Friday (Late Night Double) Feature – Monsters!!!

Monsters….

There are many types…Some that are monstrous on the outside, and others that are more so on the inside. They are all horrifying, scary, and gut wrenching. Each in their own way has a means of reaching into our souls, into our darkest fears and fantasies, and making us keep the lights on.

Sadly, many of our classic creatures of horror have lost their edge. They’ve been repurposed, repackaged, and have lost the edge that made them the reason that we stayed up all night. Vampires have become sexy, Frankenstein’s monster is used more for laughs, and Werewolves….yeah. They’re sexy too.

That is sooo not Michael J. Fox

So, for today’s feature I give you all two modern monster flicks that will remind you why we call them MONSTERS.

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Pan’s Labyrinth

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. Yes, this movie is in Spanish and has subtitles. If that’s your reason for not having seen this, either myself or another Promethean from the site will find you and punch you in the face.

Guillermo Del Toro, known for Hellboy and most recently Pacific Rim, wrote and directed this film; which had been a passion project of his for a while. Del Toro has always had a distinct visual flare that comes through in his creations. So, even in the most mundane of stories, he has a way of bringing out a more macabre edge.

This is fantastic flick set during the Spanish Civil War. A young girl and her mother move in with one of Franco’s generals in the hills, and the movie follows the daughter as she sees the horrors of the real world juxtaposed with the more fantastic creatures she sees.

I don’t want to get into the specifics of the story or some of the more magical elements, but despite the tame synopsis given above, there is a reason it’s a monster movie. In this case, the monsters are both creature and man.

Death totals remain debated. Antony Beevor writes in his history of the Civil War that Franco’s ensuing ‘white terror’ resulted in the deaths of 200,000 people and that the ‘red terror’ killed 38,000.  Julius Ruiz contends that, “Although the figures remain disputed, a minimum of 37,843 executions were carried out in the Republican zone with a maximum of 150,000 executions (including 50,000 after the war) in Nationalist Spain.”

So, as the young girl sees her world going into flames around her, she escapes into a world where she sees this guy…

Eye See You…

Like I said…monster movie.

Nonetheless, let’s move onto a more light hearted affair…for a horror flick.

Cabin in the Woods

I’m going to be frank about this; I am going to tell you as little as I can about this one, and you’re going to need to take me on faith. The pure joy of this film comes from seeing it with fresh eyes, and I would be doing a disservice to you if I mentioned anything beyond the basic premise.

Joss Whedon cowrote and produced this film with Drew Goddard who directed the piece. Both had worked on Buffy and Angel and wrote the script in three days. The idea was they wanted to subvert the horror/monster movie genre and turn it on its head.

They Did…

The premise is that some kids go to a cabin in the woods and like any horror cliche should, bad things start to happen to them. The twist is, from the first five minutes of the movie, the whole thing is being watched by some well dressed men in a control room. Who they are and what the kids go through is the main thrust of the movie.

This is a wonderful, modern take on the slasher/monster movie sub-genre of horror films. It is both simultaneously funny and terrifying. It will make you rethink every single monster movie, horror film, you have ever seen, and keep you up all night.

Yes, there are monsters in this movie. Like this guy…

He shows up in the first 30 minutes – Still no Real Spoilers…You’ll thank me later…

No, I won’t tell you why, but they are there. If Pan’s Labyrinth is the serious take on the genre, Cabin in the Woods is the polar opposite. It is one of the few movies in the genre that can be considered a game changer in many respects.

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So, with those two films I hope to remind you that monsters can still be scary, that they can still frighten us. Monsters are not there to be french kissed or crushed on. They exist to make us cry like little children and force us to rethink not using our old night lights. With that in mind, I bid you all adieu…

…also, this is the REAL Teen Wolf.

He’s soooooo dreamy….

Happy Halloween, Everyone.

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Friday (Late-Night Double) Feature: Atmospheric Horror

In honor of the month of October and it’s rapidly approaching holiday, HALLOWEEN, the next few Friday Features will be Late-Night Double Features. Which is, of course, in honor of another Halloween tradition.

This week I’m going to feature two works that really exemplify something that can make or break a scary story: Atmosphere!

Atmospheric horror is to modern horror gore-fests what a subtle fine wine is to a bathtub full of grain alcohol and kool-aid. Both will get you there (being scared – or maybe drunk), but one feels like a journey and the other feels like a punch in the gut.

Atmosphere isn’t really so much about what happens in a story, but the environment and setting. It’s less often about showing the audience something horrible, and more about showing them evidence of something horrible. We won’t see the gruesome death, but we’ll find the smeared blood from where the beast dragged away its prey.

In visual art of all kinds, lighting also plays an important role in setting the “creepy” tone that we’re talking about. In movies, tv, and video games, lighting and sound play equally significant parts – a mysterious growl from off-camera, suspense-building music, the wet sounds of chewing coming from the darkness.

In written art, the right atmosphere typically comes from the reader experiencing the same sorts of uncertainty, confusion, and fear-for-one’s life that the characters experience. That can also mean making some serious use of sights and sounds, of course, but the nature of written stories adds a barrier between the writer and the reader that actually has the potential of making things more terrifying (because when there’s a lack of clarity about just what it is we’re afraid of, it’s even scarier).

So without further ado – two exemplars of ATMOSPHERIC HORROR!

Lovecraft himself

First and foremost, I have to pay homage to one of the progenitors of the horror genre as we know it today, Howard Philips Lovecraft. Lovecraft was truly a master of atmosphere. Behind nearly all of his stories were creatures (of his own creation) that defied the imagination. Lovecraft’s most infamous monster, Cthulu, has so saturated our culture (particularly geek/internet culture) that it’s easy to forget how inconceivably terrifying it would be. It’s supposed to be a creature nearly 300 feet tall, humanoid in shape but with gigantic wings and a head adorned with writhing tentacles like an octopus.

But even in the story “The Call of Cthulu,” it’s not until the very end that the monster awakens. Most of the story is spent building the suspense and mystery about what Cthulu might really be (Spoiler Alert: Giant Space Monster), based on newspaper clippings and insane ramblings from people who’ve interacted with the “Cthulu Cult.” Lovecraft gives us evidence of something terrible, but doesn’t show it to us until the very end – and by then it’s too late.

But actually “Call of Cthulu,” influential as it may be, isn’t the subject of this feature. It’s actually not that high on my list of favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories. Another of his Weird Tales I ran across recently has quickly moved to my personal top-tier of written horror: “The Whisperer in Darkness.”

I don’t want to spoil anything about the story, so I’ll be scant on the details here. Suffice it to say that “The Whisperer in Darkness” is a case-study on atmospheric horror and that the first time I read it, I did so immediately before trying to sleep, and that was a hilariously bad choice.

Next up for this week’s (Late-Night Double) Feature, I want to talk about Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

This is a really scary game. 

It does what many other Horror-Survival genre games won’t: takes away your gun. What games like Dead SpaceResident Evil, and Doom 3 manage to do is fun and scary (and sometimes relies on good creepy atmosphere), but at their core these are still action games with a horror flare. You’re still playing a slightly-more-serious Bruce Campbell versus the Army of Darkness. If Dead Space had cars, you can bet there would be some of this.

Amnesia takes away all of those “action” elements and replaces them with pure terror, and the inability to take on the evil that you’re up against. Much of the early segments of Amnesia are devoted to revealing that you’re being hunted by some kind of “living nightmare” but not showing it to you. Sometimes you’ll hear it dragging around on the floor above you, sometimes you’ll catch it rounding a corner, but you won’t see it fully for a while.

That whole time the suspense and mystery and terror just build. And then when you finally DO see the monster fully, you can’t do anything to stop it! You’re only hope is to run and hide!

There are loads of “let’s play” videos featuring unsuspecting people playing Amnesia and screaming for mercy when they hit on one of the really scary moments, but for the real experience, check out the game for yourself on GOG.com or Steam.

Don’t forget to play it in the dark! And use headphones!

Friday Feature: Arkham Asylum

So this week’s primary post talked about how mental illness is presented in horror fiction and how Batman comics in particular have handled it. In the article I said that using mental illness to create horror and suspense was a trope of the horror genre. I still believe that’s true, but I wanted to add a little bit to that statement.

Just because a story utilizes a genre trope doesn’t mean it is a bad story or that it was badly written. 

On the contrary, most tropes only become tropes because they began as very effective storytelling tools.

With that in mind, I am going to strongly recommend Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean. It’s a phenomenal and evocative story that touches on some very primal and some very cerebral fears.

The cover of the 15th Anniversary Edition of Arkham Asylum.

The story that Morrison and McKean tell is unlike a true Batman story in almost every way. By Morrison’s own admission we know that the story is meant to be a dream sequence taken out of Bruce Wayne’s nightmares.

We witness very little of the Batman we know and love in this story. Instead, we a see fear-plagued pawn in the Asylum’s game. Morrison and McKean manage to present a Batman who is both ineffectual and strikingly cruel – both self-doubting and self-righteous. 

An example of this Batman’s cruelty: He kicks the wheelchair-bound Dr. Destiny down what appears to be a flight of stairs.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the comic than I already have, but it is full of symbolism: religious, literary, historical, and psychological. All of it provokes strong reactions (at least from me). In the midst of McKean’s striking surrealist art style, and Morrison’s disturbed writing, a chilling psychological thrill emerges, and it’s well worth the read.

An expositional encounter with the Mad Hatter.

Finally, I want to note that this comic is definitely not for everyone. It’s a psychological horror story in a super-hero’s cape. It contains suicide, self-mutilation, implied sexual assault, and is sometimes graphic in its depiction of violence.

If you’re a horror fan and you’ve always found yourself wondering what would cause Gotham’s Dark Knight to wake in a cold sweat, then Arkham Asylum should sail to the top of your must-read list.

Asylum and Cage

What does “asylum” mean?

For comic book enthusiasts the word may primarily be tied to a big mansion on the outskirts of Gotham city: Arkham Asylum For the Criminally Insane.

The history of Arkham Asylum has been explored in comics and, if you count them, video games. In the strongest telling of it, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, the late Amadeus Arkham, who watched his mother slowly lose her grip on her mind, founded the Asylum in the old mansion belonging to his family to provide help for those for whom, according to his own words, “their only crime is mental illness.”  Batman notes in this story that the Asylum’s imposing, dark architecture and rumors of haunting by Arkham’s ghost make it hard to imagine that any healing happens there.

If you’re a loyal Batman reader, then this past month you were treated to Batman Annual #2 – a chapter entitled “Cages.”  It was a story of Arkham Asylum’s oldest and newest residents.

Batman Annual #2 (2013).

The oldest, a character called “Anchoress,” committed herself to the care of the Asylum before the days of Batman and the super-criminals. She’d killed her parents in what was either an accident or a fit of rage, and chose the safety of the Asylum over the harsh terrain of judgement found in Gotham.

The newest is Batman himself, who is there to try and escape, testing the new security measures in the facility.

Anchoress brings to light several issues that are not often considered in reading stories about Gotham’s darkest criminals.

She makes it clear what her definition of asylum is: a space of safety and, for her, healing.

But she blames Batman for what the Asylum has become: a cage for dangerous people. You see, when Batman came along and started locking up the likes of Joker, Two-Face, and the other Gotham super-criminals, none of the well-meaning doctors of Arkham had time to help people any more. All of their time was devoted to trying to keep the super-dangerous from the general public.

This point is punctuated by Batman’s presence in Arkham for this issue. His purpose in the Asylum on that night is to ensure that the facility can keep the criminals in, not to see that the Asylum tries to heal patients.

On the other side of Arkham, however, a plucky new Arkham employee tells his more seasoned supervisor, “I don’t think anyone’s beyond help, or saving.”

In Morrison and McKean’s tale of Arkham Asylum, we see the Joker and Batman competing with any narrative of healing that the founder or the well-meaning doctors may have wanted.  Joker, true to form, taunts the doctors, Batman, and the other patients with sexual innuendo, and blackmail , while Batman actively works against some of the doctors who are trying to help Two-Face.

His doctor had been recognized his neurosis as being tied to his signature coin. The polarization of all of his decisions down to “yes” or “no” was hurting his perception of the world – too much duality. She worked him up to a die, with six choices instead of two, and then to a tarot card deck, with 72. Batman, seeing no progress, but rather a man who was paralyzed with too many choices, returned Two-Face his coin saying, “it’s only the madness that makes us who we are.”

Mental illness is often a trope of writers who want to create horror and suspense. Morrison and McKean’s Arkham Asylum is certainly frightening, it uses symbolism tied to Batman’s rogues gallery and the troubled journals of Amadeus Arkham to create the Dark Knight’s nightmare.

But behind every eerie sensation and disturbing image is the ghost of the mental illnesses that plague these characters.

Joker’s tauntings from Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989).

Mental illness is incomprehensible for those of us who don’t have it and, I would imagine, mortifying for those who do. Even one of my favorite horror authors, H.P. Lovecraft, concluded most of his stories with a character slipping into insanity. (Trivia: Arkham is the name of a fictional New England town in Lovecraft’s universe.) Many horror and fantasy writers reference Lovecraft as a significant influence.

But where do we draw the line between horror fiction and exploitation? Does the consistent use of mental illness as a tool of fear create real-world fear of people with mental illness? It’s easy to see why people with mental illness would seek an asylum – a place away from the dangers of judgement and fear.

This concept of asylum is important. As the Anchoress would say, people facing mental illness – if they’re to have any hope – need to have a safe place to heal.

But Batman’s methods take away the safety that the asylees need by turning it into a glorified prison for super-criminals, some of whom probably don’t belong (Would the Penguin really count as “criminally insane” or just criminally greedy? The Riddler may be criminally prideful, but insane?).

In the case of Arkham, Batman offers asylum to the Gothamites. They’re made safe from those people they can’t control. But the actual denizens of the asylum are made to live in cages. They’re denied any chance at healing because the doctors can’t be both healers and wardens.