A small part of the BIFF-program is usually reserved for so called midnight movies, that is, horror or suspense films that are normally not associated with the “higher art” of the more typical festival films. One could write many a thesis about the exclusion of certain popular genres from the critics’ list of what they consider eligible for proper consideration when it comes to film as art. I refer here mostly to newspaper critics, who seldom have the tools or knowledge – knowing film neither as craft nor as more than a fleeting interest – to present the subject at hand as more than a brief notice about whether the critic enjoyed the movie or not. At times they don’t manage to say even that. “Professional” critics, writing for specialist magazines or certain scholarly institutions, usually have a more reflective approach to the matter of film as a whole, not least because they are bound to know more about the subject. They can thus comment from a position that is not limited to knee jerk moral reactions or the state of mind the reviewer finds him/herself in at the time of writing the article that must be printed the day after. As I say, the subject is not easily exhaustive and certainly requires a discussion I can’t fit in here.
I can venture a guess as to why horror films have usually been seen as the bottom of the barrel of the film world. News paper critics these days are mostly middle class, and the middle class likes to strive for an upper class appreciation of art. As such they are easily convinced that films should celebrate an almost classicist approach to art, with proper time for introspection and preferably include subtle moments of interaction between the protagonists and so forth. Above all films should steer away from sensationalism (in all meanings of the term, including “loud” effects, violence and “unhealthy” topics. Psychical violence is OK, though), and avoid straying too far from the politically correct.
And so they celebrate Lars von Trier’s Dogville, with its timely critique of USA and minimal art design. The film is closer to Theatre (especially Brecht), which they – maybe unconsciously – perceive as a more worthy than Film. That Dogville is just as “sensational” as any horror film, they easily forgive it – in the few cases they actually pick up on this – as the theatre of Brecht aimed to appeal to the uneducated masses, and thus von Trier must be allowed to do the same. I’d like to see someone treat that film as the banal, ugly and condescending mess it actually is. But alas, von Trier is so firmly established in the mind of the middle class critic as an eccentric genius that he can do no wrong. I doubt that any of these would consider watching Wes Cravens first film, The Last House on the Left, which is a more graphic retelling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. As for the plot, there is not much that fundamentally separates von Trier’s film from Craven’s so called “Video Nasty”. (This is not a recommendation of Last House… In my opinion they are both trash, but that is beside the question. I can add an equally irrelevant point; that I hugely enjoy many of von Trier’s other films).
Another problem – or advantage – with the horror genre is that it seems extremely prone to be used ideologically – not to say politically. What many conservative critics have failed to see is that the genre has mostly been used as an apology for conservatism. Maybe they shouldn’t have screamed so loudly for a ban… Horror films are frequently extremely moral, almost pietistically so. The slasher genre often warns against premarital sex and all kinds of loose-living traits in its characters. Stay at home, do your homework, keep your hands above the sheets, if you stopped believing in God – repent! – honour your parents and the chances of anything bad happening to you are significantly smaller than for the next door slut and her boyfriend. Many horrors – as many Hollywood films in general – also support vigilantism and celebrate the right for lethal revenge. In the sixties/seventies, some horror films took a leftist turn, as most of the work of George Romero bears out. But from the nineties to present day, I feel they have taken a turn for the conservative – not to say the inane – again. (Still with the notable exception of Romero). I can’t disregard that some of the more overt ideological treatment of some horror films can make them seem too oversimplified in their message. Some film critics will feel this taints them with a tackiness that genres where the ideology is not so outspoken evades.
I think that the preachy and moral aspect of horrors stems from its roots in the folk tales, where they were often meant as moral parables or warnings about the dangers of unhealthy proclivities (a bit of a tautology there…). This is evident even in modern seemingly nihilistic horrors that have little other function than to disgust. The Hostel-series, e.g., could easily be reduced to a warning about travelling abroad. Stay in USA and you won’t be attacked and tortured by those crazy Europeans! Such a message is, off course, ridiculously simpleminded, but so are the films (and don’t get me started on the so called capitalist critique of the sequel…).
The genre can boast many examples of “complicated plots” that still in its essence is a warning against a perceived danger, or the other way around; simple plots that are morally ambiguous and worth considering with some seriousness. Jaques Torneur’s Cat People could be an example of a simple plot (a woman is convinced the female line of the family is cursed to turn into felines) that is resisting any easy interpretations (it is hard to pin it down to a case of female hysteria, for example). Exactly because the story is so seemingly simple, one looks more intently for what it all means; it has to mean something more than itself! Horror seems much better suited to using this metaphorical aspect – and gaining meanings by it – than for example the Romantic Comedy or Melodrama.
Of course, a not insignificant problem with horror films, is that so many are shit. It’s a genre that many first time directors feel they can try their hand in, as a horror film is not so dependant on big names and expensive effects or even competent filming to work. Though, most often, it would have helped to have someone capable. But it is a genre that historically has showed that it is possible to score big hits without investing more than the pension of a kindly uncle. Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead and Blair Witch Project are examples. What many forget is that, at least in the first two cases, the directors were talented beyond the average, as their subsequent films have proven. So just because you have made a music video or filmed a family wedding, doesn’t automatically ensure that you are capable of making a good film. (Un)fortunately, horror films easily get distribution deals (albeit small ones), as producers have also taken notice of the fact that quite often even a very bad film in the genre will make its money back many times over due to its cheapness. Thus, there is a larger amount of these films on the market than the relative quality of the many productions would indicate.
I would venture to say that a good director is particularly important in horrors, as it is a genre that by its nature hovers close to the tasteless and ugly aspects of human experience. If one doesn’t know what one is doing, one can find oneself at best making an incompetent film or at worst contributing something ugly and degrading to the world of films. A good director, though, can reach at something genuinely unsettling, or use the genre to say something worthwhile about whatever else he’d want to communicate. I know this is vague, so let me try an example.
The last two days I’ve seen two good to very good films at BIFF that are both genre films: The Swedish film Let the Right One In (Låt Den Rätte Komma In) and the English film Eden Lake. They share some of the same approaches to their respective subgenres (the vampire film and the slasher (e.g. Friday the 13th) film). They both go a bit beyond the perimeters of the genres, but that is nothing new. Genre is, after all, just a tentative description of what type a film is. Both try to (and succeed) to humanize their monsters; to make them human. They use children as potential threats and are not afraid to show them in violent situations. (They are certainly not the first horror films that use children to accentuate vulnerability and how appearances deceive; see Night of the Living Dead, The Omen, Village of the Damned, the Exorcist, Salem’s Lot, Joshua, and many, many others).
However, while all of the Swedish film is seen from the point of view of children, a point in the English film is that the grown ups, from whose situation we experience the film, never knows the worldview of the children (or lack of it), or realizes the extent of the children’s capabilities until it is too late. Using children in the way these two films do, is always a risky proposition. They are both, though, helped immensely by the young actors’ acting abilities.
Eden Lake is the most ideological film of these. It tries to say something about the society in which it takes place, and what it says isn’t very nice. On the one hand it shows how it is the parents and a society that has allowed these parents to live like they do, that has made the little monsters. There are quite some nice touches that tell us how society has failed by allowing parents to reproduce their own inherent evil and stupidity and lack of any firm moral grounding. This attempt at a nuanced critique, though, is offset by adhering to the more sensationalist British headlines regarding the state of the younger generation. (One actually should read up on the youth debate in England before seeing the film). One can say that it is normal for a horror film to exaggerate in order to make its point, but the film came uncomfortably close to validate the conservative outcries and the sensationalist headlines of the tabloid press. Maybe that is also part of its point, as if holding the film up as a grotesque mirror, it can say, look here, this is what you say we are; are these our children, what have we made them?
Eden Lake is, though exaggerated and sensationalist fiction, highly realistic in some of its moments. The scene where one of our protagonists approaches what he thinks are just unruly kids to tell them to turn down the volume on their beat box, is easily recognizable and has a truth to it lacking in most Hollywood productions. The director does a good job in these interpersonal exchanges and every glance and unsaid word carries a weight of potential danger as palpable as the sneering loutishness of the children.
A typical example of horrors – and westerns – is that it takes place as a conflict between nature and civilization. Deliverance is a perfect example, where the three buddies take a canoe ride down a valley that is about to be put completely under water when the new dam is constructed. Their ride thus offers nature (made flesh by the rednecks) a chance to fight back against civilization (the three financially and socially established men), to show that there are parts of this world that can’t be tamed. Deliverance is such a good film that it is not possible to subsume it to only such a basic conflict – it also talks about man’s fear of nature while he should fear man the most, and how nature is already inside us even though we have tried to deny it by adhering to societal conventions that only go so far – but it will have to do for now. I felt Eden Lake alluded to Deliverance when we learnt by a road sign that the Lake area was about to be turned into a massive plot of luxury homes. I think Eden Lake thus tried for something similar to Deliverance, only by placing working class children in the roles of the mountain men of that film. As if showing society saying relax, luxury and a higher class is coming, but for the moment the inherited sins and ails of the working class will still have a say. In this one can find a similar criticism of the folly capitalism and its message as of civilization in the earlier film.
The film is very well made, and there is an uncomfortable feeling from the very first minute of the film, as the news reports from the car radio intimates what we are about to face. In the hands of a lesser director this film would certainly have been an unbearable mess. While the children initially after their attack are seen as monsters, we do get to see what made them and what makes them human. Eden Lake could easily have been a by the numbers slasher film, with limbs flying and the children doing superhuman feats, but this is not that kind of horror film. That tells me the director knew what he was doing. The sense of realism is contributing to our growing unease and makes the film a harrowing experience. I can’t yet say whether I’m comfortable with the entirety of the message the film sends; what it is trying to say, but maybe that is also a part of a good horror film, to find oneself on a ride one regrets taking but it is too late to step off.
The Swedish film is also warning about inherited evils and its consequences. Our protagonist is the smallish Oscar, a loner mistreated by his class mates until the day he meets the seemingly young girl Eli. The film separates itself from other horror films by not accentuating the horrific aspects of the supernatural elements of the story. When violent scenes come, they come quickly and are soon over, but the relationship between the boy and the girl moves carefully and slowly forward, thereby stressing the importance of a very human and very recognizable element. This film also says that more than fearing the unknown, or nature, if you will (the vampire girl), one should truly be afraid of the known (his classmates). In fact, the two films could easily be twinned in so many ways. Let the Right One In also features a group of children that are capable of committing horrific acts because they are spurred on by a strong leader, and this film also shows us the hereditary and environmental conditions that has made him.
The thing that separates them most is the tempo. While Eden Lake is supercharged, going from peril to peril, delivering a continuous adrenaline rush, Let the Right One In takes its time to let us know its lead characters. It has the patience to linger on silent shots of snow falling, of the grey Swedish apartment houses at night, illumined by street lights and more snow falling and the faces of the children, with an unintruding, subtle camera that lets us read many more shades of feeling and experience than the English film.
The Swedish film has almost no time for grown ups at all. The vampire girl is followed by a grown up servant that could have been her father (which he is posing as), but that I think was once another boy that she met and made a connection to. He says himself that she has no need for him if he can’t procure blood for her, and she doesn’t disagree. The boy’s relationship to his parents is of a similar nature. His father is a good man, but alcoholic, and Oscar leaves him. He understands that he can’t trust him to be of use to him. His mother likewise doesn’t understand anything about what life is like for him and is always out working anyway. The rest of the grown up cast is an even sorrier lot, maybe made a tad too laughable in the film. The children are thus left to their own devices, good children and bad alike.
I assume that the Swedish film will get much better reviews than Eden Lake. It is beautifully photographed and works against the usual norm for horror films by taking a leisurely pace and its own good time to get to the end. I admit that I myself liked it better, but that is not to say that it is objectively the most worthy of the films. It depends on what type of film one prefers, and I’d say both films succeed in being the films that they want to be. In many ways the ruffian Eden Lake can give just as much food for thoughts and interpretative possibilities as its Scandinavian politer cousin. Furthermore I’d say that I was seldom surprised by anything that happened in Let the Right One Come In. The end was pretty much how I imagined it would be after an early scene where the servant of Eli said “could you at least not go out to play with that boy tonight? Could you do that for me?”, and I understood the nature of their relationship. Eden Lake, on the other hand, is never so narratively safe and offers us an ending that is one of the bleakest I have seen, but still very much a natural consequence of everything the film has tried to tell us all along.
I think that Let the Right One In will gain advantages from the critics by almost not being a horror film at all. For one thing, it has a near fatal flaw in that aspect: it is never really scary. Then, it is a vampire film, which is something that most reviewers have understood can be acceptable to like. It is kind of the respectable stately prince of the genre, and critics like the obvious metaphor of bloodsucking for sex, and consider themselves up to date and “down with it” by identifying it. (I think that this film makes some wise choices in that regard, by showing the boy kissing the girl’s bloodied mouth rather than the more traditional neck biting and chest-sucking, and it kind of has to, seeing as these are children we are talking about).
Another reason why the film will be appreciated by many, is that it is set in winter, and who doesn’t like films with snow? (e.g. The Shining, On Dangerous Ground, The Sweet Hereafter, The Dead Zone, Lost Horizon, Fixed Bayonets!, Day of the Outlaw, Jeremiah Johnson, Where Eagles Dare, Dr. Zhivago, Edward Scissorhands, Fargo, The Ice Storm, Indian Runner, It’s a Wonderful Life, the Snowman and, finally, Bambi, just to mention some really great films….) The only snowy vampire film I can recall at the moment is the recent 30 Days of Night, which was a bloodier affair than this. It was unfortunately marred by some plotholes and pacing difficulties that made an inclusion to the above list unwarranted. (EDIT: Iforgot to mention Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, which I had tried to erase from memory, also another Swedish film from last year: Frostbitten, that, unfortunately was a bit of a fiasco. Of course, there are also vampire films that feature just a bit of snow, as Blade2 and the low budget indie Vampire Diary (in its last shot), and probably many more. Van Helsing, an excreable product, I won’t deem a proper film. End EDIT).
After coming out of Eden Lake, my wife asked me, with a hint of irritation in her voice, what was the purpose of seeing films like this? Weren’t there enough frustrations in everyday life, why should one go to the movies to feel anxiety? I could have answered her by citing the well known cathartic example, but I don’t know if I can fully adhere to it and besides it is a bit of a cliché, is it not? (And my wife wouldn’t need me to explain the concept to her anyhow…) Catharsis, a concept of emotional cleansing, purification – or maybe clarification – that is supposed to be beneficial to the spectator of violent/tragic dramas at the end of the play/film, was not altogether fitting here anyway. Eden Lake, being more of a social tract of sorts, offered an unrelenting bleakness and the end of the film did little to alleviate this. One thing is the entire Danish court dead except Horatio, and Fortinbras can well command that “these bodies High on a stage be placed to view”, but Eden Lake denies us even the bodies as proof of the tragedy, and nothing will likely change, much less be learnt.
Of course, one can in theory achieve this catharsis by witnessing the suffering of others, but we hardly need fiction for that. So if the cathartic element is not in play, what is the purpose of seeing films as this? For one thing, good horror films can show us a primeval part that we luckily seldom have to face in our daily lives. A return to pure undiluted and base nature is a regular feature of the better of these films. It is telling that a certain Freudian aspect is hard to evade here. Usually the heroes – or actually most often heroines – have to be reduced to a primal state, often involving crawling through shit and blood in order to escape the attackers and be born again as better people in a Darwinian sense. This rebirth then enables them to survive their ordeal and take revenge on the threat at hand. What Eden Lake does effectively is following this pattern, but then showing us the uncomfortable reality of the new persona that now has the means to strike back. I can’t say much more without revealing important plot points, but notice what the heroine does after having hidden in a trash container where she had to submerge in the indelicate contents it held.
Then, one can’t disregard the adrenaline rush of watching effective horrors. For some this will seem uncomfortable and a waste of time, while others will find the experience fulfilling. It would be silly for me to speculate about the reasons for this. Apart from this, I will have to refer to this article – the rich interpretative soil of the horrors – and hope it contains sufficient reasons for my wife to at least give me the benefit of doubt…