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Devil's disciples

Love them or hate them, horror movies are a marketing man's dream

The infamous shower scene from `Psycho,' the mechanical shark bears its teeth in `Jaws' and Drew Barrymore has some a phone moment in `Scream'

MARRY MARX to Freud and you get the recurrent themes and motifs of the Hollywood horror films that are running riot on television today. That people, in fact, pay through their noses to have themselves scared witless is a fact that has confounded psychologists and sociologists alike. The respectability conferred on the horror genre by films such as Murnau's "Nosferatu," Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" and "The Birds" and Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's baby" have been mercilessly debased and deliberately exploited by films like "King Cobra," "Alligator," "Crocodile," "Bats," "Spiders," "Cockroaches," "The Blob" and lesser creatures. It is strongly rumoured that Indian and indigenous versions of the devil and his disciples will soon haunt your living rooms.

One may look upon it with amused, if knowing, tolerance and the dismissive "it's only entertainment" attitude, but the Hollywood horror film has managed to stunt our critical faculties and appeal to our visceral ones. There is no doubt that horror films make money. And those that don't are the ones with intellectual pretensions like "Jurassic Park-II," "Jaws-II" and "Birds-II" or Anthony Perkins' "Psycho-II."

Another psychologically important aspect of this popularity is that many people who regularly go to horror films profess to ridicule them and go to them in order to laugh - something that is not true of the Western or the gangster film.

Life threatening

The simple and basic formula for the horror film is that a monster like Dracula or his baser handmaidens like the bat, the wolf, the spider threaten normal human life. This monster may change its form and shape according to changing times. For instance, the monster may be anything from a vampire to a gorilla, an alien invader, an amorphous gooey mass or a child possessed by the devil.

The monster is stripped of all human values and a monster that suffers, weeps and reacts to music (Frankenstein) or a vampire which falls in love and longs to return to `normal' human life (like the vampire in Werner Herzog's version of Dracula), is termed by purveyors of horror films and their followers as "reactionary."

The horror film also takes refuge under philosophy of other forms of consumerist cinema. A - giving the audience what it wants and B — the audience, tired of daily drudgery, wants escapist fare. Where these films make a mistake is that escape is not merely the negative escape "form" but there must also logically be an escape "to." Until this last part of the corollary is addressed, these films will continue to be mindless and inconsequential.

Best of the best

Two films, the best of this genre, which have been totally honest to both form and content have been Hitchcock's "The Birds" and Steven Spielberg's "Jaws." It is better to deal with "Jaws," as this film has had a public release in India and continues to be seen on television.

The importance of "Jaws" lies in the way it uses a particular issue it poses. It has been hailed as a Watergate (expose) film, because the town mayor tries to hush up a politically dangerous revelation (The shark attack) that may deflate his own position. Mayor Larry Vaughan of Amity, Long Island, pretends to serve his electors ("Amity needs summer dollars," "I was acting in the town's best interest.") He refuses to close the beach with disastrous consequences for the innocent.

There are also references to Vietnam when three men join in the song - "Show me the way to go home" - which is interrupted by the shark outside, which is ripping apart their world. It is this interplay of fact and fiction that makes "Jaws" an exhilarating film. It provides no cheap thrills.

Compare this with films like "The Alligator" or "King Cobra." The beginning is always a cheap imitation of "Jaws." Invariably, there is ominous music, cut to a group of youngsters drinking, smoking and petting until the waters turn red as the shark strikes. The wages of repressed behaviour along are shown. The boy and the girl kissing promiscuously - and enter "The Blob!"

To use marketing jargon, horror films have excellent re-sale value. That's why they have endless sequels -- like in "Friday the Thirteenth," "I Know What You Did Last Summer," "Texas Chainsaw Massacres" and many others. In fact, horror films never come singly, like misfortunes. There is no end to them - literally or metaphorically. They are a marketing man's dream - pleasurable experiences to be bought and sold.

But then, they are also the biggest con in the world. Even if they are nothing to write home about, they leave you craving for more like an addict. Very often, the monster in a horror film is not on the screen, but sits behind the cash register!


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