Sinister Summer: “Jaws” Retrospective Horror Film Review

The original blockbuster! With The Meg opening tonight, the next article in my Sinister Summer series is a retrospective on Jaws (1975). And, we still “need a bigger boat” after all these years. Beginning with the iconic minimalistic score by John Williams, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is still keeping people out of the water more than forty years later. Beyond the film, you can still face off with the most famous shark in cinema history at Universal Studios Hollywood. A favorite for folks to watch on July 4th each year (as I do), this film became the standard for the modern horror creature feature. And at only four minutes on screen, Bruce (Jaws’ nickname), successfully terrified audiences then and continues to frighten beachgoers today. For all intents and purposes, this iconic film set the bar for and essentially created this subgenre of horror movies featuring man-eating monsters from the natural world that exist in places where we typically find joy and relaxation. The ocean, theme parks, rivers, lakes–these innocent places become the setting for unimaginable terror.

If you are old enough to have watched it in theatres in 1975 or fortunate enough to have attended the special 40th Anniversary screenings back in 2015, then you can attest to the film’s evergreen ability to scare you out of your wits. When I watched it on the big screen in 2015, the auditorium was filled nearly to capacity with kids, teenagers, and adults. To see this iconic film on the big screen was truly a memorable experience. Especially so around where I live, since the gulf beaches are just down the road. The atmosphere was incredibly fun. All of these fans, most of which had likely seen Jaws before, were gathered together to relive the terrifying experience of a man-eating shark terrorizing a small New England town during the July 4th holiday season. But why would so many people pay to see a film that they had seen at no additional cost on TV or watched on DVD/BluRay?

Much in the same way Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is often credited, and rightly so, for being the first modern horror film and forerunner to the classic slasher; likewise, Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws is credited as the first modern creature feature horror film and forerunner to the blockbuster (or event movie). I am not negating King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or other predecessors; it’s important to take note of the word modern. Aside from excellent, visionary direction, both Psycho and Jaws have three important elements in common (1) powerhouse cast (2) strategic suspense and (3) a brilliant, oft-parodied, burned in your mind musical score.

It probably seems like you were born with John William’s two-note Jaws theme in your head, much like Bernard Hermann’s Psycho screeches. The terrifying suspense of Jaws comes in the form of a PG movie. That’s right, Jaws is rated PG. But this film delivers a bigger and more memorable punch than any gory torture porn horror film ever could. The groundbreaking structure of both these legendary films are the prototypes from which their respective branches of horror films are derived. They are the blueprint, if you will, for suspense and horror. The manner in which the suspense is drawn out for most of the movie assists in the ability to enjoy it over and over again, without it ever feeling like a B movie. The drawn out suspense engages you emotionally and psychologically. The feeling of dread lingers and lingers. In fact, you don’t truly see Bruce until the third act of the film when he jumps out of the water in an attempt to bite off the arm of Chief Brody. This intentional drawing out of suspense makes the delivery of that moment pack a powerful punch, an assault on the eyes and mind. Both Psycho and Jaws benefit from an excellent cast. The respective casts could not have been any better. Interestingly, in order to not allow the cast to overpower the story or shark, Spielberg didn’t choose actors with an instant command presence. But they displayed a strong presence nevertheless. It never feels as if they are acting, but truly become the characters they are portraying. The relatability of the characters is partly due to the screenplays, but it takes phenomenal actors to successfully bring these characters to life. Spielberg would repeat this same successful approach to creating blockbusters E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Jurassic Park.

For more on suspense, checkout this video featuring Hitchcock himself.

When Jaws is referred to as the original blockbuster, it’s not simply due to being the first film to break the $100mil box office sales mark, toppling the records previously set and held by The Exorcist and The Godfather. That is a valid observation, but is ultimately incidental. Reasoning behind this thriller’s ability to create the concept of a blockbuster movie is the fact Jaws was seen as an event not to be missed. Looking back at the original crowds of 1975, you’d think the movie was a one-night-only big event. Hence the term blockbuster. The common adjective attributed to big summer movies literally derives from the fact that queues for the box office wrapped around city blocks. It busted the block, so to speak. And the rest is history! Coupled with the summer release date and ticket sales, the allure of Jaws generated levels of enthusiasm and interest never seen before. The film took in so much money at its opening, that it nearly made up the entire production budget by the end of the first week. Furthermore, distribution and marketing companies began to use Jaws as a model for future marketing efforts in order to attempt to generate another blockbuster effect. After Jaws in 1975, the next big blockbuster would be George Lucas’ Star Wars IV: A New Hope in 1977. All these factors contribute to the iconic status of Jaws in terms of its contribution to film business.

Instead of building a thriller on shock value, disturbing imagery, or jump scares, author Peter Benchley’s screenplay for Jaws focussed on crafting a cinematic atmosphere that had an intimate, claustrophobic feel built upon well-crafted drama through character development and conflict, at the center of which is a little heart. Different from contemporary creature features, Jaws picks off swimmers in the single digits and those attacks all happen at a single beach on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. And instead of an entire agency hunting down the man-killer shark, three unlikely men are forcibly thrown together in order to track down and eliminate the terror from the waters off Amity Island. Keeping the principle cast and environment small, enabled the drama to perform strongly. Big things do come in small packages. Coupled with the strong performances from the entire leading cast, this brilliant combination of cinematic elements works together to give us some of the most memorable lines, scenes, and cinematography in movie history. Furthermore, real people swept up into an impossible situation and foolish decisions enable the audience to identify with the characters and the setting in ways that make the terror feel all the more real and close to home–or the beach.

While Bruce is often thought to be the villain of Jaws–and no mistaking it, he is definitely an antagonist–I argue that the true opposition to the goal in the plot is Amity’s mayor. If we accept the goal is to apprehend or kill the man-eating shark, then Vaughn serves as opposing that action. Perhaps you’ve never though of the true villain of Jaws being Mayor Larry Vaughn. A close analysis of the plot reveals that Jaws (Bruce) functions more as a catalyst for the principle conflict between Chief Brody and Vaughn. Other than the death at the beginning of the film, the Mayor is indirectly responsible for the remaining deaths. After all, it’s due to his utter complacency, negligence, and classic greed that led to the other deaths. For most of the film, we spend far more time with Chief Brody’s continued conflict dealing with the social pressures, desires, and ill-fated decisions of his boss than we do with shark attacks. Mayor Vaughn fails to acknowledge the sheer gravity of the dangerous situation, and close Amity’s beaches in order to keep his citizens safe. In effect, he fed them to the shark. Seems like a villainous action to me. Bruce was being a shark, Vaughn was the villain.

Often the central character’s development hinges on the direct and indirect conflict with the opposition to the goal of the plot. In this scenario, Mayor Vaughn stands between Brody and Bruce. The moments in which Brody demonstrates measurable growth in his character arc are when he attempts to stand up to the Mayor showcasing a contrast between public safety and a combination of politics and economics. Unfortunately, we never witness Brody truly standing up to the Mayor to enact measurable change per se; however, it isn’t needed because we witness several moments of Brody shouldering the responsibility of protecting the citizens of Amity as a civil servant. By contrast, Vaughn is more preoccupied with a warped view of  civic responsibility that places more importance on increasing the bottom line of the local businesses than public safety. He rationalizes his position opposing the advice of Brody by engaging in classic psychological defense mechanisms such as denial, displacement, and projection. Vaughn’s actions throughout the film depict an elected leader with misplaced priorities in order to better his own career.

The success of Jaws and reasons why it continues to stand the test of time has more to do with the beauty in simplicity and strategic marketing than Spielberg’s filmmaking. Don’t get me wrong, Spielberg is an excellent storyteller and directed many of our favorite films such as this one, Jurassic ParkE.T.Poltergeist (with Tobe Hooper), and more, but it’s the strong screenplay and innovative marketing efforts that give Jaws the chutzpah it has. Jaws quite literally changed the way studios market “blockbuster” films. Prior to Jaws‘ release, the only films to get wide, general releases were B-movies and exploitation films, but Universal Pictures took the chance at cramming Jaws into as many screens as possible, and it paid off in spades! Jaws wasn’t the first film to book theatres in this was, but it was the first to be well-received by by critics and fans. The film was an instant success!

Even if you trust the statistics that you are more likely to be injured or die in a car accident than be attacked by a shark, Jaws still leaves you wondering what may lurk in the depths of the ocean, and by extension lakes and rivers (thanks in part to Animal Planet’s River Monsters). There is a lingering feeling, even if in the back of your mind, that a man-eating shark could live in our oceans. That is the power of this film and why it has continued to pervade popular culture for more than 40 years. Its influence on popular culture is certainly not limited to the dozens or imitations such as Lake PlacidPiranha, Deep Blue Sea, or parodies like Sharknado, but it serves as the inspiration for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the Monster Jam monster truck Megalodon, theme park attractions, and the music is often used in unrelated TV shows and movies. Lines, imagery, music, and characters are permanently embedded in the psyche of the general public.

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“Poltergeist” (1982) Retrospective Film Review

“They’re [still] here!” 35 years later, Stephen Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist still terrifies audiences today. Coming off the successes of Spielberg’s Jaws & Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this powerhouse producer-director team (note: Hooper received the official director credit) crafted a horror film that became an instant classic then, and still holds up today. With Spielberg heading up the story and Hooper in the director’s chair, both cinematic geniuses combined their talent for generating material for nightmares to take the “haunted” house film sub-genre of horror to the next level. Storytelling and cinematic elements aside, another primary reason the film still haunts and intrigues audiences today is the lore of a lengendary curse attached to this film. For audiences back in 1982, and possibly still to this day, following watching the film, friends may have found themselves only venturing by an alleged haunted house on a dare. The film’s impressive ability to take the haunted house concept up to a level never seen before–in fact–it essentially created the modern haunted house genre seen in today’s horror films. In short, Poltergeist is an icon, and stands alongside films such as PsychoThe Exorcist, and The Shining. Probably the most terrifying element of all is the setting–mundane upper middle class America suburbia. No longer where “haunted” houses confided to old mansions or hotels, but could be located next door to you. That is, if your neighborhood is also built upon a burial ground.

At the end of the day, regardless of who actually directed this film, Poltergeist remains one of the strongest films in either Spielberg’s or Hooper’s canon. And the legend of a curse certainly doesn’t hurt the strong fanbase of this horror classic. Curse and directorial authorship aside (though, the latter is a valid topic for discussion), the brilliance of this film is almost self-reflexive in that it displays quite the dichotomy while commenting on the secularized versions of heaven and hell as seen in the film due to both having their due screen time. This bifurcation paves the way to read past the ghostly apparitions and (real) skeletons, to the root of what I feel Spielberg and Hooper were foreshadowing as the real threat to a traditional familial bond–that box in your living room with moving images flickering on the screen. The way the movie opens and closes are very much book ends to one another as it attempts to deal with the quandary of an inability to “choose between life and death, when [we’re] dealing with what is in between.” The foreshadow of the seemingly one-sided conversation between Carol Ann (the late Heather O’Rourke) is a great depiction of how families are today. The kids are entertaining themselves by and form connections with characters seen on the TV while mom and dad are in their own world getting lit. That is not unlike what is seen today. Now, keep in mind, televisions are not responsible for fracturing the nuclear family; but the television is often relied upon as a babysitter and becomes the object that receives the most attention to the point that some get sucked into the moving picture world. Perhaps there is a lesson here in that the television should not be the center of attention in a household.

Poltergeist has much in common with a roller coaster at a theme park, and that metaphor can can aid in explaining why a film with such a simple plot and one-dimensional characters was and still is so incredibly successful in terms of cultural references and the fan base today. Why do most people go see a horror film? Is it the complex plots and multi-dimensional characters with brilliant on screen chemistry and excellent development? Not particularly, as great as those things are AND are often found in the best horror films. The pacing of this film reminds me of the pacing of a roller coaster at a theme park because of the lift at the beginning, the plummet into danger, the feeling that it’s almost over, followed by one final plunge into the twists and turns before pulling into the station. Compared to films such as The ConjuringAmerican Psycho, and Nightmare on Elm Street (not to mention many others), the plot is somewhat nonsense; however, the film is–without argument–sensationally effective, terrifying, memorable, and the horror imagery is beautiful–filled with metaphor and familial commentary. It’s an impressive array of haunting visual effects juxtaposed against a typical American family living in the suburbs. That, and ever since this movie, static on a TV is frightening! If you can find it anywhere anymore. With all channels on 24hr programming now, I suppose that the ghosts have to find another way into our world.

The innocence of the characters is also an intriguing and atypical part of this movie that aids in the frightening imagery and nightmarish inducing apparitions. It’s atypical because the victims of death, haunting, or injury in a horror film are usually horny teenagers who are sexually promiscuous, adults who have skeletons in the closet, played God, broken the law, or just plain old sociopaths. Not true with this family. Everyone in the Freeling household are wholesome family members from the hardworking father who wants the best for his family to stay-at-home mom who loves her kids, and even the siblings who appear to get along just fine. Almost too picturesque, and ultimately a bit unrealistic. Despite the tight, healthy nuclear family, the Freelings are thrown into chaos when Carol Ann gets sucked into the world that exists between life and death behind a thin veil. That innocence helps to uncross the level of terror in the movie because it hits members of the audience that no one is safe from the reigns of evil. The fact that everything in the film happened to a normal family creates added anxiety in the minds of the audience as many go home to a similar world first depicted in the movie. Looking back, Middle American must’ve been completely shocked when a family, not unlike its own, was plunged into a world of hellish gateways, ghosts, and ghouls and other circumstances out of its control.

There is something for everyone in this film. Because it is likely that most in the audiences then and now are afraid of something in the film: unexplained physics-defying phenomena, clowns, the underside of the bed, ghosts, closets, scary trees, pools, or subdivisions. Perhaps the relatability to the characters or the scary elements of the film are what help to connect new audiences to this classic horror film. There is a wittiness about the film that reminds me of something that Alfred Hitchcock may have developed for the screen had he ventured into paranormal movies. As nightmares go, Poltergeist is thoroughly enjoyable because you know your an always wake up from it and none of the characters are permanently damages at the end of the film. Eerie, beautiful, gruesome. That’s why this film still holds up today and will continue to haunt audiences for many years to come.

“IT” (2017) film review

IT’s hauntingly fantastic! From the first to the last scene, the Stephen King adaptation directed by Andres Buschietti is nothing less than a horror masterpiece that does both the original novel and the TV mini series (1990) justice. The brilliance behind the adaptation is found in the excellent cast. So organic, so relatable. A common trope in King novels (and by extension the movie adaptation) is the tried and true narrative structure of the “coming of age” story. Although Stand By Me typifies the “coming of age” subgenre, IT may serve as a horror film for shock value on the outside; but beneath the nightmare-inducing exterior, beats the heart of a heavy drama with a great message about growing up, friendship, teamwork, and facing one’s fears. Few horror films reach iconic status, but this one is surely destined to be counted among films like: The Shining, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and others. For all the previous King adaptations, Buschietti may have directed the best adaption we have ever seen. Kubrick’s The Shining may still win the award for most artistic and cinematic; however, 2017’s IT takes the words from the pages and successfully translates them to the silver screen along with impressive set design, special/practical effects, and a blood curdling score.

Derry, Maine may seem like a picturesque idealistic version of Americana, but it has a problem. Every couple of decades, children and teenagers vanish without a trace. After Georgie disappears while playing with a paper boat in the rain, his brother Billy (Jaeden Lieberher) becomes determined to solve the mystery and find his brother. Met with opposition from his father, Billy teams up with his long-time friends Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), and new friends Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) to unravel the mystery surrounding the town of Derry. In their wildest nightmares, no one could have anticipated the evil that lies beneath the streets, in the dank sewers of the Maine hamlet. When faced with what terrifies each of them the most, the group of young people must band together in order to conquer their fears and destroy Pennywise, the evil dancing clown (Bill Skarsgard).

The local movie theatre’s marquee displays Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 5; and the fact it is that particular film serves a more important purpose than simply to establish the period (which it does brilliantly, by the way). That particular movie is quite symbolic, and in many ways, parallels the events that unfold in Derry, Maine. Both Nightmare and IT take place in small towns; and furthermore, the ensemble cast is comprised of young people who must face fears and band together in order to conquer the evil that threatens their very lives. Although this version of Pennywise is a little less playful than the iconic original Tim Curry Pennywise, the dancing killer clown has a very Freddy Kruger quality about him. Many of the qualities that aid in (in my opinion) making Freddy the most terrifying of all the classic slashers and icons, is his playful attitude followed by moving in for the kill in a very showman way. Both Pennywise and Freddy are born out of and prey upon deep childhood fears and quite literally become the manifestation of the evil in the world. As such, there are many reasonable ways for IT: Chapter 1 to spawn several sequels in the same way that A Nightmare on Elm Street did.

As nightmarish as the majority of the movie is, it does struggle here and there to connect all the scenes together whilst maintaining a solid rhythm. The overall sense of dread is carried through for the most part, but there are times that the film fails to increase the level of anxiety which could have been accomplished by spending more time in Derry’s history and the traumas and secrets that were buried over the decades. I would have liked to have seen the sewers that the kids search through be more symbolic of the very plumbing that transports the deep seeded fears that are ignored or flushed away by the people of Derry. IT certainly accomplishes its goal of being a high quality horror film but it falls short of going as deep as it could have. The overall experience of the film rivals that of other great horror films that have gained iconic status. Greatly contributing to this success is the balance between establishing nostalgic connections between it, the original IT, and the audience members, and the excellent 21st century hair-raising effects. The relatable cast seems to have been taken right out of Netflix’ Stranger Things, and will work wonders for attracting a younger audience who may not be familiar with the novel or original mini series.

There are two films in IT: the horror film and dark drama. Both are well executed but have a few flaws in the nearly perfect recipe. It’s both a nostalgic coming-of-age story and a Wes Craven Freddy-like slasher. Having an ability to be a dark drama masquerading around as a horror film will do very nicely at the box office. Perhaps if this film were a little more like Nightmare and we saw a little less of Pennywise, he would be more terrifying. As it stands, the more we see Pennywise, the less scary he becomes. Still, he is pretty terrifying! Buschietti may not wind up with the same cache as Kubrick, Hitchcock, or Craven, but he has emulated much of what the aforementioned masters of suspense, terror, and horror pioneered many years ago.

One thing’s for sure, this is a great way to kick off the Halloween season of films! After a mostly lackluster August, I am glad that the cinema is bustling with great films to see. IT this week, Mother next week, followed by the remake of Flatliners, September is shaping up to be a terrifyingly brilliant month for films. Should you choose to venture to Derry, Maine this weekend, you won’t be disappointed with the remake of a classic. If you really want to have some fun, bring along a friend who has a phobia of clowns.

“Alien: Covenant” movie review

Alien: Covenant returns to its roots in horror. In 1979, Ridley Scott convinced audiences around the world that “in space, no one can hear you scream.” And the newest film in the line of prequels leading up to the terrifying events aboard the Nostromo, attempts to make up for the rejection of 2012’s Prometheus as a true prequel to Alien. Fortunately for fans of the franchise, Alien: Covenant is mostly successful at delivering what audiences loved about the original and missed in the subsequent Cameron and Fincher movies–the trademark horror of the xenomorph and facegrabbers. Starting off like Prometheus and finishing more like the original Alien, the newest film in the nearly 40-year-old franchise will have you screaming, cringing, and completely immersed in blood-curdling terror. That is, until you realize that only some questions from Prometheus are answered, and all new questions about events in this movie are generated and left unanswered. That appears to be Ridley Scott’s Achilles heal: always leaving more questions unanswered than providing closure or exposition, thus prohibiting the movie from being as great as it certainly had the potential to be. With one more film between this current installment and 1979’s Alien, perhaps there will be far fewer unanswered questions and provide the history for which fans are looking.

On a colonization mission, the complement of the Covenant is traveling into deep space towards a new planet that earth’s humans hope to make a new home. After encountering some severe spacial turbulence enroute to the destination, the crew of the Covenant intercept a transmission from an uncharted planet that, according to the sensors, appears to be a complete paradise. After some deliberation, it’s decided to head for this new planet. Most of the time, when something is too good to be true, it usually is. Led by the new captain Oram (Crudup) and first officer Daniels (Waterson). After an attack from an alien species, the crew is rescued by David (Fassbender), a synthetic android-like human, who is the only remaining survivor of the Prometheus expedition from some years earlier. Unbeknonst to the crew and scientists of the Covenant, they are about to come face to face with the most terrifying nightmare imaginable–make that–an unimaginable fight for survival when paradise turns to hell.

One of the first technical elements that fans of Alien will notice is the opening title sequence. It is reminiscent of the manner in which the opening credits and title of the original were revealed in the emptiness of space on screen. I appreciated this homage to the original because it set me up to prepare for an Alien movie and not a second Prometheus. Perhaps that does not seem important to non-fans; but to make a long story short, while Scott was in the conceptual phase of a sequel to Prometheus (prequel to Alien), he was told by the studio that audiences didn’t want another Prometheus–they wanted Ridley Scott’s Alien. And now the rest is history. In order to best understand the flaws of Alien: Covenant it’s necessary to understand the similar flaws of Prometheus. One of the many diegetic and technical problems with Prometheus was the fact that there was little direct connection to Alien and it felt like a whole new franchise and not an extension of the original. This lack of connection is best represented by the number of unanswered questions dwarfing the answered ones. Essentially, audiences only learned about David’s origin and, to a lesser extent, why that particular planet. But enough about Prometheus, we are here to talk Alien: Covenant.

Although vastly improved, Covenant also leaves audiences with many unanswered questions; albeit, it is successful at making up for many of the diegetic flaws of the preceding film. To get into the questions would reveal too much about the film and perhaps hint at some spoilers, so I won’t go into specifics. But enough about the flaws of this otherwise exciting and well-produced film–just know that the writing is weak but hopefully will be better in the next installment. The most impressive elements of the movie are related to the cinematography, editing, and visual effects. From the sweeping landscape shots to intimate closeups of the xenomorph and its victims, Covenant is absolutely visually stunning. There is even a mild romantic encounter between David and a member of the Covenant crew that was shot incredibly well and strategically placed in the narrative. Where the story is weak, Scott makes up for in creating an impressive cinematic experience for long-time and new fans alike. There are even shot sequences that are taken directly out of Alien. Often times, I am extremely critical of computer-generated effects and characters versus practical effects and animatronics–and for good reason–nothing can replace the way real light bounces off real objects and is really captured by the glass lenses on a camera. Furthermore, it’s rare that a character react in genuine fear to an object, villain, or murderous alien that is not really present on set. However, the combination of CGI and practical effects in Covenant is breathtaking and convincingly real. You will almost feel the facegrabber latching onto you and the xenomorph’s wet acid-breath on your skin.

Aside from the unanswered questions still residing in the minds of those who have seen the film, Covenant fails to live up to Alien in another rather conspicuous way. For everything that this film did right and make up for (in respect to Prometheus), it lacked any memorable crew members–more specifically–this film differs from Alien by not developing Dani(els) to be the strong female character that she had the potential to be. Dani could have been Covenant‘s answer to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien. One of the diegetic elements that is most talked about and is often the topic of horror film humanities classes is the breaking of gender roles and heteronormative expectations by Ripley in Alien. Perhaps that is why Alien is almost avant-garde in the cinematic experience whereas Covenant is impressive but does not typify the art of cinematic storytelling nor contributes to groundbreaking character-types. Beyond strong female lead, the film simply fails to leave the audience with any one memorable character period. No one will be talking about any one particular character years from now. Both the unanswered questions and the lack of memorable significant characters can be traced by to one root cause: flawed writing.

If you loved the original Alien, then you will mostly enjoy Alien: Covenant. The experience is equally terrifying as it is beautiful. Whether you have seen Prometheus or not will not affect your enjoyment factor in this film. If you have seen Prometheus, then I would suggest watching the Ridley Scott short film The Crossing because it ties Prometheus to Alien: Covenant. Think of it as an extended prologue. This short film helps audiences to make the connection between the two films in hopes that it does answer some otherwise unexplained circumstances and events. After watching this film, I have an urge to rewatch the original in order to begin making those direct connections between this one and Alien. With one more film to release to finalize the events between Prometheus and Alien, I am eager to have my remaining questions answered. Bottom line: Alien: Covenant demonstrates Scott’s newfound commitment to return audiences to the space horror that makes the original so iconic.

Reimagining Halloween in the Parks this Year: the Mind of Horror v. the Eye of Terror

After taking break from posting last week, as it was a holiday, I am happy to provide you with another stimulating article once again on the themed entertainment industry! All week long, I have been thinking about what to write this week. I’ve covered some of the recently opened or previews of attractions and theme parks opening soon; but, I thought that I would take a slightly different approach this week. Over the last year, the United States and other countries have been experiencing a rise in violence. Whether that violence has (1) always been there, but because of the great mediation of society (a proliferation of media capturing devices and distribution outlets), we simply see it more often or (2) if there truly is a signifiant rise in mass violence compared to past decades, is not what I am here to discuss. I would, however, like to discuss the upcoming Halloween events in the parks this year, and specifically, how they might have to adapt or change as a result of the recent mass shootings.

HHN2016Already, Universal Orlando has alluded to the fact that it may be revisiting some of its offerings for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights (HHN), and it would not surprise me if Busch Gardens Tampa Bay makes a similar decision with Howl-O-Scream (HOS), as both parks primarily draw from the Central Florida area and of course tourists still flock to the parks for the annual celebration of the macabre. The recent massacre at the Pulse Night Club will undoubtedly have an affect upon the planning and logistics of primarily HHN followed by HOS to a lesser extent. Since the horror film, and by extension the haunted house attraction (or scare zone) are both grounded in the same anthropological (inclusive of sociology) and psychological theories, there is definitely an opportunity to explore this area of themed entertainment. As Disney’s Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and SeaWorld’s Spook-tacular do not include glorified violence or death, I will not spend time analyzing how those events may change, because they are mostly benign. Suffice it to say, there will likely be some changes coming to HHN and HOS this year. What are those changes? Well, I am not prevued to those decisions; but can extrapolate from logic and theory what may happen in light of recent events in Orlando and beyond. It is important to note that both Universal Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay mostly likely have to revisit some of the scare zones or houses this year but not implement changes that may have a negative affect upon drawing from guests outside the Central Florida area. Striking a balance between curtailing some of the violence in respect to those who died and still satisfying those who were not emotionally or psychologically impacted is the key.

HOS2016The events certainly still have to feel like Halloween but perhaps reimagining some of the offerings will aid in finding that delicate balance. It is entirely possible that many who have enjoyed going to HHN and HOS in the past may back off this year in an effort not to come face-to-face with violence as it has greatly impacted many people. Here’s an interesting question: does horror have to be violent? Yes and no. Some of the greatest horror movies of all time are not terribly violent at all, but the eye witnessing violent acts certainly creates terror in the minds and bodies of the audience (or park guest). Alfred Hitchcock once said, “there is no greater threat than an unopened door.” This is indicative of the master of suspense’s ability to generate the fear of something or someone that may not even be a threat. There is another Hitchcock quote (or, at least I believe it’s Hitch) to the effect of “greater is the fear that’s in the mind than on the screen” (if you know of this exact quote, please let me know). That being said, likewise, seeing Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, or Michael is equally terrifying because of the trademark violence they have displayed on the screen over the years. It is important to year-round or seasonally operating Halloween-themed attractions to include both the physical and psychological/emotional aspects of horror in order for the guests to have a dynamic and full experience facing that which terrifies them and from which guests would otherwise run away.

unheimlichThroughout history, from the fights in the Roman Coliseum to Michael Myers’ slaying of people in Halloween, audiences have been both entertained and repeatedly drawn to stories and shows that highlight horrific acts of violence or feelings of terror and anxiety. Perhaps there is a deep seeded reason as to why millions of people find entertainment value in horror films. This question has been tackled by many psychiatrists and psychologists, each has come up with a different explanation as to “why horror?” Most notably, famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud provided great insight into an explanation of why people find horror films fascinating in his essay on the Uncanny.  In his study on the uncanny, Freud takes on the literary imagination (this same literary analysis can and is used to analyze film and themed entertainment) by dividing his theory up into three sections. He first defines the concept of the uncanny, then performs an examination of the context required for understanding the experience of the uncanny, and finally explores the affects of the uncanny on the psyche through literature and fiction. Some of the running themes throughout his essay are loss of eyes, castration, the double-ego, and self-reflexivity. Through the framework laid out by Freud, scholars and film critics can explore the themes in horror film as it relates to the human subconscious; and for purposes of our discussion, the horror attraction.

Freud explains the realm of the uncanny as the place at which aesthetics and psychoanalysis merge, because it deals with a particular feeling or sensation combined with emotional impulses. The substances or manifestations of the uncanny are elements that are fearful and frightening. Proceeding with Freud’s definition of the uncanny being a class of frightening elements, plaguing the psyche, ushering an individual back to what is familiar (heimlich) and known (as opposed to what is unknown). Freud refers to the uncanny as that “which should have remained secret and hidden, but has come to the light.” Furthermore, he goes on to further describe the uncanny as the “mark of the return of the repressed.” The concept of the uncanny is a type of unwilling or mistaken exposure to something surprising, unexpected, or horrific. Freud claims that the source of the uncanny in literature is the recurrence of something long forgotten and repressed. However, not everything that returns from the psychic depths of repression is uncanny. The mere return of repressed feelings and experiences is not sufficient for the uncanny to occur. It requires something repressed having returned but represented by an unexpected and outside the realm of reality. This is easily accomplished in literature (and by extension, movies, theme park attractions, and plays) because fantasy is different from reality.

Just because something works as uncanny in a work of literature doesn’t mean it can work in real-life as well. During times of tragedy felt by an entire group of people or nation, the same concepts which work in literature and film may not work as well, for a period of time anyway, in themed entertainment. Within literature, if the author makes a pretense to realism, then he or she opens the door to supplying the story with the uncanny. Often times, the uncanny in literature and film is the projection of the psyche of the central character on another object or person combined with a warped view of the objective and subjective of a given situation. It’s like something within the fictional world creeps into the real world. Within the horror genre, there are many different stories or narratives that exist. And, each type of horror film tells its story in different ways; however, they are all concerned with getting the same emotional response from the “people out there in the dark,” as famously stated by Norma Desmond in the timeless film noir classic Sunset Blvd. Sometimes the audience will go on a journey into the crazed mind of a psychopathic serial killer or they may witness a supernatural monster terrorizing a small Bavarian village. In either case, Freud believes that the writers of horror, and by extension themed entertainment designers, are concerned with exposing the audience to “other” scenes. And, these “other” scenes are rooted in the subconscious.

eyeofhorrorMoreover, Carol Clover also provides insight into the fascination with the horror theme park attraction. After all, horror films and theme park attractions are mostly concerned with what you actually see. Horror attractions, much like their movie counterparts, are visual stories that are translated into experiential narratives. The Halloween themed attractions in the parks have to include different eyes. The three principle types of eyes used in horror attractions are the assaultive gaze (active, penetrating), reactive gaze (passive, penetrated, the most common in horror storytelling), and repeated gaze (masochism for characters and spectators alike). This is one reason why extreme closeups (ECU) of the eye are popular in horror films turned attractions. The eye is extremely symbolic in narratives driven by fear. The design of horror attractions and films is extremely fascinating because of the convergence of visual storytelling and engineering. It’s more than blood, gore, screams, and knives; there is almost a poetry behind it. A brilliantly insightful quote from Clover is, “Inasmuch as the vision of the subjective camera calls attention to what it cannot see–to dark corners and recesses of its vision … and what might be … just off-frame–it gives rise to the sense not of mastery but of vulnerability.” At the end of the day, both HHN and HOS highlight our vulnerability and prey on our fears of that which assaults the eye and should remain hidden.

corridorBut what about HHN and HOS this year? Looking to the past, and how Universal Orlando handled mass violence in society that had a profound impact on a group or whole culture of people may help shed light on what might be expected this year. During HHN XI (2001), Universal Creative pulled Eddie, the chainsaw wielding maniac with a complex and fascinating backstory, from the lineup after the attacks on 9/11/2001. It was decided that the mood of the United States was such that it would have been in poor taste to include such a violent icon in the theming. In addition to the removal of the HHN icon, most signs of blood, gore, and the glorification of violence were removed–even names of characters and zones were modified. Because of the recent deaths of nearly 50 people (some of whom were connected to the parks as employees, bloggers, or past performers), we might witness a similar reimagination of events at Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream this season. Hopefully, I have been able to open a discussion on how things could be reimagined at the annual Halloween events this year. An attraction can be equally terrifying even if there is no violence to be seen. However, the inclusion of cliche horror film violence is an integral part of the modern Halloween attraction experience. Even Carol Clover explores the importance of men, women, and chainsaws in horror storytelling. Perhaps the creative engineers and designers at the parks will look beyond what has typically been a staple of these events and embrace other avenues of terror that will still prompt screams. In all likelihood, we will probably see the dial turned back on the knives and guns during HHN and HOS but that certainly does not mean that the attractions will be any less terrifying. It’s entirely possible that the mind of horror will outweigh the eye of terror in the theming, planning, and design of HHN and HOS this year.