Onion AV Club: What makes the horror genre so suited to political comment? This year especially, movies like George Romero's Land Of The Dead and Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects have had more to say about the current geopolitical situation than straight dramas or comedies.
John Carpenter: Well, that's always been the case with the "B" genres. Not to say that horror movies are always "B," but they usually are. Because they're supposed to be about horror and blood and all that horrible stuff, it's easier to sneak in little subversive messages. You have to be more careful when you're making big mainstream comedies or mainstream drama. Nobody wants to touch that stuff.
I guess I’d like to take this time to talk a little bit more about “B” genres, schlock and grind house shows. I brought it up a little bit last Jamespeak and found the above quote from John Carpenter shortly thereafter. Originally I had wanted this to tie in with the Halloween weekend, but it looks like it’s just not happening.
(If anyone’s confused as to what constitutes “schlock” throughout this Jamespeak, prime examples of what I’m talking about can be taken from Joe Bob Briggs’ book, Profoundly Disturbing: The Shocking Movies that Changed History, which contains essays on such movies as The Exorcist, Blood Feast, Reservoir Dogs, Deep Throat, The Wild Bunch, Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS.)
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Recently, I hung out with a co-worker after we were done the day’s shift and on the subway from the bar to the movie house we ended up talking about horror movies. She hated them because she thought they were cruel, sadistic and unfun. “Why would anybody want to watch a movie where the character gets chopped up into pieces,” she asked. It was a fair point, and I had a tough time arguing with the logic. But then again, when did logic ever have anything to do with tastes?
Horror and schlock genres are always a tough “sell” to people who are squeamish and simply don’t like them. If they’re simply movies where the only thing that happens is people get chopped up into pieces, it’s damn near impossible to convince them that there’s more to them than that, or that people who like them do not simply like to see people being eviscerated.
Because in a way, fans of grind house schlock do like those elements. (Seriously, why watch a horror movie if nobody gets hacked up with an axe?)
We see them because they’re fun. Damn fun. They’re also very, very funny.
The experience of watching schlock is not an intellectual or cerebral one; it’s a visceral one. It’s the same (or similar) reason people ride roller coasters.
It’s also more than that. Like Mr. Carpenter said, in ignored genres, while offering a fun, visceral experience, the artists behind them can have things to say without being pedantic or heavy-handed. They also have a chance to get away with conveying very subversive and unpopular ideas.
Yes, a spoonful of disemboweled intestines (or topless ladies) makes the medicine go down.
There are elements of social and political commentary in the really great B-movies and underground plays. Faceboy and Robert Pritchard’s Grindhouse A-Go-Go was about as triple-X-rated as you can get without needing to obtain a dungeon license, and last year’s Off-Broadway horror/thriller Bug was the most fun I had had in a theatre in years. These were (are) pure, unadulterated entertainments, and not for the squeamish by any stretch of the imagination.
My experience going to see theatre like this was often thinking, “What fucking world have I entered into?”
I will freely admit here that much of what I’m writing about is along the lines of, “Hooray for boobies, hooray for splattering blood.” I’m not saying that all schlock is good (I’m not the biggest fan of the Friday the 13th movies and the current crop of PG-13 horror movies like The Ring or The Grudge leave me cold), but good schlock, good grind house is absolutely thrilling for me (seriously, when I went to go see Land of the Dead I had the look of a little kid in a candy store). It also has a lot of artistic merit.
For example, Grindhouse A-Go-Go, which featured naked women masturbating on the laps of audience members, hardcore pornographic tapes on the TV screens (like Edward Penishands) and a character called Moody Naziani done up in blackface was going on around the same time as Mayor Giuliani was gutting the alternative artistic scene in New York. He was cracking down on sidewalk and performance artists as well as such things as the “Sensation” exhibit at The Brooklyn Museum. Although seemingly nothing more than drunken midnight fun catering to prurient interests and downright “nobrow,” the makers behind Grindhouse A-Go-Go at the now defunct Surf Reality were using the show to openly protest Mayor Giuliani’s “friendly fascism” towards New York artists.
The Off-Broadway show Bug, one of the best plays I have seen in years (YEARS), featured the projectile vomiting of blood, full-frontal nudity and incessant violence to convey very dense ideas about the nature of abusive relationships and how people in said relationships establish their own skewed reality, and view outside voices of reason as poisonous lies.
A recurring problem I see with theatre right now is that it has a real arrogant attitude with a genuine lack of nerve. Shows often seem neither particularly fun nor particularly thought provoking. There’s nothing visceral about them, yet the ideas presented often seem heavy-handed, pretentious and academic.
In other words, many plays trying to convey political ideas are too “middle-of-the-road.” They don’t have the lowbrow, unapologetic fun of the films of Russ Meyer or John Carpenter and don’t have the serious philosophical, moral and spiritual weight of “highbrow” genres or media (classical music, poetry).
They’re not quite for kids and not quite for adults.
I suspect this is because they wear their theses on their sleeves. There’s no artifice (and often no art).
Maybe this is because of the reason Mr. Carpenter mentioned above. Maybe many outlets in the Off-off-Broadway world ultimately want mainstream acceptance, or at the very least, acceptance from the academic circles. Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind either with regard to Nosedive, but at the same time, I’m not kidding myself here. Plus, I do enjoy writing plays that have the potential to be regarded as lowbrow schlock (hell, I’ve written a play that has brain-eating and another where a character cuts up a stripper).
I do think theatre-makers interested in making political statements can learn a lot from schlock, if only to learn how to make their work more interesting to watch and enticing to attend.
In other words, whereas I don’t see “Serious Theatre” right now as being either fun or thought provoking, I do see B-grade schlock as both.
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While writing this, I took time out to go see Mac Rogers’ play, Hail Satan, which, although not based in the schlock grind house categories I’ve been talking about, was ostensibly a horror play and used elements of the horror genre to express several dense and complicated ideas. Plus, it was pretty fucking excellent.
Scaring little children,
James “Zombie” Comtois
October 27, 2005