Thursday, February 25, 2010

The New Wave of Horror: Punk Music and Horror Films

Text by Matt Ruderman, introduction by Robert Barry Francos
© 1981, FFanzeen; introductory comments © RBF, 2010
Images from the Internet

The following article on the use of horror in the emergent music scene was originally published in
FFanzeen magazine, issue #7, in 1981. It was written by Matt Ruderman.

I really don’t know what happened to Matt Ruderman. We worked for a while at a Fortune 500 company where I was a proofreader and typeset my fanzine on the side. Matt was really into horror films, as was / am I, so we got along well. When I left there shortly after the issue this article appeared came out, I lost touch, as these work-friendships seem to often end. Love to hear from ya if you’re out there, Matt.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything Matt is saying below, such as rock’n’roll not being a collective experience; this has become especially so since the days of hardcore, which was starting around the time this article was written. As for a fascinating study of gender and what is now commonly known as slasher films, I recommend Carol J. Clover’s
Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992) – RBF

When I think of the ‘50’s youth culture, rock’n’roll’s original generation, the first image that comes to my mind is that of teenagers at the local high school dance being attacted by Michael Landon in werewolf makeup and jeans. This is one of my basic impressions of the generation into which I was born. Likewise, there are similar impressions (“nostalgia” would be an inappropriate word) of the relatively placid ‘50s era within our ‘80s generation of rock’n’rollers (i.e., punks, or New Wavers), of which I am a peripheral part, who are in the throes of a scary movie mania, the likes which has not been seen since the Eisenhower years.

Some New Wave clubs in Manhattan have been screening horror films, many of the campy type, and the cinemas are packing crowds of kids who can be lured by a clever ad campaign to see absolutely any promising schlock horror film. Most of these are bitterly disappointing, and yet nobody learns from experience, including myself. There is an undeniable compulsion to witness the terrorization of innocents, mutilation, monsters and psychopaths, and to experience the ultimate cheap thrill of fear. This compulsion demands at least a cursory comparison of the inherent qualities of basic rock’n’roll and horror films, and what makes them so sympathetic.

Rock’n’roll as a culture, specifically in the microcosm of New Wave, appears to be bound to horror as a sibling, rather than as a mate. Yet, they are too closely related to be considered symbiotic. The major distinction is that rock’n’roll draws its strength from communion. It is a medium of mass generation and interaction, not just between artist and listener, but among the listeners, as well.

Horror is inherently personal and depends upon claustrophobia and anxiety. Even in the horror of the multitudes, such as The Blob and Jaws, which portrays crowds in peril, the threat is ultimately to the individual – is IT going to get ME? In the rock’n’roll society, the individual plays the tightrope game of ego expression (something not desirable in horror, as it has the urge to hide), and losing one’s self in an aura of crowd enthusiasm.

The entire nature of rock’n’roll changes when you take away from the crowds. Listen to rock’n’roll in solitude provides thoughtfulness. When listening with a friend, perhaps while turning the friend on to the song or group, it causes a controlled enthusiasm. But rarely does one experience the gale of emotions that erupts in a crowd.

The presence of the audience at horror films serves a number of complex functions. We sense the nervousness of people around us. We subconsciously detect feverous coughing and people shift in their chairs. Their screams during shock climaxes are akin to the laughtrack of television sit-coms, which serves to intensify our reaction to the stimulus. But at the same time, the presence of the crowd is vastly reassuring.

Horror is rarely thoughtful and when it is, it either loses its power or becomes science fiction. The whole point of it is to hand over your logic and invite irrational fear into your subconscious. Here we arrive at the first important point of similarity between rock’n’roll and horror: they tend to appeal to our base, crude, and often cruel, anti-intellectual instincts; the urge to close our minds from sophistication, and expose ourselves to manipulation. And who among us doesn’t cater, in some degree, to the side of our personalities that most desperately wants to vegetate and masturbate until the sun comes up? The trick is to know how much gratification is healthy, and how much is degenerative and self-defeating.

I am able to view a phenomenal amount of horror films, depending on how inventive they are, before succumbing to utter boredom (this applies to my tolerance for basic three-chord rock’n’roll, as well). After a while, though, I can’t help but wonder why women are brutalized in such a manner and to such a degree. When it becomes fully clear that the terrorization of women is a manifestation of a pervasive misogynic attitude in myself and society, in toto, it somewhat affects my ability to fully appreciate the Mise-en-scène, or craftsmanship, of the filmmaker.

The formula remains unchanged from film to film: men are punished for not being the hero. This means that they are invariably faceless. If they are characters with a bit of dimension, then they are expendable villains, creeps, alcoholics, or sidekicks (whose main function is to create pathos in the viewer when he is butchered). At the same time, we can appreciate their destruction and be glad that we aren’t in his place.

Women are punished for being female, and rarely have any real personality or concerns, which makes it easier for men to appreciate their terror and possible subsequent death. The heroines are a bit more distinguished because they are tailored so that men want them to survive after a respectable amount of brutalization. It would be a shame to have the monster eat them because men would experience an emotionally painful, romantic sense of loss, and would miss out on a great fuck, as well.

The sparseness of intellectual themes in horror is reflected in rock’n’roll, in one way, by the “Baby we’re breaking up” / “Let’s get married” lyrics that have redundantly infested pop since Rock Year One. It is the equivalent of an earlier generation’s “Moon in June” / “Let’s make whoopee.” In effect, it is a sexual tradition for maintaining a childish idealization of relationships. Rock romanticism is, at the opposite end of the spectrum, as much a simplistic fabrication as horror misanthropy, perhaps not quite so vulgar.

One may wonder what it is that pop lovers derive from horror, as opposed to adventure flicks. Every generation has its mindless correlates, but there are some peculiar qualities that attract rock’n’rollers to horror, in particular. One quality is that there is no binding form of prescribed behavior in a situation, such as the macho behavior of men in westerns. Another quality is immediacy and humor of horror. The cheap shock of a throwaway horror film like Maniac might be more amusing and entertaining than a Hitchcock suspense film, or a psychological thriller like Polanski’s The Tenant, which has a sociological and introspective pretext, respectively. Therefore, the most popular rock’n’roll horror films are those what have the greatest potential for being camp classics.

In identifying rock-horror as predominantly camp, I refer to what was written earlier, that rock and horror interact as siblings. They cannot co-exist and remain untainted. Once horror has lost its immediacy, it no longer has the ability to scare, but only to make us laugh; all the more degrading for the film, because it was obviously intended only to scare us.

When The Exorcist was first released, I found it to be genuinely effective, and I am a hard-case with regards to being scared. This was before all the gimmicks and surprises in the film were revealed by word-of-mouth and the media, so that many who went to see the film knew what they were going to see in advance. When I saw the film a second time, I couldn’t keep from laughing, seeing through Friedkin’s manipulations, and refusing to put into practice the necessary suspension of disbelief. So when laughter is eternal, horror is fleeting and can only survive as camp.

[The club] Hurrah’s, which doesn’t normally show horror films, unlike Club 57 and Privates, had on their video bands a tape of a fifth-rate Japanese Godzilla-type film, New Wave music replaced the soundtrack, which could only be an improvement, and the crowd apparently enjoyed the film.

Horror, in the form of camp, becomes communal in its humor; it becomes participatory. In any given film that fails to captivate and scare the audience, we notice that people start cat-calling. Campy horror doesn’t necessarily demand shouting at the screen to be a community event. It only has to allow the freedom to talk to a friend next to you, to laugh at the wrong moments, to turn off the sound of your television or car speaker at drive-ins, or to walk to the candy stand for popcorn and wind up trying to make time with the candy girl, missing the rest of the movie. There is no need to detail the well-known phenomenon of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where crowd participation (to the point where audiences recite dialog with the screen actors and add their own, dress in costume, light candles and toss around rice) is the main attraction, or the American-International B-flicks where participation takes place from the back seat of a car.

Rock’n’roll horror-as-camp retains its horror in the form of the outré, the weird Rocky Horror groups like the Cramps, the Corpse Grinders, etc., assorted sex deviates, rock’n’roll Nazis, and various left-fielders contribute to the creepy ambience that rock’n’roll often generates these days.

Rock-horror loses it’s campy, lightweight quality in the proportion that it corresponds to real life. Sid Vicious’ rendition of “My Way” in a clip from Mondo Video, which he finishes by randomly pumping bullets into his audience, is a hilariously demented example of campy horror. It isn’t so funny when we consider the bizarre circumstances of his life and sub sequent drug death. Yet, this aspect of pop is as fascinating to rock’n'rollers as the “Hollywood Babylon” syndrome that has traditionally appealed to middle-America.

There is currently a relatively ambitions horror film making the rounds called Fear No Evil, which advertises a soundtrack that includes music by the Sex Pistols, the Boomtown Rats, Richard Hell, and Talking Heads, among others. Never having seen a horror flick that uses pop successfully as an integral part of the soundtrack (as far as memory serves), I was most anxious to see how effective a pop score would be. It was hardly a surprise to discover that rock’n’roll had little to do with the mood of the film. The music was used in the high school scenes, apparently to draw a rock’n’roll audience. Any music that hinted of a contemporary sound would have served just as well. The true background music during the scary scenes was, of course, traditionally orchestrated. The fact is that pop dissipates terror.

Some things never change, and this goes double for use of music in horror films. The orchestrated arrangements provide mainly incidental music, and it is only in the rare case of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho, and possibly It’s Alive! and Goldsmith’s The Omen, where the music has a fife apart from the film and still does not work against the mood. There are very few horror soundtrack records available, and the ones that are released are often tremendously boring, swamped with variations of one recurring theme.

It seems that horror films and rock’n’roll both recycle their gimmicks more often than anything else these days. But when a catch or variation is used effectively, people will always come back for more. Unlike science fiction and free jazz, they work on the principal that you have to invoke the familiar, the expected, in order to shock and delight people; in horror, by revealing the bizarre thing which lies behind the masks of sanity and normalcy, and in pop by devising a new twist to an old formula.

Pop comes closest to being incorporated in the horror background in the form of the transcendental electronic music that is now the standard, thanks to John Carpenter and Mike Oldfield / Billy Friedkin. A simple piece of music is repeated over and over, with variations added at intervals. This has the effect of evoking the claustrophobic mood that is complimentary by the action on the screen. In the Philip Glass tradition, the synthesized music puts your nervous system on a constant wave or plateau by using this droning theme. The wave is shaken by the subtle addition of new instruments, voices, and rhythms. Halloween, The Exorcist, Phantasm, and The Omen (which uses chants to this effect), have all showcased this method of film composing. The transcendental effect is also common in rock’n’roll, although as used in horror films, it is neither frivolous nor electrifying, and main characteristic of rock’n’roll.

Repetition and simplicity is the key to both scary film music and rock’n’roll. Interest is maintained through the gimmicks and cleverness of variations on a theme. The recent horror films that can be classified as ambitious are those that have made the most of what has been done a million times before. The writers generally come up with a gimmick that is sensational and distinguished and knit the rest of the narrative with hackneyed stories and predictable characters and events. Maniac has a subway bathroom centerpiece, some gory special effect, and little else; Blood Beach has fancy soft-focus photography and laid-back narrative, but the gimmick of a creature sucking people into the sand is a blatant rip-off of Invaders From Mars and The Outer Limits’ sand-shark; Scanners is the most inventive, but owes a great debt to Stephen King; Fear No Evil has a great passion play stigmata sequence, but resorts to laughably worn-out “living dead” scenes and Carrie plotting.

In the final analysis, the obvious appeal of terror to the rock’n’roller must ultimately be the anarchy prevalent in the claustrophobic world of terror. Just as importantly the hero often survives the ordeal and assumes some sort of control – the stake through the vampire’s heart, the superiority of White (Christian) Magic over Black, etc. The traditionally anarchic supernatural elements suggest an affinity with the rock’n’roller’s alienated background and lifestyle.

Within their apolitical society they have power – they are special. Carrie isn’t part of the hierarchy, just a destructive loner who is doomed. But the Scanners are a full-fledged society of tormented outcasts and ostracized loners who eventually realize the potential to manipulate and destroy the world. What could appeal more to a rock'n’roller?

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