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March 11, 2003

Newer and Older Horror Movies

Friedrich --

By chance over the last couple of days, I watched a couple of horror movies from different eras and got a chance to compare their styles. The first was The Serpent and the Rainbow from 1987; the second was Stigmata, from about a year ago.

Styles have certainly changed. "The Serpent and the Rainbow" was directed by the horror vet Wes Craven and stars Bill Pullman as a gloomy Indiana Jones sent to Haiti by a pharmaceutical company to look into the zombie phenomenon. It's seedy, set to jungle drums, and is full of writhing and sweating people and B-movie shocks. "Stigmata" stars Patricia Arquette as a Pittsburgh punkette through whom Catholic spirits are trying to speak, and Gabriel Byrne as a sexily tormented scientist-priest who's sent by the Vatican to Pittsburgh to see whether a genuine miracle is occurring: mist and smoke, MTV lighting, 72 shots where only one is needed, strobing lights, thunderous and crashing sound effects -- it's like a Ridley Scott movie made by a hyper-active kid.

The Serpent and the Rainbow:
As Seething, Sexy-Madhouse Zombie Thrillers Go, Not Bad

What do I have to report? First, that "The Serpent and the Rainbow" turned out to be the only Wes Craven movie Ive ever really enjoyed. Despite problems (the biggest one being Bill Pullman, whos terrible), it's a trippy and very effective "is he inside my head or am I having a nightmare" thriller. It's more than decent. The black actors (including Zakes Mokae and Cathy Tyson) are phenomenal; and there's a little Carlos Castaneda in the film, and a little "Apocalypse Now" too. Craven uses a traditional trash-horror esthetic, and though the movie is nothing but a seething, sexy-madhouse zombie thriller with a pinch of politics, it has some real hypnotic power, and I liked it better than "Apocalypse Now" (although, hold my horses, it strikes me as I type these words that I didn't much enjoy "Apocalypse Now").

Patricia Arquette in Stigmata:
Revelation as Special Effect

Second, that I had an experience watching "Stigmata" that I often have watching the do-all-the-work-for-you, image-processed and hyper-Dolbyized new films. Here, the script was functional enough, the actors were fine, the photography and set design were slick. But the effects (of which there were tons) seemed to be only loosely attached to what I was watching. They were churning away very competently and doing all the reacting for me (as they will these days), but they somehow seemed mistimed -- just a little bit off. I had the feeling that on one track was the story, the actors, the drama, the moment, that on another one entirely were the production values and tech effects, and that these two tracks were never in quite the right synch.

I often have this out-of-synch sensation at the new made-for-MTV-babies movies. Do you? I wonder why. Could it be because the effects aren't made to grow out of the moment but are instead ladled on? Or because the moments are seen these days as little more than excuses to rev up the effects? In any case, gears are slipping in there somewhere. But I suspect I'm just being a square. The Wes Craven movie, junky though it was, had some traditional substance; the style was there to put the substance over. "Stigmata"? Well, it's all packaging, a kind of virtual movie. And maybe the skating-around-looking-for-traction experience I had watching it is just me, lost in a sparkly virtual world.

Why do I suspect that a sparkly virtual world is exactly what the young audience expects from a movie?



posted by Michael at March 11, 2003


For a horror movie that offers entertainment for people who dislike special effect showcases (particulary of the digital kind), see last year's "The Ring." Minus the computerized monster at the end--which looks ridiculous, deflates the movie's ending and doesn't compare to the lower-tech efforts of Ray Harryhausen, 30's Hollywood make-up artists or the army of model makers from 60's era Godzilla movies--the movie is decent industry product.

And product is ok; 9 times out of 10, what more do we want from a horror movie? Horror movies have to provide an unobstructed look at the monster; the delay in presenting the revelation, in seeing what Dracula looks like in professional lighting, makes the genre what it is. Circa 2002, a goofy digital effect delivers the full-frontal. Some crazy dude in a leather mask swinging a chainsaw against the glare of the Texas sun just won't cut it. I am sure a producer at Dreamworks made sure "The Ring" would have at least one digital effect recognizable as such by the audience. I am also sure that this producer budgeted big bucks for the programers to generate their lame composite of the Brundle Fly and the slime covered Exorcist girl. I am less sure that smarter heads just went with the flow so the movie would get made: "let them put their shitty effect at the end of the movie as long as it doesn't fuck-up the preceding 90 minutes."

Did the digital effect sell tickets (the movie made money)? Who knows. Do MTV babies always thrill to shitty editing and shitty computer effects? Who knows. I am fairly certain that a recognizable minority does not. Before age 20, the geeks amongst like to discover the "forgotten" classics of the horror genre. Nearly everything one sees at this age is new and exciting. Hammer movies with Christopher Lee, Edgar Allen Poe tales with Vincent Price, M, Scanners, Nosferatu, (either version). I am sure, somewhere out there, smart and geeky teenagers have stumbled across this stuff, loved it and rejoiced that painted backdrops, hand constructed sets, frames with compositions, creative lighting, slow tracking shots and unobtrusive editing generally trump what the digital domain can offer.

Posted by: reyturling on March 12, 2003 12:05 AM

Great rant, thanks, and it's great to hear that at least a few younger movie fans are learning a bit about the joys of the pre-digital cinema. May they start making movies themselves.

I'm a funny case where digital production is concerned. I think the new tools and capabilities are sensational, but I dislike a lot of what gets done with them and worry that there's something in their nature that lends itself to shitty moviemaking. It's clear, for instance, that computer-video editing makes it a lot easier for movies to get over-edited. Do they have to wind up over-edited? No. But do they -- given the kinds of pressures big-budget movies are made under -- tend to wind up overedited? Sure. And does that become the new standard that most younger people will thoughtlessly and guilelessly accept. Sure. So I love the tools but wish moviemakers would make better (more subtle, more imaginative, etc) use of them. Silly me.

You seem to be more of a horror fan than I am, and so are probably well aware of these films, but for other readers who may not be: why not also try the Val Lewton films from the 1940s, such as "Cat People," and "I Walk With a Zombie" (I think I got that title right), my faves. They're the rare horror films that don't correspond to your "keep 'em waiting for the final full revelation" template.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 12, 2003 07:13 AM

Walter Murch has a great meditation on editing called "In the Blink of Eye" in which he muses over the effect that the various editing tools have on aesthetic choices. Though not a luddite, he's similarly skeptical of newfangled digital editing suites. Did you know the Coen brothers still edit on a flatbed? For "O Brother Where Art Thou" (which used digital color correction), they edited the whole thing on film, and it was then digitized and manipulated...

Posted by: jimbo on March 12, 2003 07:42 PM

I have a hard time accepting the "MTV generation loves a sparkly digital world" part of the argument, since most of the horror movies that are actually popular with younger audiences (over the last ten years or so) have either been made by Wes Craven ("Scream") or directly ripped off from Wes Craven ("I Know What You Did Last Summer"): this kind of movie features values I know we can all get behind, namely starlets running around hysterically afraid for their lives.

Also, I don't think digital technology is at all to blame for lousy Hollywood movies: after all, Hollywood managed to produce one eyesore after another in the sixties the "old fashioned" way. That said, I agree that hardly anyone is using the technology to do anything very interesting, but how many filmmakers really attempted to use sound in an "interesting" way in the days when talking pictures were still newfangled, and the old guard pined for the glories of the silents?

Posted by: JW on March 12, 2003 11:07 PM

Thanks Jimbo -- no, I hadn't known that the Coens still edit on a flatbed. But they aren't alone -- I've talked to other filmmakers and editors who insist that handling the celluloid keeps them honest in important ways. By slowing the work down a bit, basically, thereby building into the work process some time for reflection. They find that the electronic tools make things to quick and easy, and they wind up not liking what they do with them. How is the Murch book, by the way? I'm eager to read it. He's a thoughtful guy -- I think I enjoy what he says about film better than most of his actual film-editing work...

Hey JW -- Excellent point about how audiences still respond to traditional work. Please cc. a copy of that passage to the heads of the studios. As for the impact of digital tools, I love and covet the new tools, myself. But there is a new-style (sparkly and Photoshopped) kind of big-budget filmmaking that's around these days that's inconceivable without the new tools. The tools certainly aren't to blame for the way they're being used, and I'm certainly not going around proclaiming the death of movies (though they do seem to be morphing into something I don't personally find of much interest). But there's a connection there. There weren't deaths from bullet wounds before the existence of guns; there wasn't much green mush around before Cuisinarts became popular; and there weren't many junk-food-fat poor people around before cheap junk food. Blame? Put it on the people pulling the trigger, making the mush, eating the junk food, making the sparkly movies. But I do think it's fair to make the observation that the recent electronic tech developments and the direction movies seem to be taking have some relationship with each other. How do you react to the whoosh-shazaam-chopchop Avid/Dolby new Hollywood movies? I'm so unsympathetic to them that I'd be interested in reading someone making a positive case for them.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 13, 2003 01:35 PM

As a junk food eater, I resemble that remark!

Anyway, I'm ashamed of you, actually renting and watching "Stigmata." Wasn't it clear from the cover that Gabriel Byrne was in the movie? Have you ever seen him in a good movie? He is one of those actors who--while he may be a talented fellow--is an unerring bellwether for bad movies. He belongs to a genuine subset of film actor: constantly working, never in anything that makes real money, a sort of nonverbal warning to steer clear.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 13, 2003 05:13 PM

The Murch book is excellent - he does a lot of thinking about what is really an obvious question, that we who have grown up with movies and tv don't even think about anymore: why does editing work? That is, why do audiences accept a sudden change in perspective, when such a thing never happens in real life? His theory (reflected in the title of the book) is that, even though we think of ourselves as having "continuity of experience", our brains actually actually "edit" our experiences by using eyeblinks. I have no idea if it's neurolgically sound, but it's an interesting theory nonetheless...

Posted by: jimbo on March 14, 2003 04:55 PM

Oops again -- I just realized, thanks to Jimbo's excellent description of the thesis of "In the Blink of an Eye," that I did indeed read the book. Amazing that I remember my own name these days. And I second Jimbo's recommendation -- it's a thoughtful and interesting read, intellectual yet down to earth. Murch has another book out, which is the one I haven't read yet. It's actually "by" the novelist Michael Ondaatje, who got to know Murch on the film of "The English Patient," and who eventually interviewed him for hours and hours. A Knopf book, out a few months ago, I believe. Expensivo, so I'm waiting for the paperback. Impatiently. But I worry about whether I'll still remember that I'm looking forward to reading the book when the paperback finally does come out...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 15, 2003 12:19 PM

Only one comment - it never struck me that either of those movies was a horror movie. How odd of me, I guess. Both seemed to be the type of movie that are trying to get above their raising, and, that's, you now, bad taste.

Posted by: j.c. on March 17, 2003 04:30 PM

if you ever need something to doto widen your skills. produce an essay on comparing two horror movies from different eras and we can compare.
try nightmare on elm street and the ring
the first version of dracula and a newer version.

Posted by: vicki on July 10, 2003 08:32 AM


Posted by: SHARONNE on April 16, 2004 03:03 PM

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