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Night of the Living Culture Wars: These Aren’t Your Father’s Horror Movies

Posted on October 16 2010 9:00 am

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Only a few generations ago, both the science fiction and horror genre were, beyond a refreshing form of catharsis and escapism, among the most efficacious mediums for the telling of stories about the terrible questions of human existence and its core feature, the dramatic conflict between good and evil.  The protagonists/antagonist, hero/nemesis dramaturgy of tension, conflict, and the triumph of good over evil  has a unique place within the genres of horror and science fiction because these genres allow us to place moral, ethical, and philosophical ideals and principles within a fantastic or alien context, allowing us to symbolize such core dramas of the human condition in ways that speak to us poignantly as only the deep language of symbolism can do.

This all began to change, however, sometime, at least for high visibility mainstream films, in the seventies.  The late seventies, in particular (the era of the mass expansion of the “splatter” film and of shock and gore for nothing more than its own sake) saw the beginning of a profound secularization of horror films and an attendant corrosive de-emphasis, both on the idea of an over arching struggle between good and evil as the core of all true dramatic tension, but of the power, in some cases, of good to truly resist evil at all.

From the secularization of the horror film, we have now moved into the postmodernization of the horror film, and this month’s just released Let Me In is one example of many of the effects of post sixties modernity upon this genre.  The film revolves around the isolated, lonely and despairing life of a 12 year old boy named Owen (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is ruthlessly tormented by some other boys at his school and who’s parents are undergoing a clearly nasty divorce.  Owen meets a withdrawn, diffident and emotionally distant young girl, roughly his own age, named Abby (played by Chole Moretz) whom he befriends and begins to bond emotionally.

What stands out, aside from technical considerations in such a review, is it’s heavy, oppressive, near suffocating sense of darkness.  Like the black clothing long worn by so many Hollywood cultural elites, the entire film seems to symbolize, both visually and psychologically, not a struggle between good and evil, but the incapacity of much of modern pop culture to name and identify it, and then to embed it in a conflictual moral struggle with its opposite.

Owen engages in sexual voyeurism with his neighbors in an adjoining apartment, fantasizes about being a serial killer (with woman as the victims), is bullied and victimized at school, and lives a life of isolation and anxiety.  All the people around him are themselves strange, dysfunctional, or in some way self absorbed.  Abby is, in reality, a vampire, and has an adult companion who kills random victims to obtain blood for her.  His mother is, at least on the surface, an evangelical Christian who lies drunk on the sofa watching televangelist preachers, while his father is an atheist who impugns his mother’s religion and implores him to avoid it himself.

The entire film, indeed, presents us with a view of the vampire, not as the trapping of an unwilling soul in a dead body under the influence of a powerful evil force that obliterates free will and masks the true personality, but as a kind of personality disorder or mental illness of which Abby is a victim, and there is no doubt that both Abby and Owen are victims.  Abby is, not so much evil, in a clear and distinct way, as “dysfunctional” in a strange yet similar way to the way most of the other characters in the film are dysfunctional and alienated.  She is, unlike many past film vampires, but much like many over the last 25 years or so, well aware of her own condition and longs, as the film suggests, to be different (human).

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