Before there were scary movies, there were scary plays. Before there were scary plays, there were scary stories. Scary has been very popular for a very long time. The top twenty box office champs are all scary, from Titanic to the Indiana Jones and of course the first modern blockbuster Jaws, which still has some people afraid to go into the water. Horror and terror have been popular since stories began. Did you hear the story about the man who chopped up his enemy’s children into a pie and fed them to him? It was written by the same guy who wrote about suicidal teenagers and murderously ambitious would-be kings — Shakespeare. And then there’s the one about the guy who killed his father and put out his own eyes — written around 429 B.C.
Scary movies are especially popular with teenagers. They serve as a sort of training wheels for social interaction and a way of letting off steam. Teens watch them in groups, grabbing each other and screaming, then talking afterward about the experience.
The two best pieces I have read recently on the subject of scary movies are Desson Thomson’s article in the Washington Post about the difference between what is scary and what is gory and a piece by Grady Hendrix in Slate about the grisly and very popular “Saw” movies.
It opens with a scorching contrast of light and darkness. Alone at the bottom of a dark pit, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) stubbornly scratches and claws in the mud. High above, a pitiless sun bleaches a remote desert landscape. Plainview goes back and forth between the dark and the light, repeatedly returning to pick away at the earth. He is as flinty and unyielding as the rocky terrain itself, a man of ferocious resolve seeking something of value deep inside the rock. For almost 15 minutes, there is no other person but the resolute miner, no other sound but his relentless attack on the wall of stone. Finally, it begins to yield tiny bits of previous metal. Plainview falls. He is badly injured. But he perseveres, dragging himself to the assay office.
When we see him again, he is just as focused, just as intense, now seeking another kind of treasure. Plainview supervises a small group of men, digging for oil. To make sure there is no doubt about the nature of the forces that have been unleashed on the earth, it all becomes powerfully clear when one of the wells ignites, creating a vivid scene from Dante’s Inferno, belching fire and brimstone into the night, killing one of the men, leaving his infant son an orphan.
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It is a shame that Will Smith’s reasonable comments have been taken out of context and he has been forced to apologize.
Here is what he said:
Even Hitler didn’t wake up going, ‘let me do the most evil thing I can do today.’ I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was ‘good’. Stuff like that just needs reprogramming. I wake up every day full of hope, positive that every day is going to be better than yesterday. And I’m looking to infect people with my positivity. I think I can start an epidemic.
I hope he still thinks so. What he was saying is that even people who inflict great evil on the world usually believe that what they are doing is right. Recognizing that is an essential element of understanding the nature of evil and how to prevent it. No one who understood Smith’s point — or who has ever spent five minutes observing his behavior — could imagine he was in any way endorsing Hitler’s actions. Tim Gordon, as usual, has it right: “this is a situation where an actor gave an opinion and the interviewer twisted the context only after he received an answer that left room for further interpretation.”