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Horror > discussion: deconstruct the role of victim in horror - what makes a good victim?

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message 1: by Phillip (last edited Nov 14, 2011 09:04AM) (new)

Phillip | 10551 comments i started to write this post as a response to THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, but i thought it is such a broad topic that it warrants its own discussion.

i think an interesting discussion on horror in general could be framed around the idea of VICTIM ... like, how do you, as an audience member, identify with the victim ... how do we allow ourselves to go with a narrative where extreme violence, or even silly slasher scenes - presents violence against a victim.

or maybe it's easier to ask: what makes a good victim? is it someone you don't like, and that allows you to watch this person get hacked up (or whatever is on the menu) ... or is it scarier to watch someone that is sympathetic (in the case of a film like MARTYRS) be submitted to extreme pain and suffering or death.

in this case, i felt like the girls were just too easy a target ... but because i have been trying more and more to practice non-judgement with people - i feel less and less inclined to want to see anyone victimized. this is coming from someone who is a life-long horror fan. somehow it becomes more and more difficult to find films where i can get behind the program, so to speak, when it comes to graphic violence.

and yet, a film like (the original) TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE still remains a favorite. why? probably because there is a real social message about america in TCM that i don't tend to find in so many contemporary horror films.

i don't know - does anyone have anything to say on this subject? what makes a good victim in horror films? - what is it about the victim in horror that allows us to watch them suffer?


message 2: by George (new)

George | 951 comments well, what's your definition of good in this context? someone we more or less enjoy being whacked? or someone who fights back hammer and tongs and goes down hard. I'm thinking of the women in The Descent. They all go down, but fight back viciously and take a number of the monsters with them. Now, that's a film I really enjoyed watching.


message 3: by Phillip (last edited Nov 14, 2011 09:08AM) (new)

Phillip | 10551 comments perhaps "good" isn't the right word?

i'm curious to know what do we need to see in a victim that allows us to participate - in an abstract manner, to be sure - in this person's demise?

i agree with you - a film like THE DESCENT presents some great subjects who do not go easy into that dark night. so there is real conflict there, and a "fair" struggle. that indeed makes for enjoyable cinema.

i originally wrote this after watching the beginning of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE - a film i didn't finish, perhaps because the victims were too easy - there didn't seem to be a potential for the women in that film to put up much of a fight. but that also had something to do with the perpetrator. anyway, i turned the film off because i didn't want to watch these women, who were portrayed as basically helpless, be maimed and tortured. there's nothing entertaining, stimulating, or thought-provoking about that.

but there is indeed an audience for that film, and many like it - so that is, perhaps, what i'm getting at - why? what makes us desire to see helpless victims be brutalized? who are we identifying with? the victim or the perpetrator ... or do we claim innocence and merely say, "hey, it's just a movie" - which is a cop-out, imo.


message 4: by Tom (new)

Tom | 5336 comments This is all very interesting. I'm not sure I understand how we "participate" in a victim's demise. Can you elaborate a bit?

Agreed, though, about TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, which really does rise above the "slice and dice" aspects of the genre, offering a picture of something bigger, a real vision of the U.S. and of the Universe in general as a big nasty slaughterhouse. That's really the difference between films like TEXAS CHAINSAW, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and the cheesier easier horror flicks that only aim to shock for shock's sake.

I can only really speak for myself here. I don't want to see helpless victims, or any victims really, get brutalized. The slayings in most genre flicks don't really mean much, as there's no identification or even basic interest drummed up in the folks getting killed off so gruseomely -- was I supposed to give a damn about anyone in FRIDAY THE 13th? I'm trying to think of movie deaths I've been enthusiastic about, and they're always villains. Dracula getting staked, John Cassavetes blowing up, there's one monstrous guy in THE HUMAN CONDITION who gets the most richly deserved death-by-beating I can think of, and so on.


message 5: by Phillip (last edited Nov 14, 2011 09:11AM) (new)

Phillip | 10551 comments thanks tom, you and george are so clever that you have both done a better job of answering my question than i did in articulating it.

your second paragraph is getting to the point. i suppose tolerate is a better word than participate. so i will try to re-phrase the question.

what does a film maker have to do to make us tolerate extreme violence? and how is that linked to the victim? who are we willing to watch fall to ruin or be murdered? what characters will we root for with all our might to stay out of harm's way? what kind of death do we not only tolerate, but applaud in a film? (your example: THE HUMAN CONDITION).

is it as simple as sympathetic character = the guy we root for; and, unsympathetic character = sure, go ahead, make his day ... ?

i'm not so sure.

i think the second sequence in TCM is so well done - hooper sets the stage by putting this deranged hitch-hiker in the vehicle with the crew that will soon be slaughtered. we see how the group of young people react to the antagonist, but it's just a prelude - nothing really bad happens - but the audience is aware now that something bad could happen. then, one by one, something awful happens. here is a film where, no matter what you think of the person, the death scenes are really palpable. the young man in the wheelchair is annoying as hell, but nonetheless we resist his attack ... he's a classic helpless victim, but somehow i don't want to see this guy murdered. mr. hooper is clearly playing with the tradition of "let's kill off the annoying guy", but somehow turns it upside down.

i think in the case of TCM the murders are so shocking that regardless of what you think of the characters, you want to see them free of their situation. so the victim is almost irrelevant. you just don't want to imagine that such a place exists as that farmhouse. and hooper wisely shows you more and more dark corners of the house as the film progresses ... more secrets emerge about everyone involved. character development seems crucial in creating tension when violence is concerned. you feel as relieved as the heroine in the film when she is finally whisked away in the back of that truck with the sound of leatherface's chainsaw bellowing in the background.

as you stated, with the FRIDAY THE 13th films, there isn't much character development - so there isn't much at stake emotionally as the body count climbs. so it seems clear that if there isn't much character development beyond that a bunch of teens have rented a house by the lake for the weekend and want to party it up, we tend to be willing to tolerate those people as victims.

now, here's the exception to the rule - and this is why i brought this up - while watching THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, i became unwilling to watch/tolerate the film ... and i'm wondering why. as i said, i'm a fan of horror films, and i've seen a lot of horrible things on screen. here is a case where the alleged victims were unsympathetic (as in films like FRIDAY THE 13th - and i think i've seen most of those), so i really should not have cared about what happened to them. but in this case, the filmmaker failed to make me want to participate in what was to come. so, what happened? is it me, or is it the film?

i'm wondering - and it's possible that i'm still not making my question clear - and it's possible that it can't be answered easily - but i'm curious to hear people explain what they are able to tolerate in horror and why - and how is that linked to the role of the victim.


message 6: by Tom (new)

Tom | 5336 comments Let's see. There's a difference, for me, between Graphic Bloody Violence That Makes A Point, and Graphic Bloody Violence That The Filmmakers Are Really Seriously Getting Off On.

I don't see much horror any more, but I became aware of it in other films. I first got it during a screening of THE CROW, of all things -- the film/filmmakers really got off on all the carnage and gunfire. Likewise Mel Gibson's revolting BRAVEHEART which really crosses the line. I got seriously turned off by the horrors in these films, while other films with equally graphic awfulness in, say, RESERVOIR DOGS or TAXI DRIVER didn't. There's a point to the awfulness beyond the gushing of blood and mangling of flesh in RD and TD.


message 7: by Phillip (last edited Nov 14, 2011 11:33AM) (new)

Phillip | 10551 comments Tom wrote: "Let's see. There's a difference, for me, between Graphic Bloody Violence That Makes A Point, and Graphic Bloody Violence That The Filmmakers Are Really Seriously Getting Off On. ..."

well stated and succinct! you've got me on both points.

what i see more and more is an audience, who, like The Filmmakers Are Really Seriously Getting Off On (Violence), seem to be attracted to violence itself ... for the sake of violence. in the case of THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, i couldn't help but feel that the filmmaker enjoyed identifying with the antagonist and that the victims were fodder, and i think that's what turned me off.

what does that say about our society? are we becoming so completely brutalized by our various political/social/cultural/economic environments that we have developed a feeling of hopelessness that we want to lash out at society, is that the void that these films are trying to fill?

yes, that's a rhetorical question ... for anyone interested.


message 8: by George (new)

George | 951 comments I don't know if the filmmakers are really getting off on the violence so much as they simply find it very easy to do and commercial. more laziness than anything else, and almost always profitable. and of course, they try very hard to one up each other, to give people some reason to come.

The only one I saw that was just that was Hostel, which I hadn't intended to see, but I was out of town and needed something to do, and it was the only film showing I hadn't seen. I was suitably horrified by the film although not so much as to get up and leave, I'm sorry to say. one used to see this sort of thing at drive ins, but it's become more mainstream these days. but I don't see it as a really new phenomena. Was the violence in Hostel worse say than in Dawn of the Dead? Not really, but that did have some context, some social satire, etc. some redeeming social values perhaps? Hostel, not so much. anyway, I avoid this sort of stuff since. That's not entertainment for me. Zombie movies of course are a totally different thing.


message 9: by Phillip (new)

Phillip | 10551 comments on a somewhat related note: today i was on the UC Berkeley campus and there was a fraternity hosting a fundraiser ... you make a contribution and you get 2 minutes with a giant sledgehammer that you can use to destroy a car that is parked on campus ... the barker trying to recruit "funders" shouted over the microphone: "c'mon, we know you've got a lot of anger you want to get off your chest, so step up and thrash this car for a small donation!"

couldn't help but think: things have changed there since the 60's.


message 10: by Robert (new)

Robert Beveridge (xterminal) Tom wrote: "This is all very interesting. I'm not sure I understand how we "participate" in a victim's demise. Can you elaborate a bit?"

This is what Haneke was on about in the breaking-the-fourth-wall section of (the original, at least, I haven't seen the remake) Funny Games--that by watching (and IIRC, by paying to watch), we, the audience, are in the victim-creation business. After all, no one would make slasher films were there not a large paying audience for them.

To get back to Phillip's original question--I think both types of victim he mentioned in the question have their validity. The person you just can't wait to see get whacked, well, it's always fun when it actually happens (to take this out of the realm of the horror film, think Meryl Streep in Death Becomes Her), and in that case, the more stupidly absurd the death, the better. We know we're just there for a good time; so be it. As for the sympathetic character, then you're getting into a much more complex realm. Once you've got sympathetic victims, the filmmaker is (or should be) making you ask questions: is this actually your final girl? Which makes it more emotionally compelling/draining/what-have-you when the character gets bumped off. Or should, if filmmaker, scriptwriter, and actor are doing their respective jobs correctly. And that's my answer to that part of the question: the more real the character is, in that sense, the "better" a victim he or she is. Which brings it right back around to Haneke's contention in Funny Games that we, the audience, are at least passive participants in the deaths of these characters.

And it just occurred to me to look at this in the documentary realm--specifically, Timothy Treadwell comes to mind--but I'm a long way from having mulled that over enough to comment on it.

In re George's comments on Hostel: I disagree, though in probably the most meta way I can. Empirically, he's right; there's no redeeming social value in Hostel in the movie itself, other than the darkest sort of entertainment. But I think there's value for the film industry is that Hostel, in 2004, was the first movie to actually go as far as Japanese and Hong Kong filmmakers had been going since the mid-eighties. There was an envelope there to be pushed, but that envelope ONLY existed in Western film. Why do Asians make such better horror films than Americans and Europeans, in the main? Because they were treading ground we're only now breaking in movies like Hei Tei Yang 731 and the first two Guinea Pig films (all of which came out in 87-88). The movement that produced such burgeoning classics as The Quiet Family, Ring, Cure, Sigaw, etc., what I've been calling Japanese New Horror since ~1998, was a direct reaction to the extreme-horror flicks of the eighties and early nineties. Which means we're probably still a good half-decade from a Hollywood studio producing a horror flick as sleek, atmospheric, and downright scary as Ring (as an original, not a remake).

Now that I think about it, there have been a few exceptions, but I think all of them either fall into the realm of "imported director" (Amenabar, James Wan, etc.) or the retro-horror movie, something made specifically to recreate the atmosphere of the last golden age of Hollywood horror (House of the Devil, Drag Me to Hell, Insidious, etc.). All the really solid, original horror gems I can come up with made in America over the past ~decade have been outside the Hollywood machine--Baby Blues, Shallow Ground, DeadBirds, Splinter were all direct-to-DVD.

I could go on about this all day, so I'll shut up now...


message 11: by Robert (new)

Robert Beveridge (xterminal) Oh, and I should mention, re the Final Girl part of my screed above: I find it endlessly interesting that this has been explored so much better recently in locked-room thrillers than it has in the horror realm. The 2010 British film Exam is a great example. Just saw one a couple of days ago called Nine Dead that did it pretty well. 13 Tzameti, of course.


message 12: by George (new)

George | 951 comments I'm not philosolphically against people making this sort of picture or any other sort. I do think it's mostly just an lazy, and repugnant in most respects, way to crank something out that will make a profit. sort of like most remakes.


message 13: by Geoffrey (new)

Geoffrey | 209 comments Hostel and SAW are movies that go beyond the merely violent in that there is a voyeuristic pleasure in gratuitious sadism. The pain lingers indefinitely for the victims. Both are really sick movies.


message 14: by Phillip (last edited Nov 17, 2011 07:30AM) (new)

Phillip | 10551 comments revisted FUNNY GAMES tonight, just to reacquaint myself and stimulate some ideas on the notion of audience participation. i never really got back to tom on his question, and i wanted to collect my thoughts before responding.

more on haneke's film in a second, but first let say a few general remarks.

we participate in cinema in a variety of ways - first and foremost by subscribing to the film in some manner - we leave the shelter of our homes, plop down some money and attend a screening of a movie in a theater with a number of participants who join us; or, we sit at home and watch a film we have rented, purchased, or paid a fee to view via a streaming source. that all takes effort, and most of us associate effort with free will - we choose to view movies - movies do not happen to us. the act of free will allows us to participate in something - we could do anything with our time, and we are choosing to watch images on a screen. watching film, like any other activity, is an act of existentialism - we are what we eat in this case. the kind of film we choose is associated with our essence, in sartre's use of the word.

this cinematic experience is as varied as the neighborhoods that populate our country. time and era has had an influence on the kind of experience you might have today or have had in the past. in the 1980's, i would go do the strand theater on market street in san francisco, and if i got there early i could pay $1.75 and see a triple feature. the audience would be about half filled with people like myself (curious filmgoers with time on their hands), the other half would be homeless or residence-challenged attendants ($1.75 is a cheap admission for a place to sleep all day). the kind of films that played ranged from european arthouse cinema to exploitation, grindhouse, horror, and cult classics.

for the most part, this is a different kind of filmic event to participate in than what constitutes the norm today - my point is that there are a lot of different kinds of film experiences you can have in movie theaters, and i'm not even talking about the kind of experience you might participate in while visiting a porn palace. the same goes for home viewing - all kinds of activities could accompany a viewing in a home theater, representing a spectrum of ways to participate in the film experience.

regardless of how we view the film, we spend money on movies, whether we view them in the community or in the comfort of our home and in doing so we support filmmakers by making a contribution to their work - this is also an act of participation - if we did not subscribe, it's possible that (most) people would stop making movies.

so by the very act of viewing a movie - and the ways that we can do this are numerous - we are participating in cinema - we become part of the experience of viewing the movie.

the kinds of films that we watch urge us to participate in a variety of ways, and most of the options for the viewer exist in the realm of passive observer. but there are films that urge us to take a more active role. any film that was created as a work of art was intended not to merely entertain, but also stimulate thought. it is these films that we tend to have a dialogue with - we are constantly carrying on a conversation with the film in our mind - that is another act of participation.

with this more active kind of participation in cinema, there is a different kind of experience with horror, or any kind of film that brings on an experience of enhanced tension or friction between the viewer and the images on screen.

a gang of SPOILERS are soon to be on the loose ...

as robert mentions in his post, a film like haneke's FUNNY GAMES takes this behavior to another level. throughout the film two young men taunt, torture and eventually murder an affluent nuclear family. in the process, a great deal of psychological warfare is at play. the perpetrators of the violence are constantly using the element of a game in order to lure their victims into participating with their deeds. one of the antagonists turns to the camera in a few scenes and talks directly to the audience - after the final deed is done, the young men discuss the physics of victim and assassin on the level of essence - the cinematic and the real.

here is an example of an unusual role for the viewer to play - but fans of movies like REAR WINDOW were already familiar with the heightened sense of voyeurism that filmmakers can consciously sculpt for their audiences.

i would still like to elaborate a bit on this role of the victim in cinema, but rather than inflating this post any more, i'm going to pause so i can regroup before i try to elaborate on tom's statement about the two kinds of horror films we usually get to choose from.

any thoughts, ideas, jeers, or elaborations are most welcome.


message 15: by Robert (new)

Robert Beveridge (xterminal) Phillip wrote: "any thoughts, ideas, jeers, or elaborations are most welcome. "

If you haven't seen Rubber yet, Dupieux does some amazing things with the breaking of the fourth wall. (In this case, the movie DOES happen to the audience--at least the audience within the film--and it's as hysterical as it is disturbing.)


message 16: by Phillip (new)

Phillip | 10551 comments don't know it.


St[♥]r Pr!nc:$$ N[♥]wsheen pictures, pictures, pictures ||| ♥ Zin Uru ♥ |||| | 482 comments The victim should reflect the horror of the movie in their eyes or face or body language or something, I guess.

Do you think if you watch a lot of horror something horrible happens to you aaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!

hope i gave you a scary moment!


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