Mutant Popcorn #27

Nick Lowe


Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be dishing out each and every delicious portion.

The serving below – The Brave Little Toaster, Arachnophobia, Nightbreed – appeared first in Interzone #43 (January 1991).

The runner-up ad campaign for the ee-lectricity flotation was going to be a Brave Little Toaster ripoff. True! Lovable anthropomorphic appliances chatting in the pub about plugging into the current of popular capitalism. Unfortunately, voltages can go down as well as up; I wonder if they scrapped the campaign when they saw what happened (finally) to the movie, on what must be the most blink-whooosh-whuzzat? release since Kill Me Again. (I went to the very last showing, and the lady in the ticket booth had never heard of it and thought I was larking: ‘Toaster?’ It’s sad, because the film actually does catch the joke quite well, from what little I remember of Disch’s now-rare F&SF novella: ‘Luckily my wartime training included interappliance codes – I will simply render the secret appliance knock, and the native machinery will let us in…’ ‘We’re trapped here like rats! Small little rats with no hair and one leg!’ Happily, now on video.)

Now, I’m sure and you’re sure there’s a perfectly innocent reason for putting back the autumn release originally slated for Frankenstein Unbound. Anyone shameless enough to harness the one great popular icon of science perverted by human arrogance to sell a positive image of technology isn’t likely to feel any threat from jolly Roger Corman. (I miss all the jokes that might have been, though: ‘I shall be with you on election night,’ &c.) But it’s still one more tearful reminder of how friendly and comforting all the traditional fright icons, from Frank to Freddy, have become. The much-discussed crisis of horror is usually felt to have three roots: changing market tastes (teens now prefer a laff to a scream), terminal imaginative exhaustion, and ten years of unprecedented genre saturation. Nobody, in my hearing at least, seems to have suggested there might be something to do with the declining levels of awfulness in the environment as a whole – Saddam and WWIII of course excepted. But now, bred specially for the nineties, comes a new strain from old stock: family fear-fodder.

The affordable wisdom on Arachnophobia’s dull performance in a low-competition US summer has it that nobody in Wichita was going to see a movie with a six-syllable title in Greek. Well, clever shoes, I don’t remember Bug doing such knockover business either, even back in the mid-seventies glory days of the crawlie genre that this picture makes a sincere go of upmarketing and updating. The real problem could simply be that the folks who are genuinely creeped-out by eight-leggedies don’t feel like going to the pictures to be reminded; or maybe it’s just seen as a bit of a trailing-edge fright genre these days. But I think the comparatively measly response of the ungrateful americanos to this amiable rehash may owe more to some rather subtler tones of this movie’s ambitions.

For one thing, it’s a family picture. Normally that means it’s safe to take the kids to; with horror, it means it’s got to be safe to take the parents. That’s why you need to call it by a grown-up word. It has to distance itself, both in quality and in audience, from those cheap video relatives. Gee, six syllables – sounds kind of, mmm, sciency…. This is a superior film. Money has been spent. We have production values, real locations, Chris Walas, a hundred and fifty minutes. Does that sound to you like a picture called Fear of Spiders? Look, all right, we’ll throw in the clincher. We’ll put Julian Sands in it. (He’ll be rubbish, but hey. Quality costs.) And to be sure, this is a film aimed far more at the over-25s than the spotties. The pacing is very adult, leisurely, discursive. For long stretches you can even forget, quite pleasantly, that this is an old-fashioned bug movie about smalltown Californians taking turns to get offed in hideous screaming spasms of popeyed agony by evil swarms of mutant vampire spiders. The heroes are retired yuppies – can you believe it, these sensitive people moved out of San Francisco? – and their kids do nothing on initiative, rarely even rationed a viewpoint shot, a sure sign that juveniles are not the first target audience.

In fact, what’s especially radical, and perhaps unprecedented, about Arachnophobia is that it’s the first horror pic I can remember to be seriously pitched at women. Jeff Daniels’ lead is custom-made: a country doctor with a Yale M.D., quality time for the kids, a nice jaw, and a cutely vulnerable jellifying fear of spiders that the happy family can scoff at, along with his inability to pronounce the title of the movie. ‘I can’t help it if I’m a…spider-phobe.’ ‘Arachnophobe, dear.’ ‘Whatever.’ (See, even a doctorate from Yale doesn’t make the difference.) By contrast, her indoors is one of those endlessly capable, supportive, and above all tolerant wives straight out of Field of Dreams, and there’s lots of smalltown characters and gossip to make up for the token exciting bits. And after all this fem-appeal is set up, it’s then and only then that you play the wild ace that has the house on its feet and all red-blooded American women fainting in their dearests’ arms. You bring in John Goodman.

To say that in a bare two years Goodman has emerged from less than nowhere to become the most employable character actor since Donald Pleasance, is about as adequate as saying his entry in this movie is the most astutely calculated since Omar Sharif’s in Lawrence of Arabia. It’s not that he actually does much in the film. He doesn’t even rescue Daniels at the end like you’re second-to-second expecting. He just does his character (here, the village exterminator, for what little it matters) any time there’s a suitable-sized hole in the script. I don’t think this is an accident. Actors are wising up: you do not share scenes with this man if you can possibly avoid it. You do not appear in the same shot, even if you’d fit. When watching the dailies, you block off your view of his side of the screen with your palm. You insist on segregating his credit at the end of the list with an ‘and’. Should you find yourself unavoidably trapped in a dialogue scene, ask for more money, and be sure to leave a four-second pause for the audience cheer before responding to any of his lines. You have no more chance of stealing a scene from John Goodman than from a topless Jessica Rabbit.

All this, together with some mechanicals so seamless they simply can’t be recognised, certainly adds grace to what at heart is still just a nostalgic crawlie caper. There’s lots of seventies plotting a la Towering Inferno, with characters getting picked off in a neat moral order. But here the criterion is not the traditional sexual and financial misconduct: in Arachnophobia, the rule is Do not snack. With the one obvious exception (spiders can be upscreened like anybody else), the hairy horrors invariably make for the plumpest person in any scene, and a handful of popcorn or Sugar Smacks makes a cosy hideout. (It’s also not a good idea to marry someone who reads Jeffrey Archer, or to rest on the potty without first taking a close look inside.) Equally reminiscent of much-loved genre ancestors, everyone’s dialogue speeds subtly up when they have to deliver a scientific bit, because they know it makes exquisitely bug-all sense. (Maybe somebody else will catch how the sterile male managed to reproduce in the first place. It goes by very fast.) After all, the only thing the audience needs to know is you have to Find the Nest – you always have to Find the Nest, because that’s where the big ending is. (Can you guess? Here’s a dialogue hint from early on: ‘Put that wine in the CELLAR. The WINE CELLAR.’ Wonderful stuff. I defy anyone to resist.)

And the moral? For a nineties film whose plot hinges on rainforest ecology, this is a bit of a surprise. The long Venezuelan prologue has a throwaway dimwit American explore the rainforest with Prof Jools, and return in a box with the eight-legged plot hitching a ride. If there’s a hint of a warning here about the export of tropical hardwoods, it’s been efficiently buried. Rather, the message seems to be that rainforests are very nice to preserve just so long as they stay right put and you don’t have to go there, because those lurking beasties can unerringly seek out the one American photographer in a campful of English scientists and swarthy natives. (Actually this is all a great tourist lie. Amazonia is gorgeous and, in season, virtually bug-free; it’s the departure lounge in Caracas airport that’s an outpost of hell.) Arachnophobia’s contribution to the leading global-political debate of our time is to reassure us there are two kinds of nature, just like there are two kinds of culture: the domestic strain (good, especially for getting back to) and the foreign (regrettably necessary, but best kept at a continental distance). Sure enough, at the end of the film Daniels moves the family back to town because it’s safer – though as town is still San Francisco there’s an inevitable last joke about that.

For all its high values, Arachnophobia is still unashamedly low-concept stuff. For a vigorous shot at the high-concept end of the generally flagging horror range, you’d need to look for the likes of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed – the latest adventurous transmutation of his rather wonky 1988 novel Cabal, on which the film largely improves. It’s hard to divine what American audiences will make of this perverse bit of baroque dazzlement, with its quirky casting, plotting that might generously be described as poetic, and bizarre emulsion of genre psychoslasher with rather precious Barker mythologising. Certainly the things about Nightbreed that are easiest to appreciate aren’t really the most important. The imagery is, as you’d expect, lushly inventive, though there’s still a bit too much sense of a bunch of guys mugging around in designer masks; and Cronenberg’s characterisation of the serial-slasher shrink is certainly a remarkable rendering of a beautifully conceived, if badly underwritten, role.

But these are really incidentals. The heart of the film lies in its huge, fine concept: a whole alternative human history of lost tribes and hopeful monsters, driven to the brink of extinction by persecution and genocide, and reduced now to a single survivor colony in an extraordinary catacomb city beneath a forgotten cemetery in backwoods Ontario. The emergence of this vast background, behind what starts life as an elegant psychodrama about a homicidal psychiatrist framing a patient for his murders, is such a violent dislocation of perspective that the poor old Cronenberg character, ultimate embodiment of absolute evil though he is, seems rather dwarfed ever after, and the persistence of the romantic interest rather an embarrassment – especially since the ambivalent consummation it all leads so purposefully towards has been understandably deleted from the film ending as a bit strong.

Against the usual grain, most of the high-concept stuff has actually been added in the translation from novel to film, with if anything a gain in coherence. The human villains now incarnate the final culmination of all the atrocities and inhumanity the dominant species has visited down the millennia on the deviant Midianites, who were very vaguely rationaled in the book. But there’s a depressing tendency for big concepts to shrink on screen, and a lot of what survives is just a rather cluttered narrative line climaxing in a hardly equal battle between a bunch of lovable bogies and a dozen carloads of rather slow-witted coppers. There’s plenty of horror, but surprisingly little fright, and I’m not sure all the genre iconography of graves, gore, psychoes, and monster makeup don’t weigh the larger ambitions down; while the indecisive ending isn’t likely to satisfy audiences expecting a conventional resolution of tensions and weirdness.

I’d like Nightbreed to do well, if only because it’s so heartening and rare to see a writer (and a local boy at that) take his own work from page to screen and mature it in the process. But it’s a much more demanding proposition than Hellraiser, and a lot less of a sure thing. It doesn’t help that these days there’s an inevitable tendency for all horror to feel like video, a persistent impression conceptual cheapness that’s very hard to overcome even in hexasyllabic Greek, and which doesn’t seem to respond well to attempt to validate it by plumbing new fathoms of human evil. Rippers in masks just aren’t wicked enough, now that for some years they’ve included some of the best-loved characters in pictures. Somewhere, we need to find some new abysms of the psyche to sound. A few, like Lynch and Cronenberg himself, obviously have some good ideas, but it’s getting tougher all the time in a world so increasingly, sickeningly nice. Hidden in the disposal of other national assets, we’re losing the darkness and distance.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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