Saturday, 3 June 2017

A Peculiar Atmosphere Of Cranky Scholarship

I took great exception to the review of Final Destination 5 that was recently posted on It wasn't the notion that a film so banal and meaningless as to qualify as pornography should be so lauded which got to me (“five headsplats out of five”, no less). Rather, it was this unforgivably assumptive summation:

“If you like watching blandly attractive people getting burned, maimed, twisted into anatomically unlikely heaps of quivering flesh, well, then you're a horror fan.”

I'm a horror fan, and yet I find the idea of anyone, be they “blandly attractive” or not, being so dispensed with for the sake of entertainment to be exactly the opposite of my idea of fun. In fact, a few years back I found myself sadly declaring that I just don't like horror. I just found the notion of getting your kicks from such gratuitous slaughtering as passes for "horror" these days most upsetting.

Turns out, though, that it wasn't horror per se I found (and find) so abhorrent. Rather, it's modern horror. Put simply: I'm convinced that, by-and-large, people have forgotten how to make a good horror film.

I was reminded of just how beautiful and chilling the genre could be yesterday afternoon when, whilst passing a very agreeable afternoon in the BFI Mediateque at the Derby Quad, I was given the opportunity to watch the original 1968 Omnibus version of Whistle & I'll Come To You for the very first time.

That, friends, is how you do horror. It's not about the headsplats or the flayed corpses. It's about spookiness, creepiness, atmosphere and the undying power of suggestion. The ghost in Whistle... is little more than a sheet blowing in the wind (or, later, lifted slowly from a bed). However, I found such images – when taken in the context of the rest of the film – to be of the most genuinely unnerving I've ever seen.

And I have seen a lot.

What really struck me, though, was the film's minimal approach to storytelling. There's no music and very little dialogue – and much of what dialogue there is forms a similar role to that which is found in such quasi-silent affairs as the first half of Holy Mountain and even Mr. Bean. It's mumbled, subdued and clipped: It serves to move the story forward whilst creating a vaguely-otherworldly feel. In this case it also functions to make our hero – played impeccably by Michael Hordern – come across as eccentric, bumbling and completely adorable. His final fate, then, is rendered all the more affecting because we simply cannot help but love him.

This is a far-cry indeed from the disposable ciphers found in much modern horror who only seem to exist in order that they may be maimed in increasingly appalling ways. Whistle... relies upon solitude, eerie winds, wide-open spaces, overcast skies, fears of the dark, bumps in the night and outstanding performances in order to deliver its thrills. It's anti-spectacle, but for me it's 42 minutes contain more substance than the combined running times of all five Final Destination films (or all 724 Saw films, for that matter).

I'm not calling for a blanket ban on blood and gore in cinema. Far from it. Let the gorehounds have their bloodbaths. So long as I don't have to watch, everybody's happy.

What I can't stand, though, is the idea that films are being constructed around these scenarios rather than the other way around. It cheapens the genre, gives it a very bad name (as if it wasn't unfairly maligned anyway) and leads to horribly cynical fare such as The Human Centipede II, the Guinea Pig series and, yes, every single Saw sequel that ever has and ever will be released. These films have been specially made to court controversy and, in some cases, to be banned. I struggle to think of anything more tedious than contrived controversy. It's of no benefit for anyone, and any film-maker who rubs their hands in glee at the notion that they've achieved notoriety deserves to be subjected to exactly the tortures which they take such delight in dreaming-up.

Well, that's a little extreme. Perhaps instead these tedious twats should be invited to a viewing of Whistle... in order that they can be reminded of just how marvellous, dignified and timeless the form can be.

Though, so wired, jaded and desensitised are they that I imagine that they'd squirm through such a viewing and consider it as torture.

Shame. On my part, though, next time I find myself depressed by yet another pornographic remake of a classic (“Now in 3D with extra-eye gouging!”), rather than declaring my dislike of horror, I'm instead going to remind myself of how beautiful the medium can be when it's not trying to cater for such erections as are induced by slit-throats and Rube Goldberg implements of death.

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