For the past twenty-eight Octobers, I have looked forward to being able to share with you some of my personal takes on how horror movies can do more than simply scare us out of our wits.
Good horror movies–and some that are considered truly bad–give us permission to think more deeply about the function of art in our society and how horror can be a vehicle for contemplating and evaluating important cultural themes. This month we will explore two or three movies each week that focus on a particular theme. This week our theme will be our quest for perfection and some of the dark paths down which that quest can lead.
Perhaps the best-known example of this quest is Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein,” which went through two versions by the author in the nineteenth century and has been reworked countless times in the movies. In fact, not long after movies were born in the late nineteenth century, Edison Studios released the first film version of this classic tale in 1910. Clocking in at only sixteen minutes, this film, starring Charles Ogle as the monster, provided the template for what was to follow. At the heart of most of these movies is a “mad scientist” who wants to create the perfect human being. Of course, these plans generally have disastrous and often heart-breaking consequences. One of my favorite recent incarnations of this theme is Lucky McKee’s very creepy movie, “May” (2002), starring Angela Bettis as a lonely girl who fabricates herself a new friend in a very grisly manner (no spoilers, but you can no doubt imagine where this is going).
I am writing this while rewatching French Director Georges Franju’s frightening and unsettling 1960 movie, “Eyes Without A Face,” the story of a mad scientist/plastic surgeon who tries to relieve the overwhelming guilt he feels for causing the automobile accident that left his daughter with a terribly mangled face. Like Victor Frankenstein, he becomes totally obsessed with not only restoring his daughter’s disfigured face but with also producing something even better and more beautiful. To carry out his obsession, and aided by his obedient nurse, he kidnaps and kills a series of beautiful young women who provide new facial templates for his daughter–the process he employs involves a “heterograph,” a transfer of living body tissue from an unwilling victim to his daughter using a procedure he refers to as “exsanguination,” a draining of the victim’s blood (here we enter into Dracula territory). Franju’s imagery stays with you long after the film’s ninety-minutes of running time comes to an end. And Edith Scob’s emotional portrayal of Christiane, the disfigured daughter, is all the more powerful because she creates her magic while wearing a very inflexible and expressionless white mask. And why do I think about Bryan Forbes’ “The Stepford Wives (1975) every time I see Franju’s movie?
Perhaps only I would pair “Eyes Without A Face” with Nicholas Winding Peen’s mesmerizing 2016 movie, “The Neon Demon,” starring Elle Fanning as an aspiring young model whose quest for bodily perfection brings her to a very unsavory end. As a commentary on our culture’s obsessions with physical beauty and the veneration of models, Peen’s movie is a sharp satire, but at heart is a classic horror movie with a twist. Without spoiling the ending, I will only say that Jesse’s (Fanning’s) competitive companions become consumed in a very literal way with her flesh. Enough said, I suppose, but along the way we are treated to some of the most sumptuous and often surreal visual designs I have seen in some time. And the soundtrack occupies a prominent place in my Apple Music playlist. The critics haven’t been very kind to this film, however, and the somewhat questionable Amazon user views have been even less positive. As one viewer asks, “What better way to show how empty and perverse the model scene in Los Angeles is, than to make an empty and perverse movie about it?” You should of course reach your own conclusions, and I will continue to recommend this movie to horror fans.
Another film that has received very mixed reviews is Gore Verbinski’s (“Pirates Of The Carribbean,” “The Ring”) “A Cure For Wellness” (2017), which is in so many ways, especially in its opening sequences, a remake of Tod Browning’s original 1930s “Dracula.” Here the quest for perfection takes place within the haunted walls of a very Gothic looking institute, once again presided over by a very mad scientist who supervises a real crazy house. Dr. Volmer’s “cure” for wellness involves slimy eels and mind control, all wrapped up in a not-so-tidy one hundred and forty six minutes. In many ways a satire of utopian societies and organizations devoted to holistic treatments of mind and body, “A Cure For Wellness,” is multi-layered entertainment with a thought-provoking script that makes you question the world around you–is is a sanctuary or a prison? And do so-called “miracle cures” and “mind and body” seminars free or enslave us?
There are of course many movies that take the quest for perfection as their theme, and I will leave you to seek them out. In the meantime, stay tuned for Part Two, which will explore the horror of place.