Horror Film Expert
Wednesday, October 25, 2006 12:00 PM
Do you like scary movies? Horror film expert Aviva Briefel was online Wednesday, Oct. 25 at noon ET to discuss cinema's scariest moments and recommend some Halloween favorites.
Aviva Briefel is a professor at Bowdoin University in Brunswick, Maine, where she teaches "The Horror Film in Context." She has published several academic papers about horror films and was a commentator on Bravo's "100 Scariest Movie Moments" and "Even Scarier Movie Moments."
Washington, D.C.: Professor Briefel,
What do you think is the cause of the recent resurgence of zombie popularity? The last five years or so have seen an onslaught of zombie movies ("28 Days Later," the remake of "Dawn of the Dead," "Land of the Dead," "Sean of the Dead," etc), books, and video games. From the mid-80's to the late 90's, though, I don't recall zombies being that popular.
Aviva Briefel: Yes, zombies are everywhere these days, from the films you mentioned, to video games, to Max Brooks's fantastic "The Zombie Survival Guide" and "World War Z." I think that these monsters have made a come back because they are particularly suited to the types of apocalyptic stories we have told about ourselves, especially after Sept. 11. The films in which they are found always feature the theme of survival in the face of a widespread catastrophe, and we have been thinking a lot about that recently. Also, I think that zombies ask viewers to think of the connection between themselves and monsters; as one character in Romero's Dawn of the Dead puts it when asked what zombies are, "They're us."
St. Mary's City, Md.: My all-time favorite scary movies are Kubrick's "The Shining" and "The Blair Witch Project." Although "Blair Witch" was no cinematic masterpiece, it was an excellent example of psychological horror. It forced the viewer to imagine a menace that would be ten times worse than anything created by special effects. What are your favorites for psychological horror, the horror that you imagine rather than see?
Aviva Briefel: "The Blair Witch Project" definitely ranks high on my list for the sense of dread that it instills in its audience, as does "The Shining." Other than that, Robert Wise's "The Haunting" is particularly effective. Nothing really happens except for indistinct rumbles and knocks, yet it ends up being terrifying. I also feel the same way about "Rosemary's Baby"; much of the horror of this film is based on imagining rather than seeing horror. Oh, and Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now." I could go on and on....
Aviva Briefel: Some of my favorite horror films (not in order of preference) are: Dario Argento's "Suspiria" and "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage"; Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later"; David Cronenberg's "The Brood," "The Fly," and "Videodrome"; Brian de Palma's "Carrie"; John Fawcett's "Ginger Snaps"; Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho"; Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"; Hideo Nakata's "Ringu"; Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby"; George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" and Dawn of the Dead; Mark Robson's "The Seventh Victim"; Bernard Rose's "Candyman"; and Robert Wise's "The Haunting."
There are, of course, many, many more. I would love to hear your favorites or to answer any questions about the horror film during the next hour.
Monroe, Mich.: With the notable exception of "Candyman," there have been very few horror movies that feature blacks villains. Also, why is it that very few black characters survive until the end of horror movies?
Aviva Briefel: That's absolutely true. Besides "Candyman," another example of an African-American monster is Jimmy Bones (played by Snoop Dogg) in Ernest Dickerson's film. But he's not really a monster in the traditional sense of the term; he's more of an avenger. And recently, Romero featured a black zombie as the leader of zombies in "Land of the Dead." Traditionally, the horror film has been centered on individuals in positions of privilege. Think about the number of horror films that center on an upper-middle class family buying a nice house in the suburbs only to find out that there's something terribly wrong with it (or about a bunch of white kids in summer camp or on vacation who are murdered one by one).
Buffalo, NY: Hi,
What is your take on the influx of Japanese horror remakes? I notice that none of them made the Bravo list? I actually found another Japanese movie -- "Battle Royale" -- to be more frightening than "The Grudge" or "The Ring."
washingtonpost.com: I believe "Audition" made the original 100 list?
Aviva Briefel: Japanese horror is setting new parameters in terms of the subject matter it is willing to cover and the violence it is capable of showing. Takashi Miike's "Audition" (as well as the films you list) is an excellent example of this. In a way, I think it's too bad that many American directors are "translating" these films for a U.S. audience. While these remakes are often quite terrifying, they lose something of the power of the originals.
Washington, D.C.: Do you think there has been a decline in the quality of horror films since classics such as "The Exorcist" were released? Or are we seeing a revival of cult classics -- "Feast" comes to mind as the most recent example.
Aviva Briefel: What's interesting about horror is that every decade seems to produce its own monsters. For example, horror in the 1950s was centered on alien invasions, mind control, etc., most likely as a direct response to Cold War fears. In the 1980s, the slasher film ruled, with its pantheon of monsters: Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, etc. The 1990s began by reviving the genre in an almost parodic way, with films like "Scream," "I Know What You Did Last Summer," and ended with more psychologically frightening films such as "The Blair Witch Project" and "The Sixth Sense." Now, with some very notable exceptions, the trend is to remake earlier horror classics ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "The Hills Have Eyes," etc.); I have to say that I'm not particularly thrilled with this trend. However, I think we're also seeing a number of very promising new directors. Eli Roth (director of "Cabin Fever" and "Hostel") is one of these, as is Neil Marshall ("The Descent"). I haven't seen "Feast" yet, but I've been reading good things about it.
Indianapolis: In your opinion, what movie in the history of film was most ground-breaking for it's time? "The Exorcist"? "Jaws"?
Aviva Briefel: I actually think that Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" was the most groundbreaking, given the time in which it was produced. Its graphic presentation of gore and violence was unprecedented, as was its engagement with contemporary social issues. It was also the first horror film to feature an African-American character as its protagonist.
Philadelphia: I have a movie to add to the discussion, and that is the Italian horror classic "Suspiria." This movie contains some of the most disturbing images I've ever seen, not least of which was the sequence in the barbed wire room. The whole movie is bolstered by the paranoid psychedelia of the band Goblin. I don't think witches have ever been quite so scary.
Aviva Briefel: I agree--I think that "Suspiria" is a fantastic film. It does a great job of combining a coming-of-age story with old-school horror and Grand Guignol gore. In many ways, it's like a fairy tale gone terribly, terribly wrong. And the Goblin soundtrack gives it a great campiness. I'm actually a huge fan of Argento -- in addition to Suspiria, I would highly recommend "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage," and "Deep Red."
Washington, D.C.: Last night I watched Takashi Miike's entry in Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series (which they refused to air due to the content). It's been a long time since I've been shocked by a horror movie (--SPOILER ALERT-- if you haven't seen it, there are extremely graphic images of aborted fetuses and of a primitive abortion actually being performed, as well as a prolonged and squirm-worthy torture scene), but Miike managed to shock me. How does increasing desensitization to violence and graphic images affect how able a director is to scare using very subtle means (such as your earlier example of "The Haunting")? Does it make creating a truly scary movie more difficult? What do you think directors will need to do to be scary without upping the shock value ante?
Aviva Briefel: I think that we are definitely at a period in which horror is becoming more and more about gore. It's strange to look back at a film like the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and to see how little gore--compared to our present standards--there actually is. I think that it takes a lot of talent to create a gory movie that doesn't just make us sit back and think about special effects but that actually makes us squirm (and Miike is a great example of someone who knows how to do this). But it is also--if not more--difficult to create fantastic psychological horror. This is because a director has to predict what kinds of themes and images will really affect a broad audience that often crosses cultural lines. One of the images from "The Shining" that always gets to people, for example, is the one of a man dressed in a bear suit that the Shelley Duvall character briefly sees as she is running through the hotel. Another is the recurring image of the two little twin girls in blue. It's very difficult--perhaps even impossible--to explain what makes these images so disturbing, but they continue to do shock us today.
Munich, Germany: What is in the psyche of normal human beings that makes them attracted to horror stories and films?
I find it fascinating that an average person can be riveted by stories like "Fall of the House of Usher", and somehow want to identify with the fears of the main characters.
An English teacher once told me that in order for a horror story or film, like the "Exorcist" for example, to achieve the goal of frightening people, the viewer has to believe, even to a small degree, in the plausibility of the story and its contents. Do you agree?
Aviva Briefel: I think your teacher is partly right--horror films (or horror literature) make us suspend our disbelief long enough for us to think that Freddy or Jason may be out to get us. At the same time, however, they also allow us to keep our fears at a distance. When we watch a horror film, we know that we are not in immediate danger--which is not always the case in other areas of our lives. The aesthetic experience of watching a horror film allows us to feel and to think about fear in a controlled way.
Los Angeles, Calif.: Far more than zombies, torture has become the prime horror spectacle these days. Is this a reflection of U.S. foreign policy?
Aviva Briefel: Perhaps. I think that horror films generally display a strong awareness of what is going on politically at a particular period. I already mentioned the Cold War fears expressed by 1950s horror films, and in the 1980s we find fears that are directly related to the traditional family (in "Nightmare on Elm Street" or "Friday the Thirteenth," for example, mom and dad are not always right). I think that we will look back to the kind of torture horror displayed in a film like "Hostel" and examine what it had to say about our own attitudes and anxieties about such occurrences as the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Horror remakes: Aviva, I'm not particularly thrilled with this new trend either, with one notable exception: Rob Zombie's "reimagining" of the original "Halloween," which is going to be outstanding.
Aviva Briefel: I'm actually looking forward to that as well....
Washington, D.C.: Thank you for taking our questions today!
I often like to think about the elements that make the ghost (zombie, monster, or whatever the horror figure may be) want to haunt or torture the hapless victims. Many times it seems that they are doing it for revenge. I enjoy horror characters who are evil for evil's sake, and who do not necessarily have a revenge agenda. For example, Samara in "The Ring" was hell-bent on revenge; Freddy was after the children of the people who killed him, and so on. These are ghosts with issues!
The Blair Witch falls into that category for me, her presence in the film was pure evil. Same with Regan's possession in "The Exorcist" -- evil tortures purely innocent victim. Can you help me think of others?
Aviva Briefel: Even the Blair Witch had an issue--she was cast out by the town of Blair for (allegedly) preying on its children. But you raise a good point; monsters are often victims before they decide to go out and kill themselves (this goes as far back as Mary Shelley's monster, who is given quite a tough time by those around him before he begins to kill). As for exceptions to this trend, Satan in the "Exorcist" is definitely a good example, and, to go back to an earlier question, zombies as well. They often operate through an instinctual urge that leaves little room for thoughts of revenge (or any other thoughts, for that matter). However, it's interesting that in his last zombie film, "Land of the Dead," Romero suggests that the zombies do have some sense that they have been disenfranchised and actively seek revenge against the corporate honcho played by Dennis Hopper. So, I guess even zombies have issues now.
Delran, N.J.: Professor,
I think Kathryn Bigelow's "Near Dark" twist on the vampire movies is worth a mention.
Aviva Briefel: Absolutely. And I hope that there will be more women horror film directors in the future.
Washington, D.C.: What's your favorite horror movie and why?
Aviva Briefel: I was afraid someone would ask that question.... that's really, really difficult to answer. As you can tell, I'm a huge Romero fan, but one of my favorite films is Brian de Palma's "Carrie." I love the way he turns a Cinderella-esque prom story into a masterpiece of horror. In terms of the scariest film, however, I'd have to go with Hooper's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"; it terrifies me every time I watch it. My favorite cult horror film (and I forgot to add it to my list) is Herk Harvey's "Carnival of Souls." I highly recommend it. I guess I couldn't limit myself to just one answer...
Aviva Briefel: Thanks for the questions!
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