Friday, January 18, 2008

Hopes for 2008: Horror rediscovered in Cloverfield and The Signal

Okay, so when I did the "movie projections for 2008" post, I said I would do two more to follow it. I may end up only doing this one more; my other projection didn't hold up so well, once I started working through it on-screen. At the time, I was going to talk about comic book movies. Now I think I'm going straight to horror.

I haven't seen Cloverfield yet. It's right up there with No Country for Old Men and Juno on the "movies I need to hurry up and see" list, but sometimes that list just doesn't get taken care of. Instead of commenting on the movie directly, I'm going to comment on what I've surmised from trailers... after all, this is a "looking forward" post, rather than a movie review. I'll also talk a little about another movie coming out, The Signal, and I'll discuss the general history of horror a bit.

Frankly, I was impressed with the presentation of Cloverfield in its advance promotion. The trailer had me genuinely interested, using the sense of immediacy and alarm to generate fear, rather than the sudden noises and creepy children that have become tricks of the trade. It set up a sort of vast unknown to be confronted, and it left its monster so indeterminate that there was no way for the viewer to really confront an image directly. In some scenes, it looked giant, and in others, it looked like a humanoid-sized beast. All we, as the audience, could see was the devastation and fear that it generated.

When I first saw the trailer, I seriously hoped that this would be the movie version of Watchmen. There is a movie version of Alan Moore's graphic masterpiece in the works, and most of his fans are skeptical... if they had taken this grim, epic, uncertain angle on it, it might have made it genuinely fresh. If you haven't read the comic, I'm sure you don't understand what I'm talking about. You should go read the comic.

The power in this trailer, I think, is a power that horror has largely surrendered during the last decade. If you go back to the roots of horror... the old gothic tales, like Melmoth the Wanderer... you discover stories that are entirely submerged in ambiguity and shadow, where the most powerful forces are the ones never described (Melmoth's dire words to each of his victims, from whence they always turn away). This trend continues through into the classic Tales of the Strange, like Lovecraft and his cohorts and influences. Lovecraft's stories were always built around phenomena that seemed complex and inexplicable... malevolent elder Gods who were so rooted in history that the reader couldn't hope for anything but an ominous surface knowledge of them.

Unfortunately, I fear Lovecraft may have started paving horror's new path, out of fear of the unknown and into the giddy panic of violence and self-preservation. Some of his stories, like The Rats in the Walls and The Colour Out of Space, were truly, entirely enigmatic, but others, like the Cthulu story itself, climaxed with a terrifying description of the creature at the source of the story's trauma. Before Lovecraft, I don't know if writers ever brought their stories to a climax where the supernatural adversary was confronted in the flesh. That's a trend that has changed with modern horror.

I'll skip over the discussion of literature... from Pet Semetary to R. L. Stine... and side-step into cinema. Horror movies have largely replaced the terror of the unknown with the embodied enemy, whether in the furnace-blasted skin of Freddy Kruger or in the TV-escaping little girl in The Ring. Jack Torrance, Michael Myers, and Leatherface are all embodiments of horror, but not in the soul-shaking sense that Lovecraft mastered. They are embodied as physical threats, as icons of torture, pain, degeneration, and of our own vulnerability.

This is the trend that I hope these new horror films will turn around, at least for a moment, in 2008. Cloverfield presents a gathering of tension around an invisible force too vast for anyone to really confront, and the individual characters only see a fragment of the picture. That sense of uncertainty and limitation is a key element in classic tales of fear, and it manifests in some similarities. Just as Lovecraft always wrote his stories from the limited point of view of an observer, usually as a troubled memoir, so in Cloverfield, Reeves' vision is through the lens of an individual's handheld camera, perhaps imbuing the experience with the same fear of the unknown that Lovecraft was so powerful in inspiring.

Of course, Cloverfield is walking a fine line. If we're shown the monster at the end of the movie, it might destroy the enigma that made the concept so powerful. If we never see the monster, we may just feel cheated and manipulated. That's the danger of locating your terror in a single malevolent force (like Cthulu, for instance)... you catch yourself in the space between the vast unknown and restitution with the enemy.

The Signal is the other movie that looks like it has a lot of potential, and if Cloverfield's embodiment of the enemy is its weakness, The Signal might find its strength in its refusal to give us this indulgence. While the poster is a little cheesy, the footage shown in the trailer is compelling, with the unpolished, unflinching quality of an indie film. The premise described in the trailer -- the mysterious signal that seems to randomly awaken a bestial impulse in people -- is strange and terrifying, because it doesn't give us a sense that there's an enemy, or an external threat to confront. Instead, it suggests a world that we can't count on, a fragment of humanity that we can't possibly account for.

This is a frightening premise: the keystone of our functional lives is the fact that we live in a world where people share the same sense of order, and when this keystone is removed, the whole thing seems to topple around us. These characters have always built their own identities on their sense of shared experience, on their relationships with the people around them. When these people spontaneously become murderers, it threatens our own integrity as individuals, as well.

In a sense, this is a reconstruction of the "zombie" premise... it's frightening that within each of us there may lurk a cannibalistic, unreasoning ghoul. However, Signal does something exciting with it. Even in zombie movies, the fact that the zombies are dead, or are infected with a virus and robbed of their active agency, allows us to see them as the radical other. In The Signal, there's nothing different between you and the person next to you who just turned homicidal. You have to confront "the other" without knowing what makes him any different.

Sublimation of the fear of the other into the fear of oneself... I hope The Signal manages to pull it off. It may be an exciting year for horror.

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