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.


11 comments on “Hallowe’en Horror Is Going To Be A Problem This Year”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Talk about over simplification! My word, man, nobody is really sure exactly what happened, when or why but we do know that Caesar’s troops accidentally set fire to it. It was repaired and at least partially restored afterward. Over the following years it deteriorated due to lack of funding and dropping membership but there are indications that Strabo for one was able to do research there. By 270-275 AD there were probably no books in the building but it was being used as a meeting place for neoplatonic philosophers. A coptic Christian archbishop did order its destruction at that time, but as I say, there appears to have been no real collection there. The world was changing. In unfortunate ways, perhaps, but let’s keep our accusations straight.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    Hmm. What shall I watch this Halloween? I’m thinking of a splendidly creaky American International Pictures trio of movies: ‘Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace’ (It really isn’t – it should be: ‘Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward’); ‘Die, Monster, Die’ (Actually, it’s HP Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour Out Of Space’), and the barking ‘The Dunwich Horror’. Yes, they’re all Lovecraft based – and all could benefit from being remade, and properly, by which I mean being set in the 1920’s. They need the same sort of ‘feel’ to them as did Tim Burton’s ‘Sleepy Hollow’, in particular, ‘The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward’. Lovecraft’s stories don’t generally translate well to modern times – although the brilliantly mad ‘Reanimator’ did, but I’d like to see that story as written (minus the racism, of course), with the headless army officer with his wax replacement head…

  3. Brian says:

    Fair go admin! Don’t stir up your Christian readership; they will start regurgitating Wikipedia articles.

    And whatever you do don’t start quoting from books by Charles Freeman or Catherine Nixey. They really get the blind faith people going.

    As to films, I’ve mostly given up on “Hollywood” so source my entertainment from Europe, mostly Germany, Italy, France and Spain. Russia also comes up with some interesting stuff but it’s doesn’t have as much sub-titled stuff as Europe.
    I have to be diligent in my research in tracking down good stuff but that can make for a pleasant evening’s reading.

    To actually buy DVDs there is a particular little business here in Melbourne (Aus) that can source anything plus come up with great suggestions – they have never let me down.

  4. Ken Mann says:

    There is clearly a gap in the market here for a decent Ray Bradbury or Charles L Grant adaptation. I have a soft spot for Chris Carter’s “Millennium” which had a Halloween episode, “The Curse of Frank Black”.

  5. admin says:

    I think you’ve slightly misunderstood me, Helen. The film is about the death of intellectuality and the birth of religious extremism, and the film sets it against the burning of the library, that’s all. The library was probably looted, burned and wrecked several times over. The film uses the legend of Hypatia to illustrate the changing world.

  6. Peter Tromans says:

    Encamped military and religious activist groups all deny responsibility for damage to the books and the library building. Minister for Culture justifies the failure to restore the library and further cuts in its financial support in terms of environmental damage from visitors and the oracle’s prophecy of the rise of the e-reader. Minister of Finance declares, “It always was a pharaonic project. We cannot be held responsible for the acts of previous administrations. With our lands laid waste, we are in a period of austerity.”

    Leading author says, “It’s a horror story.”

  7. Brooke says:

    Agree with Helen M. On first reading, I thought it ironic that Agora’s two-toned view of civilization (as described above) was praised, followed by wish for complex ideas to be presented. Hope Agora is more nuanced. Philosophers through the ages, pre-Socratic thinkers, Socrates, etc. lament the “death of intellectuality” when discussing their times and it wasn’t always due to religious extremism. More the relentless pursuit of power by a few with claims to know the divine will. Twas ever thus…? We strive and evolve.

    Ian, thanks for the reminder about Lovecraft. Good Halloween reading.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you for the clarification, Chris, and thank you for the addition, Brooke. Peter, I think you’ve probably got it right. Sitting here at my desk Wikipedia was the nearest source, part of which I had heard before.
    Is Hypatia a legend? (I don’t dare do a search.)

  9. Lauren says:

    I watched all of Netflix’ new Haunting of Hill House. It was just dreadful. Glacial pacing, cheap jump-scares, loads of dangling plot points. The endless wrangling of the adult kids was excruciating, as wss all the pop psych dribbled out. It started out okay but by episode 6 was off-the-rails boring. I stuck with it to see whether they’d pull it out of the nosedive but the last episode was a squirmy embarrassment – ridiculous and soppy, with lots of “closure”. Got lots of ironing and silver-polishing done, though. That’s how gripping it was not – I’d look up only when the overwrought score ratcheted up to see what nonsense was going on. Loved the sets, though.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    There is a Ray Bradbury book called The Hallowe’en Tree. It was made into a tv program but I understand it’s not available. It was written for kids but it certainly has a nicely eerie feel.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    The Disney adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is astonishingly good. The scene in the library is beautifully creepy and sinister.

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