Friday, July 10, 2009

Unhealthy Horror

At a recent Shadow Box performance of Repo! The Genetic Opera (chalk it up to research/ my addiction to seeing Anthony Stuart Head in leather on the big screen) I noticed the general unhealth of the genre fans around me. Perhaps it’s the unflattering fit of pleather, fishnets, and pre-shrunk t-shirts, but glance at any midnight movie or convention line and it’s hard to feel confident in the event of a surprise field day (though conversely, it does give you quite the edge in a surprise Battle Royale tournament). 

For a genre whose fanbase is often less than athletic (not to make any sweeping generalizations; I’m basing this on the unexplainable fact that nachos, beer, and chocolate covered anything tastes better when watching people eat or kill each other), you’d think that a few filmmakers would have tried their hands at addressing this issue. But despite their insatiable appetites and reluctance to exercise with any enthusiasm, zombies are generally reserved to symbolize human cruelty, apathy, societal breakdown, and stupidity, while slashers focus their lessons on premarital sex participants and users of illegal substances. Onscreen, such a definition has yet to include trans fats.

In any genre, the overweight are generally cast as comfortable furniture. In horror, they can be used to showcase creative killing (like the gluttonous spaghetti massacre of Se7en), comic relief (Dawn of the Dead’s Big & Tall swim trunks model), or to emphasize the grotesque in villains (the latest round of Texas Chainsaw Massacres). Even that perennial holiday favorite, Silent Night Deadly Night features a trim psycho killer, and that’s a film about Santa Clause, a character who has himself been accused of setting a bad example when it comes to eating habits.

I accept the whole escapist fantasy of film and television and wouldn’t expect to see a Lane Bryant model playing Friday the 13th’s next final girl. What surprises me is that, to my knowledge, there are few films that delve into obesity or the culture of weight with the same intellectual and/or horrific energy as, say, Cronenberg’s studies of the sexual body or even Ginger Snaps’ lycanthropic menstrual analogy. We like our struggles with religion, suburban psychology, and alcoholism metaphors just fine, but an ubiquitous health crisis, not so much. 

Perhaps the most obvious example of “fat horror” is Stephen King’s little loved Thinner. Sure, that film gave us a donut devouring stereotype of an antihero, but for all its incredible shrinking waistline, the horror was more focused on the diabolical power of Gypsies than the potential fright of diabetes. The recent Drag Me to Hell gave heroine Allison Lohman an interesting character history as a formerly chubby farm girl (because apparently Gypsies have some sort of vendetta against the overweight). While one message board posting I read insisted the entire demonic hunt was a representation of Lohman’s discomfort with her past, you’d have to find some pretty incredible spandex to stretch that metaphor over the whole story. 

One of the best genre pictures about dieting--and America’s obsession with making it look cook, in particular--is Larry Cohen’s quirkily genius 1985 The Stuff. Pre-dating the Atkins Diet popularity explosion by a good 18 years, this satirical riot of a horror-comedy targets American consumerism with a product eerily packaged with a logo similar to Target. Once again, the real subject is corporate advertising and our inability to resist it, but it does a decent--and thoroughly entertaining--job of considering one sector of the weight issue on camera.

So does cinema need to pork up, or am I missing a few delicious treats that explore or exploit the rotundity of the modern age? 

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