Strange Associations

My last post got me thinking about the films I saw alone when I was a teenager, and being that it’s October I’m also thinking about horror.

In the year 2000, I turned seventeen, which was glorious because I could see any horror movie I wanted even if the theater employees asked to see my ID. Luckily that year, The Exorcist: The Version you Never Seen was released. Much to my horror-geek shame, I had yet to see The Exorcist—all of my friends refused to watch that movie, and it was never on the shelf at the rental stores.

One Saturday, I caught the matinee. It was early enough that the theater was mostly empty, which usually was a sure-fire way for me to scare myself silly. I knew that I was going be terrified, jumping at the slightest scares and questioning why I keep watching these type of films. Yet sitting alone in the dark, I did not feel scared. I watched the film with interest. I enjoyed the plot, the characters and the special effects, but that familiar feeling of fear was not there.

Now one would think that I had finally grown old enough to no longer be scared by movies, which is obviously not true. Just last month I finally sat down and watched The Mothman Prophecies, an utterly silly film. There was one bad jump scare where Richard Gere turned over in bed to find his dead wife right next to him. I literally jumped out of my seat and yelled “Debra Messing!” (Unfortunately, there were two witnesses and apparently bad jump scares are now known as “Debra Messing” moments.)

Why, if horror films of any quality still scare me, did my first viewing of one of the best horror films ever made fail to scare me? Even then, as I exited the theater, I knew I should be frightened that the scares were tailored made for someone like me.

When I got into my car, like many teenagers, before I even buckled my seat belt, I selected which tape I would listen to on the ride home. There I found a cassette of music I was introduced to by my father. My father never particularly cared for popular music, preferring classical and instrumentals. This particular album he claimed to have played on headphones, which he then put on my mother stomach while she was pregnant me. I remember listening to it when I was little, coming up with a story that went along with each song. The album was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

Yeah, that Tubular Bells.

The theme to The Exorcist, a theme, like that of Halloween, where the very sound of it makes people afraid. Yet this music, because I always associated it with happy childhood memories did not scare me. The moment that music starts playing whole audiences feel the clenching dread in their chests, but I feel safe even comforted.

One of the scariest films ever made fails to frighten me, because my father, not knowing that it was used in a horror film, shared music he liked with his daughter.

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A Little Epic with my Fairy Tale

(Spoilers: read at your own risk)

I saw Snow White and The Huntsman yesterday, and for the most part I’m happy with the film.  The filmmakers tried to combine the style of a fairy tale with that of an epic fantasy, a la Lord of the Rings, and for the most part it works, but I suspect that some of the elements that are more true to the style of fairy tales may throw some viewers off.  Some of the reviews I’ve read complain that things happen without explanation and characters appear flat, which to me seem perfectly normal when viewed from the context of a fairy tale.

With most movies and fiction we expect a certain amount of complexity.  We want complex characters who have clear or interesting motivation.  We want to understand how and why things happen.   However, fairy tales and folklore do not function on this level.  Fairy tales are not interested in exploring characters.  In most fairy tale you have characters who must leave home and go into the world.  The characters simply change their place or rank in the world, but if you look at the characters themselves they do not change.

In Snow White and the Huntsman, the character of Snow White struck me as being very much the same person she was at the beginning as she was at the end.  All that changed was her place in the world: from princess to prisoner to fugitive to rebel to queen.  Some of the reviews mention that there is no interesting character arch for her and her motivations seem unclear.  However, her arch is that of a fairy tale protagonist, which by its very nature is flat.   Cinderella or the Brave Little Tailor start out with the same characteristics that they have the end.  In fact, the moment in the film that rang false to me was when her character was expressing doubts about her ability.  It seemed that the film was playing lip service to what we expect from a character in her situation (though this may simply be a flaw in the acting).

The problem of merging a fairy tale with fantasy epic becomes clear here.  Since the other characters are presented as characters like those from an epic with understandable motivations, Snow Whites lack of motivation is all the more obvious.  Especially when held next to the wicked queen.

Charlize Theron as the evil queen

Charlize Theron does a wonderful job playing the queen, and her performance is worth the price of admission alone.   In the film there is brief flash back of the queen’s childhood.  When she was about eleven or twelve her village is attacked and the queen’s mother casts a spell on her to ensure that she would remain fair, since her beauty would save her and her brother’s life.  We understand why she is obsessed with beauty and youth, if you’re fair the soldiers keep you alive.  The implication of what happened to her, even though she was still a child, is clear.  This woman has been so victimized that she never wants to be helpless again and wants to destroy the world were such things happen.  Theron’s queen is one of the most terrifying film villains that I have seen in a long time, but unlike a fairy tale villain she has clear motivation.  And while she may terrify the audience, we can’t help but sympathize with her.

Another problem audiences may have is that some things just happen.  When Snow White escapes from the queen there is a horse that she just finds.  I suspect people will ask were the horse came from, but that was a moment that felt like a fairy tale.  As Maria Tatar points out in her book The Hard Fact of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, in fairy tales “ preternatural events and supernatural intervention are taken wholly for granted.”  Here Snow White escaping by following two birds she had helped, and they provide a method for her escape.  We see this type of thing happen all the time.  In Aschenputtel (the Grimm’s Cinderella) two white doves provide the dress and slippers.

Some may think that I would be bothered by how this film meshes the two genres together, but fairy tales come from an oral tradition, where depending on the audience the teller would add detail.  Even in the literary fairy tale tradition we see this happen: Perrualt and the Brothers Grimm added and removed details all the time.  Fairy tales have always been malleable that is part of why I enjoy them so much.  I love looking at what the different versions offer us—the tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” is all the more interesting for “Little Red Cap” and “The Story of Grandmother.”

Snow White and the Huntsman is fun retelling that highlights the different aspects of the story.  Oh, it is not perfect.  I still find Snow White the least interesting character in the story.  (She reminded me of the character in a first person shooter that the player has to rescue but who keeps wondering off and getting themselves killed, so the player must redo that level.)  The scenes in this film are beautiful though oddly similar to scenes in other films (the forest spirit scene is an obvious homage to Princess Mononoke).  Ultimately, if you’re a fairy tale fan (not to be confused with a Disney fan) you will probably enjoy this film, or at least have interesting conversations about what annoyed you.

The spirit of the forest from Snow White and the Huntsman

Dreading the Remake

About a year ago, I put Dark Shadows in my Netflix queue.  I always had a certain ambivalence towards the show.  There are vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies and ghosts, how could I not love it.  Oh, it’s soap opera, damn.   With the exception of Soap, I’ve never enjoyed soap operas.   But, I come across references to Barnabas Collins all of the time, and ultimately I felt that I should give the show a chance.  In a year, I’ve watch about four episodes.

I haven’t really seen enough to know if the show is good or bad, but production values on a 1960’s black and white TV show are distracting.  I don’t think anyone could watch the below scene, the introduction of Barnabas, and not laugh when the music plays dramatically at the reveal.

Keep in mind, the audience has already watched a scene where a man breaks into the coffin of Barnabas only to scream (hilariously) and have a hand grab his throat.  The audience knows what exactly is going on, the reveal is not in any way surprising.  I can’t help but feel this show, if not good, is at least fun in the MST3K kind of way.

You can all guess where this is going: I recently saw the preview for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows.  I’m actually surprised that I hadn’t already heard more about this film.  I have a long relationship with Burton’s films.  Batman Returns was the first Batman film I ever saw, and it led to me jumping on the bed while wearing a cheap plastic mask and brandishing my jump rope as whip (I was eight).  If not for that film, I would’ve never read the Catwoman comics, which led to my current comic hording ways.  I loved Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Big Fish. I even enjoyed Mars Attack! 

Yet something happened with Burton’s films.  I remember seeing Sweeney Todd  and feeling that I should enjoy this film, but something about it felt off.  I think that Burton, instead of trying something new, was just rehashing all the stylistic elements that worked in his earlier films.  Burton was imitating himself.  In Alice in Wonderland this became obvious (that is not to mention my literary-nerd rage at a heroes journey arch being forced onto Lewis Carroll’s characters).  And now, Burton has made a Dark Shadows film

I suspect that actual fans of the original show could die from watching this preview.  Remakes are a tricky business even if you’re staying within the original’s genre.  Turning a gothic melodrama into a comedy is going to be even more tricky.  I think that Dark Shadows does provide potential for comedy itself, but from the tropes the show actually uses.  But, as my uncle pointed out, Burton’s film looks a lot like Austin Powers.  There is time travel (trapped in coffin instead cryogenic freezing) and a fish out of water comedy (an eighteenth century vampire in the seventies instead of a sixties swinger in the nineties).  I find it interesting that events from the show that took place in the sixties were moved to the seventies, and I suspect that was in part to avoid the Austin Powers comparison. And boy, don’t the seventies look more groovy or funky, or whatever the slang was at the time, than the actual decade was itself.

The truth of matter is a vampire as fish out water comedy could be fun, and if not for the connection to the earlier show I may have been more willing to approach the film as a guilty pleasure.  However, when you remaking film you need to keep something of the original’s heart and soul intact.  Remakes should be a love letter to the original material; they should make people interested in seeing the original.  If your going to change so much that you alienate the fans of original to get an audience that does not or will not enjoy the source material, why not change the names, make it something different. Of course, I’m basing my judgment on a preview that maybe misrepresenting film, or maybe later on in the original show they started incorporating disco balls and lava lamps.