02 July 2015


Movie Monster Meditations

To kick off the May at the Movies Locus Focus special, I wrote about the Colonial Theatre in The Blob and delighted at the quaintness of a cinema in a Horror movie that wasn't making some meta statement about the genre, the industry, or the audience. It really seems to me that Horror directors are the most genre-aware auteurs we've got.

There is something consoling in the idea that evil exists apart from us--a separation that is perfectly signified by the fourth wall that protects us from everything we see on the screen. Accordingly, the idea that we, too, may have to wrestle with the monsters we are watching is unnerving. We don't want them to be there when the lights go back on any more than we want our nightmares waiting for us when we wake up. But this sort of thinking is the reason we often believe we can bomb ourselves into peace: after all, if the problem is "those guys over there," then isn't a happy ending merely a matter of getting rid of them?

It is a rare Horror film that dares to suggest that one reason why evil never dies is that we aim at all the wrong targets and never realise that the on-screen monsters only point to the real-life monsters who are sitting in our seats.

Top 5 Meta Movie Houses in Horror

1. Scream 2

Horror movies don't create psychos, the first Scream movie argued, but they do make psychos more creative. Scream 2 continues the debate, asking whether Horror movies--or at least the people who make them--can be held responsible for the actions of some of those who watch them.

Its very first sequence perfectly illustrates both ideas: a psycho creatively uses a movie theatre full of hyped up patrons to cover up his crime . . . and those patrons literally let someone get killed right in front of them because they can no longer tell the difference between real life and a show.

"Ghostface" doesn't literally step out of the screen . . . but whenever a fan dresses up as him, he still kind of does. And when life imitates art, isn't that evidence of the power of art? It's not quite a supernatural power--but it has diabolical effects all the same.

It's life being completely in thrall to art that is frightening--and we see this in the Scream audiences. (I refer to those within the movies, but now I'm also starting to wonder about those on our side of the screen. =P) I can't think of another franchise that gets away with being so openly critical of its target audience, nearly to the point of contempt. Individual characters who are Horror fans seem to be okay, but get enough of them together in one room and they turn into pure possessed id. And it turns out that the one who wields the knife just may be less monstrous than the ones who cheer him on.

For more of my thoughts on all four Scream films, please click on the Screaming tab.

2. Final Destination 5

Everyone knew this movie was coming since Slashers first went 3D . . . and everybody watching it at the cinemas might have also seen one of the deaths coming as soon as the ill-fated characters entered their own cinema. (I really don't know if there's any way to make that sentence clearer!)

When an explosion at a mall causes a metal beam and some nails that are behind a movie screen to shoot through it and into one of the characters who is in front of it, a 3D metal beam and some 3D nails seem to shoot through the actual movie screen into the real-world audience as well. It's not the first time in the franchise that viewers see the cause of death from the perspective of the killed person--but it's the same time that the former and the latter are in the exact same situation. For the movie the character is watching is also in 3D. The symmetry is as perfect as the concept is cheesy.

And it's not just a self-contained gimmick! Remember that the great hope of the Final Destination protagonists is that Death won't make another attempt on their lives without there being clues to warn them first. Sometimes the clues are ridiculous (that is, more for the benefit of a Scream-level audience than of the characters), but I pin that on the writers. For this very concept that we can see bad luck coming in time to avoid it isn't just something the franchise made up; in the real world, our word for it is superstition. And if you were Final Destination-level superstitious, you'd never watch a movie with that title, for fear that it might be your last one.

I've also written Twelve Things about Final Destination 5, which looks at other interesting aspects of an otherwise so-so flick.

3. "The Tale of the Midnight Madness" (Are You Afraid of the Dark?)

Hey, Stilwell, are they still cinematic twins if one is a movie and the other is a TV episode? "The Tale of the Midnight Madness" and Last Action Hero both aired in the same month of the same year . . . both have teenage protagonists who step out of our world into the movies they are watching . . . and both have deathly pale characters from classic films stepping into our world. "The Tale of the Midnight Madness "covers" Nosferatu, while Last Action Hero homages The Seventh Seal.

It's that last bit that is either really indulgent or really genius. Both stories already include fake movies that are real in their own worlds. The writers could have kept going with original (albeit derivative) monsters; but instead they chose to go with monsters who already mean something to their target audience. Because it often is scarier that way. And yes, easier.

Where "The Tale of the Midnight Madness" shows its originality is in its off-screen monster, who represents another type of person who is led astray by the cinema. A theatre owner initially happy to make a deal with the mysterious stranger who promises to save his failing business, he tries to take back his promise after the tickets start selling again, thinking he can make a bigger profit doing something else. (I can't decide whether this is more Pied Piper of Hamelin or Rumpelstiltskin.) Ah, doesn't it seem as if some people in the movie industry would do anything for money? It would be only just for them to have a taste of their own travesties, aye? Or as in this story, for their travesties to have a taste of them. ;-P

4. Ringu and The Ring

Now that I've let TV into the Top 5 List, I have no reason to keep this one out. The main reason why the Japanese Horror classic Ringu and the American remake The Ring are so frightening is that they take perfectly ordinary things that most viewers will have at home, like televisions and VCRs (What? It was the 90s), and turn them into doorways of death. I'll leave you to imagine what watching Ringu for the first time on a friend's TV, thanks to another friend's tape in the VCR, did to me. No one who freaked out at a cinema could have freaked out harder than I did in a TV room.

Given how closely medium and message are tied together, both Ringu and The Ring probably should have been direct-to-video/DVD releases. For we all know what it's like to pop a tape or a disc into a player to press Play--that act of yielding our minds to whatever may pop up on our screens. And we know what it means to want someone else to see a movie so much that we physically hand it to them on some storage device. When we can only watch something in a cinema and aren't the projectionist, then we make do with recommendations and reviews--all the better to distance ourselves from any consequences that may arise from other people watching a movie we tell them to watch. But I'm getting ahead of the monstrous main idea . . .

Sadako and Samara, who haunt the video, may be the antagonists, but the viewers of the video are often complicit. And though we don't hold it against them too much . . . that's probably because doing so might just remind us of all the ways we are corrupted by our own viewing choices. A movie doesn't need to be a literal instrument of evil to ease the way for evil to happen in the world.

5. T'yanak

In Philippine folklore, a tiyanak is a malignant creature that takes the form of a baby (or a small, dwarf-like creature that cries like a baby)--all the better to trick families into taking it in, that it may eat its way back out. There is at least one pre-colonial tradition that believed tiyanak were babies whose mothers died before they could give birth; and it was close enough to the later fear, introduced by the Spanish missionaries, that babies who die before being baptised don't go to Heaven, for it to have haunted the Philippine psyche for three hundred Christian years. Well, over three hundred: in modern stories, tiyanak are often aborted babies out for revenge.

Unsurprisingly, the most memorable tiyanak movie is from the 1980s; and it's such a camp fest that it was an instant cult classic. One of the most memorable scenes in it is the kill in a crowded cinema. The tiyanak goes straight for the rude patron whose screechy laughter has been annoying everyone else . . . so when the poor man tries to screech for help, no one can tell that he needs it. Indeed, someone is finally fed up enough to yell at him to shut up! It's a revenge fantasy that all movie goers can relate to, with the classic justice of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. But surely death by demon baby is too severe a punishment for disturbing the entertainment of others.

By the way, if you ever encounter an abandoned baby in the wilderness and want to check if it's a real child or a tiyanak, just say "Susmariosep" (or "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph") at it three times. It cannot bear hearing the names of the members of the Holy Family--especially when said three times, in honour of the Holy Trinity. (Folk Catholicism for the win.)

Image Sources: a) Scream 2 poster, b) Cabin in the Woods poster, c) Final Destination 5 poster, d) Are You Afraid of the Dark? Season 2 DVD,
d) Ringu poster, e) Tiyanak poster


cyurkanin said...

Unless you remind me of when I might have said it before, this is probably my favorite post hee at the Shred.

Enbrethiliel said...


"The Shred." Heh-heh.

Well, the last time you retweeted one of my links, it was about The Cabin in the Woods--which, incidentally, would have made a Top 6 Meta Movie Houses in Horror list.

Paul Stilwell said...

"...are they still cinematic twins if one is a movie and the other is a TV episode?"

Absolutely. They can definitely be twins born in different screen forms. If made-for-television movies can be included, then tv episodes can, and are, part of the gene pool as well, albeit on the far shallow end of the pool, with made-for-television somewhere in the middle. Or a t.v. episode can be considered a quickly hatched movie - or a movie sketch that could've been developed into a full-length movie.

You bring up some really ponderable thoughts about how much one gives over, or submits, one's mind to a film or to television (for good or ill), and the degree of complicity involved in viewing choices. "Viewing choices" includes of course both what content one chooses to view and the choice to view in and of itself, and what goes into that choice to view. Curiositas, for instance. I've probably talked about Tarkovsky's awesome book "Sculpting in Time" before, but reading that really made me stop and think about *what is film* and how powerful an influence it actually has.

Enbrethiliel said...


I've also been thinking a lot about how our choices--and not just with respect to entertainment--affect the kind of people we turn out to be. It's like self-directed "Nurture" (as in Nature vs. Nurture).

When I was putting this post together, I was surprised by how repelled I was when reviewing some of the Horror movies. Wasn't I supposed to be a huge Horror fan? =P I guess the last few months, in which I've watched hardly any Horror at all (though not by deliberate choice) and instead focussed on other things, had their effect on my personality and tastes. And the really interesting thing is knowing that I can reverse it any time I choose with a "Horror immersion." (But do I really want to do that?) The personality is awfully malleable, isn't it?

I'll have more to say about this if I start blogging about my language studies.

You must have mentioned Sculpting in Time a lot on your blog. I'm sure that when I finally read it, I'll think, "WHAT took me so long???"