Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Offending When We Frighten

Most mornings, you can find me plodding along on a little collapsible treadmill in the dawning day. To break the monotony, I watch all sorts of strange films, the kind that would cause my wife's nose to wrinkle if she were in the room. I dug up an early nineties "classic" this week (note the quotation marks) which had somehow escaped my notice -- Joel Schumacher's horror flick Flatliners. The movie surprised me, although not because of narrative heft or stylistic ingenuity or dazzling performances. It possessed none of those. No, what surprised me was how little horrific content Schumacher felt he needed to put in.

For those unfamiliar with the plot of Flatliners, it goes something like this: A group of medical students decide to induce brain death and then get resuscitated in order to see what's on the other side, except when they come back they find themselves pursued by shadowy figures from their pasts, figures that seem bent on their harm. Freaky concept, even though the throbbing synth soundtrack, oddly incongruous neon lighting effects, and a mostly nonsensical resolution spoil much of the fun. Still, Flatliners has a scare or two up its sleeve. A plump-cheeked, pre-24 Kiefer Sutherland stares incredulously as his partially paralyzed (and long-dead) childhood pooch drags itself from a dark alley. When the group almost permanently loses one member, A a pregnant silence spent listening for a pulse carries more tension than a tightrope walker's wire. And the old ghost-in-the-mirror trick somehow seems fresh when Julia Roberts' cadaverous father snaps into view for a fraction of a second.

The funny thing about those scares? They contain next to no violence or gore. Now, splattery stuff has its place, but for too many storytellers those means have become the end. I know some think that slicing nubile coeds with a scythe or depicting unspeakably violent sex acts is scary. Well, maybe it is. That's up for debate. But we can't deny that's its gross and (I would argue) ultimately pornographic and therefore boring. There's no need to offend when we frighten. Leave the grisly stuff off-screen, so to speak. The scariest sights are those beheld in the mind's eye.

(Picture: CC 2010 by JustCallMe_Bethy_)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I dunno. A bit of gristle can make a good point--though the point it makes is rarely terror. I think dramatic uses of graphic violence make more sense in war movies like Saving Private Ryan or politically-charged anti-violence works like Pan's Labyrinth.

Graphic violence makes the viewer recoil with distaste, while unseen potential violence makes the viewer squirm on the edge of his or her seat. Both have their place.

In short, I don't want to just be scared of the General in Pan's Labyrinth--I want to be horrified and morally outraged at his actions. That happens nicely when he bashes in a guy's face with a flashlight and I am forced to watch. If the violence happened offstage, I would be more scared, maybe--but less outraged.

Loren Eaton said...

Interesting examples, CR, and I'd agree as far as Saving Private Ryan is concerned. That movie showed a very careful directorial touch. I haven't seen Pan's Labyrinth, but I did watch The Devil's Backbone, another del Toro film. That one's notable because it used just the kind of restraint I like to see in a horror film.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

The thing about Del Toro--from what I've seen--is that he is very precise in his effects. If he wants something to look creepy and spooky and rarely be seen, he'll do it. If he wants a monster that gives you nightmares by its very movements, he'll do that. And if he wants to make a comic-book movie where violence is cartoonish yet death (even of villains) is elegiac and memorable...he'll do that, as well.

But I haven't seen much. To wit: Hellboy, Hellboy 2, Pan's Labyrinth, and interviews.

(And even Pan's Labyrinth, one realizes when watching the second time, shows much less gore and violence than you'd think. Once it achieves its effect, it cuts away--it's more interested in telling a whole story than belaboring a single point.)

Loren Eaton said...

I might have to check out Pan's Labyrinth after all.

By the way, if you like del Toro you should really check out The Devil's Backbone, particularly since it's available for free on YouTube.