Thursday, December 24, 2009

Movie: Showing the monster.

When I was in college, I had a roomie - a big-time King fan - said that H. P. Lovecraft's greatest flaw was that he "showed the monster." I assumed, at the time, he was evoking the horror fancies widely held and oft repeated axiom that what one imagines is far more horrific than whatever one sees. (Aside from vastly over-estimating the imaginative powers of most of us, this bit of conventional wisdom has long since passed from insight to received orthodoxy to ill-understood critical superstition: "Subtle" is now applied to movies paradoxically as a form of praise not because the films are subtle in anything they do, but rather because there's a general consensus that subtle is good.) Though, on thinking further, I realized that my roomie's complaint could hold equally to King, an author he held to be the pinnacle of horror lit. Sooner or later, King puts his cards on the table an one sees the Overlook's topiary come to life or the giant sewer spider who was just pretending to be a freaky clown. King shows the monster, so the reveal was not, in and of itself, a deal breaker.

But my roomie was, I think, right in that there's something odd about reveal in Lovecraft's works. When he claimed that Lovecraft's biggest flaw was the reveal, I agreed even though, on further thought, I think it is a misdiagnosis. What's unique about Lovecraft's reveals is that they're bizarrely precise. Think of it this way: We all know what Cthulhu looks like. My wife, who has never read a single Lovecraft story and kinda totally hates horror as an entire genre, knows what Cthulhu looks like. Stumpy legs, pear shaped body, decorative bat-like wings, octopus head. (That's perhaps the most fun sentence fragment I've ever had the pleasure to write.) Not only can my dear wife tell you what he looks like, she can recognize cartoonish abstractions - I have t-shirt with a fairly minimalist cartoon Cthulhu at a pay-phone making the "collect call of Cthulhu" that she thinks is kinda charming in a utterly dorky way - and she gets jokes that require you have a semi-detailed mental image of the beast. The reason she knows that Cthulhu is suffering from middle-age spread is that nobody ever represents him any other way. There's a curious continuity to visual representations of Lovecraft's monsters that, I think, can only partially be ascribed to artistic tradition and the normal course of influence. Much of this continuity is do to the fact that Lovecraft often gave abnormal exact descriptions of his monsters. I say "abnormal" in the sense that Lovecraft intended his beasties to be sanity-shattering unspeakables from beyond space and time, yet there's usually one witness who - despite being rendered to utter insanity by their encounter with other dimensional bad craziness - provides readers with a detailed account of the monster that resembles some ecologist's field report. Lovecraft's monsters are visually stable because he left little open to debate.

I can understand why a fright fan would perceive this as a flaw. The conflict between the mind-breaking nature of the beast and the calm the precision of the narration seems like a tonal stumble. It seems as if we're being asked to believe that the narrator, confronting something that defies all reason and embodies the fragile mortality of all life as we know it, took scrupulous notes. But what makes Lovecraft's horror universe unique is the insight that our sense of the real is relative. People on the insane train look like a mad blur as they shoot by those of us standing still on the platform of Not Crazy Station. But if you're sitting on the train, you perceive the details of everything inside the passenger car with "normal" clarity. It's all the stuff on the platform of Not Crazy Station that looks like a confusing smear of light and color. The mad in Lovecraft's world are not deranged because they've taken leave of their senses. Instead, their frame of reference has shifted to include details that undermine their previous paradigm. Once they've fully witnessed the horror that undergirds the flimsy structures of the modern world, how are they supposed to make sense of the insubstantial details that make up the mundane world the rest of us live in? Madness in Lovecraft's universe isn't a dark form of mysticism, it's the survivor's guilt of the witness.

Takashi Shimizu's 2004 grindingly bleak vampire un-romance, Marebito, is the first Lovecraftian film I've ever seen that captures that unique precision. A low-fi moody horror that embraces it's limitations, the cold and exacting spirit of Marebito prefigures the icy aesthetic of the much-loved later vamp flick Let the Right One In, though the former completely lacks the latter's genuinely subtle deconstruction of vampiric romanticism.

Befitting the best filmic treatment of Lovecraft's insight into the psyche of witnesses of the deep horror of the universe, the chief protag of Marebito is a chronic witness. Masuoka (played with dead pan schlubbishiness by Shinya Tsukamoto) is a freelance video journalist whose professional life is basically a gloss on his kink. A video feed junkie, Masuoka lives a shut-in otakuish existence alternately sitting in front of a bank of video monitors or walking the streets hidden behind a video camera. He so obsessive that, even without a camera, his standard vision appears to include static and other video artifacts. One has to give credit to Marebito for finally giving a character a dramatically sensible reason for continuing to record his horrific misadventures. The flick's first-person bits exist not because it makes sense that anybody would film such things, but rather because Masuoka is a compulsive filmer.

Masuoka is also a wonderful example of that most Lovecraftian of characters: the terror connoisseur. Masuoka is driven to break the ice of his frigid existence by subjecting himself to varieties of terror. The downside is, of course, that Masuoka is always seeking greater and greater terrors. At the point we meet him, Masouka is already declaring things like fear of death to be mediocre strains of fright.

Masouka's life takes a swerve when he films a suicide in the Tokyo subway. Convinced that the dead man had experienced some transcendent horror, Masuoka plunges into the tunnels under Tokyo to experience this suicide-inducing horror for himself. There he finds an unbelievably immense network of tunnels and ruins - a series of subterranean works that link the worlds cities and constitute a near "hollow earth" world of their own - built by ancient civilizations and unknown powers. He also finds a naked, feral young woman chained to deep within the ruins. In what might well be intended to be taken as an expression of suicidal tendencies, Masuoka takes the captive home.

Masuoka gives his new roommate the name F. Like an adopted stray, F initially spends most of her time hiding behind the furniture. She doesn't eat or drink and, according to Masuoka's voiceover narration, she's only awake for about three hours a day. She doesn't speak and she seems unable to make any sort of vocalizations. She has a mouth full of distressingly sharp chompers. Not long he brings her home, F is stricken with some wasting disease. She begins to weaken and suffer seizures. After suffering an injury - he gets his ass handed to him by a guy who takes offense at his incessant videotaping - Masuoka discovers that F has a Audrey II-ish thirst for blood.

As if keeping a nameless young feral blood-drinking chick in your tiny studio wasn't hassle enough, Masuoka must also deal with a possibly cracked woman who insists that Masuoka is her husband and a mysterious man in black who can talk without opening his mouth and appears to have designs on F.

Some props need to be given to Tomomi Miyashita, who has the thankless task of acting out the role of F. x F may be the worst role ever written for a woman. A lolicon Kaspar Hauser, F is an extreme embodiment of a dozen or so horrible feminine stereotypes: helpless victim, irrational womanhood, man-eater, voiceless sex object, prematurely ripe nubility, and so on. But Miyashita plays the hell out of it by grounding her performance in astutely observed motions. Her F evokes a mishmash of animals, from spiders to bear cubs, giving an absurd character a realist weight that it probably didn't deserve.

Despite the claim made in Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft, I do not think Marebito is intended to be understood as an adaptation of any specific Lovecraft story. There's an explicit mention of the Mountains of Madness, but that's about as far as it goes. Rather, this flick is set against the backdrop of a Lovecraftian universe. What the film nails like no other Lovecraft influenced film does is the concrete details of the uncanny. Discussing the decision to use Dali as the designer of the dream sequences in Spellbound, Hitchcock said that Dali understood the crisp nature of dreams. We don't experience dreamscapes as a hazy, wispy ghost world. It feels solid. The uncanny in Marebito has that solidity to it. An exemplary moment in the flick is when, exploring the seemingly endless Tokyo underworld, Masuoka runs across the man he saw commit suicide. They have an extended discussion and, eventually, Masuoka lets drop the fact that he saw this cat plunge a big freaking knife into his own eye and up into his brain. Without any notable distress, the dead man decides that, if he's really dead, he should probably not hang around talking to live people. He turns out a lantern he's holding and vanishes. Much is made about the horror trope of the "thing that should not be." Though what's usually being discussed is some familiar hack-piece of horror schlock, the borrowed Gothic finery of a past era wrapped around the soft-core proclivities of modern era. Marebito recovers a deeper sense of the uncanny in that it shows how natural the impossible can feel. It's easy, too easy, the film says, to suddenly be too far lost to return to the normal.

As nifty as that accomplishment is, Marebito is a seriously flawed film. What was meant to be a sort of deliberate, stately pace often feels glacial. In a 90 minute flick, we don't reach the underworld until the half hour mark. We don't discover F drinks blood until we hit 50 minutes. I'm all for letting a flick develop naturally; but when a 90 minute flick feels like it's dragging, then you've got a pacing problem. The glacial pace of the film kills efforts at suspense. The end result is that the film is grim, but rarely tense. Worse yet, there's a late game "twist" that is, as so many of these surprises are, unnecessary and illogical. I'm not sure what screenwriting textbook out there is telling students there must be an act three game changer in every story, but it is seriously time for film schools to consider adopting a different text.

Too somber to be fun, Marebito is a curious if not entirely successful take on the vampire theme. Still, it is an earnest experiment that hits on several levels. In the horror blog game, "different" is reserved for sloppy gonzo films of the exploitation era that are, in fact, depressingly common. There are entire bloggers who have made their careers praising the seemingly endless march of these "unique" product lines. Marebito is truly different. Like They Come Back, which came out the same year, it takes a familiar horror premise and goes in a creative direction so odd it stretches the definition of horror. The cost of this innovation is that its footing is unsteady. Whether that's for you or not, I leave to your discretion.


Madelon said...

Interesting thing to think about. I'm currently working my way through a stack of horror theory, and this is definitely a good one to think about.

Considering your roommate was such a big King fan, it feels like he is paraphrasing his hero with the points he is making: in Danse Macabre, King's non-fiction work on the genre at large, touches on these points, mostly in relation to radio. The reveal is, in the eyes of King, a tricky thing, and radio manages to create the perfect monster: "When you made the monster in your mind, there was no zipper running down its back; it was a perfect monster." (something which the movies could not achieve)

Regarding literature, his views depend on the effects that the author is trying to achieve. However, when writing on Lovecraft, King argues that there is no reveal at all: HP shows the readers just enough to get an idea of what is behind the door before the protagonist (as you say) usually goes mad, which is my impression of Lovecraft's work, as well. So where are the descriptions given (because we all know what Cthulhu looks like)

From my viewpoint, I wonder if the reveal indeed ruins everything. King states that as soon as the audience knows what's behind the door, they know they can take it on. Paraphrasing him: before the door opens, it could be anything; but when you see the bug behind the door, and it's a bug that is a hundred feet high, there is a sigh of relief. Why? The bug could have been a thousand feet high.

Additionally, theorists have stated that the only way to enjoy horror is through the reveal: showing the monster in all its horrible glory allows the audience to admire it for the way it looks, or the effects used for the movie, or its power, bringing in an enjoyment on the level of appreciation of the aesthetics, rather than gore.

I know I've been straying from your movie review, but couldn't help myself ;)

Troy Z said...

The critique of Lovecraft as being too descriptive of the physical horrors is belied by the line in "The Call of Cthulhu" that is my favorite descriptive non-description in a story, ever. When a a rescued sailor was asked of the land in which Cthulhu dwelt he replied: "The geometry was all wrong." That's all and it's enough.


This was very well written and interesting. I like yuour thoughts on the subject of 'showing the monster'.

And I enjoyed Marebito... it wasn't perfect but I enjoyed it.

CRwM said...

Madelon and Troy Z,

Your perceptive comments made me go back and re-read The Call of Cthulhu. King's observation about the "reveal" in the story is correct. As Troy points out, the sole survivor of the Cthulhu's encounter with the Alert is pretty abstract regarding the details of the great beast.

So where, then, do the widely known details about Cthulhu come from?

Lovecraft is clever enough to have it both ways. He "reveals" the monster we'll before he brings Cthulhu on stage. Before the Alert incident, the narrator gives readers a general description of Cthulhu as he appears in a bas-relief. He's the first time we learn he's got a squid head and "rudimentary" wings.

In the next section, "The Tale of Inspector Legrasse," we get a twenty-some-odd line long description of Cthulhu as he's depicted in a statue the Inspector has linked to a cult he's investigating. Here's where, among other things, Cthulhu's "corpulence" - that odd pot belly every depicts him as having - is established. It's pretty detailed; certainly this is the most detailed description of the monster in the book, far more than the sailor's account, as seems to be the template all future Cthulhu depictions are based on.

By priming the pump with two descriptions prior to "reveal," Lovecraft doesn't have to reveal at the reveal. It's a deft move.

Thank you both for making consider the issue more closely.

CRwM said...

Oops. I meant: "Thank you both for making me consider the issue more closely."

Sasquatchan said...

C'mon gotta share the roomie's name.. I didn't get lunch with the prez, for my 6 roomies over 4 years.. hah!