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Universal Monsters and Chainsaw Massacres

December 18, 2013

This post was originally going to be called “The Things I Learned from Watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and was to include, among other things, a lengthy explanation of how the movie should have been an episode of Scooby-Doo (There are traps. There are five kids in a van. There are creepy locals who are obviously guilty. It even has a bad guy in a mask). However, end-of-term busyness kept me from writing it, and I decided to write this instead. You’re welcome.

In this corner, we have the original, 1932 version of The Mummy, starring horror legend Boris Karloff (famous for his role as Frankenstein’s monster). The New York Times called it “one of the most unusual talkies ever produced.” In it, archaeologists accidentally revive the mummy Imhotep, who thinks that the beautiful woman with no personality (Zita Johann) is actually the reincarnation of the ancient Egyptian princess he loved. Unfortunately, she is in love with wholesome young lad (The appropriately named David Manners), who won’t let her go without a fight. The mummy goes on a murderous quest to win back his princess, which finally involves ritually sacrificing her so that she can leave her earthly body and live forever or something like that. Fortunately for her, Isis intervenes at the last minute, destroying the mummy and letting the audience know that the wholesome young lad and the Van Helsing-esque occult expert (Edward Van Sloan) were completely irrelevant to the outcome of the movie. The editing is bad, the dialogue is risible, the story absurd, and the whole film pretty stupid.

In this corner, we have the original, 1972 version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, directed by horror legend Tobe Hooper and starring no one in particular. The Los Angeles Times called it “despicable.” In it, five idiots in a van decide to visit a creepy abandoned house in Texas, and they all get killed, except for one girl who escapes from the creepy house, and rides away in the back of a pickup truck driven by a completely random stranger. That’s pretty much it (other than the creepy gas station owner who looks like a demented Barney Fife).  The editing is bad, the dialogue is risible, the story absurd, and the whole film pretty stupid.

After treating his hideous facial disease left him thousands of dollars in debt, Charlie de Witt had to work as a bank teller by day and lumberjack by night. Sometimes, he forgot to change clothes between jobs.

In 40 years, the world of horror movies changed considerably.  The most obvious difference is the amount of violence. When The Mummy came out, it would have been unthinkable to have Imhotep impale David Manners’ character on a meat hook (this, incidentally, would have probably improved the overall quality of the film). By the time you get to TCSM, “graphic” onscreen violence is already a thing, pioneered by George Romero and Wheaton College alumnus Wes Craven. Today, TCSM is tame stuff compared to its successors (Saw, Hostel, The Murder Room of Death, etc.). One wonders how far directors will have to go before they reach the end of breaking taboos. One quickly stops wondering, because you don’t want to know.

However, the violence, despite its up-front quality, is not the main thing that changed in horror films since the ’30s. The violence is a symptom, not a problem. The overall change between Universal Monster Movies and low-budget slasher films is what I call the horror film’s nihilistic turn. In the years between The Mummy and TCSM, horror movies go from operating in a world ruled by a moral order to a world without a transcendent moral order.

In The Mummy, it is pretty clear who the good guys and bad guys are. The main theme of the movie is the theme of hubris. Cultural critic (he’s a cultural critic now) Jonah Goldberg defines hubris thus:

“Hubris, at least in part, is when you think the rules of the universe really don’t apply to you. Hubris is when you think you are anointed by God, Providence, the Matrix, or your own inner spark of awesomeness to the point where you think you can get out of any knotty situation just because you’re you.”–The Goldberg File, November 22, 2013

One source of hubris in the old monster movies is science. Back in the 30s-50s, science wasn’t just a code word for evolution or a boring class that you had to take along with gym and social studies. The early decades of the 20th century were the halcyon days of technological whizz-bangery. It was cool to be a scientist; everyone wanted to be a scientist, and people who weren’t scientists sometimes pretended they were scientists, like A. J. Ayer. In The Mummy, the characters keep referring to archaeology as “science,” because the Indiana Jones movies hadn’t come out yet, and archaeologists didn’t have fun adventures like scientists did.

“Hey Bob, don’t you wish we had decided to be scientists? We would have Ferrari’s, six figure salaries, women hanging all over us.” “Shut up and look at the pottery shards, Jeff.”

With the growing power of science came a growing fear of science’s abuse, a theme that appears in The Mummy. One professor wants to recover the magical lost scroll because of its value to science, while the Van Helsing wannabe tells him not to because the scroll is evil. The idea that there are some things that science should not do is a recurring theme in old horror movies. The “mad scientist” tries to use his power to change reality and control others; however, because actions have consequences, he eventually has to pay for his crimes. In The Mummy, curiosity about the occult and a desire for scientific domination unleash the wrath of Imhotep upon the modern world.

Science is not the only way that the theme of hubris dominates the old monster movies. The idea of trying to get what you shouldn’t want shows up in Imhotep’s illicit quest to regain his princess. Imhotep is willing to sacrifice the woman in order to achieve eternity with her; however, Zita Johann’s character doesn’t want to spend eternity with Boris Karloff, and in the world of Universal Horror, no means no. Another example of this comes in the original House of Wax starring Vincent PricePrice’s character is an artist whose collection of wax figures was destroyed his friend who wanted to collect the insurance money. In revenge, he starts killing people and making them into wax figures. His pursuit of the most beautiful piece of art (turning the lead female into his statue of Marie Antoinette) leads him to commit horrible crimes, which results in his defeat and death at the hands of his own wax machine. In both of these films, the theme is clear–when man tries to break out of the moral order that governs the world, he will have to face the consequences.

By the time we get to TCSM, we have entered the world of the nihilist horror film. The villains in the old Universal movies were motivated by a desire for science, or art, or revenge. In some cases, those desires were good (Price’s character begins House of Wax as a talented artist), but the pursuit of those desires went against the moral order of the world, and the evil characters were eventually punished. In TCSM, the evil is completely meaningless. The bad guys are not operating in a moral world; instead, they kill without motivation and are not punished for their actions. If TCSM was a Universal Horror picture, Leatherface would have ended the movie by being hoist on his own petard (or cut up with his own chainsaw; your choice). Instead, the bad guys get away with their crimes, with the exception of the creepy dude who gets run over by an eighteen-wheeler. There is no moral order for the bad guys to violate; instead, the film is simply brutal violence without any sense or expectation of retribution and atonement.

On the other hand, we only have to put up with these losers for 90 minutes.

Another component to horror’s nihilistic turn is the change in the way that it treats sexuality. Douglas Wilson once summed up the plot of every horror movie ever as “1. Girl takes clothes off. 2. Monster eats Tokyo.” The interpretation of horror movies as simply the expression of diseased (usually male) sexuality has some merit, but it fails to take into account the nihilist turn from monster movies to slasher movies. In the original monster movies, violence against women was a bad thing. Part of the problem with Imhotep’s love for Helen Grovesnor in The Mummy is that Imhotep is A) coercive and B) dead. It is clear that Imhotep represents the negative effects of sexuality, but this takes place in a morally-ordered world. Imhotep’s creepy longing is juxtaposed with the relationship between Helen Grovesnor and Frank Whemple (David Manners). Fertility within the bonds of a healthy relationship (read: one of the people isn’t a crazy dead guy) is contrasted to the sterility of the evil mummy.

In contrast, newer horror films seem to have a fetish of violence against women. TCSM actually isn’t much of an offender on this count; there’s more guys killed than girls, and not as much gratuitous sexualization of the women as in later movies. Still, a brief look at the horror section of your local Blockbuster will reveal…oh wait. As I was saying, a brief look at the horror section of Netflix will reveal the link that sex ‘n’ violence occupy in the horror genre, evidenced by titles like Zombie Strippers, Strippers Vs. Zombies, and Lesbian Nazi Hookers Abducted by UFOs and Forced Into Weight-Loss Programs (that last one is actually a quote from the Jerry Springer parody in UFH). Take a look at the horror movie section of Wal-Mart and count how many movies look like their basic storyline involves buxom beauties being slashed to bits by [Pick one: 1) Guy in a mask, 2) Genetically enhanced monsters, 3) Sharkosaurus Rex]. Violence against women is now the attraction of horror films. A psychologist could have a field day analyzing the violence against women that is semi-legitimized by the horror movie industry. At the very least, it seems to reflect the fantasies of frustrated male dominance. This sexual component plays a large role in horror’s nihilistic turn. Catholic film critic Stephen Greydanus, summarizing fellow Catholic E. Michael Jones’ ideas, writes,

In the 1940s, when moral taboos against nonmarital sex were much more taken for granted, one might have a film or book in which the wanton were punished and the chaste rewarded, but it would be a morality-tale or parable, not a horror story. As moral norms shifted, however, what was once regarded as sexual immorality became increasingly associated with horror, as slasher films like John Carpenter’s Halloween, the promiscuous die and the virgins survive. The unacceptability of fornication was no longer an idea that enjoyed common acceptance in society, yet on some level society was not entirely reconciled to the new ethic, and the image in the film expressed with inchoate fairy-tale directness something that was felt to be true but could no longer be straightforwardly affirmed.

Even as horror films become more graphic and nihilistic, they continue to express truths that society believes in the dark. Despite its brutality, the cliche that “virgins survive horror films” evidences a backhand respect for chastity. Horror brings out the neuroses of our time and looks them in the face. I’m reminded of an Albert Camus quote that I read today: “Don’t let them tell us stories. Don’t let them say of the man sentenced to death “He is going to pay his debt to society,” but: “They are going to cut off his head.” At their best, horror movies look life’s evil in the eye and call it what it is. Stephen King says,

Horror movies do not love death, as some have suggested; they love life. They do not celebrate deformity, but by dwelling on deformity they sing of health and energy. By showing us the miseries of the damned they help us rediscover the smaller joys of our own lives. They are the barber’s leeches of the psyche, drawing not bad blood but anxiety … for a little while anyway.

However, without presupposing a moral order (like the old Universal Monster Movies), modern horror shows us the “miseries of the damned” without giving us a good example to counter that misery. It becomes exploitation.

Current Listening: Yukon Blonde, Yukon Blonde.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2013 6:19 am

    Extra points for the use of “risible.”

    I agree with the trope of violence against women, although I will point out that there still seems to be some cultural resistance against it – the violence is there, but it is rare that we will see a woman actually being tortured/killed/maimed on screen. It happens to them more than the guys, but we’ll usually see the psychopath chopping off the guys fingers. For a girl, if it’s a really gory movie, we’ll see him pick up a knife and then cut to a shot of a bleeding palm.

    Have you seen The Cabin in the Woods (I originally resisted seeing it but caved because why not, it was on Netflix, I was bored)? Embodiment of nihilism.

    • December 18, 2013 8:06 pm

      You’re right that there’s more of a resistance to it. I barely (read: never) watch horror movies, but I remember reading an interview with Eli Roth about Hostel 2 where he talked about how people were resistant to the violence against women that he included in the movie. He said that the difference between violence against men and women was like the difference between hunting a lion and a deer, or something along those lines.
      I have not seen Cabin in the Woods. Isn’t that the meta-horror satire that Joss Whedon directed?

      • December 18, 2013 8:13 pm

        I suppose that makes me the residential horror expert (every other night we watch a different 3 star C-list).
        Yes it is. It was interesting right up til the end. Well directed but did not leave me wanting more.

  2. December 18, 2013 6:48 am

    Glad you brought up the violence-against-women aspect of horror. I’ve been on a kick lately, reading feminists about the things they see wrong with this society, and this ties in really well.

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