With Halloween in the air, our thoughts turn to horror.
It takes many forms. The supernatural. Dark musings of spirits, ghouls and the walking dead. In my short story "Hellshift," horror takes the form of alien abominations on a distant planet in the far future. In "Blood of the Chosen," my contribution to "In the Bloodstream," horror manifests as an ancient demon.
But, in many ways, the most compelling form of horror is the everyday sort. The kind that can actually happen in the real world. Case in point: The popular dark film "Prisoners."
Granted, this film is hard to categorize. Some might not classify it as horror. It's a small town mystery about two children who disappear. (Now, that's a horror that stalks this world, and our nightmares every minute of every day.) "Prisoners" is part horror film, part mystery, part morality play and part thriller.
The setting... one of the most important elements of horror... is just right. Grim, rainy skies over lonely roads and dark forests. The theme of the movie is evil. The kind that terrifies us most. The kind that threatens to destroy our world, and our souls. What the film reminds us is that evil isn't just an enemy at the gates; it's what we see hiding behind our familiar faces when we look in the mirror. It's what turns good people into the monsters they fear.
The protagonist is a basically good man, but his view of life is ruled largely by fear. He's a survivalist, and he's teaching his son to be the same way. He sees the apocalypse just 'round the next corner, and he plans to be ready for it. But, when the unthinkable happens, it happens in a way he didn't expect, and he's devastated. One of his children disappears, and when the police come up empty, he decides to take matters into his own hands.
The only suspect in the case is a young man who is retarded and childlike. The face he shows the world is one of angelic innocence. But, is that evil we see behind his large, seemingly vacant eyes? Is that darkness skulking at the edges of his soft voice and whispered secrets? The enraged, desperate father does what almost any man in his place would do. He acts on the obvious assumption and employs increasingly unspeakable violence in trying to force the truth from the boy he's sure has taken his child somewhere. Even as he devolves from hysterical parent into monster, increasingly sadistic and ghoulishly inventive torture devices springing from his ingenuity as he turns an abandoned building into a chamber of horrors, a part of him tries to hang on to the values... indeed, to the very humanity that we see slipping away. The ultimate horror isn't the young man he's torturing... the real monster is inside the enraged father, eating away at his soul, a bit of him dying with each scar he inflicts on a suspect who may or may not be guilty. The vigilante father represents all of us, our collective soul at Gitmo or Abu Ghraib. His driving force is primal animal instinct.
His antithesis is the police detective methodically, meticulously picking away at the edges of the case, using his reason to probe his way through a dark, baffling maze of a mystery, at the heart of which is an evil so much larger, more pure, calculating and inhuman than even the darkest imaginings of the vigilante father. The detective has a blasted, hollow look in his eyes. He's seen far too much evil. It seems to have left a part of him dead inside. Yet, he survives by following the rules, and not surrendering to evil's tempting lure of vengeance. The rules and logic are all he has left, it seems. To his adversary, the vigilante, those were the first two things to go.
The mystery is intricate. The premise and the solution are not really that far removed from the kind of Hollywood horror we all know to be a dime a dozen. But, what makes this movie infinitely superior to that dreck is not that the twists and turns of the mystery or the who dunnit aha! moment is all that much more clever than run-of-the-mill movie horror; it's that the film seems more real. No ominous mood music or machete-wielding serial killers leaping out of dark closets; no cheap gimmicks or needless gore. Just the straight, cold facts. The film has an almost documentarian style that pulls you in at the outset and holds you right to the end. No tricks needed; just cold, raw fear.
There's a moral, of course, and a pretty heavy-handed one at that. But, it's woven into the plot artfully enough to work. In the end, we find the evil in the last place we expected to look. Hiding behind the seemingly commonplace and innocuous, using the different ones as diversions. Mostly, though... we find it inside ourselves.