Horror at The Oscars!

Exactly twenty years ago (give or take a month- March 30, 1992) a horror film called SILENCE OF THE LAMBS made mincemeat of the Academy Awards. It devoured all of the major categories, a feat achieved only twice before (by IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.) Some folks are a little hesitant about slapping the horror label on SILENCE, so let me do it for them and without pause. It seems the more accomplished a movie is, the more likely some are to address it as a “psychological thriller” and nothing gets my non-silent goat more. JONATHAN DEMME’s film is certainly rich and expansive enough to elude simple stagnant classification but, at the end of the day, without the element of horror, it has no bones to stand. Let me ask you, if somebody showed up to your Oscar party wearing clothes made of human skin and a mask constructed of another person’s torn off face would you think their outfit was horrifying or thrilling? Exactly. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is horror.

Crikey, if SILENCE isn’t horror then what is? Besides the already mentioned body mutilation, violence and death, SILENCE straps on a diving helmet and plunges into the less easily defined depths of the pit. Yeah, there’s some nifty crime & mystery stuff going on and Clarice’s ascension past those who underestimate her is immensely gratifying, but her anguish and regret over not being able to save an animal she meant to protect from slaughter is the real spirit crushing agent of darkness here. We come to find out Clarice is haunted by past events and I think that emotional/spiritual horror is a sharper more persistent blade. For instance, I have a Facebook page and many of my pals are horror fans, so I’m pretty much besieged with images of “horror” everyday: zombies, vamps, decapitations, the usual snore parade. Every once in a while somebody will post a picture of an animal being harmed under a title like “Stop this!” and I know they are trying to do the right thing but it’s like throwing battery acid in my eyes and it makes my soul barf for humanity. Meaning, I’m not convinced the lambs of the title will ever be silenced. That’s horror.

I get the drift of those that say SILENCE is not horror. I understand their logic and points and politely chuck those ideas towards the dustbin in my head. This is more than an issue of semantics for me. Can I just keep this one victorious memory intact and unmolested by those who live to rain on my parade? When SILENCE won that night twenty years ago, in my mind, the entire horror genre won and more importantly (to me) so did I. It seemed that finally something I cared about was getting some respect. (It did not hurt that just the year before KATHY BATES wrangled a best actress award for MISERY too.) I had grown up watching the movies that I dug utterly disrespected and devalued and frankly, I was sick of it. In 1992 it seemed like the world was catching up to what I already knew. I started to imagine a future where I didn’t have to add an extra star or up the letter grade to every review of a horror film I read in order to make up for the preexisting prejudice. I’m sad to tell you, I’m still waiting for that day.

Maybe I’m OK with that. Some art forms are born to walk the fringes. I don’t expect everyone to like horror films but I do believe they deserve to be judged fairly rather than automatically dismissed because some find their subject matter distasteful. Really though, how can anyone expect horror as a genre to emerge from the ghetto when those who claim to be its biggest supporters are the very ones who most vehemently rip the movies themselves to shreds? If you want to read a truly venomous take on a horror film, your best bet is a horror fan site, a place where boycotting movies that are not filmed yet, burning directors at the stake and tearing apart nearly everything that comes down the pike save for a few worn out sacred cows are a matter of course; with fans like these, who needs enemies? That’s coming from a gay guy who twenty years ago was still firmly in the closet at a gay friendly Oscar party when SILENCE OF THE LAMBS won. Nothing drags a movement down like the naysaying, doubting Thomases from within. Tonight I’ll be at another Oscar party but this time not as a self-sabotaging malcontent. Maybe the world of horror hasn’t progressed as much as I would have liked in the past two decades but I have. I’m seriously going to toast SILENCE OF THE LAMBS 20TH anniversary win tonight and I’ll do it as a loud, proud devoted fan of horror…get used to it.

The Blair Witch Vs. Paranormal Activity

Did I mention that I wasn’t crazy about that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movie?( I’m glad it stuck it to the SAW franchise though.) To tell ya’ the truth I guess there is a lot of popular stuff that I just don’t get. I hate cars, have never owned a cell phone and I’m truly appalled by pizza delivery places offering any kind of dessert.

Some people have told me that if I saw PARANORMAL with a non-sucky crowd before the hype I’d feel differently, maybe they are right but I am unconvinced. One particular piece of PARANORMAL propaganda that ended up galling me is the claim that it is superior to the film on whose shoulders it stands on, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Now I know not everybody digs B.W.P., I can name several people off hand whose opinion I value more than my own who find it intolerable, yet for me it really does do the trick.

In fact, I watched it again the other night (obviously well aware that it is not a true story at this point) and I still gotta say it gives me some real creeps. It certainly works for me better than PARANORMAL ACTIVITY did. I guess BLAIR just hits me where I live and rakes up my own personal bugaboos where P.A. does not. Anyway, I thought I’d try to share with you just what about it I think makes it a scarier and more effective movie (at least for me)…

For some people PARANORMAL is particularly frightening because it takes place at home in a bedroom where you are supposed to be able to feel safe. I get that, but ultimately looking at a bed just makes me feel like taking a cat nap. I defy any demon to try to wake me when I’m truly exhausted and welcome them to join me in bed if they are so inclined. On the other hand, woods, especially barren woods with trees that look like skeleton hands reaching out of the ground, scare the crap out of me. From Little Red Riding Hood to THE EVIL DEAD, woods are a common backdrop for tales of terror because they hit on something primal within us all. Think of it this way, the characters in B.W.P. were trying to GET OUT of the woods so that they could go home and GO TO bed, that’s gotta tell ya’ something.

Whether it be the scary faced locals or unseen witches, old ladies are built to unnerve. I know the GOLDEN GIRLS seem nice but just imagine them suddenly attacking you…it’s enough to make you faint on the spot. Everyone from Hansel and Gretel to that poor loan officer (ALISON LOHMAN) in DRAG ME TO HELL understands this. I’m sorry PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, but demons tend to have cool horns, awesome pointy tales, and sexy goatees. On the other hand old ladies smell like mothballs and chew Mary Jane Candy… you’re trumped again!

I know HEATHER DONAHUE (who by the way, ruled in the miniseries TAKEN) can be kind of grating and sometimes comes off like a disgruntled Urban Outfitters manager, but she admits her mistakes, never courts trouble and is an aspiring filmmaker rather than an aspiring bead stringer. JOSHUA LEONARD and MICHAEL C.WILLIAMS are guys you wouldn’t mind sharing a beer with; the only thing I would share with MICAH SLOAT is a live hand grenade.

Both films saved a lot of paper by forcing their cast to ad lib without scripted dialogue, but you can’t accuse the makers of B.W.P. of slacking creatively. Even if one felt slighted by the content of the film itself you have got to hand it to whoever came up with the spooky legend of the BLAIR WITCH; it’s far too elaborate to go into detail here, but if anyone knows a more effective campfire story I’d love to hear it.

As a person with literally zero sense of direction who as an adult has been summoned by intercom to meet up with my lost companions at the entrance of a Target department store, I feel for the trio walking in circles in BLAIR WITCH. Acting wise their frustration and exhaustion reads as authentic to me whereas our PARANORMAL pals just come off as mostly petulant and perturbed. The BLAIR kids make some dumb moves but their efforts are evident, the P.A. couple overlooks obvious solutions simply because they are conveniently told that any attempts to escape would be fruitless.

Some complain that nothing ever happens in B.W.P. but I beg to differ, there are several scenes that chill me to the bone even during a repeat viewing. The use of sound and darkness is pretty intense if you ask me and I am always aware of myself straining to hear and see more. Giggling children? Was that a cackle? Is that Josh crying out in pain? Is somebody just fucking with them? How about that damn dilapidated house at the end? That place just reeks of evil. Maybe those hand prints are a little over the top but I would not spend a second in that dwelling especially at night no matter how lost I was. At this point the film has earned its contagious hysteria as far as I’m concerned. Maybe STEVEN SPIELBERG might have preferred a CGI witchie-poo to fly toward the camera at the end, but I think the sight of Mike standing in the corner staring at the wall is simple unshakable perfection.

We all have our personal fears based on our nature and experiences. Would I think old ladies were so scary if that crone hadn’t harangued me at summer camp? Would I think being lost was frightening if I had not experienced the same feelings myself? Is Micah’s macho arrogance and mundane living space just too alien for me to relate too? Ultimately I can’t blame my disappointment in P.A. on the hype because B.W.P. had just as much or more and I loved every minute of it. Both films deserve laurels for relying on their audience’s imagination for scares but for me BLAIR WITCH illustrates the idea that sometimes less is more and P.A. reminds me that sometimes it really is just less…

Kinder-Tantrum :: Monsters & Kids Should Be Allowed to Enter Into Friendships!

i want a monster to be my friend!

Years before that red-furred, homicidal maniac (whose name I am afraid to type) took up residence on America’s favorite multicultural thoroughfare, SESAME STREET was home to a gaggle of adorable monsters. Despite reports from readers and listicle makers to the contrary, your Aunt John, in his formative years, found the monsters to be the best part of SESAME STREET in the 1970s. I loathed Snuffleupagas and flat-out hated Bob too. I wanted all my shows brought to me by the letter M for Monster!

My prayers for more monster screen time were answered in 1975 with the release of this innocuous enough seeming power-ballad “I Want A Monster To Be My Friend“:

The song was released on the The Sesame Street MONSTERS! LP which, with its good beat that I could dance to after kindergarten left out for the day, became #1 with a bullet on my Fisher-Price turntable. It was so awesome that it made me forget about my former musical obsessions Snoopy vs. The Red Baron, and The Monster Mash LP by Peter Pan Records.

Flash forward to this past November and Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times, the “Paper of Record” that was so kind to recently name-drop Kindertrauma (umm, scroll down, we’re beneath the Al Sharpton link), reported that the DVD treatment of old-school Sesame Street was getting hit with an “Adults-Only” warning label. WTF? Was Mr. Hooper that bad-ass of a curmudgeon?  This news left your dear old Aunt John reeling and thinking. Thinking, that is, about whatever happened to my favorite monster song!?!

After some extensive research, (cough, Googling), your Aunt John was s-h-o-c-k-e-d to learn that back in 1984, some bored housewife launched a campaign to have my favorite monster tune censored:

The song was removed from rotation on Sesame Street in 1984, after a mother complained about the song’s bridge:

If I make friends with a friendly monster,
I’ll let him bounce me on his knee.
I’ll let him do whatever he wants to,
Especially if he’s bigger than me.

These lyrics, interpreted in an unwholesome way, could be seen as encouraging children to give in to physical demands made by adults. A New York Times article on April 9, 1984, summarized the situation:

The monster song on the children’s television program Sesame Street is about to lose four lines because of a mother who feared they would encourage child molestation. Marty Deming, a mother of two, objected to the lines. She said Edward L. Palmer, vice president of the Children’s Television Workshop, told her Sesame Street will stop using the lines, even though the producers felt the song “has nothing to do with encouraging children to let real adult persons make improper advances on them.”

Shame on you mother of two Marty Deming, and your over-active imagination. It’s a song about friendship and acceptance, not one that actively encourages small children to succumb to the advances of bicycle shop proprietors.

Thanks to Deming, the song is no longer available on any SESAME STREET re-issues and compilations. Thankfully, the good folks over at the now-defunct 365 Days Project are not afraid of befriending monsters and have the song available for download.