Is Platinum Dunes Making Us All into Bad People?

By Jonathan Greenaway,

In 1759 the great English writer and philosopher Edmund Burke wrote his ‘philosophical enquiry into the origins of our ideas of the sublime and the beautiful.’

The work was a great success and was one of the first serious attempts by a philosopher to understand and formally conceptualize aesthetic standards like terror – something that had recently started getting public attention thanks to the new kind of novel, the Gothic. Burke was one of the first to try to answer serious questions that a whole new kind of literature was throwing up, questions like ‘why read something that is terrifying?’

Why inflict horror upon yourself for any kind of pleasure?

These are questions that fans and writers and film makers are still wrestling with today – horror was once the place where serious ideas were talked about. I start here because the ideas of historical thinkers like Burke and Aiken have led the horror genre to the works of the production house, ‘Platinum Dunes,’ and the horribly named sub-genre, ‘torture porn.’

Before the accusations start flying in the comments, let me get something out of the way as quickly as possible. This is not about any kind of objection to violence – violence and the infliction of pain has always been a crucial part of horror’s DNA, one only needs to read The Monk from 1796, where the main character is tortured and then killed by Satan to see that. No, violence isn’t the problem; rather the problem is violence and the perspective violence takes in these films.

Allow me to explain; as a fan of horror movies one of the most common complaints I hear from new comers to the genre is something along the lines of, ‘why are all these people so unlikable?’ At first I would usually shake my head at the naivety of them, questioning the morality of horror movie villains, but they would always point out they were referring to the protagonists – ‘y’know,’ said my friend, ‘the ones who you are supposed to want to survive this.’

This isn’t an accident. Something has happened here - the protagonists used to be the hero, the one we wanted to be OK. Nobody watching the Exorcist was hoping that Reagan would be possessed for ever. Nobody watching Halloween back in 1978 was hoping that Laurie was going to die. Why? Because these characters weren't objectionable human beings with less depth than a petri dish. Unlike now, where it seems that we cannot wait to see these people murdered though if you disagree I ask you to watch Dune’s prequel to Texas Chainsaw without thinking it, for you’ll be a better person than I.

The crux of it is this – characters now have to be foul mouthed, sex obsessed drinkers that the audience can’t stand so that when they are brutally butchered we don’t feel bad about enjoying it. The problem there is what we’ve seen happen in horror films, where once Nancy was the star of Nightmare, the re-make put Freddy front and centre. In short, villains and monsters have become the lead characters, making us – you and me – complicit in the violence they commit. Why that’s worrying is that by making us passive observers, watchers of violence the viewer, (in some ways) becomes the person who commits it. In short, these films have the logic of a sociopath for by the very act of watching, we become just as bad as the people we are supposed to be scared by.

This isn't a plea for some kind of moralistic return to an idyllic former style, but rather for characters to be interesting people again, and the focus of a horror story. Let me be clear, I don’t want characters to be relatable, or even nice necessarily (Lolita has a great protagonist but I wouldn't let him baby sit) but INTERESTING PEOPLE. It shouldn't be too much to ask, because horror should be showing us the monsters that walk amongst us; not concentrating on making more of them.

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