“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” -Neil Gaiman
(If you see a movie title here, that movie’s probably getting spoiled)
A funny thing happened a little while back.
I was on my couch watching Satoshi Kon’s seminal anime horror film Perfect Blue, a first time viewing for yours truly. Perfect Blue’s reputation proceeded it as one of the classics of anime and one of the great modern animated films, a psychological thriller so accomplished that Darren Aronofsky bought the remake rights just so he could reproduce its imagery exactly in Requiem for a Dream (the film also doubles as an obvious precedent for Aronofsky’s Black Swan, though for some reason he’s always denied this).
Perfect Blue is the story of a young Japanese pop star Mima, who abruptly decides to quit her successful band and instead try her hand at acting, signing up for a thankless role in a gritty drama series. But almost immediately, strange happenings begin to plague Mima and she finds herself hallucinating an alternate, ‘better’ version of herself (still be-decked in her J-pop costume). Unfortunately, she’s also being stalked by an actual stalker, who seems to have some kind of mysterious access to her life, receiving messages from the ‘real’ Mima begging him to destroy the imposter currently destroying Mima’s good name on a sleazy series. As Perfect Blue progresses, Mima’s life and dreams begin collapsing in on each other as the dream-Mima continues to assert herself and bodies begin piling up.
It’s all very upsetting.
At the film’s climax, Mima defeats her stalker only to discover that her manager Rumi, also a former pop-star, has been responsible for much of the recent terror. The insane Rumi has decided to take over Mima’s life, and so has launched a one-woman campaign of physical and psychological warfare against the younger woman. She’s been the one feeding the stalker private information about Mima’s life, and she’s been the one killing the production team behind Mima’s show, and she’s the one applying pressure to Mima’s fragile sense of self until the poor girl is just about ready to explode.
There’s a nail-biting final confrontation, during which the often-weak Mima finally fights back against her tormentor and lays claim to her own life and identity. The bloodied, destroyed Rumi wanders in front of traffic, mistaking a truck’s headlights for the spotlight she has so missed. Mima throws herself at the deranged woman, both of them getting struck by the truck and tumbling into the street. Rain falls, the camera rises above the two shattered women, their still bodies existing in a quantum state of neither dead nor alive, and I leaned back in my couch, emotionally preparing for the film to fade to somber credits on this note of melancholy ambiguity.
Except…that’s not how Perfect Blue ends.
Instead, Perfect Blue continues on to a later, sunny day. Rumi survived, but is now in an asylum, locked away both physically and mentally as her dream-self has taken over completely. Watching over her without hatred is Mima, alive and whole. Self-possessed and confident in a way she has never been in the film prior, Mima strides out into the bright day to face whatever the future holds.
Then the credits hit.
I felt almost grotesquely emotional at this turn of events, for reasons that I struggled to articulate when describing the film to a friend a little while after seeing it. It wasn’t just that Kon’s writing and direction, coupled with Junko Iwao’s outstanding performance, work to make Mima such a sympathetic presence that it was a relief to see her survive. In fact, the power of that ending struck me in a way that was almost entirely divorced from Perfect Blue.
I realized that I just sort of assumed that the film would build to a big, bleak finale. I went in assuming that this journey could and would climax in nothing short of trauma and heartbreak. So when the film instead expresses the notion that you can not only survive a terrible ordeal, but actually come out the other side intact and use the lessons from that terrible time as a means to become a better, more complete person, it staggered me.
In a way, Perfect Blue tapped into the same thing that has made The Good Place such a revelation. So much of what makes that show stand out is the way it argues with all sincerity that change is possible, bad people can improve, humans can in fact help each other, and there is indeed hope within seemingly hopeless situations. But whereas The Good Place articulates these ideas through candy-colored comedy, Perfect Blue filters them through the prism of at-times very gruesome horror.
Horror-as-healing isn’t a new concept, but it still feels revelatory whenever anyone busts it out. And as I get older, as the world seems to get scarier, I find myself more impressed by those storytellers who use the dark to illustrate the light versus those who instead seek only to paint in different shades of bleak.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a nice jolt of nihilism. Part of the foundational aspects of the horror genre is its ability to give you a space to confront the worst of the worst. Sometimes tunneling to the darkest extremes is exactly what the story dictates. There’s a reason that audiences reject the American version of The Descent’s grotesque ‘happy’ ending like an incompatible organ. That’s a movie that is quite literally about going deeper and deeper into grief, into the dark, and suddenly hitting the emergency exit to deliver the protagonist back into the sun comes off like a cheat at best, a betrayal at best. For still other films, there’s a naughty, punk rock energy to a good bleak ending. When Return of the Living Dead climaxes with all our lovable misfits evaporating in a nuclear blast, it feels like the exact right blazing middle finger to the audience that a film that drenched in ‘80s disaffection demands. And when Cabin in the Woods climaxes with the Ancient Ones rising to stomp out all of humanity, it’s the perfect capper to the Viking funeral that writers Joss Whedon and Drew Godard had conducted for the horror genre.
It’s hard to imagine a modern horror genre without such send-you-out-reeling closing shocks like noble Ben catching a bullet and being tossed into the fire alongside all the living dead, or Leatherface’s chainsaw dance while a blood-soaked Sally laughs in hysteric madness, or John Carpenter’s iconic music revealing that Michael Myers has, somehow, survived to stalk the night once more.
But too often, bleak-to-nihilistic endings seem to occur in horror films not because they are organic to the narratives and themes of the previous movie proper, but because the storytellers in question seem to think they must go to these lengths either because that is how they assume all horror stories must end, or because they grew up in awe of the shot-to-the-gut power of endings like Night of the Living Dead’s photo montage or The Thing’s final fireside chat and seek to recreate or one-up these sequences with their own none-more-despairing works. Speaking only for myself, I tend to find this kind of performative nihilism stupendously boring, seeing as it arises not from the authentic rage and hopelessness that artists like Romero, Carpenter, or Craven imbued into their works as a reaction to the headlines that greeted them each morning, but the product of a kind of cynical attempt to bottle and re-distribute that anger secondhand. Rather than allow the horror genre to grow and evolve to reflect the actual current landscape, these pretenders are wallowing in yesterday’s nightmares.
Again, to be clear, there is nothing wrong with a horror film ending in sorrow and tragedy. Horrifying you is kind of a key part of the horror genre. But as the real world has only grown scarier, I find myself less and less interested in that horror cinema which exists to echo the despairing atmosphere that pervaded the Vietnam/post-Vietnam/Cold War eras of horror filmmaking.
The horror movies that really resound for me these days are the ones that argue that as bad as things get, there is a way through it, the ones that suggest that while some monsters cannot be defeated, they must be fought and can in fact be bested. I think of The Babadook, which concludes with the titular monster still alive, still dangerous, but now contained as its former victims continue on with their lives, having learned to live with the monster. I think of Revenge and the spectacular bloodshed that ultimately leads to salvation. I think of It: Chapter 1, and how ludicrously satisfying it was to see the kids who had suffered so greatly at the hands of the world and the eponymous clown-demon, finally say “enough is enough” and take up a bunch of blunt objects so they could beat the fucker to death.
And I think of Jordan Peele deciding, in the wake of The Orange Fuck’s rising presidential prospects, not to conclude Get Out with the heroic Chris dead or in handcuffs, as was originally planned, but successfully taking bloody revenge on his captors and escaping with the help of his buddy. Peele decided that people no longer needed a horror film to remind them that, even post-Obama, racism was still alive and destructive within America. What the audience needed was a promise that even these seemingly indestructible forces of institutional oppression can be brought down.
This is the purpose that horror can serve so well, especially on those days when everything seems irrevocably fucked, as so many seem to of late. Not a reminder that we’re damned, but a promise that we might survive this damnation yet and find our way back towards the light.
We don’t need horror to tell us there are dragons. We need horror to remind us that we can slay the motherfuckers.