Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Critic's Reply to Director Mike Flanagan

[What follows is a long-winded and semi-serious departure from our usually irreverent and jocular (what a word, right?) snark parade.  When I asked Joe whether he thought it was appropriate for Rock, Paper, Hatchet, he responded: "considering how everything we do is kind of silly and snarky, suddenly going fairly serious and academic is an interesting contrast. Like taking off a clown mask and having a very serious mask on underneath!"  But don't worry--the clown mask is going back on soon.  I mean, we're reviewing Little Dead Rotting Hood next, so...]

In my recent review of Hush, I faulted the film for having a seemingly motiveless killer and for unmasking that killer very early on.  As it turns out the director, Mike Flanagan, has been hearing these exact same complaints from others, and he wrote an brief essay to respond (thanks to for pointing this out to me!).  Flanagan's essay is a fun read.  You can find it here.

I kind of want to respond to Flanagan, however, since he's talking theory and aesthetic principles, and that kind of deep stuff gets me going!  First off I should say that I really appreciate his participation in the critical conversation and his generosity in sharing the thinking behind his decisions.  It’s rare to get a glimpse behind the creative curtain.  Yet although I found the essay illuminating (actually, because it was so illuminating), I felt that it didn't quite put to rest my qualms with the film.  So I thought I'd write a thought-piece response to further clarify what I still think are legitimate criticisms with the film.

Flanagan responds to those who wanted to know the killer's motive with this:
But Why is he killing people?  For the same reason that Ted Bundy did.  For the same reason that Dennis Rader did.  For the same reason that John Wayne Gacy did.  This reason, I believe, is far scarier than any other.  This reason, I believe, is the heart of horror, both in the world and in fiction.

Flanagan points out that any biographical explanation for the killer’s motivations—like that the killer feels rejected by women or has been abused by his father—would not be as frightening as the purely evil “because.”  And the essay takes as the guiding philosophy behind this as “what you don’t see is always scarier than what you do.”

At the end of the essay he takes up another complaint made by critics (and me!) that the killer takes off his mask too early in the film.  He replies that:
Up until that point, the fact that Maddie hasn’t seen his face gives her hope that they can still walk away from this.  It’s one of the first thoughts a real person would have in this situation.  By removing it, he says ‘You’ve seen my face . . . only one of us leaves alive.”  This is, for her, a far more frightening thing than his mask was.
Basically, Flanagan makes two points: (1) he didn’t give the killer a backstory explanation because pure irrational evil is more terrifying than explained behavior, and (2) the killer takes off the mask to intensify Maddie’s terror by taking away her hope that he will just go away.  I will address these in turn.


I agree with Flanagan that motiveless evil can be terrifying in horror cinema (and I also respect that motive-bound evil can be terrifying as well).  But here’s the thing, if you’re going to make a movie about pure evil, a movie in which we never discover the killer’s motives because the lack of an explanation is scarier than a provided one, then there should be some gesture to that effect.  Think about Dr. Loomis’s monologue about Michael Myers, which says basically the same thing: Michael Myers is pure unexplained evil, as Laurie Strode confirms when she admits at the end that the bogeyman is real.  But in Hush, there is no Dr. Loomis moment.  There is no moment in which Maddie writes on her window “WHY” (written backwards for the killer’s convenience of course), to which the killer could respond by:

(a) turning it back around on Maddie, “Why?  Why?  Everyone always thinks there has to be a reason.   Everything happens for a reason! Here’s one for you to try on, maybe I’m going to prove that not everything has a reason.  The only reason you are going to die is that your blood will not travel from heart to brain with a cut in your carotid artery.”

(b) staring at her in creepy, masked, silence.

(c) typing furiously into her cell phone, and then slamming it up against the window so she can read the message. . . and it’s just a bunch of random fruit emoji. 
What I’m trying to say is that there is a difference between making pure evil the meaning of the killing and not addressing the question at all.  Hush doesn’t address the question.  So it’s true that we don’t have a forced explanation, but we also don’t have any meditation on the absence of the explanation either.
But why does Hush have to do either?  As Flanagan points out, if Maddie were really being attacked in her house, she might not know the reason why and she might not care—in real life we don’t always have easy answers to those questions.  As Flanagan says, “There are no easy answers in life, and so there shouldn’t be easy answers in our fiction.”

There’s two immediate answers (neither easy!), one that’s going to sound snarky but really isn’t, and another that I haven’t really figured out yet, but will by the time I get to it.

(1) Hush isn’t real life.  Now I know that sounds unfair, but I don’t mean it to be.  It’s this, that the craft of horror cinema doesn't just imitate real life but actually says something about it.  It would be really terrifying to me to be stalked by someone in my house regardless of how he or she looked or what kind of mask they wore.  In real life, I’d probably just hide under my bed . . or in the closet. . .or under the bed . . . or in the closet.  Actually I’d probably freeze somewhere between my bed and my closet, paralyzed by indecision until the killer came in and put an end to it. 
This would be extremely terrifying in real life.  But would it make for a good horror movie?  I’m not sure.  I think a lot of critics would probably wonder, “why didn’t he try to run away?” and “boy, that movie was over quick.”  

My point is that the fact that real life sometimes doesn’t give you answers can be a terrifying theme for a movie, but it has to be a theme.  What terrifies us in real life isn’t what horror cinema imitates, though there is a good deal of overlap, but rather horror cinema gives us a narrative, a story, that is about something.   Even if the story is about the lack of aboutness in our lives, and the horror of the lack of meaning, it will still be about it.

So what is the difference between what Flanagan leaves out in Hush and what is left out of the examples he gives of The Ring and The Shining and The Exorcist?  He says:
Why did the devil possess little Reagan in THE EXORCIST?  Because the devil possesses people.  But . . . why?  The question isn’t necessary beyond that point.
Flanagan's point is that horror movies always have a lot of holes, especially when it comes to the motivation of the villains.  And Flanagan’s wider point is that the question isn’t necessary for the killer of Hush in the same way.

One difference is that in all three of those stories, we are dealing with the supernatural and the sorts of questions that the audience raises about the supernatural are just different than the ones they raise about ones set in our world.  In slasher films, there is almost always a motive, and even when there isn’t one, the lack of motive or reason becomes a key feature of the film.  Maybe this isn’t a rule as much as it is just a genre convention, so let’s take it a different way.

The story itself creates its own expectations.   And it does so by following the questions that its protagonist is most interested in.  In The Ring, and The Shining, and The Exorcist, the question that the leads all to wonder, to greater or less extent, is WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON WITH MY KID?  That is why we’re not really interested in the deeper psychology of why the devil is possessing her or why this evil girl made a killer videotape, because for the moms, SATAN or VENGEFUL GHOST is a good enough answer.  That is, what the mothers really want to know is how to stop the nightmare, and that means that they have to figure out what the problem is. Once we know that it's Satan or the Vengeful Spirit of a Japanese Schoolgirl, then they can go about solving the problem: getting an exorcist or dredging up the unburied remains, etc.  
But this isn’t what the protagonist is asking in Hush.   We would imagine her to be asking, WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON WITH THIS GUY TRYING TO GET IN MY HOUSE?  So you see why we, sympathizing with her, might wonder what the hell is going on.  The answer may be: he’s just crazy!  That’s perfectly acceptable, if a little lazy, but the point is that the question still gets asked.  We don’t necessarily need to know why he’s crazy, but some description of what’s going on (or not going on) in that noggin would go a long way towards keeping the audience engaged in that central question along with Maddie.
And this brings me to the second point.

(2)  There’s a difference between backstory and motive.  My problem wasn’t that we didn’t see the killer’s formative years or that there wasn’t some clear explanation for his psychosis.  It was that we didn’t understand his motive, what he wanted.  I mean, is he after her money?  Is he trying to rape her?  Does he think he’s been possessed by the devil?  Has he been possessed by the devil?  Is he a hunter (crossbow?) who wants her to run away so he can hunt that most dangerous game?  
In the movie, the key to his motive is in the scene where he takes off the mask.  And he tells her that he’s going to kill her, but not until she’s really scared.  So we can infer that he wants to torture her in some sadistic way.  And then he says, “we can have some fun!” which again emphasizes that this is all a game for him.  Actually, this is all fine as a motive—he’s a sadist.  What was my problem again?

It’s that this motive seems to work in two directions at once.  The killer is both pure irrational evil AND a fun-loving sadist, and not consistently one or the other.  The masked killer that we are introduced to early on is the pure irrational evil figure.  The unmasked talks-to-himself jokey guy is the sadist.  I found the first guy scarier for the very reasons that Flanagan makes in his essay.  And there’s nothing actually wrong in itself with the unmasked guy—I’m sure he could be creepy and scary (and maybe fun in a show-stealing way)—on his own.  But as a sadist, he isn’t particularly effective—he doesn’t seem to be taking pleasure in his prey’s pain, and, besides a pretty good very early scene where he plays puppet with her dead friend’s body, doesn’t really seem to be having much fun.

My final point is that Flanagan’s answer to the question of the killer’s motive and the question of why he takes off the mask are at odds with one another.  If what we don’t see is more scary, then why show us what’s behind the mask?  When pure evil turns out to be petty sadism, it’s sort of deflating.

Wow, I just went on for a REAL long time.  Is anyone still here?  *peers into the silent darkness*

Well, since no one’s here, no one will mind if I indulge myself a little further in this exercise.


So Flanagan’s other point is trying to explain why the killer took off his mask, which, for some critics (including me) was ineffective.  The movie is pretty clear about what’s going on at that moment—Maddie has just suggested that The Man just leave her alone, and she has reminded him that since she hasn’t seen his face, he can still leave with no repercussions.  As Flanagan writes:

The Man removes his mask at the exact point in the story where he should, in my opinion. Up until that point, the fact that Maddie hasn’t seen his face gives her hope that they can still walk away from this. It’s one of the first thoughts a real person would have in this situation. By removing it, he says “You’ve seen my face... only one of us leaves alive.” This is, for her, a far more frightening thing than his mask was.

In my opinion (and only my opinion, but this is a blog, it’s where opinions go to die!) I’m not sure that this is one of the first thoughts a real person would have in such a situation.   But who knows what real people think.  I hardly know what I think.  And I’m just a collection of computer viruses and discarded rotary telephones!

My real issue with this explanation is that I think the mask is still more frightening than no mask, even when you take Maddie’s hopes into account.  Masks are just scary, for many of the reasons that Flanagan actually acknowledges in his first point (that what you don’t know is scarier than what you do).  I can’t really get into the complicated psychology of it, but Hawthorne does a pretty good job of breaking down the uncanny fear we have of masks in “The Minister’s Black Veil.”  In that story, a decent guy just starts wearing a mask (a veil, technically) and won't let anyone see behind it for the rest of his life.  Even though in every other way he's a super good guy, just wearing that mask creeps everyone out.  It turns out that the story is about how we project our fears onto the mask, more than the veil being scary in itself. 

There is also something not strictly logical about the jump from “you’ve seen my face” to “only one of us leaves alive.”  I mean, maybe the killer just DGAF about getting caught.  When you’re dealing with a killer psycho who comes out of nowhere, I’m not sure you can take the killer’s desire for self-preservation as a given.  And then why can’t she hope that he’ll just leave even after she’s seen his face?  People can change!   He changed his mind about the mask, after all.  A silent masked killer stalking you down says “relentless” to me.  That same guy who takes off his mask in order to tell you, “no, no, I’m really going to kill you, for real” is also scary, but has less of that aura of inevitability.

And perhaps most importantly, by having him take off his mask, the movie endows the killer with a very human and NOT evil motivation: self-preservation.  The killer is saying, "Maddie, now that you've seen my face, you know that I can't leave you alive.  This seems diametrically opposite to the point Flanagan made about undisclosed evil earlier, because the desire to kill Maddie now seems to depend upon the killer's self-interest.  What could be more human, more rational, than that?  
Wow, I wanted to just write a short piece and ended up with this behemoth.  I hope the length doesn’t make people think: “man, that guy really has it in for Mike Flanagan and his movie.  Such a hater.”  It’s because I really appreciate Flanagan’s thinking about it that I was able to articulate some of the things that I couldn’t quite say in my review.  I’m not trying to be a hater!  I’m just horribly long-winded.

So to wrap up:  Flanagan finishes his piece by wondering:
But what I find interesting is that this complaint is often made by the same people who want to know “more about him.” I find it fascinating that some people simultaneously want him to be more and less mysterious.
I hope that what I’ve pointed out here explains this apparently contradictory response.  The movie itself sets up the question by trying to do two things at the same time: it gives us the masked killer who could have been a mysterious villain, symbolic of all the evil that we can’t explain in the world, AND it gives us the unmasked sadist whose motives could have been at the center of a deep psychological thriller.  By explaining each by the other—the sadist doesn’t need an exposed motive because he’s a mysterious villain, and the mysterious villain takes off his mask in order to give him an exposed motive—Flanagan’s argument brings out the implicit contradiction in the film itself. 
Do I think this is a horrible flaw in the film?  Not really.  The film, as I pointed out in my review, is enjoyed by many people and is one of the better films that we’ve watched at Rock, Paper, Hatchet.  My critical labor isn’t hatred for the film, but rather a celebration of it—I love Hush and Flanagan for giving me something to chew on! 
How negative criticism can be an act of love is, however, a discussion for another time.

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