Sunday, November 5, 2017

It's Not Your Father's Fairytales

Filmmakers know they can guarantee suspense by showing a child in peril.  Children are vulnerable members of our society and we, as adults, feel an urgent need to protect them.  A filmmaker who uses our love and devotion of children to create easy scares is lazy, exploitative and immoral.

For nearly thirty years, Hollywood has regularly been criticized for putting fictional children in peril on the big screen.  But at least the children once stood a fair chance of escaping harm.  No more.  Gruesome violence has been freely inflicted on children in a number of recent films, including It, mother! and Annabelle: Creation.  This sort of violence has become inevitable in the exceedingly dark world crafted in methodical fashion by Hollywood artists.

Let us take a look at the plot of Annabelle: Creation.  An elderly couple, Samuel and Esther Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto), open their home as a shelter to a group of orphan girls.  One of the girls, Janice (Talitha Bateman), comes across a locked bedroom.  Mr. Mullins tells Janice that she must never enter this room.  But a demon who is being held captive in the room is able to deviously lure Janice to the dark and foreboding space.  The creature has the door spring open to make it easy for the girl to enter.  Certainly, we can recognize that a small girl is vulnerable to harm being trapped in a room with a demon.  Certainly, we can feel frightened for her.  But that is not enough for the filmmakers, who have conceived the young girl as a polio victim and have her stumbling around the creaky room on crutches.

Janice unwittingly frees the demon from a closet before fleeing the room.  Her misjudgment results in the girl being relentlessly tormented by the demon in a series of set-pieces.  Finally, midway into the film, the demon throws the girl off a second floor landing.

The film leaves out the section of the story in which emergency services arrive on the scene.  The film leaves out the section of the story in which hospital personnel treat the child for her injuries.  Instead, the story skips ahead to Janice arriving back home in a wheelchair.   No bruises are evident, although a fall of this nature would have no doubt left bruises.  It seems as if only hours have passed, although no one could recover from such a violent fall without spending days in the hospital.  It is revealed in the scene that the injuries Janice sustained in the fall have left the girl permanently crippled.  Janice despairs that no one will be willing to adopt her now.

The demon's savage attack on Janice is a major dramatic event in the story.  It should in some way change the course of the story or change the protagonist.  But it does neither.  The demon is lurking around the home to steal souls before the scene and the demon is lurking around the home to steal souls after the scene.  The girl is terrified before the scene and the girl is terrified after the scene.  Nothing has changed.  The screenwriter could have had Janice become enraged by her injury and feel compelled to overcome her disability to outwit and defeat the demon.  But, no, the next scene has the demon finishing off what he started - he batters the girl around some more and ravenously devours her soul.  The girl has gone from sad (orphan with polio) to sadder (orphan with polio who can't walk) to saddest (orphan who has had her soul devoured by a demon).  It is more sadism than character development.  We are fleetingly introduced to the girl in a wheelchair for no reason other than to make us feel bad to see the girl in a wheelchair.  Fear and pity intermingle to create tragedy.

Where does the story go from here?  Janice was the film's protagonist.  Now, after being tormented, shoved to a great fall, beaten and possessed by the demon, she no longer has a role to play in the plot.  It is unclear if we are supposed to now identify with one of the other characters.  The film has lost its protagonist and remaining characters scatter to various places to escape the demon.

I could never trust a person who makes a film like this.  A filmmaker who imagines inflicting gratuitous, sadistic, unrelenting violence on small children is no less fiendish than a demon.  "Syndrome," a graphic novel by Blake Leibel, depicts in explicit detail the gruesome acts of a serial killer.  It can't have been a complete surprise when Leibel was arrested for torturing, mutilating and murdering his girlfriend, Iana Kasian.  Kasian's body was found to have been drained of blood, which is similar to what happens to the murder victims in the graphic novel.  It takes a sick bastard to come up with this sort of stuff.  Violent and perverted ideas can manifest into violent and perverted actions.

A panel from Blake Leibel's "Syndrome."
Only a few critics called out the sadism of Annabelle: Creation.

Craig of Bloody Good Horror wrote: "Here, director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out), and Annabelle scribe, Gary Dauberman. . . tak[e] glee in a level of tasteless sadism. . ."

Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Instead of artfully engineered frights, Sandberg goes for cackling sadism.  In addition to the death of the couple's young daughter at the beginning, the evil forces in the film focus their supernatural crosshairs on the one girl with a Polio leg brace (Talitha Bateman)."

Logan Bushey of Log's Line wrote:
Janice (Talitha Bateman), a young Polio victim who limps along the hallways with a cane and her leg brace, is too visibly a soon-to-be victim.  She is the prey.  Nighttime entices her towards that off-boundaries door, now unlocked by the evil lurking inside, and she stumbles inwards, looking around so curiously that we know she’ll be the target.  The terrorizing of this girl builds sadistically, maturing from jump-scares to straight-up horror.
Hollywood is not a child-friendly community.  The industry treats children like miniature adults.  Bateman was made up and dressed much like her adult co-star Stephanie Sigman while on tour to promote Annabelle: Creation.


Again, these complaints are nothing new.  The New York Times' Caryn James wrote in a 1993 article "Terrorize A Child, Pull a Crowd":
That danger-free zone doesn't exist for. . . fictional children, who have lately been terrorized by dinosaurs, stalked by the Mafia and an evil Terminator and left in the hands of deranged baby sitters.  Children in peril are the new toys for makers of thrillers.
John Horn and Chris Lee wrote about filmmakers "putting children into jeopardy [to] give their dramas more of an emotional wallop" in a 2006 Los Angeles Times article, "The new fascination: Kids in peril."  The journalists wrote:
It's kiddie season at the movies, and children are everywhere you look: brandishing machine guns in Blood Diamond, fighting for their lives in the desert in Babel, suffering from mortal wounds in Pan's Labyrinth, being blown to bits in Deja Vu, sleeping in public toilets in The Pursuit of Happyness and getting massacred in The Nativity Story.

Hollywood historically has steered away from depicting children in peril, typically limiting any life-or-death struggles to cartoonishly violent genre films such as The Shining, Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  But as this new batch of movies underscores, the old rules of childhood engagement are rapidly evolving.  Instead of consigning children to the periphery of horrific realities, these films are dragging kids - preteens to toddlers - right into the middle of the mayhem.
The writers pointed out that the opening shot of Pan's Labyrinth features an 11-year-old girl with a gunshot wound.  The film's director, Guillermo del Toro, recognized a unique benefit to having a child as a protagonist in a horror film.  He said plainly, "I think children react very naturally to horror. . ."  He continued, "Horror is an extension of the fairytale and in fairytales ogres and wolves ate children and I think that it goes to the roots of storytelling to have children as vulnerable."  But, still, del Toto cautioned the public that his films were "not your father's fairy tales."

Rotten Tomatoes summarizes the critical consensus of Pan's Labyrinth as follows: "Pan's Labyrinth is Alice in Wonderland for grown-ups, with the horrors of both reality and fantasy blended together into an extraordinary, spellbinding fable." Amy Nicholson was a rare critic who expressed revulsion of the film.  The story, as Nicholson saw it, involves a girl named Ofelia who is "lure[d]. . . away to do the icky bidding of the faun of the underworld."  Nicholson further elaborated:
. . . [Ofelia] pluckily sets about crawling into roach-infested trees and running from child-eating ghouls.  Though Ofelia's smock is swiped from Alice, her faun from Narnia, her magic book from Harry Potter, and her family tree from the Brothers Grimm, Del Toro sets her fairytale apart with its unrelenting gore and misery. . . What lingers isn’t fantasy, but Del Toro’s gorgeous despair that leaves you rushing home to stick your head not in the magic closet, but in the oven.
Before setting out to make his first American film, Mimic (1997), del Toro was advised by a marketing executive to be careful not to have the film's monster slaughter children or dogs, which was something that would incite disapproval from American audiences.  The director immediately added a scene in which two children and a dog are slaughtered by the monster.

James Costa in Mimic (1997)
Mimic is the least successful of del Toro's films and, to this day, the director still finds himself having to defend aspects of the film, including the monster's fatal attack on the children.  Del Toro explained in a 2003 interview that he took the scene "very seriously."  He said, "I feel that there is so much more danger in showing kids in a movie about giant dinosaurs and claiming that the dinosaurs won't eat them.  In reality, they would."

Del Toro's belief, as he has stated multiple times, is that that childhood is brutal and frightening and children should be taught to act with caution if they ever encounter danger.  As a child, del Toro imagined that monsters were all around him.  Mark Mann of the Globe and Mail wrote:
When Guillermo del Toro was a child in Mexico, he made a pact with the monsters that crowded into his room at night: If they let him go to the washroom, he'd be their friend for life.  The deal worked.  The monsters disappeared, and the now-acclaimed filmmaker has devoted his career to bringing those beasts back to life for everyone else.
It would be different if del Toro showed a child running into a street after a ball and getting hit by a car.  A child could see that and know to be careful going into the street.  But Mimic is hardly helpful to children in suggesting the way they should behave around a bug monster, which is so far off in its invention that it relates to nothing a child might encounter in the real world.  A fairytale witch can possess the guile and deceptively benign countenance of a real-life child molester, which is something that children have reason to beware.  But a creepy child molester has no relationship to an outrageously fantastic bug monster.

A creepy villain (Daniel Emilfork) kidnaps children to steal their dreams in The City of Lost Children (1995).
Is del Toro right that ogres and wolves ate children in old fairytales?  Jesse Greenspan addressed this subject in an article entitled "The Dark Side of the Grimm Fairy Tales."  He wrote:
. . . [S]hockingly, much of the violence in "Grimm’s Fairy Tales" is directed at children.  Snow White is just 7 years old when the huntsman takes her into the forest with orders to bring back her liver and lungs.  In "The Juniper Tree" a woman decapitates her stepson as he bends down to get an apple.  She then chops up his body, cooks him in a stew and serves it to her husband, who enjoys the meal so much he asks for seconds.  Snow White eventually wins the day, as does the boy in "The Juniper Tree," who is brought back to life.  But not every child in the Grimms’ book is so lucky.  The title character in "Frau Trude" turns a disobedient girl into a block of wood and tosses her into a fire.  And in "The Stubborn Child" a youngster dies after God lets him become sick.
Let us examine the stories referenced by Greenspan.
Here is the passage of "The Juniper Tree" in which the little boy is murdered:
Then it seemed to her as if she had to persuade him.  "Come with me," she said, opening the lid of the chest.  "Take out an apple for yourself."  And while the little boy was leaning over, the Evil One prompted him, and crash! she slammed down the lid, and his head flew off, falling among the red apples.
But the wicked stepmother gets her comeuppance.  Here is the way that the story ends:
And as she went out the door, crash! the bird threw the millstone on her head, and it crushed her to death.

The father and Marlene heard it and went out.  Smoke, flames, and fire were rising from the place, and when that was over, the little brother was standing there, and he took his father and Marlene by the hand, and all three were very happy, and they went into the house, sat down at the table, and ate.
This is "The Stubborn Child" in its entirety:
Once upon a time there was a child who was willful and did not do what his mother wanted.  For this reason God was displeased with him and caused him to become ill, and no doctor could help him, and in a short time he lay on his deathbed. He was lowered into a grave and covered with earth, but his little arm suddenly came forth and reached up, and it didn't help when they put it back in and put fresh earth over it, for the little arm always came out again.  So the mother herself had to go to the grave and beat the little arm with a switch, and as soon as she had done that, it withdrew, and the child finally came to rest beneath the earth.
Next we have "Frau Trude."  A willful little girl resists her parents' warnings to stay away from a woman believed to be a witch.  She tells her parents, "I have heard so much about Frau Trude.  Someday I want to go to her place.  People say such amazing things are seen there, and such strange things happen there, that I have become very curious."  Her parents are appalled.  One of them responds, "Frau Trude is a wicked woman who commits godless acts.  If you go there, you will no longer be our child."  But the girl goes to the home anyway.  The story ends:
"Oh, Frau Trude, it frightened me when I looked through your window and could not see you, but instead saw the devil with a head of fire."

"Aha!" she said. "So you saw the witch properly outfitted.  I have been waiting for you and wanting you for a long time.  Light the way for me now!"

With that she turned to girl into a block of wood and threw it into the fire.  When it was thoroughly aglow she sat down next to it, and warmed herself by it, saying: "It gives such a bright light!"
The moral of the story is that a child who disobeys their parents will be punished.

Let us now get back to del Toro staging the gory murder of two children for Mimic.  What is the moral lesson the director provides in the scene?  In the film, a pair of curious boys poke around in an unauthorized area of a subway station in search of exotic bugs they can sell to entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler (Mia Sorvino).  They come across an egg sac that belongs to a genetically-engineered, six-foot-tall cockroach.  It is while the boys are cutting open the egg sac that the giant cockroach attacks and kills the dauntless bug hunters.  The boys were not bad.  Unlike the bad children in fairytales, they did not openly and willfully lie to an adult or disobey an adult.  Their one misdeed was going someplace that was off limits to them.  The girl in Annabelle: Creation went off limits as well, although she was more culpable in that she ignored a specific demand by an adult to stay out of the bad place.  In either case, curiosity led the children astray.  It still doesn't make the children bad.  Putting a child to death for natural curiosity is like putting a child to death for enjoying birthday cake.

Kristin of the "Tales of Faerie" blog analyzed the treatment of curious children in fairytales.  She wrote:
[I]f fairy tales truly wanted to condemn the curious, the characters who went where they weren't supposed to and opened locked doors would ultimately end up dying and/or unhappy - many fairy tales really do end tragically!  The Grimms weren't afraid to punish disobedient children in their stories, or to make their villains suffer horribly.  Yet the endings reveal that those who pursue knowledge really are the heroes and heroines, not the villains.  Sometimes that forbidden discovery really enables the happy ending to happen.  We, the readers, always want to know what lies on the other side of the door just as much as the characters - by listening we are complicit in the discovering alongside the protagonists!  It would be too ironic if stories themselves (which impart ideas and knowledge) were to truly condemn discovery of other ideas and knowledge!

Kristin cites a number of stories, including "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Bluebeard" and "Sleeping Beauty."  It is curiosity that hastens Jack up the beanstalk.  It is only by entering a forbidden room that Bluebeard's new wife learns that her husband has the bodies of his murdered ex-wives hanging from a wall.  Kristin wrote of "Sleeping Beauty:
[T]he Princess is exploring the castle one day and finds a spindle, and touches it, having never seen one before.  She falls into deathlike sleep, as was predicted by the fairy (and really caused by her father's attempts to prevent the spell from happening).  But after her sleep is over, she ends up with a royal husband and is none the worse for her long nap.
The more popular fairytales were generally kinder to children.  Hansel and Gretel are certainly susceptible to harm as captives of a child-eating witch, but the siblings never actually come to harm during the course of their tale.  Gretel pushes the witch into an oven, which allows her and her brother to escape.  It is controversial for a storyteller to invent a situation in which a child is put in harm's way, but it is far worse for a storyteller to inanely and graphically depict the ultimate harm of a child.

Del Toro was right that Spielberg spared the lives of the children running around a dinosaur theme park in Jurassic Park (1993). 

But Spielberg was not always so kindly to the children in his films.  A boy was murdered by a monstrous shark in one of the director's most popular films, Jaws (1975).  But the scene is not sadistic.  The fatal attack is not graphic or belabored.  We see the death from the perspective of Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider), who is a good distance away. The shark attack occurs so suddenly and quickly that Brody isn't sure at first what he saw.  Next, the boy's death is not a scriptwriter's contrivance.  Jaws was partly inspired by the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, in which an 11-year-old boy was killed by a shark.  Most important, the boy's death is not gratuitous.  It deeply impacts Brody, among others, and it alters the direction of the story.
A shark attacks a boy in Jaws (1975).
Terry Gilliam faced criticism when he put a young girl into horrific situations in Tideland (2005).

The director said, "We seem to be trapped in a lot of middle-aged people's idea of what a child is.  That usually means some delicate little creature who's a victim and who needs care constantly.  I think that's nonsense."  Children do not require constant, obsessive care, but they do require sufficient care from parents actual or literary to prevent a demon from torturing and murdering them.

The Conjuring series was partly inspired by PoltergeistPoltergeist managed in its day to provide audiences with a good many scares.  The film depicts malevolent spirits tormenting a loving all-American family, the Freelings.

The parents, though unwavering in their efforts to protect their children, are unable to prevent the powerful spirits from abducting the youngest Freeling, toddler Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke).

Undeterred, the family works tirelessly with a group of parapsychologists to assure the girl's eventual rescue. 

The children are shaken but intact at the end of the film.  Relief has come now that evil has been defeated and order has been restored.

The spirits never threw Carol Anne down stairs, or beat her, or crippled her, or murdered her.  Such depraved storytelling would not have been acceptable at the time.  We were a more civilized people back then.  It is ugly films like Annabelle: Creation that have made us an ugly society.  Modern filmmakers insist on denying audiences relief or resolution.  They want viewers to leave theatres anxious and angry.  It is a form of abuse that leaves a lasting impression on its victims.  Hollywood kicks man, who goes home and kicks dog.

A movie theatre is one of the rare places where we can indulge in strong emotions.  Aristole believed that a tragic story arouses fear and pity so that people can experience these emotions, come to terms with them, and purge them from their psyche.  It's like sitting in a hot sauna to sweat out toxins.  But the power of the emotion comes from context.  A random photo of a man crying is not nearly evocative as James Dean crying during the climax of East of Eden (1954).  We know what the tears mean to the character and this gives his crying great weight.
This issue has been addressed by many scholars.  Let's start with a quote from the website Literary Devices:
In "Romeo and Juliet", Romeo commits suicide by drinking the poison that he erroneously thinks Juliet had tasted too.  The audience usually finds themselves crying at this particular moment for several reasons.  Primarily because losing a loved one is a feeling that all of us share.  Watching or reading such a scene triggers the memories of someone we have lost (either by death or by mere separation) and because we are able to relate to it, we suddenly release the emotions that we have been repressing.
Joe Sachs of St. John's College wrote:
Fear can obviously be an insidious thing that undermines life and poisons it with anxiety.  It would be good to flush this feeling from our systems, bring it into the open, and clear the air.  This may explain the appeal of horror movies, that they redirect our fears toward something external, grotesque, and finally ridiculous, in order to puncture them. . . The horror movie also provides a safe way to indulge and satisfy the longing to feel afraid, and go home afterward satisfied; the desire is purged, temporarily, by being fed. . .  [In the] sense of purgation, the horror movie is a kind of medicine that does its work and leaves the soul healthier. . .
Evan Puschak of Nerdwriter wrote:
The point of tragedy according to [Aristole] was to arouse the emotions of pity and fear in a safe environment so that we could purge or cleanse them and avoid letting them fester and affect our behavior in negative ways.  It's a process that he called catharsis.  Even today there's argument about what exactly Aristotle meant by the term, whether it means actually discharging pent-up emotions, bringing those negative emotions into balance with others, or a kind of intellectual clarification and insight into human frailty and misery that helps us to cope with those universal feelings in our own lives.
Fear in a make-believe external form, thoroughly enhanced by make-up, costumes and computer graphics, must be defeated within the dramatic context for catharsis to occur.  Otherwise, we must shrink from shadows and have nightmares knowing a monster wrought vividly in our imagination remains forever a looming threat.  Catharsis never occurred those times that Psycho made a person fearful of taking a shower or Jaws made a person fearful of going to the beach.  A film that leaves us disturbed has not provided us with release, insight, balance, or coping skills.

The conflict resolution in a monster movie occurs with the slaying of the monster.  After being shot, the monstrous Gill-Man resigns himself to watery grave in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).
Puschak brought up the utter bleakness of the tech-phobic television series Black Mirror.  He wrote:
Black Mirror is not so much interested in morals or catharsis and I think that's actually why we like to watch it.  There's something honest about the lack of those things.  The coming world of omnipresent invasive technology will be a chaotic world, a world of power we might not be able to control.  Black Mirror is deeply uneasy about that future to say the least and it's not interested in helping you to purify that unease or purge it or clarify it.  You just have to learn to live with it.
It is odd to propose that artists should aid their patrons in accepting the chaos and unease of the world.  If we carry this notion to Annabelle: Creation, we must laud the film for helping us to live with the fact that monsters are lurking in the shadows and those monsters will eventually eat us.  But art is pointless in a hopeless world.  Art is uplifting or it isn't art at all.  It could easily be argued that Black Mirror is warning us that technology has made the world a worse place and it will become much more painful and gloomy if we don't do something about it.  The Black Mirror stories can be interpreted as cautionary tales that urge us to take control of amok technology and become better in our one-on-one relationships with other people.   

Having people accept (and, worse, enjoy) seeing a monster kill a child is not healthy and should not be the objective of a filmmaker.  Sachs wrote:
[T]he unrestrained shock-drama obviously has the effect of coarsening feeling.  Genuine human pity could not co-exist with the so-called graphic effects these films use to keep scaring us.
The people who made Annabelle: Creation were unconcerned with storytelling or morality.  Their only concern was to create ruthless and shocking imagery that could provoke strong feelings.  The malignant thrills that the filmmakers generated are sure to have an ill effect on the viewer.  Like the film's demon, the filmmakers lure us into a dark and foreboding space for the purpose of devouring our souls.
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) makes sure to protect young Newt (Carrie Henn) in Aliens (1986).

Selected Reference Sources

Jesse Greenspan, "The Dark Side of the Grimm Fairy Tales," The History Channel, September 17, 2013.

Mark Mann, "Monster king Guillermo del Toro: The new face of Canadian film," Globe and Mail, August 28, 2014.

Jason Wood, "Talking Movies: Contemporary World Filmmakers in Interview," London: Wallflower Press, 2006.

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