A while back I reached out to Tyler about doing a guest post for Summer of Blood, specifically about macho horror movies or macho characters in horror movies. I expected maybe a list with blurbs on each film. Instead, he wrote a three-part essay on "Macho Horror", the first of which is ready for your eyeballs, right here, right now. Enjoy and feel free to check out Macho Bullshit Moviecast HERE.
What is macho horror? The horror genre, at its most base, is dependent upon fear. How can a macho man be afraid? I posit that it isn't that men cannot be afraid; it's that both the fear and the reaction to it are different. As for the reaction, the standard dichotomy is fight or flight. The former is the perceived male (active) reaction, the latter is the perceived female (passive) reaction. The fear itself requires more detailed explanation.
First, fear of death. Men fear the means of death and are driven by the cognizance that death will happen. This is the core horror of the human hunting genre. Face it, people are hunted in gialli, slasher, and serial killer movies, however these in my opinion do not have the sustained, lasting horror because the hunted is not aware of their impending death (along these lines, the focus in gialli is not on the victims but the investigator; slasher films typically juggle focus between the killer and the final girl). This genre, beginning with the classic story and film The Most Dangerous Game, is as expansive as any, and transcends the bounds of conventional horror, frequently spilling over into action (First Blood), thriller (The Naked Prey) and science fiction (Predator) genres. There is also a link with the man as beast genre: the goal of the human hunter is to reduce the hunted human to an animal. The hunted sometimes gives in to instinct or sometimes resists the instinct on moral principal (Ed's reluctance and then PTSD at the end of Deliverance or the many suicides in Battle Royale). It does come down to a somewhat fascist line of thought that one can only be appreciative of life while under the threat of death.
Second, fear of only being an animal and nothing more. Simply stated, animals don't think, they react. Instinct is their motivation. What separates humans from other animals isn't so much emotions as it is the awareness and understanding of emotions, as well as an ability to think and plan (rationality). The obvious and very much classic example is The Wolf Man; this divide can bleed over into the psychological realm as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Altered States (which also has strong “man as master” characteristics), and Fight Club; I would also argue that “old-school” vampires (ones that are concerned with feeding, such as David in The Lost Boys, or Langella's portrayal of Dracula) are another manifestation of this core fear. To a lesser extent, this fear is linked with religious horror through the traditional belief that humans have a soul, animals do not which I would link to Romero zombies as well.
Third, lack of control. It's pretty obvious that society expects a man to be in control of his career, his physique, his mental state, and his family (we are still quite patriarchal despite a few decades of feminism). This is the core fear which motivates all psychological horror and religious horror. There is a constant tension between the expectation of control and the reality that the scope of our control is actually quite small and bounded by chance, genetics, past choices and finite knowledge (to only name a few). As men, I think it's difficult to stare this fact in the face without blinking. I am going to refer to this as the “man as master” sub-genre, and it is truly expansive. It can be viewed in both a positive sense (Dr. Frankenstein who seeks to control life and death) and in a negative sense (The Machinist losing control of sleep which spirals into his whole reality). The control can be over the internal, such as one's own body (Cronenberg's The Fly) or mind (Jacob's Ladder), or a huge swath of external—other people (voodoo zombies such as in White Zombie), nature (Jaws), or unexplained/religious phenomena (The Exorcist). Now, let's examine these themes in a bit more detail.
Hunting The Most Dangerous Game
Is there a single movie more influential than 1932's The Most Dangerous Game? Based on the 1924 short story of the same name by Richard Connell, the story is required reading in virtually all high schools across this country. The 1932 adaptation features bona fide macho man Joel Mcrae (star of Peckinpah's Ride The High Country) as shipwrecked big game hunter Robert Rainsford, where the maniacal Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks, who appeared in a few Hitchcock movies) hunts him for sport. The novelty of this film is that the motivation is not sustenance—death of the prey is not requisite for the survival of the predator, but merely a game the predator plays to assuage his ego and forestall his malaise (itself a product of modernity). Simply put, he does it to feel alive, not to be alive.
The hunter is a macho archetype if there ever was one. In tribal societies, division of labor places hunting as a male task, it takes place in the wilderness which is domain of the man's man, lacking the veneer of civilization and law, and furthermore, the use of weapons and act of killing dovetail into warfare, another hearty male endeavor. In this type of movie, the hunter is the villain and the hunted is our protagonist. I suggest this is informed by our moral world view. This hunter is decadent—he does not kill to eat, nor to defend himself, nor out of some sense of justice, instead he wastes the lives of his prey, killing simply because they can—and decadence is to be punished. There is also a deep seated romanticism attached to the notion of superior intellect defeating superior technology. The hunter has the advantage in terms of technology and sets the terms for the confrontation. These tropes are not exclusive to horror films, in fact most entries would classify as thrillers (sorry). Let's examine a couple riffs on this concept to see it evolve over the years.
Based in part on the story of John Colter, who was pursued across Wyoming by the Blackfoot tribe in 1809, Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey (1966) set this masterpiece of the human hunting genre in South Africa. The story concerns a middle aged PH (professional hunter) known only as the Man. His safari runs afoul of a local tribe whose territory they invade. Our lead character is spared the painful, grizzly death that the other members of his party suffer (and this is definitely horror movie stuff) because the chief respects the Man. Instead they show their respect by hunting him as they would a lion (a beast of tremendous power they revere). Is this a true horror movie? I consider it survival horror (and much more), but concede most would view it as a thriller.
A few years later, John Boorman's masterpiece Deliverance (1972) is generally credited with starting the “backwoods horror” sub-genre. To only view it as such diminishes the film as a very clever riff on manhunt tropes. In fact, I have begun to think of it as a meta-movie. Why? Lewis. Portrayed by Burt Reynolds, Lewis on two occasions references survival being a “game.” I think you know where we've heard that before. That is the subtle twist of the film; the character who thinks like Zaroff is actually among the protagonists, not in opposition to them. Lewis, unlike the rest of our merry crew, wants to be put in a survival situation—he craves the drama of life and death hanging in the balance, just as Zaroff does. Face it, Lewis comes off as a sociopath who read or saw The Most Dangerous Game a few too many times. Lewis intentionally forces the group to play out his survivalist fantasy, and through Lewis we see male fantasy and reality play out. He is a character who tries to be born again hard, yet is consumed by the nagging realization that civilization has already made him too soft for conversion. The mountain men, though excessive in their treatment of poor Ned Beatty, can be seen as acting as protectors of their territory and way of life against the intrusion of the half-assed survivalists. The instinct for survival and the territorial imperative are the dual gateways by which man turns to animal.
Only a year later after Rituals, Halloween would give us the definitive slasher film, and with The Shape's insistence on returning to his hometown and his childhood house, one could argue that the territorial imperative is his driving force. His evil is not explained—it simply is—he does not rationalize, he acts purely off of instinct. This is the fundamental male paradox—a desire, nay, need to fulfill animal instinct, despite the opposition of socially imposed constraints.
1982's Turkey Shoot (aka Escape 2000 aka Blood Camp Thatcher) is one of my favorite riffs on the concept, and I believe a proper horror installment in the sub-genre. I think of director Brian Trenchard-Smith as sort of an Australian John Carpenter—in this film and Dead End Drive In he blends dystopian political commentary with fun genre concepts (like Carpenter did a couple years later with Escape From New York and They Live!). The setting is essentially a concentration camp, where the commandant and a few visiting dignitaries stage a classic human hunt. There is a line as the group is discussing the hunt and their chosen weapons where a character makes a clear statement of decadence “After all, excess is what makes life worth living.” This film also links the hunt with male potency in that same scene though discussion of gun size, the constant threat of rape upon the female prisoners as well as the fact that along with the 2 male prisoners, 2 particularly attractive female prisoners are selected for the death game. Sexuality again is a manifestation of primal instinct just as the territorial imperative is. This leads us to the next interlocking ring of macho horror, the concept of man as beast.
Man As Beast
The concept of lycanthropy goes back to ancient Greece. In the original Greek story, the cannibalistic king Lycaon is punished by being transformed into a wolf—a bloodthirsty, deadly beast. Over the years, the concept of man transforming into a beast has become a potent metaphor for our ingrained instincts fighting against our civilized veneer. This leads us to face the fundamental paradox: as men we must fulfill our instincts, yet if we digress to the point that life is merely the fulfillment of instinct, we cease being men.
The unromantic vampire is also clearly a man transformed into animal. The romantic vampire co-opts this animalistic commentary by involving the vampire in some sort of relationship, rather than the fulfillment of (blood) lust. By doing this, it neuters the potency of the metaphor. Films like Count Yorga, Vampire, the Hammer Dracula series, Fright Night, the 1979 version of Dracula and The Lost Boys present “macho” vampires—vampires that target prey as an animal would. And it is worth mentioning Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter presents a macho katana wielding foe to the creatures of the night.
I would argue there is a tiny sub-sub-genre that is based off the complex relationship we bear with our animal nature (that is to say our origins as animals) and our fear of death. I call it “existentialist horror”--the horror than comes from confronting our origins as a species, and where we are headed when our fragile existence is over. I've pinpointed only 3 films so far that fit my criteria, but they are all essential viewing.
Altered States (1980) is not generally thought of as a horror movie, however it merits our attention. Dr. Eddie Jessup is attempting to access “evolutionary memory,” that is he believes our DNA retains the collective memories of our evolution. In the process of unraveling this, he devolves, reduces himself back to animal form. When this process peaks he breaks into a zoo and kills and eats an animal. After he returns to his normal state he describes it as the best time he'd ever had. It's simply the fulfillment of instinct, instincts his intellectual existence has denied—this is the exact same process traditional tales of lycanthropy use.
Written and directed by William Peter Blatty (writer of The Exorcist), The Ninth Configuration (1980) is a movie that defies conventional explanation—part drama, part comedy, part thriller most would agree. To me it fits into this small existentialist horror sub-sub-genre. Hear me out: the setting is a castle acting as a military asylum, there are constant references to Dracula, and constant stormy nights. Against this backdrop, an insane absurdist psychological drama plays out, and at the core of it is the meaning of life in light of human origins and human destiny. This is Lovecraft without the monsters (or perhaps we are the only monsters to be found). Insanity is a digression to an animal state, removing us from human standards, which allows fulfillment of our animal nature.
Now, I will briefly mention my favorite horror movie, Jacob's Ladder (1990). This movie is too good to spoil, so I will merely state that it concerns a Vietnam veteran (again soldiering is a macho role) coping with the death of his young son, his own war trauma, and ultimately the origins of human fear (through the fight or flight response). This film also is heavily reliant on the male fear of losing control of oneself (and one's own destiny), and with that leads us to my final (and most brief) theme.
Man As Master
As I stated earlier, a very basic fear for men is lack of control. This can be outwardly focused, which gives us the plethora of survivalist and man vs. nature films. It is very much worth noting that even non-horror movies in these sub-genres have strong horror elements such as the bear that stalks the plane crash survivors in The Edge, or the cannibalism which figured prominently in the original version of Jeremiah Johnson (actually cause for rewriting the script). There is a definite overlap with the human hunting genre as well--the man vs nature sub-genre often boils down to nature hunting men.
The Australian film Long Weekend is a favorite example of this genre. In this film, the destruction of the couple's relationship is a direct consequence of their wanton destruction of nature (both characters are guilty, but the male more so). This is a brutal, and deeply ironic film—the more their control over their lives and relationship slips, the more they project it upon nature, yet in the end they destroy themselves.
Man as master gives us the mad scientist sub-genre. Starting with Frankenstein/The Bride of Frankenstein, and continuing with The Invisible Man, the staple of this genre is a power drunk man who places himself above common ethical standards (not too different from Zaroff). I am very fond of the Re-Animator series and From Beyond as well. Frankly, there is not anything more macho than conquering death, so what Herbert West lacks in muscle mass, he makes up for with balls and intellect.