Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sympathetic Monsters Need Not Apply

There is something about a slasher film that makes it special.  I name that something as the lack of a sympathetic villain.

Older horror movies, or Monster Movies, if you prefer, seemed to favor a sympathetic monster as the villain.  The thing that eventually tied all the Universal Frankenstein pictures together was the Monster, not the creator.  It did not matter if the actor in the makeup was not the same, it was the Frankenstein Monster that people came to see.  The Gillman from The Creature From the Black Lagoon made a total of 3 films, all tied together by the Creature (Gillman) because audiences could identify with the monster.  Film monsters are often either sympathetic, in the case of Chaney's Wolf Man or Karloff's Frankenstein Monster or fulfill some fantastic desire, such as vampires seem to have become since the Victorians made them sexy.  In fact this very point is put forth in the film Nightbreed by the character Rachel, explaining to Lori that humans seek to destroy the Breed, but we really envy them as when we dream we dream of flying, shapeshifting, or living forever.  Sympathetic monsters, Mr. Barker you did not invent them, but you certainly did a great job of making them simultaneously sympathetic and badass.

Nightbreed is, in fact, a good example of my first point concerning slasher films.  As part of his grand point, Mr. Barker's villain in Nightbreed, aside from the prejudice of humanity, which is in no way subtly used, is the psychotic psychiatrist Decker.
Seriously, how does he see?  See how scary that shit is?  It's like the mask sees 'for him'...
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, zilch, zip, nada, 0.00%, S.F.A. sympathetic about Dr. Phillip Decker.  He kills, he blames others, he is driven by sick needs we are not supposed to admire, understand or accept.
That's great.  Truly.
The slasher genre features psycho killers, which are by their very natures not sympathetic.  By employing such monsters we are faced with truly terrifying beings.  Once, perhaps, that would have been the role of demons or things from beyond space that man was not meant to know, but since the late 1970s it has been the slasher-killer who fulfills that role.  What makes them so scary?

They have no conscience, no feelings of concern or remorse and a moral compass that, if not missing, is not capable of pointing north.  We may be able to fathom, to some degree or another, the motivations of 'normal' or 'classic' monsters, but the motivations of the sociopathic madman are (or should be) a mystery to us.  Dracula seeks blood to prolong his life, the Wolf Man is driven to kill by his bestial nature, the Mummy and the Gillman seek love, but what does the slasher seek?  To kill, pure and simple.  Some screenwriters and directors have tried to provide plausible motivations for this lust for killing, such as revenge, unrequited love, or mental handicap (not the most popular of reasons due to its decidedly non-p.c. nature).  Sometimes the explanation is just a simple, "He's crazy" and that's that.  Whatever the reason, a good slasher villain is not a sympathetic monster who can win our hearts and make us feel for them.  A good slasher villain inspires in us fear, or awe, or occasionally admiration for their talents (that is just sick), but never sympathy.  I have seen portrayals of slashers that seem sympathetic, such as a film where the killer was wronged in the past and has come to reestablish order in the universe by punishing those who tormented him in the past, but those are not so much sympathetic monsters as they are justified escapist monsters.  What differentiates the avenging slasher from the sympathetic monster is that the slasher does not apologize for what he is.
Ah, the key to the lock.  Look at these two and note the difference: The one on the left does not apologize for his evil or monstrosity, the one on the right is tortured by it.
I keep this picture in my wallet
This is not a confession of admiration, mind you.  When I watch the Carpenter classic Halloween I am not rooting for Mikey Myers in his shocking white Shatner mask.  I am rooting for Dr. Sam Loomis, with his rumpled brown suit and raincoat, sporting a hand cannon and nearly raving to the authorities about "the blackest eyes...the Devil's eyes".  I don't watch Friday the 13th films and root for Jason...wait, I tell a lie, depending on the film I don't root for Jason.  Sometimes those annoying kids NEED to die.
I defy you to watch this film and not want to kill every one of these annoying gits
Since the villain is the franchise in a slasher series it is clear that the fans are tuning in to see the killer at work.  Fans compete over which villain is better and many a single-shot, throwaway villain has come and gone, leaving a very few stars for lack of a better word.  Eventually the fans hunger for information on these villain-heroes of the horror world and back stories are developed, which always threatens to ruin the best part of the villain: his total lack of sympathy.  If films are meant to be cathartic escapist fantasy, the slasher film allows us to either feel the thrill of the final girl as she runs for her life, avoiding death time and again to finally defeat the slasher killer or watch him fall to his own evil until such time as a sequel can bring him back to kill again, or it allows us to take perverse delight in vicariously experiencing the work of the killer.  Lest this seem unhealthy, I should also point out that many of the victims are thoroughly unlikable people with bad habits who probably deserve their grisly fates.
I mean, umm...look, a singing crustacean!
Unda da sea, unda da sea, I'm a distraction, so you don't notice, de Punk is kra-zee.
For anyone who enjoys the gruesome fun of old pre-code horror comics or The Cryptkeeper, the slasher film is a natural fit.  People do stupid things, often unsavory people at that, and meet a (un)timely death at the hands of a visceral killing machine.  It's karmic and it requires little to no explanation.  It's better when the killer doesn't explain his actions, letting them do the talking.  I must stress, however, that the killer is not some righteous tool of parental disapproval seeking to destroy the unrighteous.  As has been stated time and again, the stoned, drunk, INATTENTIVE youth are killed in flagrante delicto precisely because they are inattentive and thus easily caught and dispatched.  The attentive, skilled, or aware character has an improved chance of survival.  At least that is the way it used to be when a final girl really was a final girl and had the scars to prove it.
Just a few of the tortured women who made it all possible for the modern survivors to keep their hair and lipstick perfect while being chased by a psycho killer.  Sisters, we will never forget you.
Because the slasher does not question his motives, actions or even reveal his reasons, he is a true monster, unapologetic, unforgiving, unforgiven and unimpressed by your psychology or your need for an explanation for his actions.  Begging a slasher for mercy is like begging the shark from Jaws for mercy; he just doesn't understand the concept.  This is not so say that the sympathetic or classic monsters are not good too, because they are, but there is something refreshing about not having to question a character's motivations.  Slashers kill, that's what they do.  It is the raison d'etre of the slasher and the slasher film and that is what makes it different from the supernatural and classic monsters.
Monsters sans sympathy...until next time, keep your pumpkins lit.


  1. I agree, the defining characteristic of the modern slasher character, is his unapologetic nature.

    Though, I think that the slashers are still sympathetic, none the less.

    I remember going to see "Freddy vs Jason" in the theater. It opened with a woman flashing the camera, the audience cheered. Two minutes later the same girl was staked to a tree with Jason's machete. The crowd cheered again. That audience reaction was actually much more disturbing to me than anything else about the movie.

    In The Phantom of the Opera, when the object of the Phantom's infatuation unmasks him, sexually so to speak, they are both shocked at his deformity.

    The modern slasher is not shocked by his own monstrosity. Jason is exacting revenge for having been left to drown while the non-deformed kids had sex.

    It's most interesting to see how the role of female characters have evolved over time. Initially, the female lead was merely the object of infatuation. In modern films, the female lead has become the protagonist, protecting herself from the sexual deformity of the monster. Usually with a big phallic weapon, as was joked in "Behind the Mask" (great flick if you haven't seen it).

    It will be interesting to see how the horror genre evolves from here.

  2. Interesting post. And it sums up nicely why I prefer the classic monster movies to more recent slasher films. I like atmosphere and suspense, but I also like a sympathetic villain. Unapologetic killers are simply disturbing.