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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/25/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 17
Table of Contents
Word Origin? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Where did we ever get this widely accepted expression of insincere threat? I am speaking of the paradoxical word "boo." It is supposed to be a scary sound, but notice that it is rarely used if there is any real threat. If said sharply in the first instant it is disconcerting and perhaps it is even startling, but since it is most often insincere, a moment later it is reassuring. I have heard of words like "cleave" with opposite meanings depending on usage, but this one has opposite meanings, changing with time, on the same usage. If not said sharply, it is used for disapproval hence giving it a third meaning. It is less of a threat, but also less reassuring. The word "boo" is thought to have originated about 1430 as an imitation of cattle sounds. It is related to "moo." But that is questionable since cattle are rarely associated with being either frightening or reassuring. And rarely are they thought to be expressing disapproval, except in the old "Rawhide" theme: Keep movin', movin', movin' Though they're disapprovin' Keep them doggies movin', Rawhide. [-mrl]
A Definition of the Horror Genre (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
In the words of Al Pacino in THE GODFATHER, "Just when "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." I had been writing about horror and thought I was done. Actually, I was finishing up a three-week set of articles on the subject of horror and was ready to move on to the next topic, but I got a fairly interesting question from Rob Mitchell and it got me thinking again about just what is horror. I decided to stick with horror a little longer, since after all this is the season of Halloween.
Rob asked where one draws the line between horror and suspense. Is it the presence of fantastical elements? I gave my opinion that, yes, horror was a subset of fantasy. A story like John Buchan's THE 39 STEPS is suspenseful, but it is not horror. It is necessary, but not sufficient, for a story to be fantastical to be in the horror genre. Certainly there are fantastical premises in the two most popular horror novels, FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA. But one does not have to think very long to come up with works that are considered horror, but which do not have any obvious fantastic elements. I am not sure that when Gaston Leroux wrote THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA it was more than a potboiler love story with some crime and suspense. Far from being a fantasy, it knit together actual events and urban legends about the Paris Opera House into a melodrama that had at the time only lukewarm popularity. But once Lon Chaney played the role with a horrifying skeletal face, it was adopted immediately into the horror genre even without overtly fantastical elements. It certainly is more consistent with my world-view than is, say, DRACULA.
But why stop there? Hitchcock's PSYCHO has similarly been adopted as a horror film though it is set in our world. (As an aside on a recent panel I was told that one thing puts a story in the horror genre is that it uses "the tropes of horror." That probably cannot be contradicted since nobody knows what the heck a trope is anyway. Really what I think this says is that something is horror if it has the characteristics of horror.) BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER uses the tropes of horror but somehow I do not think it is actually horror. Certainly the same goes for Casper the Friendly Ghost and the Munsters. These are not intended to be horrifying. But then, I believe, neither is THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The closer we look at Rob's question, the more we seem to end up in the same quandary that we have defining science fiction. Damon Knight's definition of the latter was "Science fiction is what I point to when I say, 'This is science fiction.'" Knight was apparently satisfied with his criterion, which he might not have been if more people with his telephone number would have needed to apply the criterion at 3 AM. Alas, Mr. Knight is dead now and will no longer be pointing at science fiction, so we can never again be sure any more if at least by his definition a work is science fiction or not. By saying that horror displays the tropes of horror you are as much saying, "Horror is what I point to when I say, 'This is horror.'"
This is a roundabout way of saying that I do not know of a really good and workable definition for the horror genre or the science fiction genre. And a few weeks ago in an editorial I think I said much the same thing about the Western genre. In each genre there are obvious examples and there are gray area cases where it is not entirely clear. To apply those definitions you just have to go with either your own opinion or with majority rule. That is probably what is used as the practical definition of these terms. But I may not want to leave it at that. Maybe I can still come up with a working definition for horror.
First I would want to get rid of the word horror, at least in the definition. The horror genre is about fear not about horror. According to the dictionary "horror" is "intense aversion or repugnance." Really the horror genre is more about terror than horror. What is the difference between horror and terror? "Horror" is seeing someone die in a nasty way. "Terror" is knowing you are probably next. I would say a work of horror--and it can be in any art form, not just film and books--is one engendering personal fear and/or is about those things capable of engendering personal fear. It has to be personal fear. Trying to overcome someone trying to kill the President is only suspense. If he has a knife to your throat it becomes horror. DRACULA does not scare me as a movie, but it is about things that, if they were real, would scare me. I would call that horror. BUFFY is horror since I would probably consider the creatures she fights as things that would be dangerous to me if they were real. Casper cartoons are not horror because even if he were real he would not be threatening to me. Aside: Evelyn suggests that implies that newspaper articles may be horror stories. Well, I guess they can be.
I guess that comes as close to defining the genre as I can come. [-mrl]
BUBBA HO-TEP (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In a Texas nursing home Elvis and JFK live on. And they need each other's help. There is a murderous mummy on the loose in a cowboy hat. Most of the action takes place in the nursing home and the joke outstays its welcome. Clearly this is the sort of film that will have a small following that thinks it is CITIZEN KANE and a large number of people who will be accused of just not getting it. I got it, but I didn't particularly want it. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), low 0 (-4 to +4)
There is not a lot to this ultra-low budget film. Most of what you get from the film is the idea. It takes place for the greatest part in an East Texas rest home in the present day. Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) is one of the residents. How he came to be still alive and in an East Texas rest home is part of the story. Another resident may or may not be John F. Kennedy. (Ossie Davis... Don't ask.)
At this star-studded rest home some pretty weird happenings happen. Just why takes some explaining, but a resurrected mummy dressed in a cowboy suit walks the halls and kills people as part of his evil plans. Presley and Kennedy team up to kill the mummy. The mummy mythology, that part of it that comes from films, seems to come entirely from Brendan Fraser mummy movies. The Joe Lansdale story pre-dates those films, but the script's emphasis on scarab beetles seems to come from the most recent films.
Don Coscarelli (PHANTASM) directed and wrote the screenplay based on a story by Joe R. Lansdale who also wrote RAZORED SADDLES, a collection of western horror stories. Some of the dialog is fun, but there is very little here to attract the average horror fan and less for the average film fan. There are much more rewarding films to rent.
Some of my friends had particular reasons for liking this film. If you have a special interest in one of the actors, Elvis stories, or rest homes this film may just be down your personal alley. For everyone else I would have to put this film down in the range of a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale or a low 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
[The story by Joe R. Lansdale can be found in THE KING IS DEAD: TALES OF ELVIS POSTMORTEM, edited by Paul M. Sammon, or WRITER OF THE PURPLE RAGE by Joe R. Lansdale.]
CABIN FEVER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A flesh-eating virus wrecks a cabin party of five college student celebrating their graduation. There are no human villains in this one, no villains big enough to see with a naked eye, but this is still a very disturbing little horror film and one that is not too far from the possible. This is a very bloody and violent film, but it is the most original horror film we have seen in a while. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
This is an effective horror film that derives its real scariness not from inventing supernatural foes that are merely stories, but from very real fears of things that already are known to exist. With some variation the type of fearful thing that is happening in this film has happened in other countries. This is a horror film with a credibility that is lacking in most of what Stephen King writes. It is a thriller that works for the same reasons that THE CHINA SYNDROME works.
Five college friends have just graduated and are ready to go out into the real world. For their last bash of their college years they rent a cabin deep in the woods. After a little DELIVERANCE style scariness as misdirection to the viewer as to where the story is going, the group gets to their cabin. There in the woods they come across a man who without wounds is bleeding from all over his body. The group is terrified and wants nothing to do with the man, but their contact is already too much. It seems some sort of contagious flesh-eating microorganism has infected the man. What follows is a horror story that superficially looks like a lot of "horror in the woods" sort of films like THE EVIL DEAD. This one is a bit different, however, because the scare is not coming from spirits or aliens or monsters or vampires but from things that do exist and are a genuine a threat. This film does not so much recount a horror story as a very possible scenario.
Co-author and director Eli Roth does some very intelligent things with his first feature film that previous films on the subject of disease outbreak have missed. He never identifies the disease that is attacking people. Roth seems to have chosen some flesh-eating bacteria as his monster, but it could easily have been the Ebola or Marburg viruses without a lot of difference in the story. By not defining the disease, he avoids technical details. We see a lot of possible clinical effects of such a disease and it is not a pretty sight. The film deals with issues like how to treat the infected and the emotional impact and dilemmas of quarantine and being left to die. While CABIN FEVER may at first brush seem aimed at horror and thrill viewers, word of mouth could well spread interest to a more general audience interested in the very real issues the film raises of public health, disease control, and quarantine. One thing that CABIN FEVER does not have is a human villain. Roth apparently decided that the disease was a scary enough menace without adding the menace of evil people. Roth thus intelligently sidesteps the dramatic errors of films like THE SATAN BUG, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, and OUTBREAK.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, Lion's Gate bought the film for release in the summer of 2003. It well deserves to be seen as an effective horror film that only gets more disturbing the more you know about the subject. I rate CABIN FEVER a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [--mrl]
RENO: REBEL WITHOUT A PAUSE:
CAPSULE: Reno is a popular comedian and performance artist on the stage in New York and on cable. This play is her experiences on September 11 and her reflections on the meaning of it all. Humor is subjective and what she does is not offensive but is rarely what I consider to be funny. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), low 0 (-4 to +4)
Part of the September 11 themed material at the Toronto International Film Festival was RENO: REBEL WITHOUT A PAUSE, a filmed stand-up performance-art routine. Reno (that is her only professional name) tells her experiences: some with Creation Scientists, some on September 11, and some after September 11. She talks about government policy and about public reaction.
The first relevant question is "is her material funny?" I found myself laughing once and smiling three or four times. That is not a very high average. I could have done better spending my admission price on a Dave Barry or Far Side book. In fairness, there were people in the audience who did laugh, but her material just did not work very well with me.
Reno is a brash woman with an almost overpowering presence. She reminds me a lot of Bette Midler. Much of the problem with the film is that a lot of her humor seemed to be making points that just were not true. She was just a few blocks from the site and she jokes about why watch it on TV if you can see it live. Well the answer is obvious, you might want to know more than what does the site look like. She complains bitterly that constitutional law must apply to the government even in this state of emergency. True enough. But she ends the presentation being very upset that someone expressed ideas she didn't like. She called 911 to report it. Does she think that by tying up a 911 line she can get them to revoke somebody's First Amendment Right? Does she have to tie up a 911 line to complain?
Reno has her share of good points to make, but occasionally her presentation is a bit incoherent, sometimes she seems wrong in her beliefs. In general, this film could have used a little more thought. The camerawork is jerky. Overall the presentation is lacking. It works neither as a political statement nor as an effective comedy routine.
Reno began writing this comedy routine about October 11, 2001, and was filmed under the direction of Nancy Savoca on December 19, 2001. Some of the New York humor may not be meaningful outside of New York. I rate RENO: REBEL WITHOUT A PAUSE a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The typical American of today has lost all the love of liberty, that his forefathers had, and all their disgust of emotion, and pride in self-reliance. He is led no longer by Davy Crocketts; he is led by cheer leaders, press agents, word mongers, uplifters. -- H. L. Mencken
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