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Reel Dread

By Desmond Reddick
21 May 2007 I have recently come to understand that the field I work in (education) is based on a system that was outdated after the Industrial Revolution calmed down. The workforce of tomorrow needs to be prepared to work in jobs that don't even exist right now. The system needs to be drastically changed. This both terrifies and excites me. Change, though organic and necessary, is scary. We humans are a stubborn, resistant and even fearful breed. As a mirror of society, pop culture has always shown this through speculative fiction, namely horror and science fiction.

Change can be classified in several thematic areas. The ones I'll be discussing are: technological, scientific, medical and social. There are others but I feel these are the forms most related to genre films.

In the last century mankind's technological advancement has grown by leaps and bounds: instant coffee, electric vacuums, microwaves, DVDs, artificial hearts, the personal computer and so on. In my lifetime alone I have seen the invention of the camcorder, Internet, bread makers, GPS, e-mail, Viagra and satellite radio to name a few. Nothing shows technological advancement like popping some Viagra whilst surfing the Internet for free porn. But, this fast pace of technological innovation is certainly worrying. Horror and sci-fi films are always showing this worry; in fact, science fiction is heavily based on this conceit. There is no better example than Stanley Kubrick's epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this film, Artificial Intelligence runs rampant, killing the inhabitants of a space station. The iconic conversation between Dave and the super intelligent computer, HAL, is both chilling and a warning for humanity once AI surpasses us, it may refuse to "open the pod bay door." Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, War Games pits man against technology in a battle of wits with severe consequences for the loser.

And it's not just sci-fi films that show technology gone awry: horror is just as prolific. One cannot overlook the Atomic Age of monster films and their cousin the animal genetic experimentation films. These films are iconic in their multitude and find their roots in World War II, but gained real steam during the Cold War. From films like The Beast of Yucca Flats to THEM!, radiation is a culprit we can't trust. (The threat of radiation also spawned many comic book icons, such as the Hulk, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. All of which, it should come as no surprise, were birthed in the early 1960s.) This is so very evident in the original Japanese monster film, Gojira (Godzilla, King of the Monsters to you gaijin out there). The film begins with the bloated corpse of a fisherman washing to shore, dead of radiation poisoning. The same radiation goes on to create Godzilla, who of course does its best to destroy Japan. One has to remember that Gojira only follows the nuclear devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by nine years. At that time, Japan was still a sad, terrified nation. But, radiation and nuclear weaponry is not the only way in which mankind destroys nature; the genetic modification of animals is a very prevalent theme in today's horror cinema. These stories have their roots in the bloodthirsty super piranha of Piranha and the ludicrous giant rabbits of Night of the Lepus, but the best examples of this are found today. Isolation is a criminally overlooked Irish film that has genetically modified cow embryos massacring the inhabitants of a farm. With a remake of Piranha on the way, the awesome looking Kiwi film Black Sheep and a never-ending slew of Sci Fi Channel monster flicks, the subgenre is here to stay. One thing films have always taught us is that things go bad when science messes with nature.

While the horrors of medicine are much less prevalent in the genre, they are certainly as disturbing. In the late 1980s, lung and heart transplants were still very new. In Body Parts an amputee receives a transplanted from an executed criminal. Being a horror pic, the arm becomes possessed with the dead killer's spirit, naturally resulting in trouble. Not many other examples of medicine in horror and sci-fi are much more than shock. Often surgery is depicted without anesthesia (such as in Saw III) and organs harvested just because it is scary. There isn't much of a statement being made. But straddling the fence between science, technology and medicine is the theme of man's god complex. This is found in Frankenstein and every single film derived from it. Like any of the other examples I have mentioned, results are always tragic. Whether it's the trials of Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Herbert West's (the Re-Animator films) continued folly, it is very evident that artificially creating life is not meant for man.

One of the more interesting thematic changes depicted in the genre is the social aspect of change. As society's views change, those who are left behind and those who are responsible for the change can be seen as both evil and righteous. The encroaching zombies in the classic Night of the Living Dead represent the Communist threat during the Cold War just as those in Dawn of the Dead represent a new materialistic culture. But I've already written about Romero's Dead Cycle at length. Films like Hostel, with it's depiction of desensitized men killing tourists for sport, certainly comments on the downward spiral of violence in the media and our own desensitization to it. The recent spate of slasher films, from Devil's Rejects to the Saw franchise, tend to show the story from the perspective of the killers, thus further illustrating our culture's desensitization to graphic murder and those who inflict it. When Halloween depicted the murder of Michael Myers' sister from his point-of-view, it was innovative and disturbing. Now it's commonplace.

The same can be said about the burgeoning sexuality of youth. Thanks to films like the 1957 release I Was a Teenage Werewolf, sexuality and horror films have been joined at the hip for quite some time. Nowadays it's routine to see scantily clad teenagers partaking in all sorts of illicit activities in any number of slasher films. Whenever society changes, horror cinema is sure to quickly display a worst case scenario. For example, the goth resurgence in the mid-90s was countered with the release of The Craft just like the worries over heavy metal's influence in the 1980s was countered with Trick or Treat. There will always be horror films to exploit the fears of the general society.

Of course, it's not always the march of progress that terrifies people; it's those who refuse to change. The backwards hillbillies in Deliverance are some of filmdom's scariest villains, and they're simply ignorant rednecks. Inbred hillbillies account for a lot of horror monsters; Wrong Turn is the perfect example of the monstrous backwoods freaks hunting down the modern teenager. People cling to the past, and cinema reflects this in any number of films, including Nightbreed (where an intolerant preacher refuses to believe society has moved out of the 1800s) and Kevin Smith's much-hyped (but perennially non-existent) horror film Red State (which will feature a Fred Phelps-like character as the big bad). These are very easy villains to rely on, and they may seem trite, but mankind's unwillingness to let go of the past can elicit some interesting conflicts both on and off screen.

Regardless of what you may think, change is coming. Resistance is futile. So is fear. While films may celebrate our fear of change, the fear itself is unhealthy. So embrace change lest ye be swallowed by the dark maw of the status quo.

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