The Unholy Trinity Of Horror
- by Leo Stableford, 31 October 2015
There are enough people moaning about the state of horror cinema today. For which reason I’m not going to write yet another article complaining about poor quality found footage nonsense. Much apart from anything else it’s not in the spirit of the season. At Hallowe’en we should be celebrating the best in horror, not worrying away over the worst.
With this in mind I had a little sit down and a think about how to group the things that are best in horror. What is it that makes a horror movie really pop? Obviously the list I came up with was going to be highly subjective and maybe a little contentious. After all I count Nightbreed and Society as two of my favourite horror movies, they’re not your usual fright night first picks.
In the end I boiled my list down to three key components. They don’t all have to be turned up to eleven in every horror movie, in fact some great horror movies don’t really use much of one or another. I think it is true however that all of the very best horror movies use some measure of at least two of these factors which I call “The Unholy Trinity of Horror”.
This is one of the key ingredients and one of the most often used. It’s not about something just being “scary”. It’s about an encounter that makes the protagonist(s) and therefore the viewer question reality on a fundamental level. The key examples here are giant monsters like Godzilla, or, with equal validity, the cenobites of Hellraiser.
The latter case is particularly awe-inspiring. The figure of pinhead was designed to provoke an aura of authority. Clive Barker specifically saw Pinhead’s costume as invoking elements of S&M, the robes of a clergyman and also the attire of an administrator or functionary. The fact that Pinhead and his cohorts are simultaneously authority figures but also slaves cues the audience into the fact that they are just a mask covering the form of something almighty and horrific.
Another film that pushes the awe buttons is Event Horizon, to such a degree that I find the movie an uncomfortable watch even today. The whole design of the interior of the ship is supposed to invoke a metallic cathedral, one in which something terrible has happened. On one level the SF of Event Horizon is pretty ridiculous this is not where the film wants to hit home. Some people found the idea of Hellraiser in outer space too silly (and Hellraiser: Bloodlines does little to convince otherwise) but if you take Event Horizon as a pure supernatural horror disguised as an SF film it fares far better.
The judicious use of monsters and environments that provoke such a response, making you question all that you held to be true, takes an experience beyond fear. The use of an awe-inspiring factor can bring you out of simple fear and into the realms of dread.
The lack of wonder is one of the key factors in the recent dumbing down of horror. I recently looked back at the original Poltergeist. One thing I had forgotten since it first frightened me in my childhood (I saw it on TV when I really shouldn’t have) was that before it gets loud and scary there is a decent amount of wonder in the early moments of the paranormal infestation.
The scene where the paranormal investigators open a bedroom door to see toys flying in circles in a complex waltz is filled with a delight tinged with concern and fear. A lot of people forget that horror lives on such polarities. Before something is proven to terrify it may have the potential to inspire something more joyful.
This is why the seeming contradiction inherent in describing something as Horror-Comedy often makes for a good time. There is nothing particularly joyful about Peter Jackson’s Braindead (or, if you’re in the US, Dead Alive), but there is plenty of glee and grue. The one-liners, the fluids splattered with such wanton abandon all over the sets and the bravura make up jobs on the zombies all push the experience beyond simple horror into a kind of hysteria.
Accessing that part of the horror experience is something writers, directors and producers appear to have abandoned rather than embraced of late. There are exceptions like the amazing Cabin In The Woods, but they are less frequent than they once were, as is the last important factor in the list…
Back up at the top I mentioned Hellraiser. If you look carefully at the factors I’ve mentioned in this piece then you will clearly see that Hellraiser scores well on all three aspects of the Unholy Trinity. The Cenobites and their world are awe-inspiring and, at the same time kind of wondrous. One cannot deny, however, that they are at one and the same time really weird.
A horror movie can survive without wonder as long as it’s weird enough. The early eighties cult classic Basket Case is low on actual wonder, but it scores more positively on just being dread-fuelled weirdness from end to end. There is a touch of that freakish glee in the story of a man with a mutant brother who lives in a basket, but mostly it’s a grand guignol story of tragedy and misery featuring one of nature’s mistakes front and centre.
On the other side of the coin is the HP Lovecraft inspired From Beyond. That only becomes truly horrific towards the end. At the outset the usage of a machine for melding our dimension with another produces some bizarre and wonderful effects, but these are just a lure to pull the protagonists on into darkness and madness.
So this Halloween go out and look for horror movies that make you question reality, fill you with a sense of wonder and just drive you a little bit further along the road to insanity. It’s really the only way… and have a dread fuelled, gruesome, weird Hallowe’en, won’t you?.
What is your formula for the perfect horror movie? Let us know in the comments, and have a gruesome Halloween!
Tagged: movies & TV.