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Monday, May 02, 2005
Horror on my Mind
I finally managed to finish Richard Matheson's Hell House. I found it more readable than most of the other Matheson works I've attempted, and I can certainly see why it has attracted the reputation it has, but at about the quarter mark it started to become really difficult to not see the work as a reaction to other haunted house novels. Specifically, much of the book feels like an attempt to masculinize the genre of the haunted house story in response to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Where the exploration of the "most haunted house" in Jackson's novel is intuitive in nature, in Matheson's it's left up to men of science. Where the exploration of female sexuality in Jackson's novel is restrained and largely unspoken, in Matheson's we have naked women grabbing men and screaming obscenities. And where Jackson's central plot involved a woman trying to break free of her past and forge her own identity, in Matheson we get a man desperate not to be emasculated by failure.
Now, in general, I tend to think of the haunted house genre as a type of feminine literature, going all the way back to Horace Walpole's gothic masterwork The Castle of Otranto and it's preoccupations with heredity and sexual power-plays. On a very clumsily symbolic level, the home is generally the place where wives and mothers are in charge of the family, and so a threat to the home is a threat to the family, and by extension a threat in particular to the lead female character. Poltergeist is about a woman trying to protect her children, The Amityville Horror is about a woman trying to protect herself and her children from a potentially abusive husband (a step-father as well, if I recall, and we all know how well-ingrained in the popular consciousness is the notion that a step-parent is evil), The Entity is about a woman trying to protect herself from a sexual predator, etc. Even when violence against the family is not the central theme, a preoccupation with the idea of family is present. In Jackson's novel the house is haunted because, essentially, of a dysfunctional family, Eleanor is running from the memory of an abusive mother, and finds a new family in the house. In fact, when I stop to think about it, I can't really think of many works in the genre that don't have a woman at the center of the story.
Except, of course, for Hell House. It's no one thing in the novel that strikes me as a response to Hill House. I could be clumsy and point out that the initials of the house are the same in both. There is also the conceit of both books being about two men and two women investigating "the most haunted house in the world." And yet, despite the lack of overt references to Jackson's work, I still get the impression that, somehow, Matheson is responding to it by attempting to inject some testosterone into the genre. It's not that the novel is bad as a result. It's quite readable, has a trashy sense of fun to it, fails to take itself seriously, and is mostly worthy of it's reputation (thought it is not "the scariest haunted house novel ever written," despite Stephen King's thoughts on the subject on the back of my edition). It is simply that the hyper-masculinity of the book is so over the top they become distracting. As I said, naked nymphomaniacs throwing themselves at the men in the novel is something more akin to a Mickey Spillane novel than a supposedly scary story. Dr. Barrett's mid-life crisis attempts to prove the existence (or, rather, disprove...Barrett's methodology is rather muddled) of life after death, and the frustrated failures of that endeavor, are clearly rooted in some kind of emasculation fear. The book itself draws a direct analogy between the fact that Barrett is crippled in one leg with sexual impotence. Even the terrible secret of Hell House, the dark mystery that keeps Belasco imprisoned within in turns out to be so utterly banal and phallic. (Spoilers, for those encountering the story for the first time in IDW's comic adaptation) The revelation that Belasco is not "The Roaring Giant" of myth, but was actually short and had his legs surgically removed and replaced with longer artificial ones, I simply cannot find any way to read other than as a substitute for anxiety over a small penis.
So, it may be that the reason most good haunted house stories have a feminine tone to them is because that's what works within the genre, and injecting male anxieties and fears into that realm comes off as rather superficial and silly.
I've also been giving thought to horror movie trailers, as four have come around recently.
The new trailer for High Tension foregoes the very effective use of music and mood in the previous trailer for a slightly more plot-based approach, establishing the basic setting and set-up of the film, and also revealing that the film is, yes, going to be dubbed. I like the other trailer more, as this doesn't do much to distinguish itself from any other slasher films. But, any film that so clearly follows the rules of "the last girl" genre of horror is generally knowing enough about itself and the genre to be worth looking at.
Undead looks like it has an interesting visual style, with some apparent nods to Night of the Comet, but I'd have more enthusiasm for it it if it didn't look so annoying like yet another zombie movie.
I did not like House of 1000 Corpses. I thought it was an adolescent exercise in cinematic sadism with no merit or point to it at all. Which would have been fine, it if was the slightest bit original or entertaining. So The Devil's Rejects looks like more of the same, only without any of the pretenses to "humor" that the first film contained.
Nightwatch looks visually amazing, but I've been burned too many times by films that promised me stunning visuals and then failed to follow through with plot or story. And this "first film in an epic horror trilogy" nonsense has me very nervous that, potentially, the reach of the film-makers has exceeded their talent. Still, it does look very, very pretty and I will almost certainly make a point of going to see it in the unlikely event it plays anywhere near me.