Hallowe’en Special: Show Us The Horror!
This Hallowe’en, the London Times listed the novelist Kate Mosse’s personal choice of the best ghost stories. Her selection feels depressingly dated and painfully over-familiar; ‘The Signalman’, ‘The Turn of the Screw’, ‘The Woman In Black’, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ etc. Of course she is entirely free to choose what she likes, but it does say something about the English that we fall back on tired safe choices so often.
Ghost stories are not horror stories, of course, and Hallowe’en outfits have become associated with a certain amount of disrespectful reference to past news and media events. Not for much longer though; US colleges are banning ‘inappropriate’ outfits and disguises which suggest ‘cultural annexation’ – one example they offer is dressing as a witch doctor and causing-psychological trauma to Africans (personally I find making such a link offensive).
Meanwhile, we have horror, but mostly in action-adventure TV shows. In the last few days, after watching a popular TV character get beaten to death with a baseball covered in barbed wire while various gangs eviscerate each other. It’s obvious that Hollywood horror has reached a dead end, lost in a world where storylines must involve ‘protecting the family’. When it tries for anything subtler it is forced to fall back on badly copied scenes from earlier movies that worked better.
Horror, once a relatively sophisticated tool in the suspense writer’s kit, has fallen into two categories; grade-Z brutality and supernatural branding. ‘The Walking Dead’ is an example of the former. A vaguely watchable soap-opera with zombies has become a grotesquely cruel end-game in schadenfreude, existing for no other purpose than to run repetitive scenes of slaughter.
‘Victor Frankenstein’ is an example of the latter. James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe share some funny moments, but this very expensive film is dispensable because doesn’t believe in itself. Its female lead might as well have had ‘Love Interest’ tattooed on her forehead. A loopy reinvention of the myth filled with pointless irrelevancies, the film’s existence is a mystery – but looks handsome. When Dr F decides about his creation, ‘We’ll give him a flat head – because I like them,’ it’s hard to disagree, but what purpose does the film serve other than to jump-start a desperate franchise? When McAvoy promises to return at the end, you can hear the audience weighing up the idea and firmly deciding against it.
Bad choices make good stories
To be memorable, a horror film must be more than a string of self-referential gore jokes. It can explore the extremities of human belief, its characters providing release and showing us the paths we didn’t take. I’ve listed my favourite horror films many times, and they all have one thing in common; they make me ask what moral stand I would take in the main character’s position. If I had to choose one single film it would still be ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, which poses the question; ‘Who or what would you abandon to find happiness?’ and thinks through the answer very carefully.
Perhaps that question has been answered in the 21st century – ‘Everything and everyone.’ In which case, the modern horror film really has become redundant.
But we never give up hope – around the edges, in the small US independent field, surprises like ‘It Follows’ can still appear – and world cinema continues to throw out some wonderfully strange horror films built around powerful plots.
Let’s Not Do The Time Warp Again
I have a long and loving history with ‘The Rocky Horror Show’, partly because I was among the first to see it in August 1973 at the Chelsea Classic Cinema on London’s King’s Road. Having only just left school and being rather naive for my age it blew my mind, especially as it was quite interactive for its time (creepy usherettes, plenty of leaving the stage).
Friends of mine appeared in the film, and when the sequel, Shock Treatment’, appeared we turned up to its midnight premiere in Denton doctor suits and won the best costume prize, getting to hang out with Tim Curry and the original Rocky Horror cast. Patricia Quinn and Richard O’Brien were particularly kind and we sort of stayed in touch.
The sequel opened on a London stage just last year and was fun even though times had changed, so when I heard that Fox was making a new version of the original for TV I wondered what on earth they were thinking. A cult exists because of a specific place in history, and any rebooting without reinvention is doomed to failure.
But I hadn’t realised just how awful the remake would be; stripped of anything subversive or charismatic, recast with a teatime-safe lead and heavily censored into a weird bright family-friendly version, it may go down in history as the worst remake of anything ever, full stop. And the desperate casting of a seemingly tranquillised Tim Curry in Charles Gray’s role seemed merely cruel.
Rocky Horror is so old that the jokes about 1950s films which worked so well in the original now play as bizarre anachronisms, something which has maintained Rocky’s cult status – but you can’t remake a cult item. That time and those circumstances have passed. Thanks to the internet we live in deeply conservative times, and ‘safe’ brands are seen as the only entertainment we can allow.
Kids, it wasn’t always like this; the world was once full of mad stuff like the original Rocky Horror. It’s up to you to create afresh and defy this kind crass commercialism. Bring back horror by opening up about what really frightens you, and learn to deal with it in the arts.