Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Willy Wonka and The Horror Factory

Spoiler warning: This post contains spoilers for It Follows, Body Snatchers and Under the Skin.

General warning: This post is about horror movies. It's not explicit, but does contains some adult/disturbing themes.

At two, I was terrified of Sesame Street. As the furry cast waggled across the screen, moving and speaking as if alive despite having a sightless, boggling gaze, I was flung into the Uncanny Valley. Those ostensibly friendly monsters instilled in me a profound fear that I would not re-encounter until my aborted viewing of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory several years later.

Who thought this suitable for children?
On that occasion, my long-suffering parents had made the reasonable assumption that since I had loved Matilda and The Witches, I would also enjoy the film adaptation of Charlie. I was shaken by the fate of Augustus Gloop because of my deep horror of being submerged in or engulfed by any kind of viscous liquid (an unfortunate phobia for a 90s kid, given the decade's obsession with gunge), but I kept watching. I don’t remember the psychedelic journey that is often cited as the scariest moment of the film, but when it came to Violet Beauregarde, I lost it. Violet is a compulsive gum chewer who ignores Willy Wonka’s warnings about an untested stick of magical gum and is punished by being blown up into a giant blueberry.

Violet’s slow realisation about what is happening to her as she clocks the horrified looks on the faces of the other children is terrifying, as is the fact that the metamorphosis comes totally out of the - sorry - blue. I remember being almost overwhelmed with nausea as the scene played out because there was no way of knowing when it would end, when she would stop expanding and what would happen to her when she did.

I dashed across the living room and unplugged the VCR that had been recording the film, meaning that barring a restock of the local video rental store (like many other commercial regeneration enterprises in Gosport, this never happened), I would never be able to see the film again. Children of today, with your YouFlix and AmazonTube, can you even imagine how drastic and permanent a decision this was? Actually, children of today, this blog post talks about horror movies. You shouldn’t be reading it. Go outside.

I recently saw It Follows, an artsy Detroit-set horror film about a demon that relentlessly... follows... its victims wherever they go. It can take the form of an innocuous stranger on the street, a loved one, or a nightmarish, decaying ghoul. If it catches its victim, it will kill them. The demon is passed from person to person via sex and only pursues one at a time, meaning that it's possible to rid oneself of the demon by hooking up with someone. However, salvation is only temporary, because once the demon has killed its quarry, it just resumes following the person who gave it to them. Once a person has it, they'll never be free.

It had been billed as one of the best horror films of recent years, so I went in with high expectations, but while I enjoyed the art direction, soundtrack and premise, at no point was I ever really afraid. The film was undeniably well-crafted and delivered a couple of satisfying adrenaline rushes, but with its pure logic and clear threat, It Follows just didn’t deliver the kind of haunting horror that succeeds in keeping me awake for days.

And that was disappointing. You see, much as Violet’s ordeal had spooked me, it had also revealed something I didn’t know existed: a sealed capsule within my mind that contains a primal fear of the unknown, and unknowable. Once the nausea had passed, I actually began craving the rush the scene had incited, because with it came a thrilling glimpse into the void that I could not catch in any other way.

This was before normal people had the internet, and my responsible parents were not in the habit of renting video nasties, so to chase this sensation I resorted to peeking through the banisters as they watched The X-Files, and asking friends with older siblings to describe 18-rated movies. Although I was a little freaked out by their whispered synopses of IT and Candyman, it wasn’t until I was left alone with my incredibly old grandparents at age 11 that I saw my first real horror movie. 

Or at least, the first half-hour of it. Body Snatchers, the 1993 remake of the McCarthy-era classic in which aliens abduct humans and replace them with emotionless duplicates, was being screened on Channel 4, and I got as far as the scene where some kindergartners are asked to show off their scribbly paintings and THEY ARE ALL EXACTLY THE SAME before I repeated my Willy Wonka performance by unplugging the TV and retreating to bed.

I guess reading books must have left me with an extremely overactive imagination because that one scene sent it into complete overdrive. I was sharing a room with my angelic little sister, and I couldn’t sleep because every time I closed my eyes I saw her fixing a blank stare on me before subjecting me to a process of unimaginable horror that would turn me into a pod-person, like her. Sometimes I drifted off, only to wake shortly afterwards in a cold sweat. Over the following days I would look at her as we played in the garden, unable to totally convince myself that she wasn’t out to get me.

I suspect that had I finished watching the film, I would have actually been less traumatised because I would have seen the method by which humans were transformed into pod-people, and it wouldn’t have been left to my feverish imagination to fill in the gaps.

I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about the Body Snatchers incident, so was heartened when a resurgence of the slasher trend in the late 90s let me test my limits in a safe environment: with friends, pyjamas and pizza. However, while Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer were character-driven thrill-rides that turned me into the teen movie buff I am today (another time, readers), neither film scared me because the killers had straightforward motives and their victims faced nothing worse than a quick – if bloody – death when they got caught.

I bypassed the torture porn fad that brought us Hostel and The Human Centipede (Mum, don’t Google those!) because I take no delight in extreme suffering. Besides, the whole point of splatter flicks is that they leave nothing to the imagination, and my imagination was the very thing I was trying to stimulate.

So imagine how... thrilled? …I was when I came across Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s loose adaptation of the Michael Faber’s sci-fi novel of the same name. Under the Skin is a deeply weird and disconcerting film most famous for putting Scarlett Johansson in disguise and having her drive around Glasgow in a transit van picking up men. Normal men, you understand, not actors, who didn’t realise who the driver was and what was happening until a film crew jumped out of the back of the van to ambush them with release forms.

But let's back up. In the novel, the Johansson character is an alien named Isserley who has been surgically engineered to appear passably human so she can seduce men and take them back to a farm her fellow aliens have set up somewhere in the Scottish highlands. There, the men undergo all sorts of nasty procedures to make them docile and tender before they are slaughtered and shipped back to Isserley’s home planet as a delicacy for the wealthy.

By subjecting humans to indignities not dissimilar to those used in real-life battery-farming, the novel is an effective satire on the practice. And, through the character of an "elite" who visits the farm only to express disgust at its practices and Isserley's compliance with them, it explores the nuances of the debate by showing how easy it is for the privileged to preach principles that only they can afford. 

The novel is explicit: the reader is told exactly what surgeries Isserley has undergone in order to re-shape her anatomy, what happens to her victims once they are captured, and what social differences exist between her and the elites. It’s as unsettling as you’d imagine it to be given the subject matter, but I didn’t find it scary because the characters’ motivations and the consequences of their actions are clear. 

The film adaptation, on the other hand, is very obscure and thus utterly terrifying. It is so distinct from its source material that it’s best to consider them entirely different works; while the novel is a straightforward - if grotesque - satire, the film is an impressionistic depiction of alienness. The events take place almost entirely from the alien’s point of view, with the human characters viewed mostly at a distance by an uncomprehending eye. 

As the alien, Johansson is for the most part completely inscrutable. It’s only towards the end of the film when, faced with brutality, she exhibits an identifiable emotion: fear. However, there are implications that not only is this something she has learned from the creatures she's been stalking, but also that identification with humans is an inherent risk of her job, and one that her ever-vigilant overseers are always on the lookout for.

But what is her job? The novel's unflinching descriptions of the torture the captured humans undergo are replaced in the film with almost hallucinogenic sequences that depict an incomprehensible process. One by one, the alien lures the men back to what looks from the outside like a dilapidated house, but inside is a seemingly infinite space filled with a viscous black liquid with an almost mirrored surface. She walks slowly backwards over the the liquid as if it wasn't liquid at all, while the men, enraptured, walk towards her, sinking gradually into the liquid until they are completely submerged.

To me, everything about this is terrifying. Of course, there's my aforementioned horror of being engulfed by a viscous substance. Far more horrifyingly, what's happening is completely beyond my experience or understanding. What is the substance? How does it work? Why isn't the alien sinking through it? Why do the men keep walking? Are they aware of what's happening? Is any of this real, or is it a hallucination on the part of the men, the alien, or both? What do the alien and her overseers want from the men, and why?

The scene I found most haunting is set beneath the surface of the inscrutable black lake, and is one of the few shot from a perspective other than the alien's. It shows her most recent victim suspended in the liquid and regaining some sort of consciousness before he catches sight of another pale, naked figure a short distance away. Unlike him, this second man is slightly distorted, his skin soft and puckered. The first man reaches his hand towards that of the other, and they touch: a moment of human contact in this featureless, emotionless alien environment. But as their fingers are entwined, the body of the second man starts to disintegrate from within, until suddenly it seems to implode, its insides vanishing completely, leaving its skin floating in the blackness like a popped balloon.

That this horrible, incomprehensible death seems to take place over several days while its victim is conscious is of course the stuff of nightmares, as is the fact that another man must witness it, thus learning of his own inescapable fate. There are many other disturbing scenes in the film, but this was the one that stuck with me because I simply could not get my head around the process, how the men could remain alive throughout, and what it must feel like.

This scene can be viewed in full here, but it's NSFW, very scary, and best viewed as part of the film as a whole.

I've read a few reviews that express little sympathy for these men because of how willingly they are led to their doom. They're pretty average guys, and yet it doesn't occur to them that this beautiful woman might be picking them up for any other reason than that she likes the look of them. They're shallow enough for her attractiveness to blind them to any possible danger, and arrogant enough to believe that their own allure must be strong enough for her to want to pick them up despite the obvious risks to a single woman alone in a vehicle with a man she doesn't know. Remember, this isn't just a plot contrivance; most of these men weren't actors, and really did get into a van with Scarlett Johansson thinking it was their lucky day.

This means that the film can be read as a feminist parable* of sorts: the film would make no sense (and could certainly never have been filmed using unwitting participants) if the genders had been reversed because most women's acute awareness of their own vulnerability would prevent them getting into a car with a strange man, no matter how attractive he was. Under the Skin punishes these men harshly for taking their safety for granted in a way women simply can't.

This real-life imbalance does frustrate me, but I'd rather women be safe than have men punished for acting as women cannot. The alien's victims might be the unthinking beneficiaries of an unfair system, but they don't mean any harm. This is why I do feel sorry them, just as I feel sorry for the impetuous Violet. She's an inquisitive, competitive, confectionery enthusiast who wants to get the most out of her once-in-a-lifetime visit to the greatest sweet factory in the world. These characters have normal, relatable impulses, which makes their weird, unpredictable punishments much scarier than they would be if they were consequences for bizarre predilections or highly transgressive behaviour.

Horror films with stupid protagonists aren't scary because the audience needs to be able to relate to them. Likewise, there's only so freaked out you can get by watching someone engaging in dangerous or extreme behaviour be confronted by the inevitable results of their actions. Those stories might be compelling, but to be truly scary the viewer needs to see themselves reflected in the characters. To be truly scary for me, this needs to be combined with the unexpected and the weird.

I am pretty glad the CGI that made Violet's transformation possible in Tim Burton's 2005 Charlie remake wasn't around when I was a kid. I don't think I would have been able to handle it.

Fair enough, you might be thinking, but why do I want to watch things that are "truly scary"? Isn't real life scary enough?

Well yes, actually. That's the point.

Like most people, I'm afraid of a handful of very real things, like global warming, nuclear war and cancer. I try not to think about the ones I have no control over while taking small steps to ward off the ones do. But even when I am engaged in recycling or exercising, I am not actually thinking about the outcomes I am trying to avoid. Quite the opposite in fact - my anxious disposition, overactive imagination and the reality that any one of these things could easily end my world means that if I were to devote more than a moment's thought to them, I would go mad.

As our species' intellect has grown, so too has its capacity to feel and sustain fear. In a world where most of us no longer need the burst of adrenaline that fear stimulates to escape predators, it no longer serves a useful purpose. Entertaining fears of real things, therefore, is a dangerous business, one that can cause us to act irrationally or cripple us with anxiety. Many of us try, quite sensibly, to eradicate fear from our lives for this reason.

I can't do that... or at least, I don't want to. I don't want to be overwhelmed with anxieties that would stop me living my life, but neither can I resist opening the locked box that contains my darkest fears. Well-crafted horror films let me do so in a way that is safe. They fuel my imagination, giving it the power to forge terrifying, shifting dioramas in which I can live for weeks before they burn out, leaving nothing in their place. Nothing real at least.

Nothing to fear.

*Some good feminist analyses that touch on this aspect of Under the Skin can be found at These Girls on Film, Abstract and GroupThink. They go much further than I have done here, and also discuss the very sad but undeniably beautiful ending, so really are best read after you have watched the film.

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