Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Scary Stuff

A few weeks back, I wrote about a television series I’d just seen. It was scary and potentially profound, as many horror or science fiction stories can be, could be if they tried. It’s The Walking Dead and it’s about zombies. Or perhaps it’s about zombies the way Buffy the Vampire Slayer was about vampires. For the uninitiated, that would be “not.”

I like science fiction, some fantasy (think Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth), for the story underneath the story of aliens or futuristic societies or past societies if things had gone differently — the way those stories reflect upon our own society, asking questions we too often do not ask in life, obliquely urging us to step back, have a look, maybe even a think. Or a ponder. I like horror when it’s really scary, which is not synonymous with gory, as most horror films are. I grew to like these separate genres in the days of black-and-white television, so blood is not of interest to me. I am not, after all, a vampire.

Continuing in the vein of horror and/or science fiction films/stories/television programs, which often overlap, it’s that time of year when scary movies abound. For Halloween, sure, but perhaps it’s just a chilly weather thing. A scary movie lets us snuggle with our honeys even more on cold evenings than warm.

Are film or TV studios trying to make us ponder? I think not. They just want us to jump and scream and clutch at one another — and pay admission. Recently I tried to oblige. Last week I saw Paranormal Activity 3. At home I watched a DVD of the first film in that series. Why? They both have their startling moments and frights, sure. Is that enough? Paranormal Activity 3 makes a big mistake by explaining the paranormal activity with witches. Really? Give me Poltergeist, where the explanations do not lessen the fear.

The other day I read that William Peter Blatty had been invited to revise and expand his hastily written novel, The Exorcist. Back then he was invited to write the screenplay for the very scary film version before he’d even finished his draft of the novel, so he welcomed the opportunity to refine the book. I cannot say that I remember it well enough to recognize what he changed, but I walked briskly to a bookstore the day I read about the 40th anniversary revised edition, and finished it in three commutes. I’m a slow reader but it’s a fast read. Alas, sad as I was for the fortunes and fates of the characters, I was not afraid.

I watched scads of movies Halloween weekend, looking for something truly scary. Why? I’ve been trying to write a scary story myself, and it’s like the exceedingly unpleasant idea of pounding my head against the wall. What’s scary? I tried making a list of what frightens me, and my rational mind was certainly able to do that. But nothing I wrote was coming out scary. Nothing I see comes out scary. Nothing I read comes out scary.

Decades ago I can remember being unable to sleep as I read through Stephen King’s book of short stories, Night Shift (“The Boogeyman” particularly got me). And the original William Castle film, The House on Haunted Hill — not the remake, the remake’s not scary at all, it’s just gross. But in the original, black-and-white, when that old lady with the crazy hair and the clawed fingers glided across the room into the glow of the candle light, I screamed. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, that’s one scary book, as was the original 1960 William Wise film version, The Haunting — although, as usual, not the remake.

So I racked my brain trying to figure it out. I found no answers, but recalled that some years back, an actor friend proposed that his — and my — dislike of improvisation was merely a mask to hide our fear of the paucity of our own imaginations. Is that what it is? Has my imagination dwindled down so far as to disallow the conjuring part of my mind to believe? Would I now let Tinker Bell die? Surely not. That would be scary stuff indeed. In these unsatisfactory stories and films, there are moments that are startling, moments that are creepy, but are we really afraid of what’s next? Of what’s behind the curtain, beyond the door, inside the darkness?

Ah, the darkness.

The scariest movie I’ve seen of late was Mr. Klein. A 1976 French film (actually titled Monsieur Klein) directed by Joseph Losey and produced by and starring Alain Delon, my introduction to it was when I was reading posts about the film  Sarah's Key and the Vél’ d’Hiv round-up. Some posters (that is, people who post comments on web sites, as opposed to advertisements plastered around town — some of which are works of art, but that's another subject entirely) applauded Sarah’s Key as the first depiction of Vel’ d’Hiv onscreen, while others offered Mr. Klein as proof that it was already out there.

In Mr. Klein, Alain Delon plays Robert Klein, an art dealer, a businessman. He buys art, he sells art, he advises people at auctions. He’s a member of Society. In 1942, we meet him buying things at obscene discounts from Jews trying to gather cash to leave Vichy France. They are forced to sell at low prices; he is not forced to buy at the prices the articles are worth. [Potential spoiler: Actually, I felt the film’s only flaw was the repetition of some lines from the opening scene at the end. They were already echoing in my mind.] Mr. Klein receives some mail that is not his. It is addressed to his name at his well-appointed home, but it’s a newspaper printed for and by Jews — to tell them what rights they have lost, to tell them what they must do, where they must go. Mr. Klein tries to get his name off this distribution list (and we all know how impossible that is), and complains to the police, which of course puts him on their radar where he had not been before. The film tracks Mr. Klein’s attempts to find the other Mr. Klein, who is a Jew in hiding. Delon’s Mr. Klein has to deal with French bureaucracy and find official paperwork proving that his grandparents and their parents were Christian. Eventually he must sell his belongings and his home, for less than they are worth, but of course, while he is forced to sell, no one is forced to buy.

By the end of the film, that paperwork is gathered, but Delon’s Mr. Klein has already been shoved into a bus with people wearing yellow stars on their clothing, herded into the Vélodrome d’Hiver, where he hears someone else respond to his name. He feverishly pushes his way through the crowd to accost that man, then finds himself shoved onto the train with the other Mr. Klein, the train heading east out of France to the camps.

Throughout the film we root for Alain Delon (but of course). We root for him to get this all sorted out, because we know how dangerous it is to be a Jew in 1942. He tries to save himself by proving he is not a Jew, and cannot. Until finally he, and we, wonder what we were thinking.

That’s scary. Human activity, not paranormal. Not things that go bump in the night. What ordinary people do to one another, and sometimes what they do not do — now that is terrifying.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, watching the cat watch the wall, which is also a bit unnerving.

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