Sunday, June 19, 2011

Killer Scream Queens -- A Horror Icon That's a Pinup Girl Rather Than a Threat

Genres are often confused with their icons. A genre is a set of story conventions. Icons are dramatic elements -- character archetypes, objects, settings, historical periods, etc. -- that recur throughout a particular genre, so that they become associated with that genre.

The vampire is a horror icon, though other genres also use vampires. Love at First Bite and The Munsters have vampires, but are comedies. The spaceship is a science fiction icon -- but Alien is a horror film.

Icons are a form of shorthand symbolism. Being symbols, it's easy for an icon to disengage from their "parental genre" and take on lives of their own. To convey meanings, and have a purpose, apart from their parental genre's goals.

The horror genre's goal is to inspire fear, usually through an Unnatural Threat (less often via a Naturalistic Psycho Gorefest). However, rather than frighten, some horror icons disengage from the horror genre and instead comfort, or sexually excite, or offer a sense of empowerment to the viewer.

Consider the blood-soaked Killer Scream Queen (as opposed to Scream Queens that are victims). Although this horror icon has perhaps been a threat in some films, today she is primarily a pinup girl. Audiences are not meant to fear her, but to identify/sympathize with her, and enjoy her massacres of (often male) victims.

Examples of Killer Scream Queen pinup girls include Chainsaw Chelly (right) from Dove Matrix:

Also consider this work of art, The Girl, The Chainsaw, from Million Gossip:

The Killer Scream Queen pinup girl has even become a whimsical Halloween costume. Ladies can purchase this Chainsaw Babe outfit from Sexy Costumes:

The Killer Scream Queen is a horror icon that's found a life outside of the genre. No longer threatening or scary, she is used primarily to...

1. Offer "strong" role models to women.

Some critics have accused 1980s slasher films of misogyny. Not entirely fair -- in the 1980s, slashers and victims came in both sexes. But female victims were more often, and more fully, exposed in all their nudity, so the accusation has a kernel of truth.

But the Killer Scream Queen is unabashedly reverse-sexist. She conveys an attitude of: "Now it's our turn to have fun with a chainsaw!"

Chainsaws (as opposed to knives or machetes -- which are smaller and lacking in power) are the Killer Scream Queen's weapon of choice. A Freudian (of which, I am not one) might suggest that these women are arming and empowering themselves with an especially big phallus.

There's an implication that, because these killers are women, it's liberated and progressive to enjoy their violence. One is not supposed to feel threatened by them, so much as to side with them. That's also true to some extent of ugly male killers (who have their fans), but even more so of attractive female killers.

At the 2010 Viscera Film Festival, co-founder Heidi Martinuzzi said that "Feminism is simply equality." Not all feminists agree with that definition -- or even agree about what "equality" might look like. Rosanne Barr has expressed disdain for Angelina Jolie's depiction of "strong women," because all Jolie has proven (according to Barr) is that women can kill in large numbers too. Barr describes Jolie's films "violent" and "psychopathic."

Are female killing machines (such as Lara Croft -- and the Killer Scream Queen) "strong and equal" to men -- or have they merely surrendered their femininity for masculinity? By emulating male killers, have they proven the equality of women, or the superiority of patriarchal values?

2. Serve as the object of men's sexual fantasies.

Men are expected to regard the Killer Scream Queen as sexy, and a conscious effort is made to depict her as sexy. The Killer Scream Queen is invariably young and shapely. She might be buxom, but never overweight.

Although she is a horror icon, her rigid conformity to dominant beauty norms weakens the Killer Scream Queen's claim of also being a feminist icon.

Why are men attracted to murderous women? Perhaps for the same reason that women are attracted to murderous men. They imagine the killer will make an exception in their case, recognizing the force of "true love." The Killer Scream Queen will massacre the jocks who've bullied the nerd -- and then she will fall in love with the nerd.

Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers offers an example of the Killer Scream Queen as sex object (in a film, as opposed to her many pinup images):

3. A blood-drenched, chainsaw-wielding nymph has Shock Value.

The Killer Scream Queen offers an "in your face" assault upon "respectable society" that is always appealing to teenagers and marginalized subcultures. People who feel weak, ignored, or devalued sometimes feel empowered by identifying with horror icons. These icons are not perceived as threats, but as friends, compatriots, or avengers of bullies. Like some other horror icons, the Killer Scream Queen is popular because parents disapprove.

Consider this Twisted Sister video. Dee Snider, in typically freakish Heavy Metal icon makeup, appears on a poster. The father's disapproval upon seeing this poster elicits a smile from the son. (The father snarls, "Wipe that smile off your face.") Presumably, the son wouldn't enjoy Twisted Sister's music as much if the father were a fan.

Horror icons are losing their shock value. This is because...

A. Horror is big business. One can't offend Corporate America by buying its product.

B. Halloween has become an adult holiday. It used to be only for children, but Boomers largely refused to give it up upon attaining adulthood. Today parents are more likely, than in the 1950s, to share their children's interest in horror.

C. Anything will lose its shock value over time.

In Horror Film Aesthetics, I enumerate Four Appeals of horror: 1. Catharsis, 2. Metaphysical Transcendence, 3. Sympathy for the Other, and 4. Ideological Palette

The Killer Scream Queen's appeal is primarily a case of Sympathy for the Other. Her fans see her as an attractive symbol of empowerment. They don't so much fear her, as wish they were her, or were dating her. She is a horror icon with little horror bite -- a figure of comical fun and sexual excitement.

Horror requires threatening threats, and vulnerable victims, otherwise there's little to fear. The more we have Sympathy for the Other -- the more we empathize with the killer as opposed to the victim -- the weaker the horror.

To lesser degrees, the Killer Scream Queen sometimes functions in an Ideological Palette (as a symbol for some political message or other), or Catharsis (when she is threatening sympathetic characters -- which is not too often).


For more about the appeals of horror see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Burrowers -- Western and Horror Morph Rather Than Mix

The “horror western” is a subgenre of the horror genre, not the Western. The horror western uses Western icons (e.g., Grim Prairie Tales), but its story conventions and atmosphere are horror. It is marketed toward -- and attracts -- horror fans, not Western fans.

Horror westerns normally mix these two genres from the start. We see the Western icons (the period locale, cowboys, Indians. etc.), but the story is soon, and clearly, horror.

The Burrowers is set in the Dakota Territories, 1879. But rather than blend the Western and horror genres, The Burrowers's strength is that it begins largely as an authentic Western. Only after the audience is emotionally adjusted to a Western does The Burrowers become a horror film.

The Burrowers opens on a romantic conversation, set on an idyllic Western ranch, a golden sunset in the background. Coffey with Maryanne, as they discuss how he will ask her father for her hand in marriage.

Minutes later, the first violent outbreak is typical of Westerns -- we hear gunfire outside the cabin. The family escapes to a cellar. They hear strange noises -- our first hint of an unnatural threat, as required by horror -- but we don't see any unnatural threats.

The family is killed. Maryanne is apparently kidnapped by Indians. (Audiences know it wasn't Indians -- but are lulled into believing that Maryanne may still be alive.)

For the next 44-45 minutes, The Burrowers is mostly a straight Western. Romantic photography, charging horses, beautiful prairie vistas -- supported by appropriate Western period music.

Psychologically, emotionally, dramatically, the characters are typically Western. The strong and silent Clay (very much a The Searchers, John Wayne type). The gentlemanly gunslinger Mr. Parcher. Coffey, the romantic Irish immigrant, riding to rescue Maryanne. Callaghan, the “noble Negro” (what Spike Lee calls the "magical Negro") -- compassionate, honorable, enduring racism without ever losing his dignity.

There is also an arrogant U.S. Cavalry officer, callous and cruel to both blacks and Indians. When he threatens to whip Coffey for “feeding my Indian,” the strong and silent Clay stares him down, ready for a gunfight, though outnumbered by the officers' troops.

Naturally, the officer backs down from the heroic Clay.

Throughout these first 44-45 minutes, there are intimations of horror -- the strange scars on a dead girl's neck; strange holes in the ground; something in the bushes that kills four troops. But overwhelmingly, The Burrowers's mise-en-scène, music, story, characters, and themes (loyalty toward loved ones and comrades; dignity in the face of adversity) are those of a Western.

The film emotionally conditions the audience for Western. Even if they know intellectually that they're watching a horror film, they feel like they're watching a Western. This conditions their expectations for a Western outcome. They anticipate (even if only subconsciously) that Coffey will rescue Maryanne. Most of the heroes will survive -- and if any should die, they will die noble, honorable, courageous deaths.

Yet as the film progresses, The Burrowers morphs from a Western into a horror film.

Midway into the film, Clay is killed. It's not an honorable death, but shocking and brutal. He dies not like John Wayne, giving a noble speech while heroically fading away, but is unceremoniously butchered like one of Leatherface's victims.

Clay's death is emotionally jarring. I regard this as the event that pushes the audience's mindset out of the Western genre, and into horror.

Things worsen. The monsters (vampiric “burrowers” living underground) reveal themselves. The unnatural threat becomes clear and visible.

The burrowers' bite poisons Parcher. As he fades over the course of the next day and night, he grows paranoid and cowardly. He shoots at his former comrades, lest they desert him.

In the end, he dies a coward's death. (His emotionally selfish state of mind is not unlike the cowardly jock in Jeepers Creepers 2 who wanted to abandon the weak ones, only to be killed himself.)

Callaghan likewise dies a senseless, ignoble death, the result of cowardice and incompetence. A victim of friendly fire, and an incompetent army surgeon (who perhaps callously amputated Callahan's leg, not much caring about a mere Negro's health). Callaghan, the “noble Negro,” dies like a piece of meat -- discarded like an anonymous victim in a slasher film.

Some friendly Indians die senseless deaths too, mistaken by the army as hostiles and executed. Much like Ben was mistaken for a zombie in Night of the Living Dead, and thus killed by a sheriff's posse. In horror films, innocents often die at the hands of incompetent authority figures.

Coffey fails to rescue Maryanne, or anyone else. He fails to bring proof of what he's learned about the burrowers. The army, by killing the friendly Indians, kills any hope of learning how to stop the burrowers. As in many horror films, the protagonists stymie, but do not destroy, the threat. Myers will return to kill again.

By starting as a straight Western (rather than a “horror western”), and only morphing into horror after the audience has been emotionally conditioned for a Western, The Burrowers solves a common horror film problem:
Horror requires an unnatural threat -- a sudden realization that (to quote from Frank Lupo's Werewolf pilot script) "The world is not as our minds believe."

The problem is that audiences get jaded after seeing so many horror films with the same unnatural threat -- be it a vampires, zombies, or uberpsychos. Familiarity breeds a sense of normalcy. Seeing them so often, we come to feel that they're commonplace, hence, natural.

As a result, horror filmmakers are challenged to find new ways to "creep out" audiences with a novel unnatural threat, some new threat that will overturn viewers' sense of reality.

Because most horror filmmakers can't rise to the challenge, they instead rely on gore and shocks (e.g., Devil's Grove).

The Burrowers solves this problem by starting as an authentic Western. Only after the audience is emotionally invested in a Western, with preconceived expectations of the characters' heroic deeds and successful fates, does the film emotionally jar them by segueing into a horror film -- when the characters are suddenly revealed to be cowardly and/or vulnerable.

Their deeds and deaths are typical for a horror film, but shocking to an audience that had forgotten they were watching a horror film.

Imagine High Noon if, during the last third, Gary Cooper suddenly turns cowardly, Grace Kelly is senselessly butchered like a piece of meat, and half the town massacres the other half in mindless mayhem.

The Burrowers demonstrates the emotional punch that comes of establishing one genre in the audience's mind, then defying their emotional expectations by morphing midway into another genre. A non-horror sensibility is established, into which any unnatural threat feels that much more unnatural.


For more about horror's overlap with other genres see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Circle of Fear's “Legion of Demons” - Staging of Actors Instills Fear and Paranoia

The 1970s was a golden age of televised supernatural horror. Back then, broadcast TV forbid graphic violence, even more so than today. This forced horror TV shows to create fear and suspense solely by non-gory means, such as story, music, and acting.

TV's Ghost Story (retitled Circle of Fear in mid-season) ran from 1972-73, and was canceled after only one season. Last seen on TV during a late-night rerun on CBS in the 1980s, little remembered, and unreleased on DVD [until recently], it's a gem of 1970s supernatural horror. An anthology series, with a different story and cast every week.

Its "Legion of Demons" episode demonstrates how the staging of actors can instill fear and paranoia in viewers.

Beth is an office typist. One day she's transferred to another division. Her co-workers are all friendly. Too friendly. Not scary, but slightly creepy.

After typing for a few hours, Beth opens her desk drawer -- and sees a disembodied hand! She faints. Her co-workers crowd behind her. They see nothing in the desk drawer. Yet we immediately realize there's something ominous about these co-workers.

The main reason for our suspicion is the staging. Crowded into a single frame, these co-workers form a tight and ominous group.

Grouped people can be menacing. Seeing a group standing or staring in opposition to the protagonist probably taps into a primal human instinct. The individual vs. The Tribe.

People gathered into a group are often cause for concern in a crime drama, as when a gang crowds about the protagonist. But horror often stages otherwise friendly people into a group (such as the co-workers in “Legion of Demons”) to instill fear and paranoia. Viewers feel paranoid, sensing that something is “not right” about those grouped people, though viewers can't logically justify their paranoia.

Horror films about alien invasions, or small town conspiracies, often stage the evil characters into a tight group that stands silently facing, or staring at, the protagonists. It makes viewers (who identify with the protagonist) feel like an Outsider facing a hostile, primitive Tribe.

This frame of Beth's co-workers grouped together, observing her after she has fainted, instills fear and paranoia because of the staging, but this fear is aesthetically supported by...

* The co-workers not panicking, or even reacting, to Beth's fainting. They just stare.

* Ominous music (composed by the excellent Billy Goldenberg and Robert Prince).

* A slightly wide-angle lens. This lens not only has the aesthetic effect of suggesting that these co-workers are cause for fear, but it has the pragmatic effect of allowing the director to squeeze all five people into one frame.

Later, when Beth awakes, she sees her co-workers standing over her. Unlike previously, it's a POV shot, yet once again this scene uses the same staging, calm demeanors, slight wide-angle lens, and ominous music.

The friendly co-workers explain to Beth that she fainted, and offer soothing words of comfort.

Of course, the staging, calm demeanors, lens, and music all imply that our paranoia, and fear for Beth, are justified.


For more about pragmatic aesthetics -- and the use of actors, lens, and music in horror films -- see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.