Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Blood, Sweat, and Surgery

Let me begin with a caveat for those who are less than fully versed in the genre. There are certain truths we as an audience accept when watching modern horror movies:

1.) Everyone has terrible cell phone reception

2.) No one knows how to change a flat tire

3.) It is perfectly logical that the skinny chick in heels can out run the killer faster than her jock boyfriend

4.) When fleeing the killer’s basement and/or torture chamber the best route of escape is to whimper a lot, make as much noise as possible, and then summarily lock yourself in a room with no way out

5.) The villain cannot be killed by bullets, stabbing, strangling, or explosions but a porcelain lamp to the head will subdue him long enough for the girl to run into another inescapable room

6.) After receiving a 911 calling featuring a woman’s voice screaming, “Oh god help! He’s killing everyone!” the police will respond by sending one patrol car driven by a single officer armed with a flashlight

It’s going to take a new breed of horror film to break these conventions and, though it makes a few valiant efforts, “The Human Centipede” is just another replaceable soldier in the horror movie brigade. The film is saved, however, from its humdrum execution by its fairly original premise and the scenery devouring performance of its villain. The plot is simple; three tourists are abducted from the German countryside by the insane Dr. Heiter for his nefarious experiments. Where things start getting interesting is when we discover the nature of the good doctor’s lab research. I don’t want to give anything away but I will say that Dr. Heiter’s previous employment was most likely a rotation as the Chief Surgeon of the Wholly Unnecessary and Bat-Shit Crazy Procedures Department at Munich General Hospital.

The doctor, played with thin-lipped German menace by Dieter Laser, is both a throwback to the mad scientists of horror movies past and a personification of modern fears as well. We don’t fear being chased by knife-wielding maniacs anymore. A generation of children raised on unearned congratulations has produced and audience that thinks they can take down Jason Voorhees with a few punches from their Maori tattooed biceps. What people who were brought up believing they were God’s gift to the world fear most is the idea that they are impotent. That no matter how special they’ve been told they were does nothing to change the fact that they are flesh and bone and that the flesh and bone of even the most confident and posturing person is no less soft and brittle.

Look at films like “Saw” and “Hostel”. Torment and mutilation has replaced murder as the prevalent fear. Dr. Heiter kills only to protect his experiment, not out of sadistic joy. His sadistic joy, and the source of terror in these types of movies, comes from the idea of being left alive in agony. Americans believe that the world revolves around us and around our country and discovering the world (revolving around us or not) doesn’t care about your life and is often downright hostile to the way you live is revolting. The torture in these films is the real world putting us in our place. We have the biggest army, the fastest food, the loudest cars, and the shiniest cell phones but under the knife we bleed the same as anyone else would and that frightens us.

© 2010 Dan Howard.
All rights reserved.
Work cannot be reproduced for any reason without consent of Dan Howard.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Crazy Little Thing Called the Industrial Revolution

Imagine it is 1927 and you are German. The First World War is over, Hitler is more than a decade away, your country is making the best films in the world, and guys named Gustav are still getting laid freely. The century is just out of puberty and life is seemly good. But, like all twenty-seven-year-olds, this new century is part party animal and part angst-ridden heap on insecurity. The pastoral European countryside that your ancestors had tilled and plowed for a thousand years is becoming increasingly pock marked with grey, windowless leviathans called factories which seem to do nothing but inhale the working class and exhale smog. The future that they told us about at the end of the 1800’s is approaching in fast and as it gets closer we realize that Jules Verne was only half right. Technology is only captivating to those on the receiving end of it. The men behind the machines sacrifice limbs, eyes, lungs, and lives to keep them running and as industry grows larger the machines grow hungrier. But you can’t fight the future and progress is still progress, even if a few million people get tuberculosis in the process. So how does a country cope? Well, if you’re German (actually, especially if you’re German) the answer is, of course, expressionist cinema.

There has been nothing about “Metropolis” that can be said that hasn’t already been said by every single film professor ever for the last sixty years. But, achtung! Lost reels have been discovered hidden inside an Argentinean film vault and now the Film Forum in New York City is selling tickets. Minus five or so minutes of the film that was permanently destroyed “Metropolis” is now back to its complete two and half hour form. It’s wrongfully assumed that the uncut version is always the best one. Film historians would have you believe that the film was censored, another example of government spitting in the face of true art, but the reality is that only a few subplots and extended shots were cut for time. Nothing new is really gained from the additional forty-five minutes aside from the knowledge that the world’s collective attention span was much longer back then. Despite the new version dragging in some points the classic film is, of course, still there in all its art deco glory. The new footage does not dethrone Dr. Rotwang’s machine-woman as the film’s most iconic image. She is the ultimate metaphor for the film; humans becoming machines in service of the greater machine. I also like to refer to her as C-3PO’s hot mom.

The film, thought often labeled as “political”, is neither liberal nor conservative. Rather than warning of the dystopian future we are wrenching and ratcheting our way towards it resigns us to inevitability. Mother Nature, the Fatherland, and along with it the old life, had already died twenty years before the film was made. But in the bleakness of this ironclad future the director, Fritz Lang, offers hope. The old ways are long gone but humanity will find a new way, evil robots be damned!

© 2010 Dan Howard.
All rights reserved.
Work cannot be reproduced for any reason without consent of Dan Howard.