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Editorial - Saturday, 29 January, 2005
"Graduate School"

OK...you've read my previous rant called "Graduation Day", wherein I shared an anecdote about an important event in my own development as a "horror film fan". You've read how, in a bout of schadenfreude, I took devilish glee in my old friend Rob's...ahem...abdominal discomfort upon watching the original "Dawn of the Dead". You read how I honestly believe that all horror movie fans have had a defining moment like that sometime in their lives, and how those moments are the pinnacle of what it means to be a fan. So, you might ask...what's next for the horror fan? I mean, how many of these moments can one person have? Well, I'll tell you. I compare it to Graduate School...a kind of secondary education where you take everything you've learned and experienced thus far and learn how to put it into practice. For the truly discriminating horror fan, each and every watched film is like a new graduate-level class. Each scene or murder set-piece is an exercise in learning how to develop your personal tastes and likes...or dislikes, as it were.

This education continues throughout your film-watching life...it's truly a never-ending process. Epiphany after epiphany occurs, and each time you learn something new about this thing called genre, about filmmaking, and about yourself. Sometimes, you learn what your limitations are as a viewer. That's one of the more interesting and important lessons to learn, I think. Example: I had seen many gory and disturbing films...films that push the boundaries of taste...films such as "Re-Animator" spring to mind. However, the violence and gore in "Re-Animator" is, for the most part, over-the-top and rather cartoonish. So, it's easier to "stomach" those images than if they were played "straight" instead of for laughs or mere shock-value. Then, I saw "Hellbound: Hellraiser 2"...one of the first films I saw that blurred the line between reality, fantasy, pain, and pleasure. It was one of the first times...way back then...when I truly felt uncomfortable after watching a movie. In its uncut form, "Hellbound" is not so much "scary" as it is highly effective in this regard. One scene stands out for me: the scene where Dr. Channard has taken a mental patient home in order to experiment with the Lament Configuration (the puzzle box). The Dr. puts the guy on a mattress...not just any dirty ol' mattress, mind you...the mattress on which Julia (the definition of "wicked stepmother") was killed in the first movie. Now, this mental patient seems to be afflicted with some bizarre form of schizophrenia, whereby he sees and feels thousands of maggots crawling in his ravaged flesh. Desperate cries of "get them off me" permeate the room as Dr. Channard helps the man out of his much-needed straight-jacket...and then hands the man a razor. The set-piece that follows is (still) one of the most grueling scenes for me to watch, as the poor fellow proceeds to slash himself dozens of times with the razor...presumably to rid himself of the aforementioned maggots...in up-close, ultra-vivid detail. The combination of images, the sounds of the razor slicing through the man's flesh, and the echoes of his cries of "get them off me" are permanently burned into my memory, like an ancient rust stain on marble. As the patient gouges and slashes away, Dr. Channard can only look on with fascination and detached, somewhat foppish disgust. The patient continues his self-abuse, soaking himself and the mattress with what seems like a surreal amount of blood. Then, as the music and the scene itself reaches a crescendo, two skinless, bloody arms suddenly thrust out of the mattress, followed by the face of a denuded, demonic Julia. She smiles, crawls out of the soaked mattress, and proceeds to slither her way on top of the patient, where she finally puts the guy out of his misery by sucking his remaining blood out of the back of his neck. It's a simultaneously disgusting, horrific, mysterious, and strangely erotic nightmare of a sequence, and as I watched it for the first time, I felt like Dr. Channard, whose own reactions to the situation mirrored my own. I was grossed out, of course...and I was horrified. But, and this is the point, I was strangely fascinated. Of course, looking back on it, "Hellbound: Hellraiser 2" isn't exactly the epitome of a great horror film. It's imperfect, and it kind of falls apart in the last act (mostly due to Ashley Laurence's dead-pan performance). Still, that sequence stands in my mind as one of the most shocking, expertly-filmed sequences in horror film history, and it's a perfect example of a time of when I gained a perfunctory "continuing education credit" in my horror flick schooling.

Yet another example...I first saw "The Evil Dead" in the summer of 1986, on a ratty, third-generation bootleg VHS tape. I watched this one all alone, in my room (by that time, my parents had become resigned to the fact that I would be spending the better part of my days locked away in my room either having premarital sex or watching horror films...or both...so they pretty much left me to my whims). I had heard that I could expect good...no...great things from "The Evil Dead", and I had heard that Stephen King himself (one of my idols at the time) had strongly recommended it. Now, finally, I had my very own copy of this by then notorious gore-fest. I popped that sucker into my old top-loading VHS player, and sat back...fully prepared to be blown away. And blown away I was. From the swooping, vertiginous opening shots to the bloodsplattered claymation finale, I drank up every last drop of that film, and as with "Dawn of the Dead" before it, I was forever changed. I don't know...there's something about seeing a milk-spewing zombie-type getting graphically dismembered that just sets my pulse a-racing. It was, even then, cartoonish and over-the-top, and I knew it, but it was art, dammit! I remember feeling somehow, I don't know, "stoned" after watching "The Evil Dead" for the first time. It was as if someone had unraveled for me a bit of the fabric of the universe, and then gave me a glimpse of some horrible, exciting secret that lay tucked within. If I have the tendency to wax poetic about this, it's only to prove a point. Horror...well done horror...is art. More than any other genre, more than any other medium, the well-crafted horror film transcends its trappings to become true art...an art that reflects back on the viewer to show us not only what we're afraid of, but why.

These anecdotes, I think, are typical of many tried-and-true horror fans. We go into each film with mind and eyes wide open, ready to be blown away, regardless of hype, pomp, and circumstance. Whether or not we choose to believe the "hype" of that film that is touted as "the next big thing" in horror cinema (e.g. "House of 1000 Corpses"), we are able to manage our expectations and simply watch each new film as a fresh experience. Even when our expectations are dashed by a film that fails to even vaguely live up to its hype or preconceived reputation, the experience is still educational. We learn important lessons about how not to put a horror film together...how not to approach a given subject matter, and that updated knowledge helps us make more informed viewing decisions with future releases. At the very least, disappointment teaches us that, as viewers, we should never, ever go on hype alone...and that's a valuable lesson.

As dyed-in-the-wool horror aficianados, we are a gullible lot. It's sad, but true. Recent examples of horror hucksterism include "House of the Dead", "White Noise", "Darkness Falls", "Feardotcom", "Gothika", "Ghost Ship", "Freddy vs. Jason", "Alien vs. Predator", and on...and on...but don't let this get you down. No, there are plenty of "mainstream" horror classics that have snuck under the radar of the popular media, including "May", the flawed but exhilarating "Dawn of the Dead" remake, the first "Jeepers Creepers" film, "Saw", and so on. These little gems, while not perfect, at least start to make up for all of the times when we've been screwed by studios, previously reliable filmmakers, and our own expectations.

The final word? Well, there isn't really a "final word", and that's the point. Your horror education is ongoing...neverending, and ever-expanding. Every time you watch a new flick, you add a proverbial feather to your cap. The goal for the serious-minded horror enthusiast is to branch out...to become as well rounded a viewer as possible. It's not enough to merely specialize in a particular subgenre of horror films..."vampire movies" for example...no, you need to expand your horizons; see how films fit into the bigger picture of this thing we call "horror". Only then, can you consider yourself a well-educated horror cinema fan. And let's not forget for on instant that the word "fan" is simply a shortened, more socially acceptable version of the word "fanatic". There's no shame in that...you might draw the odd glance or cautious stare leer from some of your friends and family, but dammit, they just don't understand. We're horror fans, and we're learning to love our genre of choice more and more every day. Now, stop reading for a while and go watch another horror movie! Go learn something!

- Matthew Dean Hill




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