Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Saw SCREAM (1996) again last night, and it just gets scarier every time! I've figured out why: metatextual dread. Characters are hip on horror movies and die anyway, so all the stuff we told ourselves as kids--like how we'd never be dumb enough to get ourselves killed because we learned the lessons of survival watching these kinds of cautionary films-is bupkes. We're going to be killed while watching them. The only thing close to that kind of meta is THE RING, but a ghost girl coming through the TV is too literal. In SCREAM, the danger comes not from where we're facing on the couch but from behind it. If you catch a knife's reflection on the screen, from behind you, then the TV image switches to an audience watching you and gasping in fear, shouting "Look behind you!" And it's too late. You've switched places with the image. You are the victim and the movie is the movie audience. You die watching the watchers shrink in terror mid-popcorn shovel.

If you want to really get this full post-modern affect then after SCREAM watch HALLOWEEN (1978), which the characters in SCREAM watch. After that, watch THE THING (1951), which the kids in HALLOWEEN watch. And imagine that when the characters inside these films die they switch sides, and watch you from the joint heavenly-hellish living room from which you once watched the characters in SCREAM watch HALLOWEEN --and the name of the film they watch from heaven is 'real life.'

What was new in HALLOWEEN more than any other slasher trope was the banal suburban environment, and it scared us because that's where we lived. We didn't live in sororities or Bavarian ballet academies, or in closed-down campgrounds, or Manhattan--and yet those place held the most killers: New York City horror movies weren't as scary unless you happened to see them there, but New York itself was scary back then--and I imagine going there to see a movie like MANIAC (1980) would be terrifying even before it started--but if we were out in the suburbs, we presumed we were safe. In the city you had sicko Vietnam vets and street gangs, in the country you had rapists and cannibals. What did we have in the suburbs? Nothing.

But in 1978, Michael Meyers came home. Our home.

All the subsequent slasher films between HALLOWEEN and SCREAM tended to neglect that suburban element, even Canadian rips like PROM NIGHT wound up in condemned old buildings and high school attics, places no normal, repressed teen would be caught dead or otherwise. Costume parties held on trains, or gold mines, or even sorority houses? No.

These films were only scary to us kids if it felt like being our being killed not only could but what was going to happen later that night. They weren't scary unless the whole movie felt like a cosmic message aimed square at us and later we're trying to sleep and then some small noise downstairs, or upstairs would wake us. For me it was the branches against my 2nd floor windows, scritch-scritching, like little fingernails, in the dead, Central NJ silence. What were they signaling me was coming? It was a Cassandra complex sketched into the grains of the faux wood aluminum siding.

Do you dig how it works, the Cassandra signal? If you were to die by fire the TV would show you The Towering Inferno the night before... and so on. Successful horror films know we know about the Cassandra Signal, and that we all watch TV.

And if you look at TV long enough you know it starts to take you over like a cult, making it impossible to turn it off without pangs of fear and alienation, making all your other activities--friends, school, kickball--fade into unreality, warping your mind like living too long next to a magnet. Suddenly normal silence seems curiously empty, and scary, so you need to turn the TV on and just find something to watch with no slashers in it, leave the set up bright and loud and start reading DC war comics and thinking about General Patton, and finding an excuse to keep two butcher knives handy and one stashed under the couch.

If you live chained to the TV like I did in the early 80s and now do again you live with all of this death coming at you--interrupted only by endless commercials rattling off catastrophic side effects of prescription drugs; cancer patients finding a center that makes them feel like there's hope; twisted up old townies nearly dead from smoking croaking their ghastly warnings; abused killer whales gasping in the sludge; tigers hunted near to extinction; starving kids in Africa--it all gathers inside you like maggots on a rotting corpse until all the veils of illusion are chewed away and you realize you are riding an eternal journey of ghastly mortality, always near death, but protected by the thin LED screen. You will never escape! Better get Geico.

The TV works you like any good cult brainwasher: terrorizing you and then comforting you, back and forth, over and over. In its overall guise as a continuing soap opera it hides the fact that it's your soul that's being soaped cleaned of its wallets and keys and sanity and precious dirtiness. Like raging waters in a flash flood that never ends the TV draws you under, promising any moment now the bubble bath soap salts will be added to the water and suds will lift you up from the lead albatross of your body, back onto land like a spittoon Jonah, PINGgg! leaving free you to wander in Elysian Fields of bubbled spittle and to Wendy's and through the mall, and the monsters taking shape in the ominous twirl of water by the black void mouth drain are now, at the very beginning of the cycle, naught but hazy shadows.

See, you don't even need the suburbs if you have a TV in your horror film, because no matter where you live you are watching TV-- and filmmakers like John Carpenter and Wes Craven understand how to bring you back to the suburbs of childhood via their films, to re-capture the terror of your early teen life or death struggle, to find what you do to escape, and use it like a Trojan horse. Carpenter and Craven are all about taking advantage of the antipathy and numbness caused by excessive TV, and how a very real threat is buried under signs and THEY LIVE sunglasses. So in SCREAM, even after many murders have rocked the community the kids go to school and tease each other with fake blood and knives because they can't quite take their own deaths seriously (unless they see themselves on TV as it happens). Thus there is no more 'real' in horror films after SCREAM made horror characters self-aware. We all imagined waking up in a slasher movie, figuring we'd survive since we knew the rules. And now we knew even that awareness was no guarantee. Now we need a whole new game plan.

If we see a scary film in the theater with a packed house of amped up teenagers then we have a moment's grace afterwards, a moment where we the audience are all safe in an exiting herd. we shuffle nervously out into the near-deserted mall parking lot, spooked cattle ready to stampede in giggling fits back into our cars the minute someone lets out a playful scream, and we sneak into our darkened homes to not wake up mom, and then we're finally all alone with the upstairs darkness of our frail, vulnerable bed rooms, full of easily broken windows and doors, flipping on our radio or TV or white noise machine just as fast as we can to drown out 'the house settling,' and the mirthless, accusatory voices calling our names from deep inside the layered silence.

Me, I have two white noise machines, and after SCREAM and HALLOWEEN I watched TNT's three AM presentation of TERMINATOR SALVATION, a film I wasn't overly crazy about the first time, out of loyalty to the underappreciated Nick Stahl in RISE OF THE MACHINES. But last night, the time was right. Saturday into Sunday early AM, a time to reflect on old favorites, the DVD album dusty with photographic memories. We find even John Connor has the Sunday at three AM blues, listening to the tapes of his mom's guidance, which we ourselves heard her make back in the 1984 original.

In other words, like us, John Connor is addicted to the past, to childhood memories brought to life by old pictures and recorded voices, to a time when The Terminator was just a low budget sci fi film from Orion created mainly to fill the dwindling drive-ins, not change the world.

His passion for his mom's tapes extends its own weird mirror in the trans-existence love affair between executed criminal (Sam Worthington) and terminal cancer patient (Helena Bonham Carter) that begins in our present day and decade later morphs into SKYNET future. The computer itself is now embodied and voiced via Helena who lures Sam--now an unwitting amnesiac terminator/robo-cop hybrid-- back into the mechanistic fold.

Director McG may not be a James Cameron but he handles the vast scale of T4 well: the depressing combat zone high contrast grays of the landscape are a respectful advancement on the Hong Kong blues and obvious miniatures of the 1984 original.  Then again we're not quite--in the time loop of events--up to the era that 'begins' the first film. Connor doesn't seem to remember that Arnold saved his life as a kid (no Arnold at all in this one), so he never imagines the 'good' terminator here isn't out to kill him, instead he blasts the hell out of the one guy who's not a dick in the film; in a sense it's Connor's the bad guy now. For awhile anyway, doesn't even say thanks when the guy later saves his life a million times. T5 will hopefully bring us right up to speed, with Skynet developing time travel thus necessitating Connor's sending Reese back in time so he can ensure his own birth, and advancing to the point Cameron is back to using miniatures instead of CGI. (Postscript 2016: I was right!)

Deep? In 1991 maybe, but such time travel glitches are not even eyebrow-raising in our age of a thousand screens seen swirling around wide-eyed families in 4G commercials, everyone plugged into their laptops and phones, reacting and laughing to different things at different times while in the same room, and seeing horror and science fiction movies over and over to the point we make them happen in real life (if in no other way than via endless sequels, late night anxiety and pop canon quotes slowly shaping one's reading of the world).

So now you know: if you watch TERMINATOR: SALVATION six more times you ensure it will come true. If sooner or later we will master time travel, and rest assured we will, then time travelers are already here. We who watch sequels to films that won't be made until after we're dead know these things, and we keep quiet as a tomb lest plot spoilers destroy the world's willingness to pay to see itself destroyed. Above us sleeps a giant mom, oblivious that we're up at dawn on a school day taping monster movies. She too will surely grow disapproving of our slacker ways so we must move out as soon as possible. But for now, she sleeps. John Carter, I mean Connor, I am your father. Put down your headphones and behold the soap of power! Shhhh, it has already begun.

Some screencaps borrowed from inside the Stale Popcorn

1 comment:

  1. Bravo. What a superbly written article, I'm lost for words to talk about how brilliant the writing is here. So simple and at the same time so brilliant. Thanks for all the emotions and reflections I'll have with this piece!


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