In my bedroom when I was little, a sloppily misplaced piece of clothing on a chair in the dark of night sure could look like a saber-toothed tiger. Experiencing this and other such optical illusions every so often during those tender years, I estimate that I adequately satisfied the quota for horror that one must endure in a lifetime. Hence, it should go without saying that horror and all its filmic relations are my least favorite forms of cinema entertainment.
Nevertheless, in the esprit de corps of being an equal opportunity film critic, I like to think I approach every such movie with an open-minded challenge. But hark, in every instance, I am also on a mission. It is my great white whale. Someday I will at long last find out, why do people like this stuff?
You can’t count on horror fanatics to tell you. The reasons for their fandom is a closely guarded secret. Whenever I ask someone of that persuasion what the attraction is, they make as if they didn’t hear me. Perhaps a bit of projection, I inevitably ask, "Is it that you experience relief when the monster or whatever it is that is tormenting humankind doesn’t get you?" No answer.
I am an outsider to horror, what Alexis de Tocqueville was to American history. And so, while viewing director Neil Jordan’s "Greta," about a lonely older woman who has a rather odd way of seeking companionship, offered no epiphany, it did provide an egoistic pleasure that may shed a glimpse of light. I saw my attendance as accepting a dare, a coming to grips with past fears. Not clutching the armrests for dear life, or dashing under the seat to safety and being covered in popcorn and Raisinets, I am now a big boy. Bring on "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954), "Them" (1954) and "The Thing from Another World" (1951). I’m not afraid, at least not anymore, I don’t think.
Yep, holding my breath in anticipation as Greta, etched to creepy satisfaction by Isabelle Huppert, lures twentyish Frances McCullen into her life, I skillfully thrusted and parried with the screenplay's more often than not predictable attempts to raise the hair on the back of my neck. I was among the horror cognoscenti, giggling when spared the threatened fright that doesn’t materialize, and ooh-ahhing when it does. And, taking things on face value, but tacitly stipulating that I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t, I accept that Greta, who frantically plays Liszt on the piano when trying to drown out the bleats and cries created by her, uh, acquired friends, is evil, and that Chloë Grace Moretz’s Frances is the poor, innocent fawn.
But then again, still trying to figure out the DNA of this least favorite species of motion picture, something came to me. Granted, whatever Greta’s motivation or rationalization for some pretty bad behavior, the lady just isn’t right. That is, she is crazy — perhaps even criminally insane. Or so we are led to believe.
Thus, we are put in the position of reviling someone who is in need of medical attention. Yes, she may kill me given the chance, but how is demonizing her as the villain of a fiction any more acceptable than tossing depressives and a gamut of other, psychologically disturbed people into the hopeless catacombs of a medieval asylum?
Granted, once Frances decides Greta, who begins to treat her as a surrogate stepdaughter, is more than a bit cloying and getting rather scary, we exhort the gal to dispense with any thoughts of befriending the "poor, lonely lady." "Head for the hills," we murmur half aloud, envisioning the witch in "Hansel and Gretel" fattening up the caged Hansel as she tends to the oven and licks her chops.
Indeed, if Greta is what she appears to be, she must be separated from society. Still, exactly how a culture deals with such aberrations among its populace in order to protect itself is a telling indication of just how civilized that social order is. You might remember how abashed we were during the scene in "The Elephant Man" (1980) when a group of Victorian louts out to titillate their lady friends barged in on the physically deformed John Merrick. Entertainment at the expense of one deemed different, whether physical or suffering a short circuit in the gray matter, has to be considered rather lame.
But while I’m sanctimoniously implying that such choice of diversion is a vestige from our politically incorrect past, I must admit that the more anxious and downright enraged Greta made the audience, the more I called for retribution. There I was, a hypocrite, part of the maddened crowd, bloody angry. All of which suggests that dubious a pursuit as it may be, "Greta" pretty much accomplishes its objective.
"Greta," rated R, is a Focus Features release directed by Neil Jordan and stars Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz and Maika Monroe. Running time: 98 minutes
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