Faces of Evil: Shapes of Horror in Cinema

Perhaps, under the literature of the fantastic, the horror genre is the most curious. Shaping our fears and dreams into inhuman figures and bestial creatures, horror writers have sought to exercise demons by sifting through nightmares. Most of these horrors are coupled with despair, paranoia and loathing. Are these portents that the supernatural is as powerful more than ever? Or is it just the work of the devil?

But these days, the devil isn’t enough to spook people out of their wits, may it be super typhoons or convicted/deposed politicians clamoring for vindication, this era faces a new brand of horror. The following films tackle these modern horrors head on in their own terrifying terms and heights.

ANTICHRIST (Lars Von Trier, 2009)

Misogyny may not ring a bell to many but Lars Von Trier’s controversial Antichrist may be more than enough to shock you out of your skull. Earning jeers from the Cannes audience and film critics alike, Antichrist was met with resounding repulsion with only a handful applauding its courage to explore psychological horror through blood-stained misogynistic glasses. Starring Williem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (she won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival 2009 for this role) play an unnamed couple who seek refuge in their cabin in the woods (called ‘Eden’) after the death of their only son. With Biblical illusions running amok, not to mention exposure both of the actor’s genitals, gynocide and sexist overtones, Antichrist features a deep-seated kind of horror that exposes the fragile psychological nature of humanity when faced with such chaotic and sexual upheaval.

THE STRANGERS (Bryan Bertino, 2008)

Crime is nothing new if you’re living in the Philippines. Instead of living in fear and triple-locking our houses from stark raving madmen roaming our streets, we have learned to shrug off these kinds of things. Cashing on this complacency is Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008). Starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, inspired by true events, The Strangers is about a couple trying to rekindle their relationship while staying in a remote vacation home. This seemingly romantic evening, complete with low lighting and rose petals, is shattered when they are terrorized by three masked strangers prowling inside and outside the house. Building the film’s terrifying atmosphere is its pace, never kinetic, never slow, just enough to build a hair-raising tension. With the creepy use of country ballads, ominous tracks demonstrating the strangers’ uncanny capability to slip into the house unnoticed, and intense framing shots, Bertino’s film unerringly reminds us that the idyll complacency we often aspire for could be a perfect breeding ground for anxiety, fear and paranoia.

CARRIE (Brian de Palma, 1976)

Although nothing new, adolescence might be the most common stage of our lives swarming with existential anxieties and other kinds of nightmarish incidences. With horror being a perfect vehicle to peddle these kids of adolescent fears, Brian de Palma’s seminal film Carrie, succeeds in tackling varying themes such as religion, belongingness and sexual frustrations. Based on a Stephen King novel, Carrie tells the tale of the titular character’s (played by Sissy Spacek) struggle in high school while trying to come to terms with her telekinetic powers and her mother’s fundamentalist ravings. The film may be hysterical at some point but de Palma’s visual sensibilities and disturbing sense of humor gives us one of the most unforgettable high school year and prom night in cinema.

FUNNY GAMES (Michael Haneke, 2008)

The word unsettling doesn’t even cover how disturbing this film is. A shot-for-shot American remake of Haneke’s 1997 film of the same name, Funny Games retains much of its nastiness: a brutal portrait of a family terrorized by two psychotic kids (played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbett). For its entire 112 minutes, you will probably attempt to jump from your seat, yell at your TV and hurl something at it, berating the characters for their stupidity and lack of a sense of emergency.
But this is the kind of complacency that Haneke banks in this film. The idyll promises of a lake-side weekend in a bourgeois getaway leaves much room for deception. Set aside the questions for once, Funny Games does nothing to explain every motive (especially the two killers), which may just as well be the variation of Brian Bertino’s The Strangers ’ “You just happen to be home”.

Wrapped in such palpable tension, Funny Games never breaks its streak of mayhem and violence. You will feel sorry, you will feel like your heart is being ripped apart, you may even cry uncontrollably or will just simply be shocked by everything that unravels before you. Hide your wife, hide your kids. This kind of terror isn’t supernatural but it renders locks and bolts useless.

SCREAM (Wes Craven, 1996)

The plot of Scream is not exactly new for its time: some cloaked killer going on a bloodbath chasing this nubile girl. There are intentions, hidden in the folds of his cloak and underneath the mask. Everything plays out according to rules, both proclaimed and implied,  but there are still many times that the rug gets pulled under our feet. Coming from a long line of Z-list slasher films, gorefests and routine scares, Scream was a breath of fresh air or a shock right down the spine.

The script’s intelligence has always been something that has set itself apart from its predecessors: ball-dropping, film-checking smartassness as embodied by the film’s resident horror film geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy), stereotyped of course as a friend-zoned, scrawny dude working in a video store. The movie tests the audience: how much do we know about horror films? Are the numerous nights watching horror flicks enough to get us through this film?

In a way, Scream is actually a study of horror films. It maps out audience response; how we formulate theories as to who the killer is and who gets slashed next. The filmmakers want to play a whodunit and we’re part of the clever ruse to overturn our expectations of the genre’s tried and tested formula.

But that doesn’t make Scream a less enjoyable film. It’s one of the few remarkable films which mixes wit and fast-paced thrills and in the process, sets a higher bar for the succeeding films (both its sequels and the rest of the horror film industry). It’s relentless, pulling tricks one after another and as the body count goes up, we’re left wondering how quick the film’s quick wit will wear off until the last blood splatters on the wall (or someone’s face). But we have to wait for the sequels for that.

SESSION 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

A good horror movie always starts with an excellent location. Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is set in the sprawling Danvers State Mental Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts, matching the terrifying eeriness of the Overlook Hotel and Rose Red. Tension rises as an asbestos removal crew unearth the past of the hospital, particularly about a patient suffering from a dissosciative identity disorder. With their personal issues in tow, each of them journey off into the darkest recesses of their minds where they discover deeply unsettling truths.

BOUNDARY (Benito Bautista, 2011)

It’s in Ronnie Lazaro’s face. His nerves bundle up like a frayed rope carrying a grand piano up to a 35-storey building. The pressure mounts, almost paralyzing viewers, daring them to squirm in their seats as they witness the slow unfurling of fates which, by the time Raymond Bagatsing sits in Ronnie Lazaro’s beerhouse bright taxi cab, can only end in an almost ritualistic bloodshed. Bautista plays with our fears, using the everyday dangers of riding a cab, and personal dynamics to wound us with his nihilistic worldview.

MISERY (Rob Reiner, 1990)

Misery has no room for sunshine. Throughout its 107-minute running time, Misery runs like a terrible train ride to the pits of hell. It’s not that the film has creatures from the underworld; it has the worst kind of villain: a deranged and frantically obsessed fan in the form of Kathy Bates’s Annie Wilkes.

The film tells the story of bestselling novelist, Sheldon, who almost dies in a blizzard. As luck would have it, he is rescued by his number one fan, Wilkes (who later reveals she ‘follows’ Sheldon every now and then). What commences is a riveting cat and mouse fight heavily imbued with madness and savagery. Propelled by Bates and Caan’s performances, Misery is a hardwired, blistering psychopath thriller. This is Stephen King (whose novel was the basis of the film) at his best: camp, gore and good old horror.

This article was published in the Halloween special section of The Phililppine STAR on 28 October 2011

Author: donjaucian

25 year-old film nut.

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