Archive for social commentary

Dark Musings: Queer Contributions in Horror Fiction (An Incomplete Thesis)

Posted in Dark Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

I’ve rattled this notion around in my head for some time, and though I don’t have a fully-formed argument yet, I have mused long enough to know that I’m not wrong. There is not enough conversation about queer contributions to the horror genre.

Perhaps because there isn’t a blatant, obvious, easy connection. But if one looks under the surface, there are lines drawn everywhere. Historically, an impressive number of contributions have been made to the horror genre by rumored or open queer people.

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Mary Shelley – with encouragement from her husband, known to be bisexual, and who may have been bisexual herself – wrote “Frankenstein,” the tale a repulsive creature who just wants love. Bram Stoker, rumored to be gay, brought “Dracula” – an undeniably sensual monster who sucks the blood (by penetrating their flesh! Come on!) of other men. Oscar Wilde created what must be the first openly bisexual devil, Dorian Gray, in a novel about the excess of desire. Even Henry James, long rumored to be bi- or even a-sexual, weaved the horrific story of a governess battling morally deviant spirits to save the innocence of her wards.

It doesn’t stop at classic literature. Two of the best horror films from the early days of cinema, “Frankenstein” and “Nosferatu,” were directed by gay men. Is it any coincidence that both films adapt works mentioned above? With one monster hunting blindly for love that is never returned, and the other a pestilential nightmare that sucks people’s vitality while they sleep (predating the terror of contaminated blood during the AIDs epidemic), I think it’s hard to deny the connection. The trend continues into modern culture – with Clive Barker’s “Books of Blood” and the revolutionary “Hellraiser,” which is a dark hymn to ‘unnatural’ sex; even to popular TV shows, like “Penny Dreadful” and “American Horror Story,” which explore queer identities in a much more open light.

These sexually ‘aberrant’ individuals, forced into hiding because of the prejudiced societies in which they find themselves, created works of fiction about beings seen as abject and dangerous, as freaks. In the confines of those stories, they are undoubtedly monsters. But the idea transfers to the way societies project gay identities. As unnatural, as other, and perhaps as deadly. In one way or another, gay people become monsters.

Authors and filmmakers tell stories for many reasons, but a major one is the need to purge emotions – often devastating, unstated. It makes sense that artists who grapple with identity would write about monsters. The ‘heroes’ who battle the beast are not created in the artist’s own image – it is the beast itself that becomes the mirror.

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Horror, too, is one of the most unconsciously cathartic genres in all of fiction. It engages a part of the brain that no one wants to activate in reality – primal instincts of terror, danger, and flight from death – but it does so in a controlled environment where no danger is actually present. Thus, it releases emotion that otherwise would boil and rage unchecked.

So, is it an accident that these queer artists gravitated toward horror? Of course it isn’t a universal trend. It is present enough, though, that I think it deserves recognition. In a community that struggles with self-loathing and self-disgust even today, in our supposedly liberated world, these releases of emotion are necessary. To see a monster on screen or in print and understand its origin, its heart, is to find a piece of one’s self, and give it a name.

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Dark Musings: Social Commentary in Horror – What’s Missing in 2015

Posted in Dark Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2015 by smuckyproductions

While horror often gets dismissed as a superficial genre, film theorists and fans alike will have a hard time denying that the best offerings not only influence cinema, but also help to define generations. The great horror films of the past hundred years manage to distill the political and social turmoil of their time and bring it to life as a corporeal monster. Through this monster we can begin to understand the pattern of real, human anxieties.

But there’s something missing from today’s horror. I don’t agree with people who say the modern genre is dead, because we have seen some amazing films in the past decade, but they are certainly missing something. We haven’t yet had a great defining horror film.

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Each decade is brimming with examples. The monster films of the 30s – Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy, amongst dozens of others – show a dread of the invading foreigner. The 50s dished out countless monster and alien attack flicks, most of them having to do with radiation and scientific malfunctions that result in apocalypse; and perhaps the best of these, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, also depicts terror in the loss of identity.

Psycho moves away from monsters and shows the horrors hiding in ‘normal’ baby-boomer people of the 60s; and as the Vietnam war wreaked havoc, films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween revealed the chaos inherent in violence. The 80s reflect the 50s in the terror of the ‘other’ (films like The Thing and The Fly are even remade), adding its own sinners-get-killed slasher films as well. And finally, we reach the 90s and the 2000s, full of mundane evil (Silence of the Lambs) and also the contagion of the masses (28 Days Later and a Dawn of the Dead remake).

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Where do we go from there? The new millennium is full of neuroses and fears. Technology. Stolen identity in social media. Global warming. Apathy. Racism and sexism. Suicide and murder. Tragedy is everywhere, all over our computers.

Yet, I have a hard time finding horror that really comments on any of this in an intelligent, conscious way. Unfriended (or, preferably, Cybernatural) may be the only film that touches on social media at all. While there are some brilliant modern horror movies, their focus seems to be on calling back to distant eras (usually the 80s) or parodying the genre entirely. (This in itself reflects a generation that looks to previous decades to find its identity, rather than focusing on the present; but this is not intentional.)

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It isn’t important to examine the reason behind this absence, because I’m sure everyone can find a different opinion. But it does point fingers at the hole in horror that needs to be filled. Our generation is rife with more dread and anxiety than any before us, perhaps, because we are conscious enough to recognize these fears. So a call to action for filmmakers, myself included: plunder these fears for stories that will resonate. I think we deserve, and possibly need, those films. As the late and great Wes Craven said, seeing our fears on screen helps to exorcize them.

Films That Haunt Me: SOCIETY

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Ah, body horror. We don’t see enough of it anymore. What horror fan doesn’t appreciate a good old slime-fest, with a dash of social commentary thrown into the goop? It’s a genre that often gets overlooked as being purely gross – but the best body horror films have some insightful and penetrating things to say about our civilization. No film does this more overtly, or with more fluids, than SOCIETY.

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Directed by Stuart Gordon collaborator Brian Yuzna, this ick-fest starts off innocently enough – a high school boy believes that his yuppie suburban town is hiding something sinister beneath its pastels. People are disappearing, the snobby rich kids are acting up, and is that woman’s torso twisting around like that?? These unusual occurrences culminate in a horrific realization about his family and friends – a society of people that aren’t people at all.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoiling the ending. It’s a sin to give away such a great surprise. (And surprisingly hard to find photos to put in this post that don’t involve what happens.) To avoid ruining the entirety of it, I’ll just say this – Yunza creates a brilliant, satirical view of the homogenous wealthy, who are quite literally all the same person. The makeup effects are bizarre and ingenious. What makes them so striking, beyond their nastiness, is the way the visuals comment on the ‘theme’ of the cruel bourgeois. They are not wholly human, and thus, they look down on everyone who is human. And use them for certain purposes. I’ll leave it up to you viewers to find that out for yourselves.

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Since we get to see this society from the point of view of an outsider, we are able to share in his surprise and horror – and Yuzna also permits himself, through this, to be as surreal and weird as he pleases. The world that our hero stumbles upon goes so far beyond anything we could imagine that it is impossible not to find hilarious, but in a way that makes it hard to tell whether or not we should really be laughing. Yuzna’s sense of humor is similar to Peter Jackson’s in “Braindead” – using gore as slapstick and an opportunity for puns. But beneath this, there is that thread of disturbing social commentary, which is so spot on that it makes the unreal sequences hard to completely write off.

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The level of satire makes it difficult to take seriously at times, especially in the earlier scenes, when it’s hard to decide if the film is a mystery-thriller or a John Hughes rip-off. But for those who can look past the off-kilter opening, the payoff is gob-smackingly terrific. I argue that, for the ending alone, it can take its place alongside the best horror efforts of David Cronenberg, and even some of Lynch’s more grotesque work.

This film represents, for me, the great artistic value of a genre that we don’t often see anymore. Body horror had its heyday in the 80’s, but once the slasher craze really took off, it fell by the wayside. There are a few modest efforts available today, but what happened to the surplus of nasty and sub-political films that used to saturate the market? In honor of “Society” and its kin, here’s to hoping that body horror makes a comeback. For now, we can relish in this one’s bizarre humor and quantity of slime-covered satire. You’ll be singing the Eton Boating song for days to come.