Along with mass reading over the late December, early January class break, I also managed a lot of movie watching. Here’s some of what I saw and a little discussion of how one of these films (or at least the franchise that goes along with it) reminds us about post-1960s American anxieties…and how they turn into monster stories.
Ok, maybe this was the worst idea ever, but I found myself involved in an all-night Star Wars Prequels marathon…as in Jar Jar Binks, Hayden Christensen being whiny (and not at all Vader-ish), and Ewan McGregor saying things like “You wont get away with it this time, Dooku!”
I wrote not long ago about my love for the monsters of Star Wars. The best of those are in the original trilogy, including the terrifying Tuskan raiders (monsters who become victims in Attack of the Clones), Jabba’s Rancor and the serpent that lives in the bowels of Empire…or at least in the Death Star’s trash compacter.
You don’t find much of this in the prequels even though the creatures, and creature effects, proliferate. The shiny sheen of CGI drains the monsters of their power and too many of the creatures are just weird and cute rather than the over-the-top, fang-and-claw Ray Harryhausen tributes we see in the first series.
And I remembered how much I hated Jar Jar, editing him out of scenes and thinking about how the whole mess would hold together so much better without him. Of course, I also thought about how much I loved Darth Maul and still cannot believe the best character of the prequels manages to die in the first film.
If all that wasn’t scary enough, I also treated myself to a marathon celebrating my favorite (modern) horror film, John Carpenter’s Halloween. Beth bought me Halloween 2 on Blu-ray and, although vastly inferior to the original, it makes a good troika with the original and the absurdly named, but not so bad, H20.
I didn’t delve much further. I’ve seen the original maybe twenty times. I’ve seen most of the sequels only once and sometimes just barely that. My feelings on the Rob Zombie tribute are complicated. I actually enjoyed the flick but hated the effort to explain Michael Myers, to take the unstoppable evil of the Shape and give it a rather maudlin “mom was a stripper, nobody loved me” backstory.
In particular, as all horror fans know, Halloween 3: Season of the Witch has to be avoided. In case you don’t know the pathetic story on this one. the “new direction” the series explored involved an evil costume company hoping to kill millions of kids with exploding masks.
I’m not making that up. Maybe even worse than its ludicrous plot, Halloween 3 tapped cynically into Americans urban legends about Halloween. Stories of “razor blades in apples” proliferated in the 1970s based on…literally nothing but rumor panic. The 1980s became the era of Halloween backlash with some of suburban America’s worst ideas ever, including highly sanitized “fall festival” at schools and churches.
By the way, these monsters existed only in the minds of baby boomers obsessed with safety and security. Halloween poisoning never occurred and the rumor panics have mostly gotten their gas from the 1982 Tylenol poisoning scare. Meanwhile, only a tiny number of cases of candy tampering have ever been reported. Most of these involve relatives rather than the terrifying image of maniacal strangers with candy.
In other words, we desperately need our monsters. They are ways to explore or anxieties, discuss our deepest fears and, sadly, a way to find something or someone to hate.
At the end of the day, this is part of the thrill of the original Halloween. It’s less about false fears that turning what we believe is a safe and secure existence into a horror show. “The night he came home” means the night terror came to the ‘burbs, when the horrors of the old abandoned house on the street became embodied in the Shape. Its not the invader from outside but as Malcolm X might say, it’s “the chickens coming home to roost.” It’s the horror on a quiet street and not scary immigrants, Muslim terrorists or whatever your particular cultural boogeyman happens to be.
Best new thing I saw? Ti West’s The Innkeepers. Much like The House of the Devil, his ode to the satanic panic, West uses much of the film’s running time to build almost unbearable suspense. By the end, he has us jumping at alarm clocks and Schlitz beer cars rolling down stairs. Moreover, it’s the kind of film that you have to ponder a bit after its over, till you realize that some of the terror is more cerebral than the “things jumping at the camera” (an approach to making a horror film that West gently pokes fun at once or twice here.).
I also saw: Revenge of the Creature (a follow-up to 1954s Creature from the Black Lagoon), Peeping Tom (the deeply twisted 1960 British film released in the same year with Psycho and that had almost as much influence on the later slasher genre) and the original Alien. I had not seen Alien in a while but had to after seeing the trailer for Prometheus and after getting a very interesting question about how I dealt with the film in Monsters in America for Monster’s Mailbag.
On another note, I traded in my tendency to watch ten Star Trek: The Next Gen’s in a row for a Deep Space Nine obsession. Thanks “Netflix Watch Instantly.”
I also had the chance to review the DVD/Blu-Ray release of Rise of Planet of the Apes for Popmatters. You can read my review here.
Next time, a brief post on this year’s (scheduled) book signings and Monsters in America events, as well as some news of the “what am I working on now” sort. In other words, Highgate vampire panics, the philosophical underpinnings of Freddy Krueger and a new work about gender, sex and 1950s horror host Vampira.