Thursday, October 14, 2010

i remember halloween

It’s October, and Halloween is on the way…which means I feel justified watching as many gut-munching horror films as I’d like.

Why do I love horror—and particularly the bad stuff? It must’ve started the first Friday night I was allowed to stay up super-late with my parents to watch the official Cudlin family movie on good old fashioned pre-VCR-era broadcast television: The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston.

For reasons I don’t fully understand, Omega Man defined my family and its relationship with film. My parents definitely responded to the campy bits—the diseased, medievalist albino death-cult in their black robes and mirrored sunglasses; the black power heroine Rosalind Cash, with her afro and leather outfit, slapping Heston around; the scene towards the end where (spoiler alert) Heston collapses in a blood-filled fountain, arms spread wide and knees crossed, in an unintentionally hilarious Christ pose.

But they were also mesmerized by the creepiness of key scenes: the last man and woman on earth laughing at row after row of dusty boxes of contaceptives in an abandoned drugstore; Heston screaming because he’s hearing a thousand imaginary telephones ringing; or any of countless scenes where, magically, a city is deserted and silent, populated only by abandoned cars and desiccated corpses.

I love movies that are hard to love, where actors tend to over-act and deliver clumsy, over-reaching monologues. I love outlandish scenarios being brought to life with visuals that are arresting, yet obviously artificial. I especially love imagining a world in which our institutions, our fellow humans, and even our own sanity cannot be trusted.

Re: end-of-the-world scenarios. Some of my favorites are nuclear war flicks, particularly from the early 1980s—see Threads, the way-more-horrifying British version of The Day After, in which, following a nuclear holocaust, all of Europe goes back to the dark ages. The police become marauding, hoarding gangs; people work desperately hard like serfs and die before reaching middle age; and as all memory of culture dies out, the English language itself disintegrates into grunts and crude gestures. (I think I could write a whole blog post about British disaster fiction and fantasies of Deep England.)

For now, I think there's only a region 2 DVD available of Threads...but you can watch pretty much the entire movie on YouTube, starting here.

In a sense, I think my relationship with horror films—with a certain stripe of horror film, anyway—has conditioned my relationship with fine art, or with any creative idiom, really.

Maybe it comes down to the separation of styles. Within the rigid limits of genre fiction, or humor/satire, or, well, any audience/artist relationship where definite expectations and rules seem to be in play, much is permitted that isn’t in ordinary discourse.

Horror and sci-fi in the 1950s, for example, provided an outlet for those feeling the everyday pressures of an exploding consumer culture, the demands for conformity in the face of the cold war, and the very real threat of annihilation—in 1958, a Gallup poll revealed that over 60% of Americans believed that half of the U.S. population would be wiped out at any moment by nuclear war.

With those kinds of pressures, it’s no wonder that William Gaines’s E.C. comics, starting in 1950 and lasting through the institution of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, captured something awful wriggling in the American subconscious—something that responded to flesh eating ghouls, games of baseball played with human body parts, and doomsday sci-fi scenarios involving Hitler, or someone like him.

There was a major backlash to all of this campy catharsis and bloody satire. Richard Corliss wrote an article for TIME marking the fiftieth anniversary of Gaines’s 1954 appearance before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency—an appearance that didn’t do the publisher any favors, and marked the beginning of the end for his “New Trend” comics:

They wanted to know about a house ad Gaines had run in all his magazines: “Are You a Red Dupe?” It noted that among the detractors of comic books was the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker and perorated, “So the next time some joker gets up at a PTA meeting, or starts jabbering about ‘the naughty comic books’ at your local candy store, give him the once-over. We are not saying he is a Communist. He may be a dupe. He may not even read the Daily Worker. It is just that he's swallowed the Red bait — hook, line and sinker.”

In 1954, with Commiephobia at its apex (the Army-McCarthy hearings began the day after Gaines’ appearance), irony or sarcasm would be lost on crusading Senators.

So much for the liberation afforded by the separation of styles.

Anyway, the snuffing out of EC’s horror comics points out the transformative power such obviously artificial, campy, unreal fun can have (or appear to have) in actual life. People have been murdered over works of fine art during periods of iconoclasm; people have also burned boxes of comic books or pop records, or put comic publishers or pop music artists on trial for their products. In the case of entertainment, everyone agrees that these products are peripheral to life as it’s lived…yet they’re apparently worth fighting--and possibly dying--over. I can't help but be drawn to a big, weird paradox like that.


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