I’m currently in a lakeside cabin in the woods, and the setting–and the poor, inconsistent internet connection that will keep me largely AWOL until Sunday–has me thinking about the vast number of horror films that utilize the woods as an automatically eerie setting. From slasher films to modern Algernon Blackwoodesque approaches like The Blair Witch Project to hillbilly horror, movies have trained me to believe that while I may be on vacation, I will surely be murdered any minute now.
Feel free to discuss my imminent death in comments, but what I was actually thinking about this week was the weight automatically carried by certain settings and the way setting itself can act as a kind of genre, letting you have New York movies as well as Deliverance. What settings tend to attract filmmakers (and storytellers generally) over and over again, but also box them in to some predetermined pattern? And what value can those patterns have? I’m thinking here not so much of the strong, well-evoked settings of particular movies (for that, see this earlier Taco Break by Grant Nebel), but almost of its inverse: there are some movies where the setting is the genre and the genre is the setting. Grant mentions Woody Allen’s erudite fantasia of New York; that’s at the opposite end of the hillbilly horror spectrum, but still part of it. It’s all about exaggerating a real place into a dreamscape that supports the telling of a certain kind of story. Genre has a tendency to codify, and place is included in that. There are East Coast films and Hollywood showbiz films and LA noir, and they’re all working off some collective imagining the world has of those areas.
Like most things, this can be done well or badly. At their best, these dreamscape movies work with the power of the dream, telling some condensed truth–about fear and desire, if not about Wisconsin or New York or Georgia; at their worst, they sell the dream or nightmare without really believing in it, insulting both the real place and the viewers’ intelligence.
What movies have operated on this dream level for you, creating unreal-but-vivid retreats where the film and the setting both work to convey a feeling? And which ones have traded away their realism without getting any archetypal force in exchange?