Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Abandoned: A concise history of horror movie cliches

So I keep seeing this poster for a new movie, The Abandoned, and I can't help thinking of... well... every horror movie made in the last ten years. I'm not saying it's bad. I'm not even into horror movies enough to make that call. But I've never seen a better example of a use of design encapsulating all the cliches of a cinema subculture. Let me list them for you, just for fun.

Note: this is a matter of breaking the poster down into codes, through which method I shall demonstrate that it's a beautiful permanent record of recent horror movie cliches... even ones you may not have noticed before.

1 - Representative content code #1: Doll

This cliche has been around for quite a while, and it's thoroughly representative of the trend in horror film in the last twenty years or so. We all remember Chucky the possessed toy in Childs' Play (I, II, III, IV, V?), and we've also seen posters for The Puppet Master and The Leprechaun. Somebody help me out... what exactly is it about dolls that makes them such an enigma, and so easily turned into an icon for disturbed psychology? Is it the artificiality, and thus the objectification and/or machination of the human body? Is it the soullessness implied by the unfocusing, unreactive eyes? Whatever it is, it's a hell of a theme.

2 - Representative content code #2: Bloody tears

This one is less common than the "deranged dolly" cliche, but it's still everywhere. Let's see... recent examples... it figured into a haunting nightmare scene in One Hour Photo, it was a core image in Madonna's Like a Prayer video, and apparently it happened in Stay Alive and Stigmata. Obviously part of the appeal is the emotional weight of injury and trauma, and part of it is the power of its Christian implications. In case you were wondering, there actually is a condition that causes you to cry blood. It's called Haemolacria.

3 - Stylistic device: cracked photo treatment

This is in reference to the fact that the image on this poster is riddled with cracks and decay, looking like something somebody pulled out of a pile of crap in a dusty attic. This is an classic horror movie thing, too, but especially recently: all the posters for Saw, Hostel, Nightwatch, Jeepers Creepers, The Hills Have Eyes, and even as far back as Rosemary's Baby had this kind of stylization, which sets you, as the audience, at a distance from the object of fear. After all, if you give it too much of a face and too much of an identity, especially in the movie poster, you're ruining the punchline of seeing the monster in his full glory for the first time.

4 - Title Convention: The BLAHBLAH

I keep seeing horror movies with one-word titles, preceeded by the article "The". Now, the absolute paradigm case is a plural group of people identified under an ambiguous title, such as "The Messengers," "The Innocents," "The Others," "The Ugly," "The Unborn," "The Brood," or "The Uninvited." The Abandoned falls right into that core group... a non-specific description of a faceless, soulless mass that waits outside your door, living dead style. Of course, if you expand your horizons a little, you get a TON of other movies with "The..." titles: The Ring, The Grudge, The Birds, The Thing, The Exorcist, The Antichrist, The Beast, The Believers, The Beyond, The Burning, The Cave, The Cell, The Changeling...

God. There are so many. I shouldn't have started with the horror movie list.

Anyway, that's my observation for the day. I think we should commend the marketing geniuses behind The Abandoned for giving us such a concise record of horror culture, without a whole lot of extra "creative" stuff to water it down.

A question, perhaps for my readers ("The Nonexistent")... how much of this stuff goes back to literary horror? Obviously bloody tears go back to the bible, more or less. How about the other codes? It strikes me that "creepy dolly" themes are fairly recent, but they could potentially be traced as far back as The Golem from Jewish folklore. The "cracked photo" themes? Probably pretty recent, especially since they seem to depend on reproduction and alteration of illustrations. How about "The BLAHBLAH"? Were there a lot of horror stories with such titles, back before horror was truly a cinema phenomenon?

As someone who's outside the horror culture, these are questions I'm not qualified to answer. Does anyone have anything for me?


Kelly said...

First off, dolls: I find dolls kind of creepy for the reasons you listed, but more specifically because they look like tiny inanimate people, that then in horror movies become animated. Their lack of animation, especially in the face (even when able to move around using arms and legs) is really inhuman, but they're still a simulacra of humanity. Does that make sense? Better said: they resemble humans enough for us to subconsciously assume that they're like us and function under the same rules, which makes it scarier when they don't and become all evil and stuff. Also, their small size kinda freaks me out too. Don't know why that is. Probably for the same reason children being evil is scary: it's a force you should be able to overpower by sheer size alone, but you can't for whatever reason. Oh and I think that ties in with my last point: a doll is a token of childhood, something that's supposed to be a safe toy you play with. When a doll takes on its own powers you don't manipulate it, it manipulates you or tries to overpower you or something.

On a literary level, there's a long precedent of children at the center of horror. Henry James's The Turn of the Screw is a good example, and there are plenty of non-classic texts I can think of as well-like V.C. Andrews's books for one. Dolls I'm not so sure about. Tears, I think there have been several examples. Actually in White Teeth, which is recent I know, there's a guy who cries bloody tears because of diabetes who also works for the nazis. Hm. And the cracked finish? Everywhere.

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