The Anti-Hero & Re-Inventing Horror
Horror is changing.
It’s a natural progression. Generic conventions are stretched and adapted with each entry. Each new writer, director, actor, producer brings something distinctive to the table that challenges or appropriates different techniques and tropes, and so, the genre evolves over time. Sometimes a work, piece, book or film comes out that is such a startling example of a genre it becomes exceedingly difficult to produce another entry for some time. A good example of this is how the Western genre died down after the era of Sergio Leone, and with the exception of Unforgiven, did not resurface until recently with The Magnificent Seven remake and Westworld.
Horror is changing. We are a long way from the Horror movies of the 80s which combined visceral gore (created by wonderful practical effects) and pulse-pounding tension. Now, the craze is for found-footage, documentaries, troubling Creepy Pasta material you could find by the roadside, while browsing the internet, anywhere.
Verisimilitude, seeming reality, has always been a key part of Horror ever since the novel The Castle of Ortranto, widely considered the first ever Gothic Horror novel, was released anonymously. The author Horace Walpole claimed he found the original manuscript in a tomb in Italy and translated it from the Italian. For a long time people believed it was real until Walpole was ousted.
Some traditions come to the forefront; some die back down into the background.
But what I want to talk about is what might just be a new permutation of Horror, one that is exciting in its subtlety and its scope, and one I would like to see more of.
In 2014, Nightcrawler was released to huge critical acclaim – though not game-changing sales figures. It was described as a ‘neon-drenched Thriller’ and marketed as such. To me, though there are certainly Thriller elements, Nightcrawler is really more accurately described as a Horror, a new type of Horror. I’ll explain why, but first, for those who don’t know, here’s a brief snapshot of Nightcrawler’s premise:
Lou Blume is a down-on-his luck petty thief looking to make a quick buck. Inspired after freelance photojournalists filming a car-crash, he sells a stolen bike to buy a camcorder and police radio scanner. He finds another incident, sells it to a news station, and so begins a descent into a dark world.
So can Nightcrawler really be called a Thriller?
Firstly, Thrillers always have an element of mystery about them. There is an underlying plot, conspiracy or truth, such as the real parentage of one character or the identity of a killer, which must be discovered by, if not an actual detective, someone standing in for that role.
In Nightcrawler, there is not a hidden plot: a machination of the government, a conspiracy, a murderer Lou Blume needs to uncover. The story is focused on isolated incidents which Blume films: car crashes, home invasions, accidents. What compels the viewer’s attention is Lou Blume’s sociopathic anti-hero, compellingly played by Jake Gyllenhaal; we are fascinated by the depths to which he will sink and also the Machiavellian genius of his scheming to orchestrate his rise to power through the ranks of the news station. The story is one of spiritual, moral, psychological descent – not an investigation.
Horror, on the other hand, is often a story of descent or one of survival. Can the campers survive the weekend? Can Ripley survive the presence of the xenomorph? Will Dr Faustus succumb to the temptation of the devil?
Secondly, Thrillers, generally, are about the good guys. Yes, there is a serial killer who is fascinating in some way. Yes, the story may even follow the killer for a time. But eventually the good people triumph and it is the special qualities of the good people (their investigative abilities, their insight into people, their knowledge of the underworld) that allows them to pull through. No matter how dark the Thriller, there is normally a happy ending. At least, the killer gets caught.
Horror is about the bad guys. Freddy. Jason. The Thing. Alien. The list goes on.
Yes, there are often plucky heroes or heroines, as is so brilliantly satirized in films like Scream, but ultimately it is the villain who proves the centre-piece, and the weirder, darker and more psychotic they are, the better. Lou Blume is one such villain, manipulating his colleague with the promise of payment, interfering with crime scenes in order to get better ‘footage’ and in the end withholding information from the police and staging a shoot out in order to create his masterpiece. He even films his colleague dying.
But it isn’t just the events which suggest his villainy: his face is gaunt and drawn, his eyes are too-large in his face, like a coyote’s hunting eyes. Gyllenhaal said that after receiving the script he thought of the Nightcrawler as a coyote, ‘always hungry’. He prowls the night, looking for police chatter, and when he finds what he wants, he has no hesitation investigating corpses, getting his hands dirty, and even at one stage sabotaging a fellow freelance journalist’s vehicle to make them have an accident and get the edge on their business. As with the classic horror villains of the 80s, a certain supernaturalism surrounds him, but there is also an earthly, physical explanation for everything. When the killer Blume has been tracking emerges from the car-wreckage at the end of the film and points a gun at Blume, we at first wonder why he doesn’t fire. We then realize, Lou Blume has become part of the scenery, so used to watching, to observing, an ultimate voyeur peering in at the darkness of the world, that the killer almost cannot see him. There is nothing to see. Lou Blume is just a pair of eyes glinting in the dark. The cinematography and lighting expertly reflects this. The final image, as the camera pans up from Blume’s vehicles to the full moon, implies a subtle link with the werewolf, the night-prowling shape-shifters of primordial consciousness. Blume is like a lycanthrope in everything but a literal transformation.
The award-winning script is razor-sharp throughout, with Blume’s dialogue steadily becoming more disconcerting and intense, the fragments of online articles he reads to educate himself because ‘I didn’t have what you might call a “formal education”’ becoming more twisted as he becomes more ambitious. ‘I believe you can find anything if you look hard enough.’ He says this like it’s a positive life-affirming statement, but really, this is about a mind playing tricks on you. If you want to believe your partner is cheating, you will find evidence even where there is none, just as in the classic jealous play Othello. Blume has warped statements to his own ends: I can find anything you want. But don’t ask any questions about how he’ll get it.
The script reaches its climactic moment when Blume turns the tables on his colleague: ‘Have you ever considered: it’s not that I don’t understand people, it’s that I don’t like them.’ It is chilling, fully realized and subtly causes the viewer to re-evaluate what they have seen. Is Lou Blume emotionally deficient, almost autistic, or is he actually hyper-functioning, completely aware of human emotions to the point of being sickened by them and succumbing to profound misanthropy?
Nigthcrawler is not a classic 80s style Horror such as Stranger Things, it would be ludicrous for me to assert that, but I believe it is a Horror movie of a subtle and nuanced sort, offering devastating commentary on the nature of our pornographic, visually glutted world, and simultaneously delivering an entertaining dive into darkness and madness. It is, above all, the creeping sense of dread, and tension that suffocatingly mounts throughout the film that defines its genre. If it has a parallel in the Horror discography, it is reminiscent of masterpieces such as Psycho and Kubrick’s The Shining.
So, when you sit down at Halloween to watch a Horror flick, watch the classics, sure, watch the latest Paranormal Activity, but also, dim the lights, turn the sound up, and look closely at Nightcrawler. Because, as the strapline of the film says:
‘The closer you look, the darker it gets.’
Review by Joseph Sale