Sunday, June 11, 2006

SpecRom Cinema: Perversion of Pathos

So the Sundance Channel is running a series called "Asia Extreme" -- playing all those nouveau horror movies that American directors are re-making.

Last Sunday's offering was Dark Water.

These are my thoughts on the original film (not the American version which I have not seen), as I try to figure out what makes nouveau horror tick, and what themes/mechanics/twists can we lift in the pursuit of successful dark paranormal romance.

Be warned. This discussion contains
(emphatic organ music and crashing thunder.)

What struck me about Dark Water is that the horror was not so much about generic supernatural eeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil, but grew organically from the emotions inherent in the story's tragedy.

In the original, a besieged Yoshima fights a custody battle with her overbearing ex. The most important thing to Yoshima is to keep her daughter, Ikuru. But she's out on her own, trying to find work and a stable place to live. In short, she's trying to keep it together under some serious stress. Y&I get moved in, a job is secured, things seem to be going well. And then the ceiling starts to leak. It's the first clue to the tragedy that spawns the horror.

Yoshima begins to unravel clues about a child gone missing. The girl and her family lived in the apartment directly above Y&I -- the apparent origin of the ceiling leak. The little girl's mother ran off without warning, and soon after, the little girl disappeared. Through mounting creepiness and threats to Ikuru's safety, Yoshima discovers the secret of the lost little girl. Unsupervised and alone, the girl followed a maintenance crew to the roof and fell into the uncapped water tank to drown alone and unclaimed. When Y&I move in to the apartment building, the lost little girl's revenant decides that she needs a mother like Yoshima far more than Ikuru ever could.

The key here is that the horror springs from real emotion. The lost girl is trapped in grief and anger and abandonment. It's not that she wants to destroy Ikuru or claim Yoshima out of negative emotion. She the ghost of a frightened child: she wants, she aches, she takes.

Or more accurately, at the surprisingly powerful climax, Yoshima gives. To save Ikuru, she sacrifices herself and embraces the lost girl's ghost, accepting the job of being mother to a wanting child through eternity (horrifically illustrated by the drowned animated corpse trying to nurse from the terror-struck Yoshima), and thereby giving Ikuru the chance to live.

So what's the lesson of Dark Water? I think it's a new view on creating threat. Instead of making the eeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil want to destroy because, well, it's eeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil and that's what it does, consider grounding the threat to your characters in an emotion that, in normal circumstances, would engender a reader's empathy. Who wouldn't feel for a motherless child who falls victim to tragedy? How about when its hungry ghost starts tearing you and your family apart? It's a perversion of pathos -- a tool you can use when crafting your next dark paranormal romance.

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