Jump to content

Recommended Posts

N.B. this post is a continuation of a comment thread begun in the Top 20 Horror Films Nominations thread. There, I nominated Insomnia, alleging that it's a horror movie, and Scott disagreed.
 

Let's keep this simple. Putting aside the radical difference in both tone and intention between Seven and the two films you mention, it's the unrelenting scenes of graphic horror in Seven that secure its position as a horror film. There are no scenes in A Simple Plan or Insomnia that come anywhere near the intensity and severity of horror found in the unrelenting murder victim scenes in Seven: the fat man forced to eat himself to death, the lawyer forced to flay himself to death in his office, the shackled, barely-alive decomposing man who chewed off his own tongue, the man forced to rape a prostitute to death with a giant blade strapped to his own body, the model with the freshly disfigured face who chose suicide over calling for help, the lovely heroine's head in a box. Geez, I feel horrified just typing that out. In terms of horror content, there's really just no comparison.

Congratulations, you've proven that Seven is horrifically disgusting, at a level that few movies, horror or not, would want to be.

Now, let's talk about Insomnia in specific (I've chosen this, out of the two that I nominated, since I saw it tonight, whereas I saw A Simple Plan years ago). First, I'll discuss some scenes that are horrifying, then I'll address the "tone and intention" question. Then... well, then maybe I'll get some sleep tonight. (Mild SPOILERS.)

While understated, the scene in the morgue is the first horrifying scene in Insomnia. Close-up shots of water in a bath-tub (associations with drowning), and scissors cutting toenails (associations with slicing and stabbing), but re-contextualized as the murderer dressing and caring for the dead body of his victim. This presentation style worked very well on a visceral level for me, it sent shivers up and down my spine to see her body lying dead and cold, clinically fingered by these cops -- some bored, some upset, but not actually upset by this objectively horrifying sight before their eyes -- while the killer, externally at least, cared for her more than any of them.

Then, the scene in the fog. This is a terrifying scene as soon as Pacino drops down into the water, and even though it is clear that someone will be shot inadvertently, who it will be is a matter of great suspense. Then, the moment that it occurs brings no relief, but only horror, as the absolute worst outcome possible occurs. Once again -- the one who should have cared the most, now the one who harms the most. I wonder how many of us would say that when we saw whom Pacino shot, and how that person died, we were not horrified.

Pacino's character proceeds to slip into semi-madness, and this includes several rapidly-edited scenes (such as where he imagines he is about to be hit head-on by a truck) which are typical "jump-n-scream" moments. There's nothing uniquely interesting about these moments, but their inclusion says something about the genre Insomnia considers itself to be, I think.

More important to me, though, is the descent into moral complicity which Pacino's character allows himself to take, goaded at every turn by Robin Williams' character. This segment of the movie is what sets it apart, I think, and makes it worth nominating over more formally adventurous murder movies by Hitchcock or others. The psychological depth in the antagonism between these two men impresses me.

Pacino is foiled by Hilary Swank's character, who retains her goodness throughout the story, at least until the very last scene -- and even there, we could say that Pacino gives it back to her before she can lose it. The fact that she is a shining star of goodness mitigates the horror but most emphatically does not remove it.

You've passed over the "radical difference of tone and intention" between the two movies. The tones are different, because Seven is a proto-Saw (ick). However, their intentions are remarkably similar -- to show a plausible psychological path by which a criminal can corrupt a cop into betraying his ideals. I leave it to the rest of you to judge which movie is more successful in its intention.

Is Seven more graphic than Insomnia? Heck yes! Does that disqualify Insomnia from being a psychological horror movie? Heck no!

That's just how eye roll.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Cool timing. After just finishing up my third viewing of Inception and actually having a chance to share it with my wife, I really had the urge tonight to go back and check out Insomnia very soon.

The only thing I can say right now though, years after seeing it in the theater, is that it ain't no horror film.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

Link to post
Share on other sites

N.B. this post is a continuation of a comment thread begun in the Top 20 Horror Films Nominations thread. There, I nominated Insomnia, alleging that it's a horror movie, and Scott disagreed.

Let's keep this simple. Putting aside the radical difference in both tone and intention between Seven and the two films you mention, it's the unrelenting scenes of graphic horror in Seven that secure its position as a horror film. There are no scenes in A Simple Plan or Insomnia that come anywhere near the intensity and severity of horror found in the unrelenting murder victim scenes in Seven: the fat man forced to eat himself to death, the lawyer forced to flay himself to death in his office, the shackled, barely-alive decomposing man who chewed off his own tongue, the man forced to rape a prostitute to death with a giant blade strapped to his own body, the model with the freshly disfigured face who chose suicide over calling for help, the lovely heroine's head in a box. Geez, I feel horrified just typing that out. In terms of horror content, there's really just no comparison.

Congratulations, you've proven that Seven is horrifically disgusting, at a level that few movies, horror or not, would want to be.

No, I've proven it's a horror film.

While understated, the scene in the morgue is the first horrifying scene in Insomnia. Close-up shots of water in a bath-tub (associations with drowning), and scissors cutting toenails (associations with slicing and stabbing), but re-contextualized as the murderer dressing and caring for the dead body of his victim. This presentation style worked very well on a visceral level for me, it sent shivers up and down my spine to see her body lying dead and cold, clinically fingered by these cops -- some bored, some upset, but not actually upset by this objectively horrifying sight before their eyes -- while the killer, externally at least, cared for her more than any of them.

That scene was shot beautifully and with seductive style, so as to fascinate the viewer with the details of a killer's methodology -- it's meant to draw you in, not scare or repel you. The scene is one of only a few mildly creepy scenes in what is absolutely a thriller, not a horror film. If a scene like this qualifies as horror, then every one of a bazillion CSI Episodes are actually horror shows and not the drama-thrillers everyone thinks they are.

Then, the scene in the fog. This is a terrifying scene as soon as Pacino drops down into the water, and even though it is clear that someone will be shot inadvertently, who it will be is a matter of great suspense. Then, the moment that it occurs brings no relief, but only horror, as the absolute worst outcome possible occurs. Once again -- the one who should have cared the most, now the one who harms the most. I wonder how many of us would say that when we saw whom Pacino shot, and how that person died, we were not horrified.

I wasn't horrified. I was surprised at the twist, which is what you hope for is a good thriller like Insomnia.

Pacino's character proceeds to slip into semi-madness, and this includes several rapidly-edited scenes (such as where he imagines he is about to be hit head-on by a truck) which are traditional "jump-n-scream" moments. There's nothing uniquely interesting about these moments, but their inclusion says something about the genre Insomnia considers itself to be, I think.

More important to me, though, is the descent into moral complicity which Pacino's character allows himself to take, goaded at every turn by Robin Williams' character. This segment of the movie is what sets it apart, I think, and makes it worth nominating over more formally adventurous murder movies by Hitchcock or others. The psychological depth in the antagonism between these two men impresses me.

Pacino is foiled by Hilary Swank's character, who retains her goodness throughout the story, at least until the very last scene -- and even there, we could say that Pacino gives it back to her before she can lose it. The fact that she is a shining star of goodness mitigates the horror but most emphatically does not remove it.

All pure drama-thriller material.

You've passed over the "radical difference of tone and intention" between the two movies. The tones are different, because Seven is a proto-Saw (ick). However, their intentions are remarkably similar -- to show a plausible psychological path by which a criminal can corrupt a cop into betraying his ideals. I leave it to the rest of you to judge which movie is more successful in its intention.

The tones are different in part because of the graphic nature of the violence, yes. But equally so because Insomnia is not designed to primarily scare or horrify the viewer. It is designed to be primarily compelling and thrilling. Seven seeks to primarily repulse and shock the viewer into a state of fear; Insomnia seeks to primarily thrill and interest the audience through suspense, anticipation, and emotional drama. Seven can be called a horror film, though I wouldn't object to it also being called a thriller; Insomnia is a thriller, though I wouldn't object to it being called a drama, but I would object strongly to it being a horror film, because it most certainly is not.

Is Seven more graphic than Insomnia? Heck yes! Does that disqualify Insomnia from being a psychological horror movie? Heck no!

I never said or implied that it did. What I said is that the graphic horror content of Seven qualifies Seven as a horror film. What disqualifies Insomnia from being a horror movie is that it is no way dominated by the elements of the horrific, the terrifying, the grotesque, and/or the macabre... Adding a few creepy elements, some shocks, and an unlikely protagonist to a very good mystery/psychological thriller do not make it a horror film.

Edited by Scott Derrickson

In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. -- Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Link to post
Share on other sites

Also, Insomnia did not have a dog whose head split into three and scary spikes coming out of its back that gives me nightmares twenty five years later. Ergo, not a horror film.

It did have Robin Williams in the 2000s, which is usually scary.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Insomnia seems to invoke the same question as Tea with the Black Dragon: What genre is this? Maybe it's on the margins or slightly outside the margins--but the work is itself playing with the definitions of its own genre. For me, it's neither gore on the screen nor subject matter that qualifies a film as a horror film in my mind. (Is Natural Born Killers a horror movie?) A horror novel or short story need not include a description of a mutilated corpse, indeed the better ones aren't that direct. I'd like to thin the same goes for film. I don't have a good definition, but it may involve whether, some time during the film, viewers pass a threshold of terror (as opposed to suspense), putting the filmmakers in control in a way that's quite unsettling. The Shining would have been a horror movie even without scenes with waves of blood or the guy with the axe in the head. Its horror is the deeper, truly terrifying kind.

(I think The Shining is probably at the top of my horror-films list--not that I'd really want to see it again any time soon. In my mind, that's what makes a great horror movie as opposed to just the shock of a gross-out moment.A true horror film shouldn't be something you want to see over and over again because it's that scary.)

I think a multifaceted definition is appropriate, and part of the definition may be that, since most films have happy endings or some kind of positive resolution, horror films must also have endings that leave one disturbed.

Edited by Pax
Link to post
Share on other sites

I also think Insomnia is a pretty damn good film. But if it's a horror film, then I think you're suddenly classifying other noir stuff like The Black Dahlia and Shutter Island as horror films too. Both those films had dreamy and horrible nightmarish sequences as well, but that's a part of film noir.

Maybe Arts & Faith could make a Top 20 Film Noir list at some point? It's certainly one of my favorite genres.

Edited by Persiflage
Link to post
Share on other sites

Maybe Arts & Faith could make a Top 20 Film Noir list at some point? It's certainly one of my favorite genres.

Yes.

Thirded.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

Link to post
Share on other sites

I did watch this again last night. It holds up well due to several fine performances.

I always like Pacino. I mean, how could one not? The Godfathers, Heat, Donnie Brasco... I even like him in Simone.

I think I always like Swank, although I haven't seen enough of her to really, really know. But I like her here, and I love her in both Million Dollar Baby and The Black Dahlia.

I think it is Williams that sells the film, because let's face it: you cannot depend on this guy. He is everywhere, always, all at once in person -- and the roles he picks are similar to his comedic personality. And often, especially later in his career, the stranger roles just don't work.

The only other character he's played that's even close to this was a role I pretty much hated him in, although I don't remember much other than the fact that I just didn't want to revisit him there, and that was the role he played in One Hour Photo. I remember it as being too over the top, and a bit of a shock to the system that I really didn't buy into. He's more subdued here, and there are some great action scenes with him and Pacino as well as some great dialogue between the two.

There's also that interesting moral ambiguity that plays between the two, where you don't know how much Pacino is actually selling out to him because of what he's witnessed, which plays into the final lines in the film, which is most likely a central theme: Don't lose your way, as he did. Stick to the way you know is right. Stick to investigating truth, making truth known, bringing light to the darkness, dragging sin to the light.

In the middle of all this, Dormer (Pacino) tries to hide things in the perpetual daylight of nighttime Alaska. There's something to be said for dragging things into the light, sure. But there's also something to be said about the light finding you if you choose not to make those things known.

Edited by Persona

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Response to Scott and Pax:

Scott, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I'm grateful you took the time to respond (especially since my post was not without snark -- I hope I didn't offend and I apologize if I did!). I'm gratified that our discussion is so fact-based, I love it when we can discuss the nitty-gritty specifics of great movies. With more thought, my opinions are changing, and I can see better where I haven't got the upper hand.

Then, the scene in the fog... I wonder how many of us would say that when we saw whom Pacino shot, and how that person died, we were not horrified.

I wasn't horrified. I was surprised at the twist, which is what you hope for is a good thriller like Insomnia.

This is, I think, a big, big difference between my experience of this scene and others' experience. I was surprised, sure, but I was definitely horrified, to the point of physically cringing. I don't think that my reaction is so far off base, either. The twist is surprising, absolutely! But Pacino himself is horrified by his action, and both then and later we're actively encouraged to empathize with him as he tries, and fails, to dislodge the horror he's feeling. The whole logic of the movie changes, and its tone changes simultaneously (as it should, in a well-made movie).

I've never seen a single episode of CSI, so I don't know what kind of horror tropes they use to amp up the tension. But in CSI, is our hero crippled by a fundamental moral dilemma that throws him into psychological turmoil, and ultimately even physical distress/hallucination?

It's in the inner segment of the movie that I think my case is strongest to consider Insomnia to at least have elements of horror. The framing of the movie, its beginning and ending, are pretty much pure thriller-- so I take your point, that the primary impression left by the movie is not to scare or horrify. Of course, I wouldn't object to anyone calling Insomnia a thriller, as clearly it is.

I appreciate Pax's point that Insomnia invites the question of what genre it is. Pacino's character is far more introspective than the protagonist of a thriller, by rights, ought to be. If it wasn't for the logjam scene, there wouldn't be any action (defined narrowly) from the close of the fog scene to the finale! The logjam scene, meanwhile, is definitely not a horror scene, but it wouldn't disrupt a horror movie either, if the dominant tone were horror.

Adding a few creepy elements, some shocks, and an unlikely protagonist to a very good mystery/psychological thriller do not make it a horror film.

My experience of Insomnia leads me to say that "a few creepy elements" doesn't do it justice. The best way that Nolan can communicate the psychological and moral conflict that Pacino is experiencing is through horror tropes. That conflict is the very heart of the movie, and thus the way that it gets communicated is central, not in any way peripheral.

Response to SDG:

So if you agree that, as Scott said,

What disqualifies Insomnia from being a horror movie is that it is no way dominated by the elements of the horrific, the terrifying, the grotesque, and/or the macabre... Adding a few creepy elements, some shocks, and an unlikely protagonist to a very good mystery/psychological thriller do not make it a horror film.

... then I cannot for the life of me see why you would disagree with the statement,

What disqualifies District 9 from being a horror movie is that it is no way dominated by the elements of the horrific, the terrifying, the grotesque, and/or the macabre... Adding a few creepy elements, some shocks, and an unlikely protagonist to a very good sci-fi/action thriller do not make it a horror film.

Maybe you could clarify why you nominated District 9, here or in its topic?

Response to Persona:

Stef, I'm glad you watched it again, thanks for your thoughts. You've got a great point about the light finding him no matter where goes ("If I fly to the further reaches, you are there", anyone?) He tells the hotel proprietress (I'm paraphrasing from memory), "It's just so bright in here", and she tells him that no, it's really dark. Then he finally spills the beans about the dark secret he's been hiding. PS his confession really came out of nowhere, I understand why that scene had to happen, but why does he trust her?:unsure:

Response to Persiflage

I haven't seen either of the movies you mentioned (and I doubt I ever will see Black Dahlia -- my post on this subject seems to have disappeared into the ether but the point was that the trailer repulsed me beyond words). Here is the problem, though: The very idea that anyone would not consider Shutter Island horror had simply never occurred to me before you brought it up. Never! I see now that IMDb classifies it as thriller, not horror and I just don't know any more, maybe I'm just a big weakling?! but that movie looked scary!! ::blushing::

Edited by David Smedberg

That's just how eye roll.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Response to Persiflage

I haven't seen either of the movies you mentioned (and I doubt I ever will see Black Dahlia -- my post on this subject seems to have disappeared into the ether but the point was that the trailer repulsed me beyond words). Here is the problem, though: The very idea that anyone would not consider Shutter Island horror had simply never occurred to me before you brought it up. Never! I see now that IMDbblushing.gif

classifies it as thriller, not horror and I just don't know any more, maybe I'm just a big weakling?! but that movie looked scary!!

The Black Dahlia is actually sort of a prequel to L.A. Confidential, maybe you've seen that one? The trailer was scary and repulsive because it dealt with a killer that was an actual historical reality. It's a great film, and it deals with the dark side of human nature (more of the good guys than of the killer), but I still wouldn't classify it was a horror film. Instead, it's hard boiled noir.

The Shutter Island trailer clearly advertised the film to horror movie fans by including every single jump scene in the film, and the ending is certainly horrible, but again, it's noir instead of horror.

I'll admit that I'm even a little unclear as the the strict differences between horror and thriller, but noir films are usually more distinctly different than horror films. Ever since Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, noir crime fiction focuses more on a mystery to be solved rather than monsters/serial killers/other types of evil doing their thing. Noir also usually features a protagonist (usually private eye/police detective with a dark side) who still, in most cases, believes in a moral code and fighting for that moral code. For this reason, noir films are usually more intellectual than horror films. Mystery noir appeals to the viewer intellectually, while still including many elements of horror, while horror films appeals more to the viewer emotionally, while often including elements of mystery (who is or what is or where is the killer coming from?). If you watch Shutter Island, I don't think you'd classify it as horror like you would after just seeing the trailer. But, Shutter Island's ending is probably more horrible to me than most horror movies I've seen, AND Shutter Island's last 5 minutes still provides more catharsis and closure than many horror films usually provide.

Thus, because noir films are often more brutal and realistic than horror films, sometimes I'd say they are actually scarier and darker than your average horror film usually is. Insomnia absolutely qualifies (and while it appeals emotionally to you, and horrifies you, that is something every good noir film is supposed to do). Of course, the genres bleed into each other a little bit (Angel Heart comes to mind). But there's a reason most people would consider Angel Heart horror, but not really Shutter Island, Insomnia, or The Black Dahlia.

Other examples of noir would include The Big Sleep, Stranger on the Third Floor, The Maltese Falcon, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Kiss Me Deadly, Touch of Evil, Shadow of a Doubt, The Hitch-Hiker, Force of Evil, Cape Fear, Shock Corridor, The Long Goodbye, Taxi Driver, The Drowning Pool, Farewell My Lovely, Black Widow, Blade Runner, Heat, L.A. Confidential, Blood Simple, Fargo, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, The Spanish Prisoner, Heist, The Man Who Wasn't There, Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Pledge, Brick, and oddly enough, The Big Lebowski.

I guess with this discussion, as well as the Apocalpyse Now discussion, I'm trying to defend the more traditional strictures of each genre. So sure, a film may have elements of horror, and there may be a horrible ending, but that all can happen in noir films, in war films, in mystery films, and in fantasy & science fiction films.

All this to say, I certainly really do like Insomnia all the same.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Response to Persiflage

I haven't seen either of the movies you mentioned (and I doubt I ever will see Black Dahlia -- my post on this subject seems to have disappeared into the ether but the point was that the trailer repulsed me beyond words). Here is the problem, though: The very idea that anyone would not consider Shutter Island horror had simply never occurred to me before you brought it up. Never! I see now that IMDbblushing.gif

classifies it as thriller, not horror and I just don't know any more, maybe I'm just a big weakling?! but that movie looked scary!!

The Black Dahlia is actually sort of a prequel to L.A. Confidential, maybe you've seen that one?

Yeah... and I hated it. <_<

The trailer was scary and repulsive because it dealt with a killer that was an actual historical reality.

I'm not gonna make hay out of this... wrong thread, and I haven't actually seen the movie... just know that I'm really not into it.

I guess with this discussion, as well as the Apocalpyse Now discussion, I'm trying to defend the more traditional strictures of each genre. So sure, a film may have elements of horror, and there may be a horrible ending, but that all can happen in noir films, in war films, in mystery films, and in fantasy & science fiction films.

I think war movies are a good point to bring up. A war movie is not so much a genre (I think) as a setting. The same could be said of a crime movie. Most war movies are in the action genre, just as most crime movies are in the thriller genre. To say that Insomnia is a crime movie may be shorthand for its genre, but strictly speaking its genre hasn't--no, I mean genres haven't-- been really defined yet.

That's just how eye roll.

Link to post
Share on other sites
The Black Dahlia is actually sort of a prequel to L.A. Confidential, maybe you've seen that one? The trailer was scary and repulsive because it dealt with a killer that was an actual historical reality. It's an awful, jaw-droppingly bad film, but it deals with the dark side of human nature (more of the good guys than of the killer), but I still wouldn't classify it was a horror film. Instead, it's hard boiled noir.

Fixed.

Other examples of noir would include The Big Sleep, Stranger on the Third Floor, The Maltese Falcon, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Kiss Me Deadly, Touch of Evil, Shadow of a Doubt, The Hitch-Hiker, Force of Evil, Cape Fear, Shock Corridor, The Long Goodbye, Taxi Driver, The Drowning Pool, Farewell My Lovely, Black Widow, Blade Runner, Heat, L.A. Confidential, Blood Simple, Fargo, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, The Spanish Prisoner, Heist, The Man Who Wasn't There, Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Pledge, Brick, and oddly enough, The Big Lebowski.

*Ahem*

And CHINATOWN.

Link to post
Share on other sites
Response to SDG:

So if you agree that, as Scott said,

What disqualifies Insomnia from being a horror movie is that it is no way dominated by the elements of the horrific, the terrifying, the grotesque, and/or the macabre... Adding a few creepy elements, some shocks, and an unlikely protagonist to a very good mystery/psychological thriller do not make it a horror film.

... then I cannot for the life of me see why you would disagree with the statement,

What disqualifies District 9 from being a horror movie is that it is no way dominated by the elements of the horrific, the terrifying, the grotesque, and/or the macabre... Adding a few creepy elements, some shocks, and an unlikely protagonist to a very good sci-fi/action thriller do not make it a horror film.

Maybe you could clarify why you nominated District 9, here or in its topic?

I may come to regret reducing my answer to two words, but ... body transformation.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

Link to post
Share on other sites
I may come to regret reducing my answer to two words, but ... body transformation.

I thought of Cronenberg during DISTRICT 9, but I'm not convinced that the "body transformation" elements of DISTRICT 9 were strong enough to categorize the whole thing as a horror film. It's a sci-fi-flavored action flick with a touch of horror.

Edited by Ryan H.
Link to post
Share on other sites
I may come to regret reducing my answer to two words, but ... body transformation.

I thought of Cronenberg during DISTRICT 9, but I'm not convinced that the "body transformation" elements of DISTRICT 9 were strong enough to categorize the whole thing as a horror film. It's an sci-fi-flavored action flick with a touch of horror.

I agree it's a stretch, and I wouldn't quarrel with anyone who put it beyond the pale. At any rate, it's significantly more horror-inflected than Insomnia.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

×
×
  • Create New...