Starting off easy here in blogland, writing up a recent movie experience.
I saw this yesterday with Sarah. I was most pleasantly surprised to find it a horror movie in the classic vein. The heroine transgresses; her doom is sealed. None of this postmodern random horror-can-befall-anyone, with the sole purpose the gross-out factor. No, this was a real old-fashioned moral tale. It thrilled and chilled and had us on the edge of our seats, timing the tension precisely, delivering the payoff expertly. We screamed and clutched delightedly throughout the film and came home jumpy and reluctant to be alone. A successful horror film indeed.
I didn’t know Sam Raimi’s work, so I reserved judgment as to whether I could trust him with the format — realizing again that art is a compact between the observer and the creator. I didn’t relax into the director’s hands until we had successfully passed the animal sacrifice incident. Then I knew that he was not in this for shock, but for something a bit — albeit only a bit — subtler.
His sensibility reminded me of the old Weird Tales and Tales from the Crypt and all the other wonderfully tacky comic books from my childhood. What these tales, and myriad others, have in common is a black-and-white puritan sensibility of right and wrong, good and evil. There is no nuance in this sort of horror tale, and that is what makes it so very satisfying. At the fork in the road, the wrong choice is made — the protagonist surrenders to weakness, vanity, greed. We can identify with the protagonist because he or she is just like us, basically a good person. But then we experience the schadenfraude of watching their downfall when they make a choice we would obviously, virtuously, have resisted, and our belief in a just universe is upheld.
The formula is sure-fire. What keeps it interesting is the intricacy of the plot, the complexity of the characters, the color of the surroundings. Raimi’s film succeeds less on the basis of any of these than because of a clever tone — a decidely less lasting feature. This is demonstrated by the fact that for me the fear was already fading an hour after the film, whereas a really good horror movie — for example, The Orphanage, The Others, The Haunting, The Shining — can keep me jumpy at least through the night and often for days beyond. Raimi took a cartoon approach: nothing was ever TOO scary, TOO graphic, TOO horrific. There were black comedy touches that kept it light and made it eminently watchable.
But it wasn’t a great horror movie like the ones I listed above. Thinking about why that was so, what kept this merely satisfying and made those transcendant, I fixed on the puritan good/evil theme. The Orphanage, like the brilliant and beautiful Pan’s Labyrinth, is based in a rich and layered Spanish catholicism, mystical and strange, with good and evil tangled in with redemption and purity and cruelty and forgiveness. I find this contrast between the stark puritanism underlying the classic Anglo-Saxon horror tale — think of “The Squaw” or “The Tell-Tale Heart” — and the textured ambiguity of Latin mysticism quite intriguing.