Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cthulhu Syndrome: Horror Sequels and Diminishing Returns

I was watching a good neo-silent movie recently called Call of Cthulhu. Alright, it was actually a few months ago but shut up I’m trying to make a point. It was a faithful of adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s famous short story that everyone knows and nobody read, and kept up Lovecraft’s style of slow mysterious build-up and explosive fragmentary reveals. In the film’s explosive climax, a door to a cyclopean tomb opened and an unbelievable horror emerged… oh wait, it’s just Cthulhu.

I feel sorry for Cthulhu, he’s just not scary… which sucks for him since that’s kind of his whole shtick. Okay, I mean, I have to be fair, if I was actually in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and he popped out in front of me to start chomping heads I would probably be terrified, but in a movie he just has no effect on me. That isn’t a problem with him (her?), exactly, but it’s a problem that effects him more than perhaps any other figure: people know him too well.

The entire horror of Cthulhu, like most of Lovecraft’s work, came from mystery. Cthulhu was a weird alien presence, and his emergence into the world was to see the universe breaking. Once he’s a familiar figure though, he loses all of that. We know him from his flailing tentacles to his tiny baby wings, and people love him. People write fun songs about him. When you’re supposed to be scary, being completely known is a big disadvantage.

Ideally, though, even if he isn’t mysterious the thought of a man-eating horror should still be scary on its own right? Well, beyond just reducing the mystery, when we know and like a character, even as a horror character, we have a positive opinion of it. Even if we were afraid of it once, we won’t be afraid anymore.

As a practical example, take the great Pyramid Head of the Silent Hill series.

Now, I personally think Pyramid Head is the best character design in horror history. Team Silent built him to communicate pain and the violent potential of masculinity on a deep psychological level... and every time he showed up in Silent Hill 2 I was terrified.

Pyramid Head immediately became the mascot of the series and, in Silent Hill Homecoming he made a triumphant return. The fan reaction: He sucked. Part of it was that Homecoming wasn’t as good a game overall, but the reason why Pyramid Head, in particular, was poorly received was that he didn’t belong in a horror game anymore. Pyramid Head was so great in Silent Hill 2 that fans, or even non-fans, knew he was a great horror character, and so when he appeared the reaction wasn’t “Oh no, Pyramid Head is coming to slice me in two!” It was “Oh hey, I know that guy! What cool thing is he going to do?” Even if you’re excited because you expect something scary to happen, you’re still excited.

Over-exposure hurts all characters as they turn from interesting figures to overused memes, but horror characters are especially hurt by the syndrome. The moral of the story, sequels are especially bad for horror franchises…which sort of makes me wonder why they tend to have the most.

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Abortion in Narrative

I can pretty much guarantee that you had some reaction while reading this title… some kind of uncomfortable pang associated with a hot issue. Well, I’m not going to discuss the issue itself here, but I want you to remember that pang because it goes directly to the point I am making.

Juno and its bastard child Secret Life of the American Teenager are pretty old by pop culture standards, but I feel like getting around to a point about them. I remember watching Juno and looking back over its pretentious hipster script, and I remember a set of scenes that stuck out. When Juno finds out that she’s pregnant, she decides automatically to abort. When she arrives at a clinic a single girl is standing outside with a sign chanting stupidly into the air like the village idiot.

At this point in the narrative, I saw the movie as put itself squarely in the “Pro-Choice…Duh!” camp and prepare to move on (After a laughably stereotypical discussion about kids taking prescription drugs extracted unaltered from any given episode of SVU or “Talk To Your Kids” brochure). When Juno walked into the clinic, though, she was confronted by an aggressive, vaguely-slutty receptionist and had a sudden change of heart, not wanting to kill her baby with ‘fingernails’. Boom! All of the sudden the movie pulled a complete 180 and was a pro-life fairy-tale about the infinite joys of full-term pregnancy with nary a backward glance to abortion.

And here we arrive at my point: Abortion just can’t fit casually into popular narrative.

That isn’t a judgment on the issue, and that isn’t to say that narrative is ruled by patriarchal pro-life sentiment, but it is to say that the way narrative works makes it impossible to bring in abortion without making it a core issue.

Going back to Juno, I don’t think that the movie can be classified as conservative/pro-life, at least not in a core or intentional way. Juno didn’t have its lead abort for a very simple reason that had nothing to do with politics: Aborting would have ended the story.

If Juno went back home having terminated the pregnancy, the entire creative argument of the story would have ended with nothing to show for it. Not only that, it would sort of feel like a retcon: the story presents you with a potential conflict and chance for development and then, in an effective instant, wheels back to a time to before that conflict.

Now, it isn’t strictly accurate to say that the status quo has returned, since the aftermath of abortion definitely offers psychological footholds to climb onto, but now we enter the territory of the Third Rail, wherein abortion is just too volatile an issue to discuss or deal with and without completely entering the fray of a divisive political issue; if the character is depressed afterwards you have a condescending pro-life message, if the character is okay with it you have a condescending pro-choice message, and if reactions are mixed you have an annoying namby-pamby cop-out.

I think this is what really makes abortion different from other equally hot-button issues like gay marriage or stem-cell research or Teapot Dome in that it sort of demands that you introduce a retcon in order to bring abortion into the story, and, from a pure narrative perspective, that’s a really jarring entrance.

You might say that Juno and works like it kind of disprove my point since they introduce abortion as an issue without the retcon, but I think that proves my point, rather. If she had gotten the abortion, it would have ended the narrative. Abortion exists in these only to highlight that the girl didn’t do it. As the Bright Lights Film Journal puts it correctly (Amid a generally more pro-choice slanted article) to say that “Abortion exists only as a faux option - something to choose against.”

So, it’s time in this discussion to get to the significance of all this. And that is that, whether for good or bad, popular media is going to see an absence of abortion and everything that that absence entails. I think, whether intentional or not, that that means that there is going to be a subtle pro-life leaning in stories involving pregnancy since the inherent demands of narrative structure coincidentally lead to a side in the issue.

Unless the woman has a miscarriage, which is typically just bad writing trying to undo a plot they don’t want anymore.

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