"I just don’t understand you," my partner Joe said to me. "It's so random, why you can watch one thing and not another. You can watch corpses and blood and dead bodies but not this?" We'd just turned Blindness off after our second attempt at watching it. That was when I first conceived of this list: movies that I'm too terrified to watch, that I dare not watch, that I will not subject myself to. I mean, what is the whole point of wanting to be terrorized by a movie? I just don't get it.
Horror films are most obviously associated with terror, and what distinguishes the two terms seems almost semantic. There is extreme anxiety in both, sure, but horror as a genre encompasses films that are not necessarily terrifying (like those great old Boris Karloff/Bela Legosi films). I’m not one who simply dislikes a genre – I like a good horror film, in fact, the feeling of prickles cold on my neck, hands sweaty. I admire how a really good thrill is constructed through mood and editing, as in Ringu or A Tale of Two Sisters. And we recently watched a Mario Bava masterpiece, Black Sunday, which featured truly horrible scenes such as a woman getting a spiked iron mask nailed onto her face. Aghhhhhhh!
But most of these films are so over the top that I know they are not real. Camp and comedy are excellent distancing devices, classic techniques that allow the audience to step back from the abyss with relief, knowing that although what they are watching is horrible and terrifying, it's still just a movie. A good horror makes me laugh as well as squirm, even if I’m just laughing to let off steam.
So what am I unwilling to watch? What is unbearable?
1. Blindness, directed by Fernando Meirelles, is the movie version of a book by José Saramago, about a plague of blindness and the rapid decay of societal order that follows. It's a book that I read and loved, though its subject matter is dark and depressing indeed. But reading is not the same as seeing, and the pleasure of prose on the page provides an aesthetic steam valve. To actually see some of those scenes, especially the one involving mass rape (even though shot aesthetically in silhouette!), was too much to bear.
2. United 93's tagline: "September 11, 2001. Four planes were hijacked. Three of them reached their target. This is the story of the fourth." I've heard it is actually a very good film by Paul Greengrass, striking the right tone, no big stars to distract, very measured and respectful. Joe saw it and agrees. I don't want to see it anyways. I've heard about the people on that plane, calling home to say goodbye, and for a moment, I'm with them, calling Joe to say goodbye, and it breaks me down everytime. I can't bear to be with them for more than that moment, never mind almost two hours.
3. Polytechnique by Denis Villeneuve is on the list for similar reasons. By all accounts, it is very well-done, very respectful, and has been compared to another poetic and meditative approach to the subject of a school shooting, Gus Van Sant's Elephant, which I've seen and liked. Why this and not that, indeed? I like Villeneuve's work, and I'm not against seeing Polytechnique, necessarily, but it seems too close to the bone still, a wound I'd rather let heal (the subject, for those unaware, is about the Montreal Massacre at the Ecole Polytechnique, where 14 women engineering students were singled out for being "feminists" and shot).
4. Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (by John McNaughton), is supposed to be a very, in fact, too realistic and graphic depiction of a serial killer (sound-wise, if not always image-wise, which might be worse). Like I need to live that out. No thanks!
5. The Amityville Horror, the original by Stuart Rosenberg, came out in 1979, and I've always had a fear of it, ever since I was a kid. Movies about hauntings and demons always scared me way more than zombies or ax murderers. Amityville was "a true story." Even though I could probably watch it now that I'm a grown-up, I'd just rather not. Same deal with The Exorcist and The Omen – though I think I've actually seen The Exorcist but blocked most of it out.
6. Saw (by James Wan) and 7. 8MM (by Joel Schumacher) and others of their ilk seem entirely sadistic and mean-spirited to me, particularly 8MM's use of a snuff film as a plot device.. Maybe if I thought they'd be any good, it might be another story…but sorry! I won't be bothered to find out.
8. Executions is a real documentary; 9. Faces of Death part stock footage, part faked. I'm not sure which is worse, but both seem too exploitative for words. I've heard arguments about Executions being a great argument against the death penalty, but I don't know that you need to partake in it to be against it.
And finally, 10. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Around two hours of straight torture. My mother, a devout church lady, saw it with her church, can you imagine? She said she couldn't sleep for weeks afterwards. But I'm not going to have that problem, because I'm not going to see it.
Watching torture and suffering feels to me akin to condoning it. Is that too simplistic? Some might argue that it's the elements of catharsis, or consciousness-raising, or "looking into the face of the abyss" – that kind of thing, which might justify or compel the viewing of these films. Okay, maybe. I’m not a wimp (mostly). One of the most intense movies I've seen is Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, by Stanley Nelson. It was tough to watch but it's an excellent documentary and I truly felt I'd learned something after seeing it. No, I'm just mindful of Nietschze’s oft-used aphorism (popular especially in horror movies), which points out that the abyss looks back… and when you battle monsters, you must take care not to become one yourself. So profound!
Can you add to this list? What movies would you refuse to see? Do you think I really should see any of these movies? Post a comment!