February 14, 2018
When It Comes to Horror Movies, Love is the Secret Ingredient
Given my thematic body of work here on /Film thus far, I’m sure you’re expecting a February essay that analyzes Valentine’s rosiness through a horror lens. Have I already become that predictable? Yeah. Let’s absolutely talk about why love and horror create the most exquisite, developmentally rich bond(age)s in all the genre world. Why? Simple: there’s no scarier plot device in horror than “love.”
Love is often described as many things – a battlefield (Pat Benatar), the answer (John Lennon), a motherf*#@er (Old School) – but cinema audiences largely attribute love’s on-screen representation to Gerard Butler rom-coms or Hallmark tear-jerkers. Guy meets girl unexpectedly, they fall in love, happily ever afters all around. If it’s December, said man is probably also Santa in disguise. Picture perfect, just as in reality. Right?
For all its butterflies and “You complete me” sentiments, love can also be a savage monstrosity that tears at our gushy insides. This is where, amidst a sea of overtly-saccharine lifestyle pornography pics, the horror genre keeps us in check – unafraid of love’s flip-side intimidation. Call me a cynic, emotionless, or unsalvageable if you must, but to me, we rob ourselves of crucial understanding by not facing our fears and exploring the shadows light doth create.
I see three distinct talking points when it comes to “love-based” horror. You’ve got “Devotion,” “Loss,” and “Rejection.” Devotion comes with blinders, which turn characters into accomplices when ensnared in “I’d rather die with you than live alone” abandonment. Loss can be about protection – e.g. a boyfriend dying in a slasher film so his girlfriend lives – or the death of a loved one that sends someone spiraling into madness (maybe murderous, maybe self-destructive). Then “Rejection” – more far-flung, but what happens when young love is declined and humiliation sparks a breakdown?
Let’s first start with “Devotion,” looking no further than a toxic example from last year – Ben Young’s outstandingly tense Hounds Of Love. In the 1987-set film, John White (Stephen Curry) is a serial murderer/rapist who kidnaps underaged playthings while his wife, Evelyn (Emma Booth), aids as an accomplice. John carries out this OCD routine of abuse, but Evelyn is not forced (per say) to assist – she does so driven by the fear of losing her husband. John and Evelyn’s “fading” relationship climaxes whenever the next girl finds herself tied to their guest bed, as a blend of jealousy and intimate competition turns Evelyn from housewife to sidekick. Someone so lovesick that she’d acid-wash teenagers just to keep her marriage alive, “accepting” of John’s malicious agenda.
In a romantic comedy, this kind of behavior might be shown by a stalker ex who keeps appearing at date locations unannounced. An obsessive throwaway arc used for laughs. It’d be slight, whereas genre honesty coaxes an emotion’s true potential from neglected dualities. This is wrong and in no way do I think Hounds Of Love is a touchstone relationship tale.
That said, the understanding and tragedy of Evelyn’s choices shine a spotlight on love’s limitless power; a hypnotizing flutter that makes us do crazy things. Love complicates what’s known to be sadistic and cruel, only because – heaven forbid – we sympathize with a lackey who fantasises about the picket-fence life she’s continually promised (and holy smokes, what a performance by Booth).
Love is complicated. Love is messy. With horror frameworkings, filmmakers actually get to bring these sentiments to life. We don’t have to singularly talk about marital relationships, either – family devotions are equally as strong.
For instance, take Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones. A papa’s girl – “Princess” Lola played by Robin McLeavy – demands “Daddy” (John Brumpton) chaperone her torture-themed, in-home prom. This means abducting Brent (Xavier Samuel), injecting his voice box with bleach, lobotomies, a pit of starving mutants, and more – anything for “Princess,” as a good father provides. Except a good father doesn’t maim teenage boys? Healthy devotion is necessary and tender, but obsessive overboarding can lead to disastrous breakdowns, or better yet, clearly allow one party to claim advantage over weaker “prey” – something we don’t think about unless extremes are explored.
Love and manipulation, hand-in-hand. Don’t say this isn’t a relatable concern, either – Catfish still airs on MTV for a reason.
It’s good to explore tangible fears and remind ourselves of human complications. Mainstream Hollywood has a tendency of brainwashing audiences into thinking majority experiences are “right” or “normal.” Explorative genre content emerges as the black sheep waving in the back row, providing reassurance. “It’s okay to be scared, too.” Relief that uncertainty is not a bad thing, and questions are healthy. We have brains, we’re allowed to use them.
So what about loss? It’s the most obvious route, because stakes can easily be raised by the infliction of love unto male or female companions. What slasher film would willfully ignore the opportunity for a boyfriend to try and save his girlfriend (or vice versa)? Or maybe in a zombie movie, one victim is saved but must watch their lover get torn to bits by the hungry undead. Is it easy? Of course. Considered a cop out? Maybe at times. Instant remorse and tragedy? Just add gore.
When thinking about loss, I return to the family arc. Specifically a parent’s love for their kin. Look at Bryan Bertino’s The Monster, a tremendously heartfelt offering hinged on Zoe Kazan’s fight to keep her child alive. A mama bear standing face to face with an unidentified foe, willing to die if that means her offspring escapes uscathed. Kazan’s character refuses to let her daughter be harmed in the slightest – let alone killed – and is driven by unconditional love of the purest form. A film reliant on relationship, elevated by compassion, felt on levels that resonate through parents and protectors alike.
Of course, sometimes baby bites the dust. This is the horror genre, after all. Most films do tend to strap safety pads on their underage characters, but man, John Gulager’s Feast showcases what happens when love lost (of the family variety) goes for broke.
A single mother, Tuffy (Krista Allen), is forced to watch her son get devoured by a beastly creature, his chewed bits then vomited all over Judah Friedlander’s “Beer Guy.” A “WTF” gag at first glance, but this moment shapes and restructures Tuffy’s now rage-fueled arc. It’s bad enough a child dies – and kudos to Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan for gambling on the slaughter of an innocent lamb – but Tuffy’s forced to process the whole soul-gutting ordeal second by second, saving her life in the end (as she fights her way through alien/monster/asshole party crashers with nothing to live for).
This brings us to rejection – the king of all exploitative horror devices. A stereotypical “nerd” gets shot down or embarrassed just for feeling the tingles of love. Punished by an out-of-his-league partner. Take Valentine – Jamie Blanks’ February 14th slasher – about a junior high kid named Jeremy Melton who “comes back years later to get his revenge” on the girls who mocked, harrassed and got the poor “dweeb” beaten up. These setups often lead to the stalker/obsession subgenre given that comeuppances are generally sought after, which many would write off as ridiculous, but I find meaning in here nonetheless.
A declaration of love is not easy. Valentine may be less “love” and more schoolyard crush, but that’s where feelings start. “Insignificance” still worth jittery flop-sweats and anxiety. We are complex creatures with fragile egos and personal hang-ups, yet this is forgotten when ridicule is used to chase off unwanted suitors. Maybe it’s a reminder that while you may not share the same feelings with a hopeful admirer, displayed understanding and easy let-downs are deserved by everyone. You don’t want someone shooting an arrow through your heart in real life, do you? (But not really – everyone has the right to deny without fear of retaliation).
To be fair, horror content isn’t just about love as an antagonistic force, no matter how much the thought of monogamy and commitment rattles you to the core. No other genre offers such in-your-face metaphors with ranging subtlety and experience. A film like Spring legitimately movie-tizes the quote “Love is a monster,” while Bride Of Chucky is a hilarious riff on modern marriage culture. Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls doesn’t scare you to tears, but instead nurtures one of 2015’s most affecting mother/daughter relationships. For every bloodcurdling depiction of love being lost, there’s parallel acknowledgement about love being found in the most unaccustomed places.
Movies like those mentioned above serve to remind that horror does not only have to be “scary,” and furthermore, can sustain the heart-bursting weight of passion in all its forms. What Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are able to do in Spring is just as sentimental and raw as, off the top of my head, The Spectacular Now. Just because tentacles and feeding rituals are in play doesn’t mean the chemistry between lovers is lost – only heightened by dangerous realizations.
Quite frankly, we’re most honest when there’s the most to lose. What could be more finite than the loss of one’s life? In these moments, characters are forced to uncage their hearts and spill what’s left just in case there’s never another chance.
I get it: J-Lo and Reese Witherspoon are someone else’s Barbara Crampton and Danielle Harris. But horror films routinely get pegged as barbaric manipulations of death that trend no redeeming qualities or value. We’ve been over this. Whenever a horror film stumbles into the national spotlight while proving genre fodder can break from slaughter-schlock write offs, wars wage to strip it of that nasty “H” word classification (see: It, Get Out). In this specific use case, love and tragedy, ergo horror, are almost inseparable – it’s foolish to think otherwise.
None of this is new, mind you. Travel back to 1935. James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein dares to unite “The Monster” with a mate, tempting this idea of marital relations for the cold of heart. Henry Frankenstein’s (Colin Clive) own wife is kidnapped to force collaboration with Doctor Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), which leads to a female “monster” produced from artificial brains, graveyard parts and an electric current. Unfortunately “The Bride” doesn’t care for her undead shotgun wedding, and Whale’s film ends with “The Monster” bringing down laboratory walls around those who deserve to stay dead. Devotion, loss and rejection all in one masterful reassertion of the human experience through a genre vessel.
Love, as in life, comes with great sacrifice and greater reward. So many films are happy to focus on the latter aspect, but horror ideals are right to also favor “sacrifice” so prominently. We must be willing to surrender to fears and trust in an uncharted abyss, but also deal with “monstrous” side effects that may come. Love endures euphoric highs and rock-bottom lows, and no genre is as daring or fierce enough to ride the entire damn rollercoaster than horror. That is why love is the scariest plot device any horror filmmaker has at his or her disposal – art imitating life, freedom granted by the forces we’d least expect.