Wednesday, 27 February 2013

From Bates to Babes: The Little Deaths Part 2.

In Part One we examined the symbolic use of sex as creation and death as destruction in genre cinema. In the case of Norman Bates it is both, a cyclic journey without end. With the Italian movement of Giallo, which took its cue directly from ‘Psycho’, things got a little more blurred. Sex and death represented beauty. If art is destruction as well as creation Giallo films should have been the masterpiece, or at least a masterclass in the form. The films of Mario Bava, Sergio Martino and the Italian movement’s most famous son, Dario Argento, looked at murder as creation, as painting and ballet, (just look at 2010’s ‘Black Swan’ to see the influences). Though a lot of these films are rightly criticised today, a large number of them were pretentious or plodding, they gave birth to something that would change horror cinema forever.

Slasher films were Norman Bates mainlining cocaine straight to the brain. A fresh young director called Wes Craven took the noir of Giallo, Hitchcock’s suspense, 1950’s nuclear paranoia and rolled them up into a great ball of outrageous cinema. Though some would argue Michael Powell’s 1960 masterpiece ‘Peeping Tom’ owns that honour. Others may even tell you it’s ‘ThirteenWomen’ from 1932. Though I suspect much of the hype of the latter is largely due to the Hollywoodland suicide of Peg Entwistle. For me personally Craven’s debut film, ‘The Last House on the Left’ is the first true slasher. It’s widely known for echoing Bergman’s 1960 brutal film, ‘The Virgin Spring’ staring horror stalwart Max von Sydow.

Where films like Aregnto’s 1970 work, ‘Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ looks at murder as social problem curable by precise investigation, ‘The Last House on the Left’ shows it for all its grainy brutality. Craven’s debut was released in the same year as the best example of Giallo.  Fulci’s 1972 magnum opus, ‘Don'tTorture a Duckling’ dealt with death and sex as serious themes, setting the template for future Giallo, though none exceeded it.

It wasn’t long before the mystery thriller elements of Giallo and the nightmarish realism of Wes Craven were picked up and twisted. Horror is often like Frankenstein’s monster sat at the lake edge of genre with an innocent little girl; it takes the pure and squeezes the life out of it until it flails into a lifeless body.

The slasher genre had some great films. ‘Friday the 13th’, ‘Halloween’ and Wes Craven’s other great gift to the genre to that point, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ disturbed a generation. But a whole batch of Cannibal films, video nasties and anything else the video man had hidden under the counter in faux classic book cases was simply awful. Don’t get me wrong I love those films. They have a soft spot in my heart, even the really bad ones. But the slasher genre for all its faults and all it beautiful glories gave us something unsettling. It gave us a puritanical view and a moral code that horror hadn't really seen before.

Of course we always had the ‘Man versus God’ or ‘Man versus Nature’ films. Hell, we even had Norman Bates style prudeness that sex out of marriage was punishable with death. But with the idea that the college kids smoking a bit of pot, having a few beers, or God forbid getting laid, would all end up hacked up or nailed to a cupboard door was a bit too much. It was as though they took all those puritanical anti-fun propaganda films of the 1930s and tacked them on to horror. Horror became ‘Reefer Madness’ style public information films against all fun.

It took the godfather himself, Wes Craven, to shake things up yet again. Just when his greatest monster Freddie Kruger was becoming a cartoon caricature, Wes kicked horror and the slasher sub-genre he’d been so pivotal in creating into the furnace in the basement. He held up a mirror to the genre and broke the unwritten rule; he made fun of the things supposedly horrific. He not only held up that mirror, mostly and bravely at himself, he smashed the template so nobody could use it again.

While 1996’s ‘Scream’ was another leap in horror it was still obsessed with one aspect of the very origins. It had sexy young women in almost every scene. This was horror for boys to drool over while their girlfriends gripped their shoulders as Ghost Face leapt from hidden places. Sadly the ‘Scream’ franchise and its little sister ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ series fell into the same state as ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and all the other slasher overloads. Soft core, soft focus and sexualisation seem to be its greatest legacy.
In films like the ‘Final Destination’ series and all the way up to ‘Piranha 3DD’ it’s all about the babes and less about the blood. If you look hard enough you’ll find clever films with great scares, terrifying monsters and more than a splattering of sex either viscerally or psychologically. ‘Hellraiser’, ‘Silence of the Lambs’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Evil Dead’, ‘Videodrome’, Polanski’s ‘Apartment Trilogy’, ‘Martin’, ‘The Devils’, Alien (the whole film is about sex, birth and death), and David Cronenberg's entire back catalogue up to 2002’s ‘Spiders’ and so many more.

Sex and Death Today.

These days you’ll find little thread between sex and death at the cinema. Now and again a film will pop up that reminds you of Giallo, 2009’s ‘Amer’ for example. You’ll stumble on a sexy vampire flick, 2011’s ‘We Are the Night’ and 2012’s ‘The Moth Diaries’ are two great examples. Slashers however have become teenage cartoons, yet I still hold out hope for an original take on the much maligned sub-genre.

So sex and death is the same thing in horror it seems. Or different parts of the same beast. Much like in life I guess. Remember that beautiful French phrase, La petite mort, or The Little Death I spoke of in Part One? It's a metaphor for an orgasm. So you see, with sex we will always envisage the shadow of death lurking behind the bedposts.

   And for me at least, that’s what gives horror its real beauty.

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