Carpe Diem’s Movie Buff Extravaganza presents– An Argument for Ambiguity in Horror: Sometimes Less is More

Minor to Major spoilers for/Films highlighted:

Halloween(1978)

Alien(1979)

THE THING(1982)

Zodiac(2007)

One thing that used to bother me when I watched movies was their sense of ambiguity. That when the lights in a theater were shining on me afterwards, the answers for the film which I sat through were not always there, that certain story elements were not always made clear.

It is this same intentional obscurity which is something I have grown to love, and those types of movies tend to be the ones I enjoy most now. Ambiguity is by definition, the quality of being open to more than one interpretation. To an audience member, that means everyone can walk away from a movie with a very different idea of what an ending or plot point actually meant.

In no genre is the beauty of incertitude more easily illustrated than horror films.

Below this piece’s title are are several horror movies that I admire for handling ambiguity incredibly well. When this ambiguity was taken away, it demystified the effect of these movies and other times,when it’s used so well, the movies themselves require repeat viewings to make any understanding of them.

I would like to start with Ridley Scott’s Alien and why it’s prequels Prometheus and Alien Covenant puzzle me. First off, in the movie, the alien creature known as the Xenomorph, is found on a distant barren waste of a planet called LV-426. All we as an audience know is that it’s something which as character Ash goes on to say is “the perfect organism, its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility”. This and it’s actions sum up what the xenomorph can do and what makes us fearful of it. The mystery of where it came from is alluded to, there is a derelict ship on the planet which contains the xenomorph eggs. Aboard such ship is a dead pilot with its chest opened up, the implication being that perhaps the xenomorph got loose, found a host, and got loose and managed to cause the ship to crash. Or did it? See we don’t know that answer, the origin of the xenomorphs is very vague with the film keeping focus rather on the alien’s design, and the theme of an alien life form that essentially rapes people against their will so it can continue the species’ lifespan. At the end of the day, Alien relies on the ambiguity of the title monster to fuel a thrilling haunted house horror film on a spaceship.

Ridley Scott, the director of the original Alien, decided however to further explore the xenomorph’s creation as well as who brought them to LV-426 through his films Prometheus and Alien Covenant, along with any further sequels he does make after this. The problem with such a venture is that you run the huge risk of undermining what was so important about the first Alien film in the first place. Without going into spoilers, so far I think Ridley has done a pretty good job of doing just that. As British film critic Mark Kermode put it “the reason Alien was scary was that it didn’t have backstory, there is an alien, it is a parasite that wonders what’s the next item on the menu. You start undoing that and everything falls apart.” I think he’s spot on. Explaining why the Alien does what it does is like asking “why does the shark in Jaws enjoy afternoon feedings?”

Horror is a genre that relies on several key components, one of which is mystery, the general fear of the unknown. Yet another franchise where ambiguity is key for me has been the Halloween franchise, which should have ended after the first one if I am being honest. What made the main antagonist of Michael Myers unique was the lack of knowledge about him. The original Halloween by John Carpenter relies on the audience not knowing much about the character other than his inception and his attire. He’s tall with a white spray painted William Shatner mask, who carries a knife, and is a mysterious stalker. As Dr. Sam Loomis puts it in the film, “I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply….evil.” That’s really all that needs to be known about him. Now, the sequels on the other hand, they went and took that away completely. He’s still a killer but he now was unkillable and his past was being revealed and eventually sympathy started to be generated towards him. First off, he’s a murderer, no amount of sympathy can excuse his brutal killing sprees. Second, understanding the shape that chases you in the dark makes you less afraid of it. Finally, a sense of realism goes a long way in scaring people. Halloween has Michael getting injured several times but it does seem plausible that he could get back up and walk away, maybe not the gunshots and fall off a roof but I can let it slide. What I can’t buy is that Michael was part of the Thorn cult who turned children evil and gave him powers of invincibility. Sounds silly doesn’t it?

The Halloween remake from 2007 devotes 45 minutes to Myers’ childhood and how he was ridiculed and beaten by an abusive stepfather. None of this takes place or is mentioned in the original. In fact, the opening three minutes of the first film are from the point of view of a killer as he makes his way up the stairs and murders a girl. After, it is revealed that the killer was a 6-year old boy who murdered his sister and was subsequently sent to a mental asylum. Carpenter’s version works better because of what we don’t see, the reason for Michael being evil is never made clear. The film makes it seem as if anyone could be like this and that is a scary thing to imagine. Michael Myers’ unorthodox methods of stalking his prey, the setting in suburbia,  and the less we know is what makes him an iconic horror villain. Fingers crossed for Danny McBride’s reboot of the series, he seems to understand the character.

For both the Alien and Halloween franchises, it is best to watch the first few and then fear the rest.

Now, this next film I want to highlight is a bit of a cheat. Many people would not classify it as a horror film, but I think that having this story, which is based on true events, makes it terrifying. I’m talking about David Fincher’s Zodiac. Now, the zodiac killer was a serial killer who from the early ‘60s through the late ‘70s terrorized California and specifically the San Francisco bay area. His means of communication were through letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, the killer sent a code which then had to be unscrambled. The film Zodiac details the twenty plus year investigation surrounding his murders. I love this film and I could go on all day talking about it, however, there is one subtle thing the film does which I have always loved. You see, the police never found the real zodiac killer. Throughout the film, we are given strong evidence as to who the real zodiac is, a man by the name of Arthur Lee Allen, but much like real life, no one was caught. Director David Fincher worked around that and found an interesting way of depicting people’s encounters with the zodiac killer throughout the film.

Fincher used victim testimonies to try and depict as accurately as possible what the killer looked like during a particular incident, and if you are aware of his filmography, you know he’s a perfectionist. Despite most evidence pointing towards Allen, the witness testimonies were different every time. Where this gets interesting is that if you watch the film, you will notice that there are changes in the zodiac’s appearance every time he is on screen. This lines up with those testimonies and presents the ambiguousness of who the zodiac killer really was. Zodiac does not give a definitive answer to who the killer was, it just presents the facts; but in a way that is engaging. It’s a subtle detail cloaked in silhouette.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is a landmark in ‘80s horror. For those unfamiliar, The Thing revolves around an American research facility in the Antarctic who discover some thing (pun intended) that can replicate the DNA of those around it and makes a perfect imitation. It will continue to do so until there is nothing left for the creature to consume. As the creature imitates more people, the team become less trusting of each other as anyone of them could be “The Thing”. The men know they have to stop it at any costs so that the creature will not make it to a highly populated area, and it will do so by thawing itself in the ice and waiting for a rescue team to pursue the camp member’s whereabouts.

Director John Carpenter throughout the movie deliberately hides when characters were assimilated as to ramp up the suspense. Such as the blood testing sequence, which is an excellent scene and my favorite in the movie. For me however, the most important and pivotal scene comes at the very end when our main character played by Kurt Russell has blown up the creature and killed it for good…or at least we think he did. He being the only survivor, then lies down as the arctic cold air swirls around him, the camp is on fire; the fire being his only means of survival until he freezes. In the distance, he sees a figure approaching, it’s Childs. Last we knew, Childs was meant to stand guard but he says that he saw a person running and went to look for him. Both men are sitting down, neither are sure who is what they say they are and that’s how it ends. The ending makes me feel uneasy every time. You know it’s just a matter of waiting until one or the other attacks.

On first viewing, I knew there was no way that Kurt Russell could be the “thing”, he was the leader of the group, the hero of the piece. My pre-conceived expectations didn’t prepare me for that kind of out the box thinking. The hero becoming the villain goes against our expectations. I was made to think of the obvious answer, of the thing having assimilated Childs, but Russell may be the villain now and I couldn’t have suspected it. I could be wrong though and in truth, I’ve flip flopped on who is the creature so many times. There is no definitive answer, nor should there be. Having an answer robs the film of much of the charm. To figure out which one is the thing requires you to watch the movie dozens of times in order to create a chronological order for when characters were attacked. Easier said than done.

All of these movies wonderfully made frights out of ambiguity and their individual legacies are all the better because of it.

 

 

 

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