Four films about horror that sticks.
The Mummy (1932). Dir. Karl Freund. US.
It feels fitting to address the original version of this film right on the cusp of yet another remake’s release.
First and foremost, I have yet to find an iteration of The Mummy that isn’t blatantly and thoroughly racist, xenophobic, sexist, and nationalist. But let’s talk about the formula for mummy movies to give you an idea of what I mean.
The premise is this: an archeological team uncovers the tomb of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh/priest and brings said pharaoh’s or priests’ casket out to be dusted off and studied. Some idiot, typically an underpaid and overworked intern, decides it’s a good idea to open the casket. This is usually when the curse takes hold and the mummy rises, although the curse can be activated when the tomb is opened. Either way, there’s a curse, and a mummy, and sometimes a cursed mummy. The mummy and accompanying curse stick to the archeological team all the way back to the US/UK, killing people off as the film progresses. As with all horror movies, the monster either dies or survives depending entirely on whether the studio wants to make a sequel or not.
So, why do I say that these films are inherently racist, etc.? Because the narrative turns on an ancient Middle Eastern artifact infecting the innocent white folks who just came to study, learn, and understand more about this exotic culture. Granted, in some cases there is a critique of archeologists screwing with things that don’t belong to them and that they have no business touching. But the shouting, hysterical, superstitious, and incomprehensible “locals” who populate the tomb-opening sequences tend to negate any critical value the film might have.
Additionally, in most cases there are two possible reasons these films are sexist. One: like with a lot of Dracula movies, the mummy is looking for the reincarnation of his long-dead lover, or else trying to bring her back himself. She has no agency and is really just there to be pretty. Furthermore, the mummy is only violent and destructive because he’s incapable of controlling his lust, so her sexual temptation is the root of the film’s evil. Two: the mummy in question is a woman, in which case she is hell-bent on destruction. Here, the problem is not only a Middle Eastern person trying to infiltrate the West in order to wreak havoc on civilized white society, it’s specifically a Middle Eastern woman who doesn’t know her place and must therefore be stopped and punished (by white folks) for her transgressions. In both cases, women are not only sexualized and objectified, but they are specifically exorcized, compounding race and gender to construe these women within the narrowest scope possible.
The 1932 version of The Mummy is an excellent teaching tool on race and gender in film in this way. It’s also a great example of pre-code horror film. Pre-code means that it came out in the period between the introduction of sound in film (1929) and the enforcement of the Hays Code in mid-1934. The Hays Code, or more formally the Motion Picture Production Code, was a set of “moral” restrictions for what could and couldn’t be depicted in a film for public consumption. The code generally stipulated that films could not promote moral turpitude. Specifically, the Hays Code forbade things like miscegenation, murder, childbirth, and “brutality and possible gruesomeness” (Production Code). The code was adopted in the 1930s but there was very little oversight during those first four years, leaving room for things like violence and promiscuity, elements that reoccur often in horror. These elements didn’t hit their full stride until the late 1960s with the birth of the slasher, and there was still a great deal of censorship and pushback against horror in general (as I discuss in my blog on 1950s-60s TV horror). Despite this, the proliferation of The Mummy and similar monster movies in the years between sound and the Hays Code may account for the propensity for remaking those movies in later eras of horror where the sex and deaths could be ramped up even more.
The Church (1989). Dir. Michele Soavi. Italy.
It would be entirely possible to fill this list with Dario Argento films. The entire Three Mothers trilogy—Suspiria, Inferno, and Mother of Tears—is about curses and unlocking the gates of hell. I’ve talked about Argento at length elsewhere on the site here and here, however, so I’m including The Church as a representative example of work he produced. The Church picks up elements from the horror canon especially Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982). The curse in The Church has to do with the location of the building: it is constructed on the site where a town of witches was massacred in the Middle Ages, much like the Freelings’ house in Poltergeist which is built directly over an “ancient Indian burial ground.” The Church also features elements that became popular in horror ten years after the film’s release. One such elements is automatic mechanisms locking characters into a church/house/asylum/etc. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s there was a spate of loose remakes of William Castle horror films from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most notably, House on Haunted Hill (1999) and Thir13en Ghosts (2001), both of which were adapted by Robb White, the original writer of House on Haunted Hill (1959) and 13 Ghosts (1960). In both remakes, the characters are trapped in their respective buildings by an automated mechanism triggered early in the film that cannot be unlocked until all ghosts are destroyed and the apocalypse is averted. This trope is also used in horror video game design, primarily in the 1990s and 2000s. In the early Silent Hill and Resident Evil games, the player is trapped in a room that locks inexplicably until all enemies are killed, and then unlocks itself again, without explanation.
The Crow (1994). Dir. Alex Proyas. US.
This is the only movie on this list that I recommend unreservedly. The curse sub-genre is absolutely bursting with racism, xenophobia, sexism, and religious discrimination. While The Crow (1994) isn’t necessarily perfect, it works in direct opposition to the sub-genre’s propensity for demonizing non-Western, non-white traditions and rituals. The Crow’s curse is about justice for the curse’s recipient, not punishment. Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) and Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas) are attacked in their Detroit loft on Devil’s Night. Shelly is raped, beaten, and killed while Eric is stabbed, shot, and thrown out a window to his death. A year later, a crow resurrects Eric, bringing him back to avenge the violence he and Shelly experienced. His second chance at life is not unlimited and it’s not necessarily pleasant. Eric is plagued by vivid flashbacks to the attack. He does good, he helps people, but there’s no sense of well-being to be found in those acts. It’s still a curse, but it’s not the kind we’re used to seeing. Unlike most of the sub-genre, the curse here isn’t inherently bad. It serves a purpose, rights a wrong, and then ends.
The movie is an adaptation of James O’Barr’s comic series, The Crow. It stays fairly true to the comic’s aesthetics and writing style, so don’t blame David J. Schow and John Shirley for some of the movie’s more overwrought dialogue. The Crow blends O’Barr’s stylized, neo-noir cynicism with early ‘90s “urban goth” aesthetics. The film is firmly rooted in the ‘90s by its soundtrack, which includes Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, and Pantera. The score also contributed to this since the film’s composer, Graeme Revell, who did work on movies like Street Fighter (1994), From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (1996), and The Craft (1996).
Evil Dead (remake: 2013). Dir. Fede Álvarez. US.
This is not an easy watch. It’s even gorier than some of Eli Roth’s work and there’s a pretty graphic rape scene early in the film. If you had trouble with the 2010 I Spit on Your Grave (2010) remake, don’t watch this, it’s the same degree of violence but a LOT more of it. Aside from the gratuitous gore and violence in Evil Dead (2013), it also re-solidifies the “cabin in the woods” trope that The Evil Dead (1981) popularized. The original will be included in the list on demons, so I won’t get into it much here, but it established a formula that has since taken off in wildly different directions. Evil Dead brings us back to this original format: five kids are trapped by bad luck and inconvenient weather in a cabin in the woods. They read latin from an evil book and release ancient demons that possess, maim, rape, torture, and kill each of the kids in order to bring about the apocalypse. One kid survives, averts the apocalypse, and gets away. Or doesn’t. It depends on how cynical the director is feeling that day. In case of a franchise, the survivor does not destroy the evil book, so that some equally misguided kids can come along in a sequel to read the latin and start all over again.
While Evil Dead (2013) does come back to the formula as established in 1981, it also incorporates some more recent horror tropes that weren’t quite so well-developed in the late 1970s. Carol Clover writes about the Final Girl, the significance of underground spaces and nature, and eyes/blindness with regard to early slashers. These are all specifically linked to femininity and female agency. The Evil Dead (1981) is far less concerned with women as victims/heroes than it is with asserting masculinity in the face of violent emasculation. Evil Dead (2013), on the other hand, is relatively unconcerned when it comes to the male characters; they are incidental, there to give depth and development to the female characters. The women play a larger role because women in supernatural horror are considered emotionally and sexually more “open” and are thus much, much more susceptible to possession. In this way, the curse in Evil Dead (2013)is something akin to the curse of menstruation placed on Eve for eating the apple.
Author: Geneveive Newman
Image Credit: TriStar Pictures © 2013