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The Monsters Within Us


By David B. Edelstein

WHEN COMMERCIALS for Humanoids from the Deep splashed across television screens last spring--with scaly black creatures clawing at curvaceous blondes in bikinis, with that corker of a tag line, "Not for killing. For mating..."--movie monsters made a leap from the resignedly platonic to the unabashedly horny. I remember when monsters had morals: King Kong (a little fondling); the Creature from the Black Lagoon (bad ideas--but stoic). And the mere abduction of the unconscious woman seemed to satisfy the aggressive but asexual adolescent; after the limp female was draped across the rocks the panic light went on--"Uh oh, what does he do now?"--and the hero conveniently arrives to blow the shit out of the suddenly pensive creature.

The Humanoids from the Deep, however, knew precisely what they had to do: burst in on a scantily-clad female (who may or may not be having sex but is certainly flaunting her assets), shove her violently to the ground (tearing off what little clothing she has, along with a fair amount of flesh), and rape her (brutally and painfully). A scientist in the film explains that the humanoids must procreate rapidly or face extinction--or some such gobbledegook--but that's all irrelevant. What we have here is a fantasia on rape.

I saw Humanoids from the Deep at the Orson Welles Cinema as part of a 12-hour horror movie marathon in July, and the audience cheered it from first frame to last. They cheered during the rapes; they cheered when the humanoids were killed, disgustingly, one at a time, with blood and intestines splashing lavishly over everything; and they cheered in anticipation when the camera fastened on some woman's ass. I admit to somewhat similar behavior--on a smaller scale--at home in front of my television screen, enjoying a private relationship with the camera (I kid myself that, like James Stewart in Rear Window, I am unseen); but there's something frightening about seeing your own harmless perversions enthusiastically endorsed by hundreds of people. Except these people didn't seem to want to question their responses. They seemed like the leering, drooling maniacs in the asylum scene of Brian Depalma's Dressed to Kill, applauding the strangulation and partial stripping of a nurse. The image is a sardonic joke and undoubtedly meant to mirror the audience, but thousands of humorless nurses and women are picketing the film across the country, claiming it presents violence against women as erotic. They ought to be out marching against Humanoids from the Deep instead of wasting their time on a passable thriller with a sense of humor and delusions of grandeur, where the violence against women is sickening, not erotic.

HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP is an important movie--the first time I have ever seen the rapist in every male moviegoer come out of the closet. It was long overdue, since rape-and-murder occupies more entertainment time than any other subject except love. I don't think a night goes by without some prime-time detective battling a lady-killer, without shapely blondes and brunettes in tennis or go-go or hooker regalia done away with by nasty hitmen or mixed-up innocents who were teased by girls in high school.

You can probably come up with as many examples as I can, but let me remind you of a recent one: television commercials for Prom Night, which is still cleaning up at theaters and drive-ins, showing teenage girls "making themselves beautiful" for that special event, only to encounter a homicidal maniac. (The ads, incidentally, are more successful than the movie, which turns out to be a dull, inept mystery with actresses closer to menopause than high school.) The not-even-subliminal message is Come see the teenage girls get killed! They've got it coming!

I was particularly angered by Humanoids, and I asked an Orson Welles staff-member, who claimed to be soliciting feedback, why the film had been programmed. He seemed genuinely puzzled by my outrage, and pointed out that, in terms of audience reaction, it had been the most successful film of the marathon. "And the ending," he said. "Everybody loved the ending."

Here is the ending of Humanoids from the Deep: The monsters have been destroyed. One of the impregnated girls is giving birth. It is an agonizing, prolonged delivery, the young girl's face contorted in pain, the female doctor trying to soothe her, steady her, trying to ease the baby out, carefully, the camera in tight on them, sharing the pain and expectation. Suddenly the young mother shrieks, throws back her head; there is a ripping sound and her abdomen bursts; blood spatters everywhere, pouring from her mouth as she manages to die; and a little humanoid pops up and snarls into the camera. Blackout. Music. Wild laughter and shrieks in the Orson Welles Cinema. Thunderous applause.

The scene, of course, was a rip-off of Alien, and it might even have been meant to parody the insufferable delivery scenes in other movies where everything comes out all right. But joke or no joke, how can anyone dissociate him/herself from the all-too-real pain? How can anyone with the slightest parental urge--or human decency--laugh at a delivery that ends in bloody death? And, given that laughter is a complex entity and could signal distress as well as pleasure, why was the reaction to the movie overwhelmingly, ecstatically favorable?

In one scene in Humanoids, a bunch of slobbering, obese rednecks surrounds one of the creatures and gorily beats it to death while the audience cheers them on. The racial overtones are frightening, particularly when you consider that the strongest market for this kind of movie is the South. The humanoids fulfill the rabid redneck vision of black men invading their towns and screwing their women. The movie is both a rapist's and a Klansman's fantasy. Many horror movies subtly encourage our xenophobia: the vampire film, for example, where the mysterious foreigner brings pestilence and death. (And preys on Our Women. It's funny how the American male, when he is not thinking about raping a female, is aggressively protecting her honor.) There seems to be no limit to the number of twisted, reactionary themes that a horror movie can comfortably accommodate.

PEOPLE HAVE ALWAYS denounced the horror genre as sexist, racist, sadistic, whatever, but that attitude has always struck me as priggish and unimaginative. At least until I sat through 12 torturous, claustrophobic hours at the Orson Welles and realized that even I--a horror buff since age six--had my limits. (The marathon did, incidentally, feature three superb films: Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face, Peter Bogdanovitch's Targets, and Terence Fisher's Frankenstein Created Women, the latter boasting a marvelous performance by the superlative Peter Cushing.) I haven't lost faith in the form: horror has traditionally brought kids through adolescence with reduced turmoil, providing them with a safe, acceptable outlet for their anti-social urges. The stories themselves rely heavily on archetypes, and some of the best films of the genre have an allegorical, fairy-tale quality. In pop psychology terms, the monster emerges from the viewer's id, wreaks havoc for awhile, and is destroyed by the hero, who represents the triumphant super-ego.

This form has never changed, but the filmmaker's emphasis certainly has. The orgies of violence and destruction so fully depicted in Humanoids and Friday the 13th represent the id unleashed--in ways de Sade would have admired--but the victory of the super-ego also plays upon the viewer's sadistic urges.

Perhaps these movies are also popular because they shrewdly exploit the narcissism of the past decade: the increasingly limited situations, centering on attractive people with very little on their minds; the emphasis on disfigurement as well as death (the girl preening before a mirror, making herself sexy, only to receive an axe in her face.) The Killers and monsters are as vacuously preoccupied with sex and appearances as their victims, and equally represent the "Me Decade."

We have no empathy for the victims in Humanoids, Prom Night, or Friday the 13th-- dubbed by horror novelist Stephen King in a Phoenix interview as a "snuff movie," where the audience waits eagerly for 13 campers and counsellors to be gorily dispatched. The violence in these low-budget horror films signals a new irreverence for the human body: no longer a vessel for the mind or soul but for blood, bone, pus, intestine and anything else that can come spurting, splashing, oozing, or quivering out; a source of irridescent colors, strange and squashy textures, squishing and crunching sounds. Devising these spectacles takes real showmanship, as evidenced by this excerpt from the horror mag Fangoria's interview with "effects wizard" Tom Savini, as he explains the scalping of a woman in his new shocker, Maniac!:

"The scalpel had tubing glued to its underside... As the maniac moved it through the actress' hair, I was off-camera pumping the blood, which was actually coming out of the scalpel. Then we cut the camera and I spent about 20 minutes rigging her forehead with mortician's wax. The scalpel was dull enough so as not to actually cut her, but was sharp enough to cut through the wax and give the illusion of slicing her flesh. Again the blood came out of the scalpel and shot into the groove being created. We cut the camera once more. I spent about 90 minutes making her head bald by spreading soap across layers of hair and drying each layer until it was slick. I then removed the top half of the mortician's wax above the cut, and built up more wax along the top of her real hairline leading into the soaped-out area. I applied pink and white makeup to her head to make it look like a skull, added coagulated sections of blood and coated it with Vaseline to give it a gooey quality.

I had previously cast her head to make a latex scalp, onto which I ventilated the hair. I had tubing going into the false scalp, and set it down on her head. That way she had her own hairline back but was bald beneath it. We began the shot with the scalpel leaving her forehead, and the maniac grabbed her hair, pulled it back and ripped it right off. Again I was off-camera pumping the blood through the tubes connected to the scalp, so it continued to bleed as it left her head."

Savini's work on Down of the Dead wasn't truly offensive because cannibalistic zombies and not, for the most part, human beings were destroyed. The audience appreciated this and enjoyed the turkey shoot, indulging its most aggressive fantasies without the accompanying guilt. This attitude, however, has spread to living characters, often innocent victims (though usually reduced to zombies by one-dimensional scripts), and the laughter is--well, immoral.

REAL VIOLENCE IS, for most of us, still hideous, threatening, mesmerizing. And when a cameraman caught the murder of newsman Bill Stewart in Nicaragua last summer, all the cinematic bloodletting in the world couldn't equal the impact of that hazy, distant shot of a rifle discharging into the prone body. It was a violation.

Have we really become dissociated from violence? Does violence in film provoke violence in life? Or does it act as a catharsis, purging the viewer of his/her violent instincts? Innumerable studies in the last 50 years say yes, no, maybe to all three questions. It obviously depends on the state of the individual viewer (frustrated, placid, volatile), the style of violence (restrained, perfunctory, Iyrical, lingering, graphic), the filmmaker's attitude toward the victims and violators (a likable killer, empathetic victim, etc.), and other assorted immeasurables.

The ability of a film to provoke violence may have less to do with the quantity or treatment of violence than with the director's ability to placate the emotions that he/she has whipped up. Take the controversy over Walter Hill's The Warriors. This stupidly written but stirringly staged 1979 gang melodrama was blamed for several murders and numerous acts of violence. Once again, fingers wagged and the debate over violence in movies resumed. A writer in Film Comment, however, argued very persuasively that while the violence in The Warriors was unquestionably a turn-on, the movie's limp, unsatisfying ending was more responsible for sending viewers away frustrated and combative, that in this case a little more violence in the form of a payoff might have eased the post-movie tension. Who knows? Perhaps--perhaps--we need to worry less about Humanoids from the Deep, which delivered enough sex and violence to satisfy the most sadistic, misogynistic audience, than about television's Charlie's Angels, which is just a tease, placing its glamor-girl heroines in perilous situations and raising expectations that it has no intension of fulfilling. We've got both of them, in any case, and a whole lot more.

Everything's in the open now. We see it all from the killer's point of view and we seem to be enjoying it, and to be dissociating ourselves from what it means. Responsible film artists have been warning us for years: Hitchcock told us, over and over, that we were voyeurs and sadists; Kubrick in Clockwork Orange, Malick in Badlands, Coppola in Apocalypse Now made epics of our dissociation; soldiers in Vietnam said it didn't feel like being there, it felt like being in a war movie; and Roger Rosenblatt writes in The New Republic that Son of Sam seems like just another psycho-on-the-loose movie. I wonder if David Berkowitz imagined his murders on a movie screen, and I remember how in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom the killer didn't get off just by murdering women but by filming their deaths and playing them back again and again. What happens when our minds becomes 3-D movie cameras and the aesthetic of the horror film becomes our weltanschaung?

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