I thought I would conclude this series of entries on horror movies for the month of October with my favorite horror story and focus on two incredible horror movies. Elder gods, the ones that came before, the chaos that was in the darkness before there was light. Lovecraft is most closely associated with this story, men who go insane in the face of true terror, the terror of the things before–the elder gods returning to earth to remake it in their image once again. It’s a palpable idea, an apocalypse in the more classically greek sense of the great change. And since I’m on the Greeks, we can see that Lovecraft isn’t the only one to tell stories about the new gods and the old gods–in the Greek stories they were just called the Olympians and the Titans.
There will be spoilers below. And blood, lots and lots of blood.
The two movies that I’m focusing on here are: John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness and Cabin in the Woods.
In the Mouth of Madness is a direct homage to Lovecraft’s stories, using many of his tropes to create an original story. We follow insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) as he investigates the disappearance of bestselling author Sutter Cane (many times in the movie it sounds like they are saying R. Cane, or Arcane, which means mystery or enigma and is also used in describing mystical things in general. Of course he is used to dealing with cons and believes that the whole thing is a promotional stunt, or a way for the publishing house to recoup on a bad book. He isn’t much into the horror thing, but picks up a few paperbacks and begins reading through them. The thing is, the books seem to be changing people, and Trent may be changing as well. He discovers a design on all of the paperbacks, artwork that Cane did himself, that appears to be a map to the fictional town of Hobb’s End. He goes off in search of this town with an editor from the publishing house, Linda Styles.
After a hallucinatory car trip through the night they stumble upon Hobb’s End, just as Cane wrote it. The events in his books are being depicted all over town, including scenes from his new book. No one knows how that book ends though, because only a few chapters were sent off and it caused Cane’s agent to go insane and attack Trent with an axe earlier in the movie. People are changing though and Styles is not immune. She runs off to the Black Church and encounters Cane, a god in this world, and he shows her his book and reveals his puppet masters, the old gods.
The framing technique for this movie is Trent in an insane asylum. He is dragged in at the beginning kicking and screaming, being locked in tight as the world is apparently going to shit outside. By the time a psychologist, played by David Warner, arrives to speak with him and hear his story, Trent has covered himself and the padded room with crosses large and small–a sign of a madman, or the sign of a man who wants to stay locked away where it’s safe? Trent tells his story to the doctor, how he gets to Hobb’s End and how he escapes (or is released) to bring the book into the world. At the end of the movie, the doctor ends and from Trent’s cell we can hear the monsters, the old gods, the changed people killing everyone. Somehow Trent is spared and he finds himself freed from his cell after the terrifying night. He walks off into this new world of chaos, absent of people, and strolls into a movie theatre where he watches the film version of Cane’s book, In the Mouth of Madness, his story, everything he has experienced, his exact experiences (after all, it is “starring John Trent”) and as the movie is about to snap to black he is laughing hysterically and begins to change …
Everything ends. In Lovecraft’s stories, the narrator is often trying to convince the reader of his sanity, or telling the story right up until the last minutes of his life as the horrible thing approaches and he screams. This movie captures that, and the most important part, the monsters aren’t vanquished at the end. They win. Humanity is fucked. Game over, the end.
Cabin in the Woods cleverly plays with all horror movies, proposing the idea that these horror movie tropes aren’t the things that nightmares are from, but rather reflections of original nightmares, deep terrors from the time before. The story plays out on two levels, on one, we get the five kids spending a weekend at a cabin in the woods where they release some terrible monsters that proceed to slaughter them until the final girl (maybe) escapes. On another level, we get technicians, folks in lab coats and short-sleeved white button-ups with black ties, staring at monitors and controlling atmosphere controls and various outcomes, trying to ensure the deaths of these kids. But why? It seems to be a fairly standard job, but as the movie continues, more and more hints are laid that the whole thing is a ritual, a scenario created and played out for the benefit of something far more terrifying than anything that the kids are facing in the woods.
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard weave a story that is terrifically funny and creepy as hell, showcasing just about every monster created and featured in horror movies ever, and still turns it on its head a little. The stoner guy figures it out, or at least some of it, and goes underground with the final girl to see the fluorescent lighted hallways and strange cages holding the monsters. They are hunted by military guys with guns, so they release all the monsters and a bloodbath ensues. Slowly their story weaves together with the story of the technicians and we finally meet the director who tells us what it’s all about. It’s about the end, kids. Everything gone, unless the stoner dies in five minutes. There is a struggle, a werewolf attack, a well placed zombie girl with an axe, and then it’s two friends, smoking a joint and saying good-bye to it all. It’s game over. Had to end sometime.
The thing that I love most about these movies is that the characters have to face not only their end, but the end of everything that they (and the audience) can comprehend. It’s a gut check moment and when the clock ticks down at the end and we realize that there is no winning scenario and no way to cheat the outcome to our favor, we have to come to terms with that. How do you do that? Do you join in and watch the movie, like Trent? Do you fight for your life until the very end, even though staying alive means you die anyway (and possibly worse).
It’s definitely something that I’m interested in tackling in my own fiction (and to a small degree, have begun to with my first book). I was asked once (who am I kidding, I’m asked all the time): why horror? Because it’s about facing off against that worst thing and seeing if you can prevail. With more realistic stories, we can see the out, as audience if not in living the same scenes. The bad things, the antagonist, the catalyst of our misfortune can be over the top or banal. The thing with horror is that the element of the supernatural rewrites the rules, because the nature of that word, supernatural, means outside of the natural. And outside of the natural world, anything can be possible and anything can be faced, but not everything can be triumphed over. With horror and the supernatural we have to be prepared with the scenario that nothing good comes of any of it and that there might not be a motivation behind it at all.
So, this month I’ve watched some movies that I haven’t written about in any detail. I’ll provide a list of everything that I’ve watched for this month and then, possibly, give a brief idea about what the other titles were all about. Or maybe I’ll save those for future entries–maybe a horror entry a month, something like that? Sound good? Is there something else that you want me to prattle on about? I’m going to play around with subjects for a while, so hopefully you’ll follow my whims.
More later …