For the past three weeks we have taken a look at selected horror films through the lenses of Place, Perfection, and Other People. This fourth, and final, entry in our current “Halloween Horrors” series will take a look at one of the most familiar themes in horror–sensuality.
More than one commentator has pointed out that all horror films are ultimately about sex, so this column will explore that idea from perspectives that differ in many ways from the familiar plot structure that is common to so many death-by-sex films. Ever since the advent of the “teenage” horror films that debuted in the 1950s, the tried-and-true story generally follows this formula: sexual activity=gruesome death by the monster du jour. A classic example is the opening scene of “The Giant Gila Monster” that depicts the dire consequences that accompany teenagers necking in a hot rod. Shortly after their first kiss, an ominous shadow covers the car and the sinful couple are devoured by a ridiculous monster (insert giant gila monster, spider, ant, blob, or dinosaur here). In its modern form, the giant whatever has been replaced by the masked killer, but the take-away is still the same–if you want to survive until the end of the movie, don’t fool around. And please don’t spend the night with your hormonal friends in a deserted cabin.
The films to which I refer this week don’t exactly fit into the mold described above. None of them feature over-sized animals, insects, hot rods/VW vans, or masked killers, but instead rely on subtlety and creativity to work their magic. First up is one of my favorites, and one of the most sensuous movies ever made–Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat People” (1942), now available in a must-have Criterion Blu-Ray edition featuring enticing supplementary material.
In this little gem, which is a masterpiece of understatement, sensuality takes the form of a cat, and everything is conveyed by light and shadow. Internet Movie Database (IMDB) offers a succinct description of everything you need to know about this film: “An American man marries a Serbian immigrant who fears that she will turn into the cat person of her homeland’s fables if they are intimate together.” I doubt I will spoil the movie by telling you that–surprise, surprise–Irena, the Serbian, does turn into a cat on a fateful evening. There are two famous scenes in this movie–one involving a walk down a deserted street, and a very creepy sequence that will keep you out of a swimming pool for a very long time. Steeped in Freudianism, “Cat People” likens the awakening of sensuality to the prowling of a dangerous cat. In one of the film’s most telling lines, Irena informs her future husband that “I like the dark, it’s so friendly.” Much more imaginative than watching doomed teenagers trapped inside a cabin, don’t you think?
Perhaps only I would connect the aforementioned sidewalk and pool scenes to a favorite recent movie, “It Follows” (2014,directed and written by David Robert Mitchell), an imaginative horror tale that gives a new spin on the perils of adolescent sensuality. Again IMBD gives a masterful summary: “A young woman is followed by an unknown supernatural force after a sexual encounter.” Although Paul Schrader gave us a credible remake of “Cat People” in 1982, I believe “It Follows” is a better remake, albeit one that doesn’t appear as such upon first viewing. After Jay Height (played to perfection by Maika Monroe) experiences her first sexual encounter, her new world is beset by a series of menacing people who pursue her relentlessly. In scenes reminiscent of “The Walking Dead” (but much more imaginative than this well-past-its-prime series), Jay can’t seem to escape these menacing presences. As metaphors for the end of innocence, these unsettling stalkers add a nearly unbearable intensity to this new, and welcome, twist on a familiar horror movie trope. Warning: this movie will follow you long after you finish watching it.
In this age of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, it is understandable that the horror of sensuality is ready to appear in robotic form. Of course, this theme was presented very early on, in Fritz Lang’s silent epic, “Metropolis” (1927), but at that time it was seen as prophetic rather than contemporary. Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (2014) is a contemporary retelling of Lang’s original vision, this time with a touch of horror that causes us to think more deeply about the perils of robotics, artificial intelligence, and singularity. In this visually intriguing movie, acted out by only four characters, Alicia Vikander portrays the robotic Ava, who falls in love with Caleb, a young scientist who has been invited to her inventor’s remote laboratory for a first look at his beautiful humanoid creation (at this point, we can interpret “Ex Machina” as a modern retelling of “Frankenstein”). Like Irena, the feline-like protagonist from “Cat People,” Ava undergoes a transformation when her erotic impulses are stirred by Caleb. In some ways, this movie reminds me of Bryan Forbes’ “The Stepford Wives” (1975), not to be confused with the pretty awful remake starring Nicole Kidman. Unlike Forbes’ movie, however, where the robotic wives are totally under the control of their male inventors, Ava breaks free from her origins and sets out toward an independent life of her own.
Before I leave this theme, I feel compelled to recommend your watching my candidate for one of the top five films ever made–Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s evocative “Pandora’s Box,” starring my favorite female actress, Louise Brooks. Although this film isn’t generally categorized as a horror movie, I agree with some critics that it is perhaps a fitting model for the modern-day slasher film. Louise Brooks’ Lulu provides one of the earliest examples of the horror of sensuality, as she pursues the sensual life to its final, and fatal, conclusion. Experience this film as soon as possible. Yes, it should be on your bucket list, as corny as that may sound.
I hope you have enjoyed this year’s “Halloween Horrors” series. I am already looking forward to next year’s version.