Hallowe’en Horror Is Going To Be A Problem This Year
In these newly extreme times, the one area in which extremism hasn’t triumphed is in the arts. As we approach Hallowe’en I wonder how long it will be before the spectre of horror censorship rises again, and art that shocks is banned. If any serious film dares to address, on any level, the problems of the world and learning from the past, it is examined in isolation and often condemned, especially if it dares to connect its subject to the political mood.
Peter Biskind, who wrote ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’, about populism and counter-culture in entertainment in the seventies, has now written ‘The Sky is Falling’, about how SF, fantasy, superhero movies and apocalypse films helped to encourage right and left extremism in America. What happens when nothing entertains but disaster? This week, the story of the sacrifices made by Neil Armstrong to get to the moon in ‘First Man’ was thrashed at the box office by ‘Venom’, an appallingly bad super-villain movie that was critically ridiculed. Undemanding young audiences loved it.
The cinema of ideas seems doomed to fail for now. Such was the fate of ‘Agora’, a big-budget film about the death of intelligence and the birth of religious extremism. It starred Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, feminist and atheist who lived in the ascension of Christianity, the death of the Roman Empire and the start of the Dark Ages, when all learning was destroyed by religion and the intellectual development of humankind was set back centuries. Telling the story of the destruction of the great library at Alexandria by Christians, it went against the current growth of extremism, acting as a dire warning about the loss we face. And it completely flopped at the box office.
Hollywood films that make you think are gone for a while now, complex ideas being too transgressive for distributors. How will Michael Moore’s provocative ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ fair? It opens today, so it will be interesting to see how it’s treated – as fair op-ed comment or incendiary proselytising?
Even with the internet to help, the UK still misses out on films which simply can’t be pigeonholed into tidy categories. Such was the fate of the bizarre ‘Mr. Nobody’. This epic by Jaco Van Dormeil, the Belgian director of ‘Toto The Hero’ and ‘The Eighth Day’, got a handful of reviews online, mostly filled with venom. One describes it as ‘the most horrifically boring film of all time’. Imaginative, idea-filled and complex, ‘Mr Nobody’ was an explanation of life itself, the story of Nemo, who at the age of nine must decide which of his parents to stay with. His decision not to decide precipitates him into four separate possible lives and an infinite universe of possibilities, which he traverses back and forth, finding and losing loved ones, his happiness or failure hinging on the tiniest chance, so that he eventually survives into the future to become the oldest living man.
The film had touches of Kubrick and Vonnegut, was overlong and occasionally confusing, but any tale that features youth, romance, infatuation, death, string theory, eternal life, the reversal of the universe and a thousand bicycles floating in space at least deserves to be seen.
TV is tackling some of the more complex ideas, and so far Netflix has trodden a miraculous tightrope, with some genuinely innovative and disturbing work tucked into the quieter corners of the EPG. Perhaps they hold the key to where the genre formerly known as ‘horror’ goes next.
Which brings us to an argument that came up at dinner with friends last night. What do you watch for Hallowe’en other than the much-hyped ‘Halloween’? Horror is a tight genre. There are expectations – you need a classic set-up and reveal, scares, and at least one ‘talker’ scene that will shock. When you start messing around with structure and adding surprise elements, there’s a sense from some audiences that you’ve cheated them.
But ‘Psycho’ denied its audiences a heroine, ‘Peeping Tom’ refused to provide a hero, and ‘The Birds’ would not allow any climactic closure. ‘Halloween’ removed motive, ‘The Orphanage’ took out gore, ‘Shuttle’ unfolded in real time and dumped any thought of a happy ending.
Clearly a horror film should surprise, and its biggest sin is to bore. But for Hollywood the second biggest sin is now to be complex. Recognising that there is a demand for complexity, Netflix is championing demanding entertainment, with other channels following suit. This year’s choice therefore has to be the longford version of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’.
But as every writer rushes to be signed up to the giant there’s need for caution; Netflix has yet to break even.