Drawing on Your Nightmares: Nihilism and Horror
As my previous posts show, I’m a little old-fashioned, though not completely retro. I’m writing this while watching The Ring (in this case I buy American) and dying to see the final episode of "Dexter" season four this weekend, and the last comic I read was the new issue of Hack/Slash from Tim Seeley and Devil’s Due Publishing.
This year I made an effort to get familiar with things I’ve missed from the genre. Driving through the desert in Nevada I listened to Dan Simmons’ The Terror, and I’ve tried one or two issues of every horror comic I could find, with this year’s standout being Joe Hill’s Locke and Key. I rented all of Rob Zombie’s movies, was bludgeoned by The Girl Next Door, bored by a pseudo-porn account of the Green River Killer’s story, and caught up on slasher films I’d missed (on purpose) in the eighties like Child’s Play, remakes like My Bloody Valentine, the recent “haunting” movies, and curiosities like DeNiro’s Hide and Seek. I occasionally cleansed the palate with a treat like The Orphanage and Let the Right One In, but there’s been a lot of bad horror this year.
Still, I have a lot of patience with bad. I’m a horror fan from an early age, so I had to be able to enjoy the bad. What I’ve found so boring in the current (fading?) torture porn trend is a worthless kind of nihilism. The epitome is the Halloween remake. I was blown away at how that story could be absolutely drained dry of suspense — Rob Zombie’s great with imagery, and that climactic scene has some cool ideas in it, but I honestly don’t know how he could craft that action to have such an utter lack of tension. Bad direction in service of lyrically ugly art direction has a lot to do with it, but what appears to be the director’s lack of compassion for any of his characters, and our lack of investment, is the biggest reason. The nihilistic approach to character and plot leaves no room for sympathy — I bet the filmmaker, and fans of the film, would scoff at the idea of compassion or sympathy; they might see nihilism as synonymous for realism. But John Carpenter would tell you that Laurie’s story doesn’t work without connection. Otherwise it’s just exploitation, for viewers who get off on watching a psycho hunt sexy but unlikeable teenaged girls.
However, I’d say the nihilism works great in The Devil’s Rejects, the only Zombie film I like. There, his view of a corrupt and compassionless world is complete, compellingly ugly, and the plot works without our caring for anyone — caring would just get in the way of the spectacle, and the spectacle is impressive, titillating in its amorality. But that effect gets old, and what Rob Zombie achieved in Devil’s Rejects isn’t worth seeing again in Wolf Creek — nor is it achieved as well there—or in all the other relentlessly grim and grimy strolls down brutality lane.
Consider The Girl Next Door, if there were no characters you liked, no one you wanted to see saved (or doing the saving!), if the film wanted you to think that what was happening to the girl didn’t matter—grim, boring exploitation. Where’s the horror, the emotion, in that?
Comics can be guilty of this too, but it was a comic that helped me see what was missing in the films. Tim Seeley’s Hack/Slash is as ugly as a good ol’ underground comic, telling the story of Cassie Hack, whose mom was a Slasher—one of those gimmicky killers who gets a cool name, a rigid m.o., and a huge body count. Cassie kills her mom, and goes on the road with Vlad, a recovering Slasher, and the two hunt and kill other Slashers, making America safe for promiscuous teens. Cassie wears fishnets and short shorts, tanks and bras, anything to show off her body. But she has heart. Tim, the author, clearly loves her. Vlad, her sidekick, does too, for that matter, and Cassie has complex feelings for him, and for her friends, and grief over her mother’s deeds, and the fact that Cassie herself had to kill the old mater. What if Laurie Strode — Carpenter and Hill’s Laurie — really tarted it up and went out on a never-ending road trip of revenge?
When I saw the new Friday the 13th, I was glad to see nudity back in horror films. Horror fans often have some pretty prurient interests, and Hack/Slash plays to all of ’em. It’s a T&A gore comic, focused exclusively on horror clichés — but it’s done with heart; Tim indulges in prurient clichés because he loves them, but like the best genre stuff, he makes it work on many levels—good genre-fan service, but smart and sincere. Check out his latest—an affront to horror fans everywhere, it mixes Archie comics with H.P. Lovecraft, set in Archie’s real hometown, Haverhill, which happens to be in the same part of Massachusetts that Lovecraft set Innsmouth and Arkham. Further—Haverhill also happens to be the town where I went to college, and Rob Zombie grew up.
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