The Norwegian “found-footage” monster movie “The Troll Hunter” is in many ways an admirable failure. The sub-genre of the “found-footage” film at its centre interrogates the line between reality and fiction in the film medium. As an art form caught between its origins in photography, often somewhat erroneously cited as the visual means best placed to capture unadorned reality, and its potential for composed visual artistry and dramatic grand narratives, the line between fact and fiction on-screen is in essence there to be explored and questioned as a consequence of this fundamental tension. The strength of “found-footage” features has thus far been found in horror, where grainy amateur-looking footage, unknown actors and a suspension of traditional narrative structure for a documentary-esque embracing of free form storytelling contributes to the suspension of the audience’s disbelief, and in the cases of “Cannibal Holocaust” and “The Blair Witch Project” the fear factor is raised by the apparent non-fiction presented to us: quite alarmingly and controversially so in the case of the former. However, the reason these “found-footage” horrors are so effective in distorting our sense of a film as fictional construct is because what we are being presented with is so basic and believable: the only enemy in “The Blair Witch Project” is the dark and what lies in the shadows, whilst in “Cannibal Holocaust” the discovery of a barbaric lost civilization is well within the realms of belief: yet this is not so in the case of films in which the horror element is provided by a gargantuan, fantastical monster. In “Cloverfield,” then, the use of a “found footage” aesthetic is a somewhat superficial one: the line between reality and fiction is not being broached; rather the trope is being used as a mere stylistic device to heighten the intensity of the action sequences. “The Troll Hunter,” embraces the same raw kineticism to generate tension and fear, but is consciously rejecting the interrogation of diegetic reality. The folkloric elements of troll mythology are posed in acerbically and wryly ironic terms in the film, grounded in comically logical scientific fact to paradoxically elevate the comic absurdity of the premise. The film asks whether trolls can smell the blood of a Muslim as well as that of a Christian, and uses bright artificial light instead of the sun’s rays to turn the titular predators into stone. It is admirable that a much more light-hearted and witty horror film has attempted to find a more absurdist use of the “found-footage” idea, but the very knowingness of the parody undermines what is so fascinating about the technique.

The film does however pose another question beyond mining the silliness of the “found-footage” sub-genre: namely the inherent absurdity of the monster movie in general. The action sequences in the film are suspenseful and riveting, yet even the monsters themselves are played somewhat for laughs, the design of the creatures facially at least resembling a Jim Henson creation. Although the eponymous hero’s cathartic hinting at his love and respect for his quarry before his lonely march into the snowbound blizzard, and the Government’s capture and suggested liquidation of the film crew, see the film reach out its dying grasp towards something more poignant and troubling, it feels like a forced last gasp towards solemnity, and the film’s strength lies in embracing the humour of the monster movie. This inherent silliness hearkens back to the genre's origins in the Japanese low-budget “Godzilla” films, and poses the question of whether films involving monolithic, fantasy creatures can ever be taken especially seriously, or whether these films ought, like “Troll Hunter,” to leave their aspirations towards true screen terror at the door and accept their camp value.

Returning briefly to “Cloverfield,” I would propose that the ridiculousness of the film lies not in the lack of suspense in the adrenaline-fuelled proceedings of the narrative, but once again in the use of the monster element as nothing more than a means of superficial thrills. Although the employment of this creature in the film’s action set-pieces allows for some mercifully restrained use of CGI and aurally effective sound mixing, the horror is fleeting and doesn’t root itself deep enough in the psyche of the audience to be taken particularly seriously, and my personal reservations towards CGI effects renders the use of such creations in cinema to be fundamentally and profoundly self-defeating, as anyone who saw the recent “Clash of the Titans” remake will surely agree with. Monsters have been made redundant in horror cinema following the American films of the seventies and eighties. As Craven, Carpenter, Friedkin and Hooper have proved, true horror and fear comes not from the fantastical but from the human: from all-too-real serial killers stalking their victims even into the realms of our subconscious, from deeply disturbed minds who lurk around the next unfortunate wrong turn, and from a deep-rooted subliminal fear of the occult and the satanic mysteries of the world beyond. These horrors are much less extraordinary than monsters and are in all cases grounded in very real, almost mundane fears of mental psychoses and the derangement of isolation. When this wave of films took the potential of the horror genre to a new level of fear, did it leave the monster movie to lie exhausted in its dust?

In horror cinema, yes. But not so in classic adventure films.

If I deride Japanese monster movies of the fifties and sixties as being kitsch and ridiculous, this is hardly an accusation which contradicts the basic aesthetic and philosophy of these films: let’s not for one minute kid ourselves that those pictures were ever meant to be taken seriously, or that they ever took themselves seriously. However, in America at this time the greatest special effects filmmaker of all time was proving that cinematic monsters could be fantastical, could in no way convince us that they were in any way real, and which were nonetheless extraordinarily terrifying: this man was Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen’s creatures appear in films we traditionally see when we are young, and as such are at the perfect tender age for his nightmarish creations to become deeply ingrained in our unconsciousness. His beasts were of course unreal, yet the jerkiness of the stop motion enhanced the terrifying other-worldliness and creepiness of monsters such as the Medusa, the skeletons, the Cyclops and the original Kraken. The sound designs which accompanied the monsters were visceral, screeching and haunting. Harryhausen took his lead from the greatest screen monster of them all: King Kong. The original stop-motion Kong is similarly nightmarish in its extraordinary physicality and aural impact, and the intensity and sheer violence of the action sequences in the original “King Kong” are to this day uncomfortably, gleefully brutal. These films may be classics, but perhaps the monsters are the only things in them worthy of true serious cinematic consideration. The narrative of the original “King Kong” is a simplistic movement from one monstrous encounter to another, the film’s characters one-dimensional constructs, its dialogue woeful and wooden. The Harryhausen films have survived purely because of his contributions to them, the pictures beyond his creatures being camp, dated fantasy adventures.

The monster movie has undergone an interesting polarity switch over time in the cinema. The monster element used to be taken seriously when the film itself was not. Today, the filmmaking is taken seriously and the monsters are not. Is this a natural movement away from the limited effectiveness of fantasy beasts in an era of increasingly twisted psychological horror filmmaking, or a comment in how for all the technological advances of special effects in the present day such techniques are far less effective in film than they were fifty years ago?

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2 Responses

  1. David Brook

    Some interesting thoughts.

    Thinking about the difference between stop motion and CGI just now, it’s strange how one of the feelings I gain from watching the old Harryhausen films and King Kong is admiration for what the filmmakers achieved with primitive tools, but when you think about it, it’s still incredibly difficult to make CGI creations as anyone who’s loaded up any special effects software and struggled to make a grey cube bounce around will attest to. Yet because CGI has made the scope of what is possible with special effects almost limitless, we have less respect for it.

    I guess it goes back to the fact that computer generated lifeforms lack the lived in physical nature of practical and stop motion effects. They may look clunky, but at least they feel ‘real’. You need imperfections to accept something as being alive and as much as CGI artists try to add their own imperfections, the fact that we know they are planned, added elements, negates their purpose.

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  2. Adam Hollingworth

    Absolutely right…I never find myself looking at stop-motion creatures and seeing them as products of their time, but rather find them timeless and the tangibility of them to override any clunkiness that may have emerged with age. The problem with CGI is that it therefore has to look tangible too, otherwise the point of the effect if defeated: if you can tell it isn’t real then it’s failed, and most CGI falls into the trap. I think I’ve mentioned before that for me the perfect use of CGI is Harvey Dent’s burns in “The Dark Knight:” I spent ages working out how they did it with make-up before I read that it was CGI. Although Harryhausen effects would be laughed at in contemporary cinema, they still seem to satisfy the aims of visual effects more than CGI…perhaps there’s a sheer element of enjoying the craftsmanship present in stop-motion that is easier to appreciate than in CGI

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