Friday, 26 November 2010

The Exorcist, Let the Right One In and the horror film genre

I‘ve just read the film critic, Mark Kermode’s, autobiography, It’s Only a Movie. This is a wry summary of a life spent in darkened rooms and his futile assaults on artistically impoverished summer blockbusters. In the film world, the critic’s pen is not mightier than the Hollywood studio publicity machine. Kermode is not only famous for his quiff but also for his knowledge of the horror film genre."I am now a very happy horror-film fan," he writes, "who has derived hours of harmless pleasure from watching people pretend to disembowl each other with chainsaws."

Kermode's favourite film of all time is William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, The Exorcist, which he has “seen about two hundred times (I stopped counting after the first hundred)”. He has written definitive and peer group acclaimed academic studies of this film. Here is Kermode firing on all evangelical cylinders but, along the way, making interesting points about the positive aspects of the horror genre:

The first viewing (of The Exorcist) passed in an almost orgasmic whirl of fear, and remains one of the most genuinely transcendent experiences of my life. Rarely have I been more aware of being alive and in the moment than in the two hours that it took the movie to run through the projector that night. People talk endlessly about the damaging effects of horror movies but too little is heard about the life-affirming power of being sacred out of your mind – and, in those very rare cases, out of your body. You ask me if I think there is more to this world than the grim “realities” of ageing, disease and death, of mourning and loss, and I will refer you to that first viewing of The Exorcist during which my imagination took flight, my soul did somersaults, and the physical world melted away into nothingness around me. I don’t think that there is a spiritual element to human life, I know it because I have experienced it first-hand, and I have horror movies to thank for that blessing.

The Exorcist is clearly an accomplished film on all sorts of levels (I’m, not surprisingly, particularly interested in its perspective on the Catholic priest) but I’m not sure it would make it into my top ten films. I also admit to knowing next to nothing about the horror genre which exists at the periphery of my cinematic vision and knowledge. The Exorcist, along with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Kubrick’s The Shining are all films of exceptional artistic quality and yet the horror genre as a whole is too camp and predictable for my tastes.

In 2008, I began to read the rave reviews of an indie Swedish vampire movie called Let the Right One In. Curiousity got the better of me and one afternoon, I took myself off to a matinee performance. Let the Right One In became one of my favourite film of that year.

The film circles around the relationship of two outsiders. Twelve year old, Oskar, is bullied at school and without proper parental support, he must fend for himself emotionally and practically at home. New neighbours move in next door and Oskar meets the mysterious Eli. An adolescent romance begins to develop between them which is handled by the director, Tomas Alfredson, with real tenderness and humour. They are “a pair of star cross’d lovers” and in Eli’s case she can only appear when there are stars because she is a teenage vampire.

Let the Right One In directs the horror genre to a new territory where the fragility of all our loves and relationships are examined. The sense of being misunderstood that is so common in adolescence (and such a staple ingredient in films about adolescence) acquires an added depth when the individual that is misunderstood is a vampire. Let the Right One In is no gore fest but a more melancholy meditation on those insurmountable barriers that make love impossible. This is Catcher in the Rye with fangs.

Let the Right One In has just experienced an American makeover as Let Me In. This new version (which stays reasonably faithful in terms of narrative structure to the original), directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), is worth seeing in its own right. The action has been transposed to the United States of the 1980’s, but the essential elements remain the same. The most significant change is that this feels much more like a conventional horror film. There are more shocks, more breaking of necks with attendant Dolby sound effects and more CGI. Given this directorial slant it is inevitable that the horror displaces the ambiguous romance and makes it a less disturbing film than the Swedish original.

These films may not have convinced me of the importance of the horror genre. They have, however, made me question my prejudices and that can never be a bad thing.

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