One of my pet peeves in writing or contemporary speech is the lazy way people will misuse the adverb “literally.” So much so, that the line I’ve stolen most often from blogs or message boards was when an acquaintance said a few years ago, “When people misuse ‘literally’ that just makes my blood boil–and I mean that figuratively.”
When I say then that I found parts of Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.’s The Thing unwatchable, I’m reluctant to rush to contextualize that observation by stating that I really do mean that literally. I don’t say that it was a poorly conceived or executed horror film. It certainly seemed competent and, for all I know, it may very well be more skillfully done than most horror films. I just mean that I found it more disgusting than scary. I couldn’t watch not because I was afraid of what might happen but because I pretty much knew (even without it being a prequel) what would. All the money and imagination went into making it possible for them to actually show (as opposed to just imply) me things that I didn’t want to see.
As is sometimes the case when a film totally loses me, my mind wandered to some weird places. I started thinking that horror films are a bit like the NHL of movies–no casual fans, just hard-core aficionados who complain that the public at large doesn’t truly appreciate the finer points of the thing they love and an industry that seemingly steadfastly refuses to develop new fans by doing what it needs to do to to make it easier for those new fans to sample its product.
The contrast between the level of violence, gore, and gruesomeness in the average horror film and anywhere else is such that I have to believe that those who can watch are only those who have built up a tolerance through repeated exposure. For a person (like me) who may not have seen more than two or three horror films since John Carpenter’s The Thing, there does not appear to be any real intermediates in this genre. Everything is bigger, louder, longer, more explicit, more gruesome. Thirty-two years later, just the thought of the memory of the creature bursting out of a human chest in Ridley Scott’s Alien makes my throat feel tight and my mouth grimace. It is (and was) so gruesome that I can barely watch that scene if the clip is shown in some documentary or other (such as Sophie Fienne’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema). Today that scene would be a blip in a movie like The Thing. How many different times can we do it and in how many different ways? Can we have two heads instead of one? Can they burst out of different places in the body? Can it start chewing off someone else’s face while it is still bursting out of the first person’s body?
I am, of course, aware of the fact that this judgment says as much or more about me as it does the film. Knowing that I am not a fan of contemporary horror movies in general, I took a friend with me to the screening of The Thing who professed that horror is his favorite genre. “These days everything is CGI and jump cuts” he said. “There’s nothing really scary.”
It is hard for me to wrap my head around that sentiment, but I think I share it. It may be cliche to say that in classic horror less is more–that nothing you actually see is as scary as what you might imagine. It’s probably even more cliche to suggest that the saturation of sex and violence in our media blunts our sensitivities. I think there is another element at work, also. The CGI effects are so over the top that we instinctively process what we are seeing as not real. Hence, it is not really scary, nor really horrific (because we know it is not really happening–there is never any suspension of disbelief). It is just gross or disgusting.
There’s fangs and tentacles and exploding body parts and half formed mutated body parts and burning tentacles and burning half-formed, mutilated body parts and then there is a brief respite and then there is more of the same only louder, longer, and melted together into one uber-pile that looks like someone mashed up Dali and Magritte paintings and then the person who was in it had a nightmare after reading Dante’s Inferno.
It seems to me that in true horror there is some suspense, some dread. You are afraid of what might happen and you almost want time to stop. Your largest hope is that somehow–you don’t know how–the characters might avoid whatever thing (killer, monster, disaster) seems to be their inescapable fate. It is probably a mark of how little I cared about any of these characters as characters, how little I thought of them as real people as opposed to simply the raw material to be compositionally blocked with special effects in some technical way–that the more the film went on and the fewer people were left, the more I found myself not hoping that any of them would avoid having some gruesome fate but rather saying: “Okay, let’s just get on with it. We’ve clearly got a series of escalatingly brutal and gruesome deaths planned for each of these characters, so the sooner we get to the next one the sooner we can move on and eventually be finished.”