Between Logic and Enchantment: The Last Unicorn

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I suppose it’s time I capped off my reviews of the four main Rankin Bass flicks, and thankfully we end on a high note.  With the highest budget of them all, The Last Unicorn is by far the prettiest of Rankin Bass’s 2-D animated Fantasy films.  It also boasts the tremendous vocal talents of Christopher Lee, a man who elevates any material he is given, even if said material is a character named Count Dookie.  In many way, this movie is the highest point of Rankin Bass’s Fantasy aesthetic, and may perhaps be their objectively best film.  While it’s not quite my favorite (it’s hard to beat the movies that have dragons in starring roles), I still find it marvelous, as it shows what this company could do when given the money they needed.

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It’s an animated version of a medieval lion!  Which is to say, a weird dog, because medieval monks didn’t see most of the animals they tried to paint.

The opening credits of the film use actual medieval taspestries as inspiration, recreating the creatures and scenes upon them before bringing those things to life.  The design of the unicorn in this movie is incredibly unique, being more than just a horse with a horn, but upon seeing the animated tapestries, you immediately realize where the inspiration for the design came from – its strange, graceful form is drawn directly from medieval artwork.    It’s a wonderful touch that feels so new despite being so old – from my other posts, you may surmise that I’m particularly fond of this approach to fantasy creature design.

The titular last unicorn hears that her fellow unicorns have disappeared, and, being perturbed at this news, sets out to learn the truth.  A butterfly tells her that a Red Bull drove the unicorns into the sea.  While the butterfly in question is kind of coocoo bananas, the unicorn trusts his word and leaves her forest to find the rest of her kind, for good or ill.

A peasant mistakes the unicorn for a normal horse, being incapable of seeing her horn, and horribly offends the magical creature.  She notes that men can no longer recognize the fantastical, and is glad for it, as it means she and her kind may be safe.  This kind of points to a unifying theme of  the Rankin Bass fantasy film quartet: the idea that magic began to die or at least fade from perception as time passed, and that humanity lost the ability to see the enchanting parts of the world.  Indeed, if The Flight of Dragons was a story of the magical world trying to keep from falling to extinction, then The Last Unicorn is about how humanity tries force the magical to fall under its control, and in doing so furthers the divide between them.

dragon

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Yes, these guys only get a small cameo, but if you thought I wasn’t going to highlight these awesome creature designs because of their lack of importance, you’re following the wrong blog.

The unicorn encounters a witch, Mommy Fortuna, who runs a traveling circus.  Fortuna actually recognizes her for what she is, but knows that other people won’t, and creates an illusory horn on the unicorn’s head.  We learn that the witch’s circus is filled with normal animals that have been magically altered to look like magical beasts: a lion becomes a manticore, a lizard becomes a dragon, a python becomes the Midgar Serpent, etc.  Only the unicorn and, oddly enough, a harpy are really what they seem to be.  Luckily, Fortuna’s apprentice, a wizard named Schmendrick, can not only see the unicorn for what she is, but is sympathetic to her plight, and plans to help the unicorn escape.

Mommy Fortuna taunts the harpy and the unicorn, saying that while she knows the harpy will escape and kill her one day, she doesn’t care, as she caught immortal creatures that will forever remember the humiliation of being caged by a mortal.  “There’s my immortality, heh?”  The old witch believes that the magical creatures belong to her because she caged them, and is even bold enough to tell the unicorn she should be thankful that the witch is keeping her from the Red Bull.

titty harpy

No discussion of The Last Unicorn can escape mentioning the Titty Harpy, so here it is you Monster Musume loving perverts: The Titty Harpy

Schmendrick returns to save the unicorn, casting a spell to break her cage, but we quickly learn that a wizard called Schmendrick may not be a high quality wizard.  I mean he doesn’t even have a beard for chrissakes.  So instead of breaking the unicorn free immediately, Schmendrick tries, like, seven goddamn times to free her.  He has true magic, but he’s just… just so bad at it.  Or, as Schmendrick says, “My dear, you deserve the aid of a great magician, but I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for a second rate pickpocket.”  He then picks the lock with stolen keys, only to get caught by Mommy Fortuna’s hunchbacked assistant.  All hell breaks loose as the unicorn unlocks all the cages, including the cage of the harpy.  True to magical form, the Harpy kills Mommy Fortuna, and the unicorn and Schmendrick barely manage to escape with their lives.

 

Molly Grue

I swear to god I didn’t mean to catch Molly Grue in a weirdly seductive pose, this was an accident I promise

Schmendrick gets captured by some bandits who fancy themselves to be like Robin Hood’s Merry Men, but are really just a bunch of cutthroat thieves with a dramatic streak.  Among them is Molly Grue, a salt of the earth sort of woman with a backbone of iron and enough common sense to compensate for the gaggle of idiots she cooks for.  Schmendrick conjures an illusion of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, which all the bandits then follow in desperation to be part of something better than what they really are.  Sadly the leaders of the bandits aren’t fooled, and they promptly tie Schmendrick to a tree and plan to sell him into slavery.  Worse, Schmendrick’s powers animate a tree with giant bazoombas, and a scene everyone would like to forget ensues before the unicorn rescues him.

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No discussion of The Last Unicorn can escape mentioning the titty tree.  Christ, what is it with this movie and its unwanted TNA?

Molly Grue runs into the pair in the woods, and, unlike most people, actually recognizes the unicorn for what she is.  This gives Molly a small breakdown:  “Where were you when I was young?  How dare you come to me now, when I’ve come to this?”  If you know your unicorn mythology, you know that they generally only come to virgins, or at least those who are pure of heart.  Molly, a woman we can tell at a glance has seen some shit, obviously doesn’t think she fits the criteria anymore, despite having desperately wanted to see a unicorn her whole life.  The fact that she does see the unicorn for what it is, however, tells us something more about Molly, and honestly, this is just… just really neat, isn’t it?  It’s the kind of interesting character development stuff you can do with fantastical concepts – that we can learn something about Molly’s character just because she can see the unicorn when others can’t.  It’s neat.

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I’m not saying this made me cry, but my eyes may have leaked some fluid.

The trio then runs into the Red Bull we’ve heard so much about, which basically looks as demonic as a bull can get.  The monstrous beast chases down our unicorn protagonist on sight, and Molly Grue and Schmendrick wrack their brains on how they could intervene.  Molly tells Schmendrick that he’s a good enough magician to save the day, and amazingly, Schmendrick proves her right, turning the unicorn into a human that the bull promptly ignores.

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Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows, Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone, Moloch in whom I sit lonely

Unfortunately, Schmendrick is still an immensely shitty wizard, and cannot figure out how to undo the spell.  Molly Grue immediately realizes this won’t work out well, as humans and unicorns have some key psychological differences that won’t exactly translate well.  Sure enough, one of the first things the woman-who-was-a-unicorn says is, “I can feel this body dying!”, so yeah, this is more than a little traumatic for her.

Our heroes arrive at the castle of King Haggard, and are stopped by two guards, one of which has a fuggin’ awesome voice.  It is then revealed the two guards are none other than King Haggard (the one played by Christopher Lee) and his son, Lir.  Schmendrick tells the king that his group has come to be the king’s servants, which is a pretty decent cover story all things considered.  King Haggard claims he already has a magician, but Molly Grue points out he must not be a very good magician, as the King is clearly not happy.  When Haggard asks how she would know, Molly replies, “Well just look at you,” which is why Molly Grue is the best.  Haggard thinks so as well: “The woman is right – a master magician has not made me happy, let’s see what an incompetent one can do.”  And so the gang gets hired.

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Creepin’ on ladies the kingly way

Haggard notices that the unicorn-turned-woman is, well, not exactly an ordinary woman, and is fascinated.  Schmendrick tells the King she is the Lady Amalthea, and Haggard, curious to the point of getting more than a little menacing, allows them to stay until he can figure out why he can’t see himself in Amalthea’s eyes.  Lir is also interested in Amalthea, albeit in a less offputting way, which is to say in a somewhat forced heterosexual romantic way.  We then get a montage of life at the castle, complete with Lir killing an Asian Dragon that uses a modified version of Godzilla’s roar.  Lir grows increasingly infatuated with Amalthea/the unicorn, while Haggard is vaguely entertained by Schmendrick’s magic tricks and not-so-vaguely creeping on Amalthea.

Eventually Lir asks Molly Grue for love advice, bemoaning the fact that all his great deeds have failed to impress Amalthea.  Molly Grue tells him that maybe she wants something other than, y’know, killing dragons for no particular reason.  She also talks to Amalthea on Lir’s behalf, only to discover Amalthea is losing her memory of being a unicorn as humanity increasingly sets in over her psyche.  It’s the kind of interesting concept that, again, you can really only explore in a story that has this kind of fantastical element, and yet you so rarely find fantasy stories that delve into this sort of weirdness.

Captain Kitten

Best movie pirate?  Best movie pirate.

Molly then encounters a cat that lives in the castle and, for whatever reason, is also a pirate and capable of speech?  Like, it has a pegleg and an eyepatch, and also talks like a pirate, and I have no idea why but it’s delightful.  The cat gives Molly important exposition: the Red Bull is employed by King Haggard, and Haggard’s castle has a tunnel that leads to the Red Bull’s lair.  The cat refuses to tell Molly how to reach the tunnel outright, instead couching the advice in a riddle, as “No cat ever gave a straight answer, harr harr!”

Lir, at Molly Grue’s instruction, writes a poem for Amalthea, and then reads it to her, and it’s genuinely sweet and not at all reminding me of several doomed attempts at romance I made when I was a melodramatic teenager.  It especially doesn’t remind me of such humiliating failures when Lir starts to sing the poem in a voice that’s just a little hollow.  Anyway, it definitely doesn’t remind me of any past experience when it actually works, as Amalthea finally starts to return some of Lir’s affection, perhaps in no small part due to the fact that she’s losing her innate unicorn-y-ness.

Or maybe mushy sentimental poetry actually works on unicorns, IDK.

Haggard

And now, Sir Christopher Fucking Lee

King Haggard finds Amalthea as she watches Lir riding home, and the two have a tense conversation.  Haggard reveals he adopted Lir in an attempt to be happy, only to find it as hollow and vain as all his other attempts.  He chastises Amalthea for clinging to the pretense that she’s human, claiming he can tell her true nature from the way she moves and interacts with the world.  Worse, he reveals that he has purposely driven the unicorns into the sea.  This moment actually becomes a little tragic, as Haggard reveals the unicorns are the only thing that makes him happy, and it was the happiness they inspired that led the mad king to imprison them so he could have them forever.  The scene is a testament to Christopher Lee’s acting skill, as it makes King Haggard both immensely terrifying and sympathetic.  There is a final twist to it, though, as Amalthea cannot see her unicorn kin in the water, proving that she may soon be too far gone to ever become a unicorn again.  Her eyes, as Haggard notes, have become as empty “as any eyes that never saw a unicorn.”

drunken skeleton

No discussion of The Last Unicorn can escape mentioning the drunken skeleton.  It, thankfully, has no titties.

After bribing a skeleton with an empty bottle of wine (don’t ask), our heroes find the entrance to the Red Bull’s lair, which is hidden in a magic clock.  Lir joins them along the way, while Haggard destroys the clock after they’ve entered, trapping our heroes in the Red Bull’s lair with only one way out.  Schmendrick finally tells Lir that Amalthea is a unicorn, and Lir says that it won’t change a thing for him.  Amalthea then protests that she doesn’t want to change back, as she loves Lir too.  However, Amalthea must change back if the other unicorns are to be saved, and Lir argues that Amalthea must go through with her original plan, even if it means they cannot stay in love.  In essence, Lir proves to be a better man than his father, as he would let magic run free even if it meant he could never experience it again.

FIM

FRIENDSHIP IS MURDER YOU WING GIVING MOTHERFUCKER

Schmendrick turns Amalthea back into a unicorn, and Lir rushes in to fight the bull on her behalf, getting struck down in the process.  Heartbroken, Amalthea goes on the offensive, driving the Red Bull back and giving all the trapped unicorns inspiration to leave the sea and fend off the Bull once and for all.  Haggard’s castle collapses in the unicorn stampede, killing the old tyrant in the process.  Amalthea heals Lir’s wounds, then returns home, knowing she is the only unicorn who has ever experienced love and regret.

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A crowd shot in a Rankin Bass fantasy cartoon that isn’t just a bunch of moving dots?  Impossible!

Aesthetically, The Last Unicorn is a delight, with all the wonderfully stylized, expressive, and unique character designs you’d expect from Rankin Bass, lush landscapes, and most marvelous of all, the animation budget to bring these characters to life far better than ever before.  It is the apex of their style, accomplishing much of what the studio tried and only somewhat succeeded to do in the past.  Its story is strange, enchanting, and deeply emotional, all while taking us to fantastic places with strange and wonderful characters.

To end on a philosophical note, The Last Unicorn offers an interesting meditation on the relationship between humanity and its fantasies.  The world of imagination must be kept free – not chained and forced to fit a popular mold, as it is in Mommy Fortuna’s circus and indeed many stale storytelling tropes.  Nor should it be obsessed over, as doing so can not only lead one to neglect the important things in the world around them, but also poisons the fantasy itself, as is the case with King Haggard.  No, fantasy, by its nature, is ethereal and unreachable, a fleeting thing that flutters in and out of our lives.  It can’t stay as long as we would like, and sometimes it fails to find us when we feel we need it, but it can come to us when we need it, even if we thought it was impossible, as was the case with Molly Grue.  Fantasy inspires us with its impossibility, delights us with its purity, and while in time it fades as the real world asserts its presence, it never leaves entirely – it lives still, in the forests of imagination, and in our hearts which hope for a better, stranger world.

last unicron

She is the last, there are no more, she is the last unicorn…

Posted in Between Logic and Enchantment, Creepy Columns | Tagged , | 1 Comment

ICHF: The Weird Sisters

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We’re going as classic as it gets with this entry, folks: meet the Weird Sisters from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Now, some of you may be thinking, “Shakespeare?  Shakespeare isn’t horror – unless you count the horror I feel at having to read complex sentences HEY YO!”  Academics, in a similar vein, might think, “Shakespeare isn’t horror.  Shakespeare is good literature, whereas horror is trash.”  Hell, even most horror literature scholars would probably think, “Wait, wait, the first horror novel is The Castle of Otranto, which was written well after Shakespeare was dead.  This doesn’t add up.”

Well, let’s take a look at the roots of the Horror Genre, shall we – or at least the roots of Horror in Western Literature, as it’s positively wrong to think that Western Culture is the source of all horror stories.  In addition to Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (still the first horror novel as far as we know), you also have several other early horror writers like Ann Radcliffe and William Beckford.  Radcliffe is particularly important, as she was one of the most prolific horror writers of her time, while most of her contemporaries were kind of one hit wonders.  These writers all had one major thing in common (besides writing horror): they all fucking loved Shakespeare.

Walpole (writer of the first horror novel, The Castle of Otranto, can’t stress this enough, it’s an important book) went on and on in his personal letters about how much he looked up to Shakespeare and tried to learn from the bard’s plays.  If you look at the structure of his novel (and also his play The Mysterious Mother, which isn’t quite as good), you will see it takes after several patterns in Shakespeare’s work, in addition to just outright referencing the man’s plays now and then.  Radcliffe, however, went the extra mile by writing an entire article (in the form of a socratic dialogue, because people were cultured as fuck back then) about how the two primary modes of fear in Gothic literature – horror and terror – are perfectly illustrated by two of Shakespeare’s plays: Hamlet, and… Macbeth.

Those two plays keep coming up, in fact, the more and more you research those early Gothic horror writers.  Radcliffe was right – the formulas and techniques she and her peers were all working with are shamelessly pilfered from Shakespeare’s most spooky plays.

This has a curious effect, or at least it did on me.  Many readers have seen the roots and foundation of the present day horror genre in those old stories.  Well, it works backwards too – once you see the connection between Shakespeare and the early gothic horror tales, it’s easy to start viewing those two plays as horror stories themselves.  After all, they fit the pattern – it’s a bit more medieval than, say, Dracula, but the beats are very close to each other.  In the right light, Macbeth stops being just a work of the Renaissance, and instead becomes the progenitor of a whole new genre.

Which finally brings us back to our power trio here: the Weird Sisters.  While the main monster/villain of Macbeth is, well, Macbeth, he isn’t the only grim grinning ghoul in the play.  There are ghosts and demons apparitions, and then there are the witches.  And again, I feel the need to give a history lesson.

Nowadays the term witch has kinda been shaved down to just a human with magical powers, but in Shakespeare’s day it was something way more monstrous.  Witches were humans who had pledged themselves to demons, and let the fallen angels inhabit their bodies to give them great supernatural power.  A witch was no longer human once the pact was filled, and their bodies twisted into something monstrous as a result (though they could always use magic to hide their hideousness if they needed to).  In short, witches were more like Slenderman than Hermione Granger: monsters masquerading as human beings, and doing a shitty job of it while they’re at it.

When other characters see the witches in Macbeth, their reactions are something that should be very familiar to the modern horror fan: it’s the uncanny valley in full effect, the discomfort at how something appears close to being human, and yet is imperceptibly off.  Two battle hardened knights practically shit their pants at the sight of these hags, one of whom is then compelled to rattle off all the ways they are almost human and yet incredibly, terribly off.  We didn’t have the term uncanny valley back then, but Shakespeare was exploiting it as much as his 17th century theater budget could.

Like any good monster, the witches are symbols.  They ride in on a storm during a bloody war, plague sailors with storms, kill livestock, and generally cause a ruckus while the kingdom goes to shit.  They are natural disasters incarnate – every plague, storm, and other calamity that could crush a medieval kingdom wrapped up in three monstrous hags.  Shakespeare digs deeper still, however, by mining the medieval European beliefs about such disasters.

Back in ye olde middle ages, it was believed that the King was literally chosen by God to rule.  As an agent of the divine, the King’s purity was of great importance.  A king that failed in his duties – by being sick, or weak, or old, or incompetent, or, worst of all, immoral – was committing a sacrilege, and as a result his country would be doomed to disaster and ruin until a good king took his place.  The worse the king’s weakness, the worse the disaster, with monsters attacking only the sickest of kings.

So the witches arrive during a period of social unrest.  The current king of Scotland is old and withered, and some of his servants have already betrayed him.  They tell Macbeth that in the future he will be king, and, sap that he is, Macbeth not only believes them, but actively makes the prophecy come true by killing the king to take his place.

Now, if the king is God’s agent on earth, what would killing a king be?  Sacrilege.  Sacrilege of the worst order, especially since the same murderer then claims the throne.  As per medieval tradition, everything goes to shit.  Horses eat each other, prey animals kill and devour their pursuers, ghosts stir up shit, and Macbeth keeps on killing people even though his wife asked him to cut down on that – and all the while the witches make themselves comfortable and enjoy the show.

A lot of people call the witches evil, but I’m not sure I buy that.  The witches incite destruction, sure, and they pay disproportionate retribution unto others, but they never do things without cause.  The witches don’t tell Macbeth to kill the king – they simply say he will be king.  It’s Macbeth who decides the only way that will work involves murder.  There were other ways Macbeth could have been king.  He chose to kill, whereas the witches just seem to go where death is and let it flow through them.

Destruction is not evil when you have no choice in the matter.  It just is.  And the witches are destruction incarnate.  They cannot choose not to destroy – it’s simply the force they embody.  I dunno, that’s just my personal opinion.  They do commune with demons, so if you want to say they’re pure evil you’re allowed.  Though whether demons were actually pure evil or just flawed back then was actually debated by a lot of writers and scholars.  Regardless of whether or not they’re truly evil, the Weird Sisters are certainly terrifying, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the traditions of the Western Horror Genre are at least partially a result of their legacy.  To this day they’re still scaring people in productions of Macbeth across the world, and it’s doubtful they’ll ever stop.

 

Posted in Creepy Columns, Gothic Horror Characters, Iconic Characters of Horror Fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

ICHF: The Red Death

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Edgar Allen Poe is… just really brilliant. Just marvelous. He’s one of the best horror writers of all time, and I believe that strongly enough to declare it as an objective fact. He’s just… he’s just really great. When I was student teaching, there was this big book of Edgar Allen Poe’s writing in my mentor teacher’s classroom. I’d grab it during lunch every day and read it to blow off steam. I memorized the poem “The Conqueror Worm” that way. He’s got so many great spooky poems and short stories, and, if you’re like me in that you both love to read and love Halloween stuff, you really should read at least one piece by him every October.

The first story of his I chose to represent in this series is my personal favorite, “The Masque of the Red Death.” It’s a fairly simple short story, but one that is a classic example of old school Gothic Horror. It’s the Middle Ages (many gothic horror stories were set in that time period) and a horrible plague called the Red Death is spreading across Europe, killing people by making them bleed profusely from their skin. A nobleman named Prospero uses this plague to throw the world’s biggest party, inviting other rich people to his swanky castle where they can stay healthy and safe while all the peasants and serfs succumb to the plague. Anyone who isn’t rich is left outside to die while Prospero and his followers enjoy every pleasure they can think of.

One of the unique things about Prospero’s castle is his set of different colored rooms. Each is lit by a candle that is behind a different stained glass – a blue painted room has a castle behind blue glass, a violet has a candle behind violet, etc. The only room whose color of paint differs from the color of glass is the terrifying Red Room, whose walls are pitch black but has a light that is pure blood red. It’s very hellish and shows Prospero is kind of demented.

Prospero holds a Masquerade, and everyone dresses up in different costumes. It’s all fun until a mysterious guest no one recognizes shows up in a very elaborate and very terrifying costume; for he is dressed with a skull-faced mask and red cape, all smeared with blood, looking for all the world like the anthropomorphic representation of the Red Death itself. Prospero is pissed that someone would freak out his guests like this, and hunts down the Red Death throughout the packed castle. He follows the Red Death through all his colored rooms, finally ending in the Red Room.

The Red Death allows Prospero and the other guests to approach him, and they try to unmask him Scooby Doo style – only to realize the skull is real, and they are actually in the presence of a real ghost: the spirit of the Red Death. And, in an instant, every inhabitant of the castle succumbs to the plague and dies.

While the Red Death’s role in the story is rather small, its impact is huge, to the point where another prominent horror icon, the Phantom of the Opera, cosplayed as it in his own novel.  While normally death is characterized as either a malevolent or disppasionate entity, the Red Death is presented as an almost revolutionary avenging figure.  It is the wrath of the 99%, and a grim reminder that no matter how rich and powerful you may be, you cannot escape the catastrophes of the world. You do not want to cross the Red Death, for it will end you – and you will have had it coming.

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Between Logic and Enchantment: Labyrinth

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Created by Jim Henson and his studio of master puppeteers,  Labyrinth is a rightfully beloved fantasy film.  As the film is a relatively famous cult classic, I don’t feel the need to sing is overall praises – lots of people on the web have done that already, and probably better than I have.  What I can do, however, is focus on what aspect of Labyrinth that really sticks out to me: the way it adapts old fairy folklore into a modern day story.  We’ll start with a synopsis – one that’s perhaps a bit too detailed, but a lot of those small details are important – and then move on to talking about why Labyrinth’s portrayal of the Fair Folk is so good and true to that nebulous entity that is mythology.

As the opening credits roll, a state of the art (for the time) CGI owl flies over a very simple CGI labyrinth.  While this is “dated,” it’s also oddly charming, especially once David Bowie’s vocals kick in.  It’s almost a microcosm of the movie’s appeal – yes, its dated and no one’s convinced it’s real, but we’re not looking for reality here.  We looking for something utterly unrealistic, and yet just grounded enough to let us dream about the possibility of it existing anyway.

We begin proper with our heroine, Sarah, wearing her best Renaissance Faire cosplay, reciting lines from a story about a princess reclaiming a baby from a goblin king.  This isn’t foreshadowing so much as it’s literally the plot of the entire movie.  Unfortunately, she gets caught in the rain, and is then scolded by her mother for getting soaked, being late for babysitting duty, and not being romantically active as a teenager, the latter of which is kinda weird but her parents seem kinda preppy so maybe they just don’t approve of her cosplay lifestyle.  She retorts that her parents never ask her if she has plans, showing they DEFINITELY don’t approve of her cosplay lifestyle because they’re doing the classic “if we don’t talk to her about her dumb hobbies she might give them up” routine.

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If you’re thinking “Wow, those screencaps look even worse than usual,” it’s because my copy of Labyrinth is on blu ray but my computer can only play DVDs, so I had to take my screencaps from youtube videos.

Angry at being saddled with taking care of her dumb baby brother, Sarah recites the part of her book where its heroine wishes that goblins would take away her baby stepbrother.  This scene is intercut with scenes of a whole horde of goblins waiting for Sarah to actually wish for them to take the real life baby.  It’s creepy at first, but Sarah takes forever to outright say, “I wish the goblins would take my brother away,” and the goblins get increasingly irate over her dillydallying, which quickly becomes far more hilarious than scary.  Of course, eventually those words cross Sarah’s lips, and so we have our plot.

Sarah realizes something is wrong when the baby stops crying immediately, and is then confronted by David Bowie Jareth, the Goblin King.  Jareth tells her to play with her toys and costumes and forget about the baby, offering her a gift in return for her forgetting.  She politely refuses, thanking him for the offer before saying she can’t let him have the baby.  Jareth then offers her a second deal: if she can navigate his labyrinth in 13 hours and find the baby, she can have him back.  Though the labyrinth is impossibly large, Sarah agrees, charging forward.

Sarah then meets Hoggle, a goblin who looks as ugly on the outside as Disney’s Gurgi is on the inside.  That comparison isn’t just me continuing a tired joke – Hoggle is actually oddly similar to Gurgi, as you will see, but far more palatable because he’s supposed to be a bit despicable.  Hoggle is killing fairies with pesticide, and though Sarah chastises him, she is promptly bitten when she tries to help one of the fallen fairies.  When she questions why the fairy would do that, the following exchange occurs:

Hoggle: What would you expect fairies to do?

Sarah: I thought they did nice things, like granting wishes.

Hoggle: Hah!  Shows what you know.

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Gurgi done right.

While he’s cantankerous and cynical, Hoggle has some decent advice for Sarah, providing a good counterbalance to her optimism and naievete.  Unfortunately for our heroine, he doesn’t join her on her adventure – yet.

Sarah is almost beaten at the start, as the labyrinth seems to have no twists and turns, forcing her to run in a straight line.  Thankfully, a helpful worm points out that the walls are an optical illusion, hiding the various twists and turns in plain sight.  Less thankfully, the worm then tells her “Don’t go that way” when she’s about to take off, leading Sarah to go in the opposite direction.  “Good thing she didn’t go that way,” says the worm, “She’d have gone straight to that castle!”

We cut to Jareth and a horde of goblins watching Sarah in a crystal ball, which leads to one of my favorite things: KICKASS GOBLIN SONGS!

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Listen, words can’t do this justice – if you haven’t seen David Bowie dancing with a bunch of goblin puppets while singing about kidnapping a baby, you haven’t lived.

Our next scene of Sarah navigating the labyrinth highlights both her resourcefulness AND the labyrinth’s trickery.  Sarah marks stones with the direction she came from, giving he the ability to retrace her steps and check the forks in the road she didn’t visit.  Sadly, every time she does so, a tiny goblin emerges from under the stone and flips it over, hiding her marks from view.  Though Sarah is cleverer than some heroines might be, the labyrinth is no ordinary puzzle.

Sarah then comes across the classic Knights and Knaves riddle: two doors, two doorkeepers, one doorkeeper always lies, one always tells truth, only one question, etc.  The problem in this case is that the doorkeepers can’t keep the riddle straight themselves, and though Sarah finds the logically right choice, she still ends up falling into a deep hole.  Said hole is filled with disembodied “Helping Hands,” which send her down to the bowels of the labyrinth.

Hoggle finds her there, and offers his help to get her out of the labyrinth.  While he claims it’s out of the goodness of his heart, Sarah 1. doesn’t buy it and 2. doesn’t want to leave the labyrinth but rather wants to get to the castle at the center of it.  She offers Hoggle some jewelry for his guidance, and despite knowing better, Hoggle agrees because hot damn does he like jewelry.  Jareth confronts the pair almost immediately, threatening to put Hoggle in the Bog of Eternal Stench if the goblin dares to actually help Sarah.  He then asks Sarah is she enjoys the labyrinth, and when she says it’s a “piece of cake,” the Goblin King gets positively indignant, summoning a giant steampunk death machine to chase Sarah and Hoggle through the sewers.  They evade it easily enough, but still, it’s something of an overreaction.

The two emerge from a pot – a pot that isn’t touching the ground, which makes it ability to connect to the sewers highly suspect.  A grizzled old goblin tries to give them some cryptic, pseudo-philosophical advice, but is persistently heckled by the bird head he’s wearing as a hat.  It’s at this point in my notes where I realized it’s hard not to make this review a play by play, because goddamn every scene is just packed full of such wonderful, fun, utterly weird shit.

5

FRIEND?

Our heroes encounter a bunch of goblins tormenting a big hairy bugbear named Ludo.  Hoggle bails, leaving Sarah alone to watch the horrible sight.  Said Bugbear has the ability to control rocks, much like Toph Beifong, and once Sarah rescues him, he joins her with a simple grunt of, “Friend?”  While not particularly articulate, Ludo soon proves to be a stalwart ally on Sarah’s quest.  After a brief encounter with two less than helpful talking Door Knockers, Sarah and Ludo get separated, leaving our heroine alone once again.

Hoggle hears Sarah crying out, and almost goes to help her until he’s cut off by Jareth.  The Goblin King gives him a peach that will make Sarah forget her quest, telling Hoggle that he better get Sarah to eat it if he doesn’t want to lose his jewelry.  When Hoggle protests, Jareth repeats the threat of throwing Hoggle into the Bog of Eternal Stench, and so our cynical goblin reluctantly agrees to betray his only friend.

Sarah has a terrifying yet jaunty encounter with a group of goblins who delight in dismembering themselves, which, thanks to them being goblins, isn’t quite as lethal or gory as it sounds.  At least, it isn’t when they’re focus on themselves, but once they demand that Sarah removes her head we run into some problems.  Sarah runs and is rescued by Hoggle, escaping being torn apart by monsters who don’t realize she can’t just put herself back together.

The two then barely escape falling into the Bog of Eternal Stench, where they barely escape falling into its flatulating swamp water.  They run into Ludo there, as well as a small but tenacious fairy fox named Sir Didymus, who fights Ludo to a standstill.  Sir Didymus refuses to let them pass because he swore an oath that “none shall pass without [his] permission.”  Sarah then asks for his permission, and Sir Didymus realizes that this meets his requirements, and joins our heroes on their quest.  Sadly, the bridge breaks before they can cross, but thankfully Ludo can still summon rocks, and finds enough to make a new bridge for them.

6

I AM I, DID-QUIXOTE, THE FOX OF THE LABYRINTH, MY DESTINY CALLS AND I GOOOOOOO!

Hoggle gives Sarah the peach, and our heroine falls into a trance.  She finds herself in a ballroom, wearing the same dress as the figure in her music box back home, while all the other guests are humans wearing masks that are distinctly goblin-y.  Jareth meets her there, and the resulting dance scene is both enchanting and deeply unsettling, like a dream that could turn into a nightmare at any moment.  Sure enough, it does exactly that, as the people at the party behave more and more menacingly while the clock strikes ever closer to Sarah’s deadline.  Sarah finally ends the nightmare by smashing a mirror on the wall, which sends her tumbling through the air as the vision fades into nothingness.

Sarah finds herself landing in a pile of lost objects, where she meets a shabby packrat of a goblin woman.  The goblin gives Sarah an old Teddy bear she lost, implying that all the other objects in this area are all the objects people have lost throughout the years.  The goblin woman leads Sarah to what seems to be her bedroom, and Sarah momentarily rejoices because she thinks it was all just a dream.  This lasts for all of five seconds before the goblin woman breaks into her room again to bring Sarah more stuff she lost in an attempt to keep her from realizing she’s been bamboozled.  The facsimile room happens to contain the book Sarah was reading at the start of the movie, reminding her of her quest and giving her the gumption to escape the trap.  She reunites with Sir Didymus and Ludo and finds that she has finally reached the gates of the goblin city.

When they enter the city, our heroes are attacked by what is essentially a goblin Gundam, which is more than a match for them.  Luckily, Hoggle appears, and uses the Obi Wan Kenobi strategy of finding the high ground to break the Goblin-Gundam’s head unit, which, as you Gundam fans know, disqualifies the robot from the tournament by way of rendering it useless.  Sarah forgives Hoggle, and our group of heroes presses forward.  An entire army of goblins stands in their way, but through a mix of slapstick, magic trickery, and sheer heroic tenacity, Sarah’s friends help her get  to the heart of the castle.  Sarah tells them she must confront Jareth herself, as “That’s just the way it’s done,” and while they agree, Sir Didymus makes sure she knows that they’ll always be there for her if she needs them.

8

Oh yeah, this looks doable.

Jareth and Sarah meet in a section of the castle that is composed of stairways in all directions and angles, much like an M.C. Escher painting.  Gravity isn’t quite constant in the room, as one can walk in any direction so long as their feet are planted on the stairs.  Sarah quickly loses track of where up and down even are as she chases her baby brother through the stairs, all while Jareth croons about how he’s done all of this for Sarah.  Sarah finally confronts Jareth head on, and the Goblin King claims he has been “generous.”  Sarah asks how he’s been generous, and Jareth says he’s given her everything:

“Everything! Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn’t that generous?”

Sarah then realizes that their confrontation is going exactly like the one she was reciting at the beginning of the movie – that Jareth has essentially let her live the story she has practically memorized.  Once she gives the heroine’s triumphant speech, she finds herself in her house once more, as is her baby brother.  In her bedroom, Sarah reflects upon her journey, and sees her goblin friends in the mirror telling her goodbye.  They remind her that they’ll be there if she needs them, and Sarah says she needs them right now, at which point all the goblins – including some of the antagonistic ones – show up in her bedroom and throw Sarah a big party as our movie comes to a close.

10

“Haha, some of you tried to tear my head off, yay!”

Ok, since we have the synopsis out of the way, let’s get to the crux of this article and talk about how Labyrinth handles fairies.  One of the marvelous things about this movie is that you really can’t boil down its fair folk to a simple concept.  They can be goofy, threatening, silly, serious, kind, cruel, selfish, selfless, large, small, biological, mechanical, and all of these things and more all at once.  In a sense, they’re as multifaceted as real people, even despite the fact that they’re so goddamn strange – or perhaps because of it.

Fairies, like most mythological creatures, have suffered from pop culture’s pervasive desire to simplify things into exaggerated concepts.  A few decades ago they were stereotyped as “good creatures” – tiny, cute creatures that grant wishes and are nothing but helpful.  Nowadays the opposite seems to be happening, as more and more people will talk about how cruel and wicked fairies are, citing this as being more true to the myth.  The reality is that both versions are equally true and false – fairies aren’t good or bad, they’re both and neither.  Fairies operate on their own rules of logic and morality – rules that intersect with our own but aren’t quite the same.

7

Did you know fairies are actually EVIL and that everything fun and nice is a lie?

The goblins and other fairies in Labyrinth aren’t wholly good or evil, whether they’re antagonistic to Sarah or helpful.  Of her allies, Hoggle is cynical and self-serving, though he has enough of a heart to take Sarah’s side once she calls him a friend and gives him a gift.  Ludo is friendly because Sarah saved his life, but is otherwise content to dish out a fair amount of violence to those who upset him.  Sir Didymus talks up his chivalric values, but is so daft and loopy that he ends up causing as much trouble as he stops in true Don Quixote style.  They’re all great allies to Sarah, but calling them “good” by our human definition is a bit of a stretch.

Yet the antagonist goblins aren’t wholly evil either.  They’re all just doing their jobs, for one thing, and most don’t seem too committed to it, taking defeat fairly gracefully.  The gang of fire goblins that try to decapitate Sarah genuinely don’t understand that she can’t just put it back on, as they take themselves apart without a care in the world.  The goblin army offers a decent amount of resistance at first, but quickly folds into chaotic buffoonery when Sarah’s allies strike back, getting defeated by their own goofy sensibilities as much as they are by the tactics of Sarah’s party.

All the fairies, strange and wacky as they are, follow a sort of code of honor.  Their word is their bond, and a person who honors that bond can beat them at their own game with enough guile.  Hoggle honors his promise to Sarah despite the threats of Jareth (albeit with some waffling), Sir Didymus honors his oath to protect the bridge, the Knights and Knaves goblins do their best to hold to the riddle (even if their memories are not quite up to it), and in the end, Jareth upholds his bargain with Sarah.  Wholly wicked beings could go back on these promises, but the goblins don’t.  Likewise, wholly good beings probably wouldn’t kidnap children and threaten a teenager with mortal peril – there’s no easy categorization available here.

9

David Bowie didn’t die, he just went home to fairyland.

Which leads us to the Goblin King and chief antagonist, Jareth himself.  His reveal at the end of the movie that the whole plot was literally conceived with Sarah in mind throws the entire story in a new light.  Jareth didn’t want the baby – he wanted to give Sarah the adventure she so desperately craved, and all the trials and tribulations Sarah suffered, all the genuine mortal peril she had to dodge, was, in Jareth’s mind, a gift, and one he believed she wanted at that.  One must remember that the goblins didn’t strike until Sarah said out loud that she wished the goblins would take her brother like they did in the story she was reading – in a sense, Jareth was right, as Sarah did in some way want this adventure to happen, to the point where she was acting it out in the park on her own.  In a strange, twisted, loony way, Jareth was just giving Sarah her dream come true.

Think back to Sarah’s first exchange with Hoggle, where she mentioned how fairies do “nice things, like granting wishes.”  In a sense she was half right – fairies do grant wishes, and in their mind that is nice, but the way in which they do it can seem a little, well, let’s say overdone.  The fair folk are like us enough to be partially understandable, and likewise can sort of understand us in turn, but are different enough to take things in unexpected directions.  Sometimes those directions are whimsical, sometimes they’re terrifying, and often they’re both, as fairies reside in all extremes.

Mythic fairies are in short supply in pop culture.  We can get their brightest side in some stories, and their darkest in others, but Labyrinth is one of the few recent works that shows us fairies in full.  They’re as delightful as they are demented, silly as they are sinister, and good and bad in equal measure.  More than anything, they are fantastical, and while the fantasy in question may be a dark one, it’s one you’ll want to revisit despite – and perhaps even because – of the possible peril.

Posted in Between Logic and Enchantment, Creepy Columns | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

ICHF: The Beast

The Beast.png

Over the Garden Wall is a (fairly) recent cartoon miniseries that feels very, very old.  It specifically feels like the kind of ghost stories that were told in the late 1700’s/early 1800’s – stories like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, “Rip Van Winkle”, and other things by Washington Irving and his peers.  It’s not just the fact that it’s (sorta) roughly set in this vague era, either – it has a very gentle nature to it, like stories back then did, and mixes moments of whimsy, fantasy, and comedy with moments of deep soul searching and terror in a way that’s been lost in other modern ghost stories.  It harkens back to old medieval folktales, but has a touch of the modern world’s humor to it.

It’s also very, very good.

Those old ghost stories I mentioned are prime examples of why I think the horror genre stretches farther than academics give it credit for.  While some of them might not fit our current ideas of horror – “Rip Van Winkle”, for example, is generally considered a funny fairy tale, with most retellings omitting him visiting the faerie land of the dead entirely – they were called ghost stories in their own time, and are referenced by horror writers who came after them as a source of inspiration.  They are part of the horror genre, if only because of historical precedent.

So while modern academics scoff at the idea of letting movies like Them! and Gojira be considered horror movies, well, are they really any more different in tone from standards like Dracula than “Rip Van Winkle” is?

I bring all this up because Over the Garden Wall has been advertised as a fantasy story, or an adventure story, but I think that’s miscategorization – or at least omission of the genre it has the strongest ties to: Gothic Horror.  Specifically early Gothic Horror – stuff like The Castle of Otranto and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which mixes so much folklore and myth into it that it’s almost unrecognizable compared to more modern Gothic Horror pieces, and yet, to those who’ve done their research, is inextricably tied to those descendants.

It’s a shame we’ve grown so distant from those early horror stories, too, because they have something I think we miss.  They weren’t written to showcase gore or have a body count – in fact, a good number of them are bloodless.  No, old Gothic Horror was focused on humanity not only facing its fears, but defeating them.  It’s never an easy task, but it’s an important one, and the stories that stuck around were the ones where the human characters – the protagonists – were not only well developed, but likable enough for you to root for their success.  Maybe it’s the old grump in me, but that’s something that’s kind of rare in modern horror movies, isn’t it?

Over the Garden Wall has it in spades, though – and like any good ghost story, it has an equally effective villain to match.

There are a multitude of monsters, spectres, and weird things in Over the Garden Wall, but the worst of them all, and the most persistent threat, is The Beast.  Everything about this monster evokes medieval devil folklore – he’s horned, of course, and “the Beast” is one of many common if archaic pseudonyms for Satan, but it goes deeper than that.  In folklore (and in Early Gothic Horror stories, for that matter), the devil was often met deep within the woods where few men dare to tread.  There the demon would issue a test to our mortal hero – sometimes it’d be physical, or mental, or even artistic, but it would always force the hero to reveal the quality of their soul.  Failing the test would result in grisly and elaborate doom, while succeeding – though difficult – would help the hero overcome their faults and become a stronger person.  The devil would stack the odds in its own favor as much as possible, but the test could be fairly won.

I’m sure most of you think that all sounds pretty appropriate for Satan… and yet you’d be surprised to realize how rarely it shows up in our modern devil stories.  And it’s not like demons have fallen out of favor in our horror tales – it feels like I’ve seen at least a dozen recent horror movies in the last five years where some jackass paranormal investigator explains to two stupid new homeowners what a demon is, even though literally no one would ever ask what a demon is.  We’ve just sort of filed off those personality traits to make something simpler and more vague because… because personality is bad I guess.

Well, The Beast brings them back, along with a great deal of clout to go with it.  Like a lot of really good villains I gush about a lot (Dracula, Smaug, etc.), The Beast isn’t actually in Over the Garden Wall that often.  He’s explained in detail to our heroes in the first episode, seen a couple times for the briefest of moments in later ones, and only truly encountered for a substantial amount of time in the last episode.  For the rest of the special he’s only mentioned, albeit quite often – and at dramatically appropriate moments, and as a result his specter hangs over the entire show.  This is helped by his simplistic, silhouetted design: with his shadowy form and horns that look like branches, it is easy to imagine him lurking in every shadow of the many, many, MANY background shots that take place in the woods.  He could be anywhere – he could be everywhere.  The paranoia is compounded by the second most significant villain mentioning that she works for The Beast, all while trying to enslave our child heroes.

When we finally meet the monster, he has a soft spoken voice that nonetheless trembles with power (his voice actor is an opera singer, which was perfect casting), and we see how he schemes and manipulates others so simply yet so effectively.  He is more The Devil than any of the gray faced possessed women screaming obscenities in our modern demon movies – as he is truly a father of lies and devourer of life.  The final confrontation with the Beast is filled with dread and suspense, eventually revealing what the fiend looks like beneath its cloak of shadow before the “battle” comes to an unexpected by incredibly satisfying end.  It is, once again, the sort of ending that feels right out of the pages of Washington Irving.

Fan reaction to the Beast posits that part of his appeal is how refreshing and new he feels, which to me is so ironic because in truth this character is based on an archetype that’s very old – albeit one so old that it’s mostly forgotten.  Perhaps the greatest lesson we can take from this wily devil is that monsters never truly die – they simply wait until we’ve forgotten them to rise again, as terrible and fascinating as ever.

 

Posted in Creepy Columns, Gothic Horror Characters, Iconic Characters of Horror Fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

ICHF: Chie Satonaka

Chie Satonaka.png

Friends, I have a confession to make: I am not what you would call a “gamer.”  I do not play video games very often, nor have I played very many different ones within my lifetime.  When it comes to the various forms of art in our culture, video games are high on the list of ones I don’t know much about.

I have my reasons for this alarming lack of knowledge.  I’m not very good at most video games, which makes playing them not very fun.  I’ve also found that a lot of video games don’t appeal to me from a story perspective – weird, I know, considering how many of them have monsters.  Plus they take so much time to play and finish, and they cost a lot of money… I just can’t invest myself in them as easily as I can in other art forms.

But when a game does hook me, well, it’s a fucking treat – a story experience that few things can match.  Such is the case of Persona 4.

Persona 4 if part of the massive Shin Megami Tensei series of video games, most of which I have not played and know little to nothing about.  I’ve read that Persona 4 is an uncharacteristically happy and optimistic game compared to the rest of the series – which is funny, since it’s still a very dark story.

In a nutshell, Persona 4 is a supernatural murder mystery.  Set in the small town of Inaba, it concerns the grisly and perplexing murders of several people in the town by an unknown individual using unknown methods.  The victims are found strung up from telephone poles, often tangled in the power lines.  Our heroes are a group of high school students, each of whom appears at first to fit a specific archetype (or stereotype, or cliche, depending on how unflattering you want to be to tropes in stories that take place in high schools), and each of whom is much, much more than meets the eye.  Each is drawn into the murder plot for different reasons, and they quickly join forces to figure out who is committing the murders, how they’re doing it, and how to stop them.

The supernatural element?  Well, our heroes soon discover that the murderer has been transporting their victims to an alternate dimension that is reached by going through a television, Alice Through the Looking Glass style.  This alternate dimension is made up of humanity’s collective thoughts and feelings.  Our repressed desires – those we keep secret and pretend don’t exist – manifest as hideous monsters called shadows, which are more than happy to attack and kill any humans that enter this world.  Our heroes are able to defeat them with their Personas – creatures made from our heroes’ feelings acceptance and understanding of themselves.  Personas manifest as characters from various real world mythologies, though often with a modern twist – and the more our heroes understand themselves, the stronger their Personas grow.  Our heroes’ journey forces them to not only confront great forces of supernatural evil, but also their own vices and insecurities, forcing them to grow into better people if they ever hope to end the threat that looms over their small town once and for all.
In college, I majored in education and literature, and I had a minor in communication studies.  Those three subjects involve a LOT of psychology between them, and as a result I am incredibly interested by anything that analyzes the complexity and depth of human thoughts and feelings.  Persona 4’s story and gameplay are both centered on doing just that, and they do it marvelously.  The characters in these games are immensely complex, and the game doesn’t just let you explore them as a sidequest – it makes exploring their complexities and forming emotional relationships with them a core game mechanic.  This is a game that wants you to think about people in a compassionate and complex way – to view others as more than just good or bad.  Of all the stories I’ve read/watched/played – and there are MANY – this is one of the best when it comes to crafting characters that are as complex (and often contradictory) as real human beings.  The only works I can think of that top it are the plays of William Shakespeare – granted that’s off the top of my head, but still.

Yes, I compared a video game to Shakespeare.  Sue me.

I could probably write an ICHF about every character in the game.  Hell, maybe one day I will – I can already think of a handful I want to do sooner rather than later.  But for now we’ll just stick to one – my favorite character in the story, Chie Satonaka.

As I said earlier, the heroes in Persona 4 all seem to be archetypes at first.  In Chie’s case, she’s the “tomboy.”  She likes kung-fu movies, she’s athletic, she’s incredibly assertive towards her peers, and she eats meat like she’s training to beat Disney’s Gaston in a protein heavy diet competition.  She’s even best friends with Yukiko, another character in the game who is much more stereotypically feminine (at least at first glance), making that nice “tomboy and girly girl” contrast that fiction loves to have.

(I would like to note at this point in the article that when I refer to “feminine” traits and “masculine” traits I do not mean to imply that they are inherent to their respective genders.  “Feminine” and “masculine” are social constructs – they don’t exist as an inherent part of our psychology, but are rather things that our society pretends are universal truths.  So if I say “such and such is a feminine trait of so and so,” I am actually meaning “such and such is a trait that society believes is inherent to female people and is thus female in nature, even though that’s all bullshit and personality traits aren’t decided by one’s gender.”  Just… just so we’re clear.  We clear?  Cool.)

But even though Chie loves kicking monsters to death and taking no shit from anyone, she isn’t just a collection of masculine traits in a skirt.  Chie has an incredibly sensitive side as well – she’s neurotic, often feeling like she’s imposing on others and talking herself down.  She in some ways wishes she could be more stereotypically pretty and feminine like some of her peers (including her best friend, Yukiko), yet also wishes to be accepted as someone who is physically strong and in control.  Though she’s a badass fighter, she fights specifically to protect others and jumps at the opportunity to nurture others as well (though her cooking is terrible).  In short, she’s a great big bundle of personality traits, some feminine, some masculine, all mixed together in one very complex individual.

Chie was designed to be a “normal” girl compared to the other female members of the cast – someone who, while pretty, wasn’t particularly glamorous, and wasn’t exactly the ideal woman that people might fantasize about.  In the process she ended up defining the aesthetic and personality of the setting of the game – she’s a little retro and and a little mundane at first, but beneath all that is someone who is full of potential.

(I’m not making that up, either – I got it from the official design book for the game, which is GREAT by the way).

Though my gaming experience is, as noted above, less than extensive, I’ve played enough RPGs to know that generally your first girl character is a healer or a mage – someone who can’t take much damage, and either helps others survive or who stands in the back lobbing magic attacks from a safe distance.  Chie breaks that mold – she’s your first female character, sure, but she’s a brawler.  She’s one of the strongest physical attackers in the game.  If she picked a D&D class, she’d be either a fighter or a monk.  Chie doesn’t sit by the sidelines cheering you on; no, she leaps into the fray and kicks a monster in the fucking face again and again until it fucking dies.  I love the fact that the first physical fighter you get in this game is also the first girl – that kicks ass.  So does Chie.

She also benefits from being one of the first characters you meet in the game, and the second character you add to your party (after Yosuke, who’s just a little bit of wimp).  She’s with you from the very start, welcoming you to the world and standing by your side as you face horrific monsters from another world.  She’s a physical powerhouse who dares bullies to punch her in the face, stops thieves, and will stop at nothing to protect the ones she loves from harm.  She’s also a girl who really wants to nurture others, and who loves the people around her despite worrying that she’s not worth their time.  She’s a meat loving badass who kicks monstrous enemies to death, then comes home and tries to make a nice meal for her friend’s lonely younger cousin.  Chie is one of the most interesting heroes I’ve ever seen in the Horror genre, and deserves her spot amongst the other Iconic Characters of Horror Fiction.

 

Posted in Creepy Columns, Gothic Horror Characters, Iconic Characters of Horror Fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

ICHF: Mina Murray

Mina Murray

Allow me to describe a character for you.  Their story begins with their love interest, who unknowingly wanders into a trap set by a malevolent supernatural entity whose name means “Son of the Dragon.”  This evil creature traps the love interest in an old, decaying castle far away from the character’s home.  Despite the length of the journey and the many perils along the way, our character travels to the foreign land, rescues their love interest, and nurses them back to health.  When the couple returns home, they find that the same monster that captured the love interest is now preying upon their circle of friends.  Our character gathers all the journal entries, newspaper articles, and other bits of information they can find, and quickly discovers the plan of the evil creature that all their friends failed to sleuth out.  Despite being so integral to their success, our character’s friends decide to cut them out of the loop for fear of the character’s safety, which in turn allows the monster to attack them.  Undeterred by this attack, the character not only rallies their friends to face the monster, but uses the side effects of the monster’s attack on their person to figure out exactly what the monster plans to do next, and uses that information to formulate a cunning plan that finally kills the evil once and for all.

Would you say this character is important – perhaps even the main character, the protagonist, the obvious hero of the story?  Before you answer, what if I told you this characters was…. A WOMAN?!!

One of the greatest scholarly debates about Bram Stoker’s most famous novel, Dracula, focuses on the apparent question of who the main character is.  Academia is so utterly confused by this – is the protagonist Jonathan Harker, the first character we’re introduced to?  Is it Van Helsing, the first person to suggest Dracula is a vampire and who integrates knowledge of the superstitious past with modern medicine in a desperate but often vain attempt to defeat the monster?  Is it Dracula himself?  It has to be one of these three, right, or else none at all?  I mean, none of these three characters really fit the role of protagonist, and neither do the other male characters like Quincy Morris, John Seward, or Lord Godalming, so if not them then who?

Mina Murray is the protagonist of Dracula. While Academia would believe otherwise, to me there’s no question about it: this is Mina Murray’s story. The book begins with Jonathan Harker, Mina’s fiance, traveling to a foreign land where he unwittingly lets himself get held hostage. To be more specific, Harker is trapped in a castle tower owned by a monster whose name literally means “dragon” (well, “son of the dragon” technically but the son of a dragon is probably still a dragon). In other words, Jonathan Harker is a damsel in distress.

The book then transitions to Mina’s point of view, where we see her counsel her friend Lucy about Victorian love quadrangles. Mina quickly notices that something is wrong with Lucy, as the poor girl becomes quite gravely ill after having some weird encounters with dogs and bats. Mina tries to help Lucy as best she can with her limited knowledge of the situation, and actually does a cracker jack job of it until she hears Jonathan is in trouble. Mina then drops everything to go off and rescue her damsel from the land of the Drago-err, Dracula.

Lucy’s three suitors try to help her recover from her weird disease, but they fail. Eventually they call in Van Helsing, who figures out the whole vampire thing, but they’re too late – Lucy dies and reanimates as a vampire. They stake Lucy, and then struggle to figure out what to do next.  While Van Helsing is more knowledgeable than Quincy, Seward, and Godalming, he’s ultimately unable to get any farther than one step behind Dracula’s plotting.  He is not up to the task of taking down the vampire – none of the men are.

Then Mina comes back, and only then do the good guys start winning. Mina pulls together everyone’s notes, letters, and diary entries on the situation and, like Sherlock Holmes trapped in a young Victorian music teacher’s body, figures out Dracula’s plan. Her sleuthing is explicitly said to be the reason they’re able to get on top of the whole vampire situation by Van Helsing himself – you know, the guy they always make into the main character when they adapt this novel into a movie. That Van Helsing.   In fact, that very same Van Helsing explicitly says that Mina is doing a much better job of figuring stuff out and leading everyone against Dracula than the other heroes, himself included.

In fact, the heroes kick so much ass under Mina’s leadership that they almost kill Dracula too early – but then Van Helsing comes up with the dipshit idea that they should stop telling Mina about their plans because she’s a woman and this vampire fighting business is too rough for her. This then causes their greatest setback, as keeping Mina out of the loop not only allows Dracula to screw up their plan, but also start the process of turning Mina into a vampire as well!

But then Mina – like a total boss – reasserts herself as leader and helps her male friends figure out how to salvage this clustercuss of a vampire slaying job. She exploits the psychic link between herself and Dracula just like Harry Potter did with Voldemort, except without accidentally killing Sirius Black or angsting about it. She figures out what route Dracula is taking and how best to beat him there. She gives a rallying speech to her comrades right before the end game, reminding them that A. Dracula was once a man and is technically a victim too, so they shouldn’t hate him so much as hope they can release him from his curse, B. they have to be strong and courageous because shit is about to get real, and C. if she turns they better stake her in the heart because she will not settle for this vampire bullshit. All the guys are weeping in this scene, by the way, because they have far less control of their emotions than Mina does.

The only traditional protagonist thing Mina doesn’t get to do is finish off the villain herself – her friends/lackeys do that for her instead. Even then, she’s right there as they do it, and they all jump for joy when they see the curse lift off her at the end. She even gets to marry her fiance and have a family. It’s pretty great.

Mina is an incredibly kickass woman for a female protagonist in a horror novel – especially one written in the Victorian “What’s this newfangled feminist movement thing about?” Era. Seriously, it’s amazing.  It’s also incredibly frustrating that NONE of the various film adaptations of Dracula I’ve seen recognize what a badass Mina is. Most just cast her as a damsel in distress who shrieks and has to be saved. Some cast her as Dracula’s romantic interest, which sucks even worse in my opinion. Only Nosferatu allows her some agency, as Mina sacrifices herself to the vampire in that movie to keep him busy till the sun comes up and fries him. It’s better than what we get otherwise, but literary Mina wouldn’t have chumped out like that – she would have tricked Dracula into the sun without getting bit, because Mina is a cunning mastermind.

Most movies make Van Helsing the protagonist instead of Mina, and while Van Helsing is cool and this approach has made several great movies (the Hammer flicks with Peter Cushing turn Van Helsing into the Sherlock Holmes of vampire slaying, which is pretty boss), I don’t think it’s as interesting as having a meek, intelligent music teacher blossom into a vampire slayer.  Meanwhile, poor Mina is reduced to a supporting character in her own goddamn story time and again, or worse, portrayed as the love interest of the monster that figuratively forces himself upon her.  The protagonist of Dracula is so often portrayed as a whining, weak willed, shrill victim without a shred of agency or backbone who exists solely to be victimized by a monster and rescued by a male hero.  It’s disgraceful.  Mina Murray deserves better.  Horror Films deserve better.  We need justice for Mina Murray.

 

 

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