacher who he almost has a budding romance with – it's very tender, fragile and a little sad, and the emotions are complex.

The scares come from the shocking and brutal murders committed, apparently, by tiny gremlins which have a connection to the wife's therapy sessions at the new-age place. It's a strange concept, but the murders are grisly and the way the characters react to them is very honest, dark and tragic – it's just a great story.

What do we get in World War Z? Cardboard cutouts of characters re-enacting the same old zombie apocalypse you saw in a billion other movies, only with zero substance or connection to the characters. It's got to be a world record for making the zombie apocalypse more boring than sitting through your high school calculus class.

If you really like any of the movies I've been slagging here, well, that's your prerogative; I'm sure there can be arguments made for enjoying these films as there can be with anything. However, I just think something has to be said here.

Yes, some of what I've said could arguably be called elitist in this article, but is that a bad thing? Elitism is quality control. It's caring about what comes out of a medium you love and having opinions. It doesn't mean I look down on anyone for thinking differently than I do here, it just means I think horror could do well going back to some of the creativity of its earlier years with directors like Cronenberg at the helm. Make of this whole thing what you will; it's just one guy's rambling. And if you haven't seen any Cronenberg flicks yet...well, make it a priority to do so this Halloween.

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