Scary Monsters

From Raspberry World – Volume 3, Issue 1 (June/July 2008)

    I was a “monster kid”. Hell, I’m still a monster kid, and I’m reasonably sure that a lot of you reading this (all four of you) were and remain monster kids yourselves. I loved scary movies, the classics from Universal and Hammer, even the shall we say “lesser” offerings from Monogram and, in some cases, even PRC, the “direct to video” of its day. The monsters were fierce, they were dangerous, they were deadly, they were frightening, and remain so, if you make the leap of imagination required to take them seriously.

They were monsters.

   The werewolves, the vampires, the science dabbling in Things-Man-Was Meant-to-Leave-Alone. Whatever their failings, whether due to minuscule budgets or diminutive production talents, they had passion and purpose, and they made a statement. I won’t go into the whole over-analyzed psychological treatise, but for whatever reasons, we loved them. We felt a little bit sad, often, when they went down at the end of the movie, but we never mistook them for the Good Guys.
    There are exceptions, of course, difficult ethical or moral points to ponder. Take werewolves, for example. The werewolves we saw never seemed to enjoy being werewolves. Good old Larry Talbot, big, bluff, hail and hearty, as sweet a bloke as you could hope to meet – until tragically, his life is snatched away (in the commission of a heroic deed, yet), then replaced with an unending agony of waiting to become something other than himself, something terrible, something over which he has no control. Was Larry Talbot a hero, a good guy? Maybe in the tragic sense, but traditional heroes aren’t usually foredoomed, their reward isn’t dying at the end of the picture (at least until the beginning of the next one).
    Then, there’s Frankenstein’s Creature. Even when he’s friendly, he’s dangerous – if you don’t believe me, just go ask the little girl who was playing, dropping flowers into the lake. One wants to like him, befriend him, but he’s so unpredictable, so thoroughly uncontrollable, and even his best-intentioned efforts seem doomed to disaster. Generally, one feels that, really, when he’s stuck in the burning windmill, or the exploding tower, or the bubbling sulfur pit, or burning and exploding laboratory, or the quicksand, it’s all for the best and that everyone, including the Creature, will be happier in the long run.
    Of course, in Hammer’s Frankenstein franchise, it’s Frankenstein himself who seems more a monster than any of his creations or experiments. Cold, ruthless, without conscience, when he goes off to the guillotine, or gets caught in the fiery finale, one can’t help but feel a bit relieved. But then, he turns up again in the next installment, ready to start fresh, sure that success is right around the corner. Drug and alcohol counselors call this “euphoric recall”. One had a bare modicum of sympathy for Universal’s Dr. Frankenstein, apart from how he simply abandoned his creature and dubbed it “evil”, seemingly at the behest of the small popular opinion of his associates. And there were plenty of “mad” scientists, back in the day, who were eminently sympathetic, particularly if they happened to be played by Boris Karloff (and they often were). Still, there were others (played by Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre and especially Vincent Price) whose madness and determination quenched any sympathy the audience might have harbored for the circumstances that drove them to their wicked deeds.
    Vampires, meanwhile, typically excite very little compassion or a sense of comradery. One can identify with the Wolf-Man, or Frankenstein’s assorted creations, as who among us hasn’t felt at one time or another that some burden of fate has been thrust upon us, from which we might never be or even feel free? Vampires, of course, depending on one’s view of them, exist under the same burden – then again, one runs into comparatively few “accidental” vampires. In the lore, those who become vampires return as such after leading especially wicked lives; otherwise, new recruits are brought into the business through being tempted by eternal life, youth and beauty, or are deliberately turned simply because they’re nice to look at. In the novel, Dracula, it’s never made quite clear whether young Lucy is seduced into complicity or makes the transition simply due to eventually dying from the Count’s frequent after-hours withdrawals. It’s a sticky question.
    Overall, the impression I get is that, after death, when one rises as a vampire, one is a new creature with a virtually new identity. While lying on the deathbed, all pale and waxy and feverish, one is tortured by worry and regret regarding what lies in store; after returning, though, the late victims seem to find that being a vampire is a bit of all right and are delighted to eat up any who (you should pardon the expression) cross their path or who try to put them down permanently. In fact, one might almost surmise that the old identity is completely subsumed by a new and separate entity who uses the deceased’s body as a form of housing.
    Indeed, that the deceased is no longer that person, but has become a monster.
    What I find odd and unsettling (to say nothing of infuriating) is that, at some point, the monsters became the Good Guys. All these movies where the vampire is tormented by a lost love or some such foolishness– where the heck did that come from? Christopher Lee may have somehow imbued the Dracula character with a sense of regret, sadness or loss, but that never stopped him feeding like a dray horse from the necks of all available girlie-girls or kicking the poo out of everyone who got in his way. And don’t even get me started on that heaving disappointment, Bram Stoker’s Dracula
    Maybe it’s the power. Being a monster involves a certain amount of power, above what’s typically parceled out to mere mortals like you and me. Werewolves are ordinary Joes (or Josephines), until the change comes; Frankenstein’s Creature has enormous strength and simply cannot be killed; vampires – and there are several brands, the powers of whom vary from country to country, and culture to culture – can live forever, many of them retaining their youth and beauty, sometimes even increasing those attributes, gaining supernatural strength, hypnotic expertise and the ability to transform themselves into various animals, and they have only to sustain a diet of human blood. There are other rules and attributes – I’ll focus on those in a future column…

    And there are the more recent bogeymen: Jason, of Friday the 13th, the unstoppable, yet somehow creative killing machine; Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street (A Nightmare? How many of those damned things were made?), the scarred, knife-fingered pedophile who reigned in our dream worlds; Michael Myers, Halloween’s equally unstoppable, almost robotic kill-o-matic, inscrutable inside his mask; Clive Barker’s ultimately sadistic Cenobites; Leatherface and his clan, closer to mortal, but equally prey to the dreaded franchises and marketing potential. And the list goes on.
    When I first saw these movies – Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser and the like, no one in the audiences I saw them with was rooting for the bad guys. But at some point in there, the audiences for these films discovered their own blood lust. Somehow, Jason and Freddy and the gang were performing a sort of wish fulfillment, almost.
    And, suddenly, we were no longer afraid of them. Between the too-rapidly-become-annoying wisecracks and the inexplicable, on-the-spot resurrections and the other unsightly wax build-up of clichés, the bogeymen became avengers, of a sort, knocking off bad-hats, but taking out the normies, as well. Maybe it was the growing sense of alienation of the audiences. Maybe it was – well, who knows?
    All I can say is, while these films and characters are entertaining in their way, I miss the days when they were frightening. After seeing Halloween in its original release, at 15, I was a little freaked out at walking to the store and back at night, coming home to the long, steep, dark staircase that led up to our apartment – but not anymore. And I don’t think that it’s because I’m any less impressionable, because I still “give” myself to movies and books, in the same way. The Universal Studios line-up of monsters is not, nor will it ever be “camp”, for me; so I can’t use the argument that familiarity has bred contempt. The early or original outings of all the aforementioned bogeymen still give me a slight case of the shudders – but if I need or want to feel safe, I have only to think of how the sequels, particularly the later sequels, have made them seem ridiculous.
    Oh, there have been moments. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare not only put a neat spin on things, it gave me some perspective. Then, Halloween: H20 restored Michael Myers to his original, inscrutable, moves-on-the-shadows-of-the-night self – originally, I kept wondering, “What is it with this guy?!? Is he a man or a demon or what?!?” Then, over the course of I-lose-count-how-many sequels, he devolved into a shoddy cartoon, a big knife-wielding hole in the screen. It was so nice to find him threatening again – and so predictably disappointing that they just couldn’t let it go at that. And as for the remake…
    Well, I’m not going into remakes, here – maybe in a future column. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for Hollywood to scare me again.

– K.C. Locke

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