A Priest, A Rabbi and Your Mom Walk Into a Movie Theatre…
You might think that your Mom disapproves of all horror films on principle. At least that’s the stereotype: the wagging finger; the warning that horror films cause nightmares. But the truth is that this is merely a bit of parental judo, reverse psychology designed to push us to watching horror films, because nothing warns us and upholds the moral order like a horror film.
What are the elements of a horror film after all? There is a monster; there is a sense of danger (as critic Joe Bob Briggs puts it “Anyone can die at any time”); the deaths are usually gruesome; and there is usually a moral. If you think about it, fairy tales and horror films are not that far apart – they are even closer to one another in the fairy tales original Grimm-er forms, before the tales got Disneyfied and the good bits got removed – like Cinderella’s evil stepsisters cutting off parts of their feet to fit into the glass slipper and the blood attracting a pack of killer crows who pecked the stepsisters to death. Mind you, even Uncle Walt was capable of scaring the beejezus out of small children and if you don’t believe that, than watch Bambi with a six year old some time.
You can tell a child that fire is bad, or as my Mother did when I was seven, you can show them The Towering Inferno and scare the crap out of them. I know some will object that The Towering Inferno is a disaster film, but horror and disaster are not incompatible. Inferno has a monster (fire), no one in the cast is safe (Robert Wagner dies!), the deaths in the film are spectacular (after Robert Wagner dies, his secretary Susan Flannery aka Lorrie does a 90 story swan dive through a plate glass window while on fire!!), and the film offers up a few morals not just – fire is bad – but also: building a 100 story skyscraper with sub-standard wiring and a non-functioning sprinkler system is not smart. The Robert Wagner death scene comes after he has had a nooner with his secretary Lorrie (Susan Flannery), so Wagner’s death has the added moral warning not to sleep with your secretary. It’s unfortunate that future president William S. Clinton was already 28 when The Towering Inferno came out in 1974. If he had seen the film when he was more impressionable 7, the whole Monica Lewinsky thing would never have happened or, at the very least, the stain on Monica’s dress would not have been semen, but the remnants of the accidental discharge from a fire extinguisher kept by the President in case the building caught fire during the blow job.
Most horror films offer up morals that could have come directly from any Sunday sermon, in some cases directly from The Ten Commandments: thou shalt not murder (I Know What You Did Last Summer); thou shalt not commit adultery (Fatal Attraction); thou shalt not steal (Leprechaun); thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house (The Amityville Horror). Then you have the teen slasher films best epitomized by Friday the 13th where any behaviour not approved of by your mother (sex, drugs, alcohol, loud music, rudeness, untidiness) was guaranteed to lead to a quick and bloody demise. Granted, Jason Voorhees usually killed EVERYONE, but the neat, sober, polite celibate kids with good cardio lived slightly longer. And then there are the horror films that seem to channel your Mom’s over-protective streak: don’t go swimming in the ocean (Jaws); or in lakes (Lake Placid); or in rivers (Piranha); actually don’t even go near the water (Piranha II: The Spawning); don’t go camping (Grizzly); don’t go on vacation in Eastern Europe (Hostel); or in Latin America (The Ruins); actually better give Hawaii a pass too (A Perfect Getaway); don’t sit too close to the TV (Poltergeist); don’t pick up hitchhikers (The Hitcher); never enter a Mexican stripper bar for truckers after midnight (From Dusk Till Dawn); never agree to appear on a Japanese TV game show where you get locked in a warehouse with three serial killers ($la$her$); and most importantly, never expose your mogwai to sunlight, never get him wet and never, ever feed him after midnight (Gremlins). Admittedly, those last three are a trifle specific, but good advice nonetheless.
Every once in a while however, a horror film strays off the reservation and includes a moral that your Mom would never approve of. While the following are by no means an exhaustive list, they are five horror films that teach a lesson that would absolutely horrify your Mom.
5. The Faculty (1998)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, story by David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel, screenplay by Kevin Williamson.
While often overlooked in Rodriguez’ filmography, The Faculty is a great twist on Invasion of the Body Snatchers (or Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters) built around the idea that the alien slugs taking over human bodies begin in a high school and take over the teachers first. This adds a great generational struggle aspect to the paranoia when people start acting weird. It’s not just Alien vs. Human, it’s Alien Teacher vs. Human Student with one generation of actors chewing the scenery as the alien bad guys (Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Bebe Neuwirth, Piper Laurie, Jon Stewart, Robert Patrick) while the younger actors (Clea Duvall, Jordana Brewster, Usher, Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett) try not to get blown off the screen.
The film is especially creepy because the aliens are health nuts. The adults immediately stop drinking coffee in favour of water and all the converted have the healthy glow of fitness zealots. The shots of Coach Joe Willis (Robert Patrick) standing like a tin stainless steel god on his football field completely ignoring the sprinklers going off all around him are especially creepy.
Josh Hartnett plays the school drug dealer Zeke Tyler, who sneaks his drugs into school by removing the ink cartridges from ball-point pens and filling the empty pens full of white powder. (Zeke and the film try to claim that the white powder is in fact powdered caffeine, but this attempt to deny that Zeke’s scat is cocaine rings hollow.) At a critical moment in the film, Zeke concludes that their make-shift study resistance group has been infiltrated by one of the aliens. Zeke’s response is the classic reaction of any drug dealer trying to sniff out a narc: he spills out some white powder and orders the others to sniff the scat.
Dubious Moral: The best way to avoid becoming a insufferable little fascist in high school is to do copious amounts of cocaine.
4. Cherry Falls (2000)
Directed by Geoffrey Wright, written by Ken Selden.
This wicked little horror film is built around the idea that a small-town, terrorized by a serial killer, becomes convinced that the killer is targetting virgins. Most descriptions of the film go right out and say that the killer IS killing virgins, but within the context of the film there is very little evidence that the victims are in fact virgins. They might be, but the main person claiming that they are is the killer – who carves the word “virgin” into his victims. Naturally, the slasher is a less than reliable witness, but the small town leaps to conclusions and panics – as small towns in films are prone to do.
The effect of this is to turn the traditional slasher formula on its head: the sluts are safe while the virgins are in mortal danger.
The film’s saving grace is that it sticks to its guns. When the town becomes convinced that the town’s virgins are being carved up, parents begin having “Have you had sex yet and if not – why not?” conversations with their teens. This leads to the town’s teens taking matters into their own hands and organizing a mass deflowering party. They do so, perhaps not with the active assistance of the town’s adults, but certainly with their acquiescence. The film claims that the adults don’t interfere because the party takes place just outside of city limits, but one suspects that this is an excuse that the parents seize upon with a certain amount of relief.
The film’s high point comes when the school slut Cindy (Kristen Miller) comes into her own and holds an impromptu sex education class on the front lawn of the high school, giving the girls of the school practical instructions on how to handle the (male) school virgins during the planned orgy.
Dubious Moral: Not having sex as a teenager will in fact kill you.
3. Ginger Snaps (2000)
Directed by John Fawcett, story by John Fawcett and Karen Walton, screenplay by Karen Walton.
Perhaps the best werewolf film ever made, certainly the most political. Ginger Snaps uses lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty and especially for menstruation, as two sisters struggle with the onset of puberty when the older sister Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) is bitten by a werewolf, leading to all sorts of changes for her both physically and in her behaviour.
The highlight of the film is the sequence where Ginger and her sister Brigitte (Emily Perkins) tentatively try to get help for Ginger’s bizarre symptoms from the school nurse and are treated to an extended and highly disturbing description of the joys of menstruation.
Ginger Snaps concentrates on female puberty, but the film does extend the metaphor to male puberty as well, particularly the tendency of young adolescent males to start growing hair in the oddest of places.
While not the hero of the story like Zeke Tyler in The Faculty, the only character in Ginger Snaps who offers any help to Brigitte – and even a possible cure for Ginger – is local drug dealer Sam (Kris Lemche). His solution is to inject Ginger with belladonna, warning that the deadly nightshade might either cure Ginger or kill her by overdose. When he prepares the drug, Sam boils the plant in a spoon over an open flame and uses a syringe to gather up the liquid. Basically, it looks like he is preparing heroin.
Dubious Moral: To survive the agonizing pain of puberty, consult your local drug dealer.
2. Braindead (1992) (aka Dead Alive)
Directed by Peter Jackson, story by Stephen Sinclair, screenplay by Stephen Sinclair, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson.
In this gory zombie comedy by the director of The Lord of the Rings before he was THAT GUY, a milquetoast Kiwi, Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), tries to protect his domineering mother, Vera Cosgrove (Elizabeth Moody) after she is bitten by a Sumatran Rat-Monkey and infected with the zombie virus.
Virtually no one in the film seems to understand that they are in a zombie film, with the possible exceptions of the natives at the beginning of the film who have clearly watched a lot of Evil Dead even if the film takes place in 1957, 24 years before the release of Sam Raimi’s classic film. As a consequence, this film includes some of the most ineffective methods to kill zombies ever, including poisoning(!) and burying them alive living dead.
The highlight of the film is surely the moment when the local priest, Father McGruder (Stuart Devenie), while fighting zombies in his cemetery, kung-fu kicks a zombie in the face and shouts “I kick arse for the Lord!” Technically, he kicks face for the Lord, but I think we can forgive the Father for his confusion.
The climax of the film is the final confrontation between Lionel and his grotesque zombie Mum when Lionel finally deals once and for all with his Mommy issues.
Dubious Moral: Sometimes the only way to deal with a domineering, over-protective Mother is to completely annihilate her with extreme prejudice.
1. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Directed by Wes Craven, written by Wes Craven.
Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Directed by Chuck Russell, story by Wes Craven, Bruce Wagner, Frank Darabont and Chuck Russell, screenplay by Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Directed by Wes Craven, written by Wes Craven.
Within the context of the larger Nightmare on Elm Street series there is a hidden trilogy. They are the only films written by Wes Craven and the only films to star Heather Langenkamp and not to put too fine a point on it, the only films in the series that are any good.
Like both The Faculty and Ginger Snaps, Nightmare on Elm Street spits in the face of horror film tropes by stating that doing drugs not only won’t lead to your imminent death, but drugs can actually help you fight the monster and win, or at the very least postpone the battle until you have a better chance of winning.
Like in The Faculty, the original Nightmare on Elm Street tries to pretend that the only drug that Nancy is taking is caffeine, but it is clear that by the time that Nancy starts quoting from The Anarchist Cookbook and plotting to turn her house into a giant death trap for Freddy Krueger that she is a full blown tweaker, mainlining meth-amphetamines.
When Nancy returns in Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors to train a group of teenage mental patients on techniques for fighting Freddy in their dreams, she openly admits that she is taking a pharmacological cocktail designed to allow her to sleep while preventing her from dreaming. You can almost hear Freddy screaming in frustration that Nancy is cheating.
Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is not completely pro-drug, Taryn (Jennifer Rubin) is killed by Freddy’s heroin needles and part of the plot of the film hinges around the fact that the hospital – where the children have been committed because of their nightmares – decides to sedate the children, delivering them directly to Freddy. And it is clear that as effective as the drugs that Nancy are taking are, at best they are merely postponing her struggle with Freddy; they are a treatment not a cure. But making the distinction between drugs that help and drugs that hurt is a level of distinction that most horror films never even aspire to.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare takes the Freddy Krueger story and gives it an Escher twist, setting the story in the “real” world and positing that by creating the Freddy Kruger character, Wes Craven has given an elemental demonic force a shape and a name – and access to our world. The Freddy Krueger character is like a doorway that evil can use to enter our world. In the climax of the film, this demon, in Freddy’s form, steals Heather Langenkamp’s child. To save her child and fight one final battle with Freddy, Heather must follow (and swallow) a trail of sleeping pills left like a trail of bread crumbs by her son Dylan (Miko Hughes) – echoing the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. Again, drugs make fighting Freddy possible.
Dubious Moral: To keep your childhood dreams from becoming nightmares that kill you, the proper drug cocktail is essential. Consult your pharmacist.