Not too long ago I read an interesting article that was trying to figure out why people watch horror films. Now there are obviously a lot of reasons why people would want to engage with material that should repulse them, but I think that the main reason why people like horror is pretty much the same reason why they like any type of story. I think that we all have a deep seated fear that life is nothing but an unconnected series of random events that we have no control over and we want to neutralize that fear by trying to recontextualize the chaos around us as something that follows predictable and repeatable patterns. Once we've created stories that follow strict rules of cause and effect then we can kind of convince ourselves that the real world uses a similar logic pattern, and once we do that life seems more manageable. This coping mechanism is particularly important with horror, because it's dealing with the most inexplicable and painful events in the world - it's focused on the events where our lack of control is the surface of the text, not a buried existential subtext.
I think that goes a long way towards explaining why horror is the most repetitive genre - we need to constantly be comforted by the idea that there is order in the world because we are constantly being bombarded with nightly news bulletins that are frightening. Every sensationalist media story about a serial killer challenges us on a personal level by making us worried for our own safety and it challenges on a broader level by undermining our idea that the world is a place where people generally try to follow moral laws. That's why we need shows where the serial killer has some secret reason that explains his evil urges, and where the killer is always being followed by a pair of reasonable detectives that are surely going to eventually get their man - because as long as we can believe that there is order and justice in this world then we can neutralize our deepest fears. We need a lot of serial killer shows and they have to all be interchangeable because we need to hear that even the most inexplicable acts can be explained away over and over again before we'll believe it.
So what good is a movie about a serial killer that doesn't try to calm those fears? I'm asking because I just watched the Voices, which is a movie about a well meaning but clinically insane man named Jerry (played by Ryan Reynolds of Green Lantern fame) who hears voices in his head. Specifically, he hears his dog Bosco (who acts like an angel on his shoulder) and his cat Mr. Whiskers (who acts like a devil on his shoulder). When he listens to Bosco he takes his medication and then he behaves like a fairly normal person, going to work and going on dates and whatnot. When he listens to Mr. Whiskers he murders women and puts their heads in his fridge. And then once the heads are in his fridge they, too, start telling Jerry to kill, because they are lonely and want more companionship. As the movie goes on it grows in intensity, because the cat slowly starts winning the war for Jerry's soul, but it never becomes any more sensible. At first Jerry is killing "accidentally", then he is killing on purpose but with regret, and then he starts killing because he doesn't know any other way to get out of the mess he's gotten himself into. No one - not even the guy with the knife - knows if any of this makes any sense, or if there is any way to make any of this stop. So what is the audience supposed to do with that?
The Voice's problems are both structural and tonal. The structural problem is straight forward: Jerry is both the hero and the villain of the movie, and that leads to a muddled narrative. There's no one in the movie who really seems like they are in a position to stop Jerry, so he has to stop himself - but he isn't up to the task. This is an unconventional choice for a horror movie to make, but it isn't right or wrong. It makes The Voices more challenging and less reassuring than your average horror film, but there's no law that says that horror films have to reassure us. They can capitulate to the darkness if they want to. But it is odd that this film's idea of capitulating to the darkness involves a talking cat named Mr. Whiskers.
The film's tonal problems are a little less forgiveable. The Voices feels like several different movies mashed together, and I might have liked any of them on their own but together they are a bit of a mess. I've been discussing it as if it was a horror film, but that's not entirely accurate, because it's not like Jerry is a creep who is hiding in the bushes with a chainsaw in hand. No, he's a nice guy who occasionally loses control, and since we're following him in his life we get a lot of scenes where he's just being normal. (He seems to be obsessed with pizza for some reason, which is not exactly a terrifying character trait.)
Furthermore his violence is played for black comedy more than it is played for scares. But The Voices isn't a comedy, either, since there are moments where Jerry realizes what he's done, and his moments of lucidity cast a bleak pallor over the film's jokier parts. You could also consider this movie to be a character study since we spend most of the movie inside Jerry's head, seeing the world as he sees it. But why is the movie taking that tactic? It feels like it's trying to humanize serial killers and to make us realize that they have feelings, too, but whats the point in that? That actually makes their violence even more problematic, because it's almost better for serial killers to remain alien instead of having to see them as failed human beings; the farther they are from being like me the better.
In many ways The Voices is similar to American Psycho, in that both are morbid satires about mass murderers. Both Jerry and Patrick Bateman are classically handsome but emotionally empty men. The two of them alternate between cluelessness and cruelty. Sometimes their crimes are repulsive and sometimes they are ridiculous. However, those are all surface similarities, and the two movies have very different cores. American Psycho is at it's heart an attack on a certain type of entitlement. Patrick Bateman has to be a murderous scumbag because that's the logical extension of his I-can-take-everything-I-want ethos; it depicts savagery because that's the best way to expose how rotten a certain breed of Wall Street douchebag can truly be. The Voices lacks that sense of purpose. Unless the movie is trying to make a point about how ubiquitious violence against women is, I don't know why Jerry is killing these women; he doesn't seem to be representing anything other than himself. If that is what it is doing then it shouldn't be so oblique about it - it's far too easy to miss it's (possibly?) feminist message.
The Voices could really have used some of American Psycho's sense of purpose. Many of the film's elements are solid: the acting is fine, the pacing is fine, the cinematography is fine. However, what is not fine is the film's seemingly random story. The narrative would work if it felt random in a purposeful way, but I don't think that The Voices is trying to tell us "stop living in a fairy tale, there really is no reason for this madness." Although in it's defense, I will say that the Voice's final scene is a sarcastic sing-along taking place in Heaven, which could suggest that the movie might want to mocking the idea that everything will work out all right in the end. If so, that anti-religious message is too little too late, since there wasn't nearly enough religious material in the rest of the movie to suggest that it was heading in that direction. Furthermore, that message is also delivered too poorly - how are you going to deliver such a somber concept in such a silly way? No, this movie's ultimate moral is far too inscrutable for the overall project to make sense.
I have mixed feelings about The Voices because it was caught in a no man's land between fantasy and reality. It wants to remind us of the hard reality that sometimes good people do bad things for no damn reason at all, but then it also wants to present this unpalatable truth in a fun and entertaining way. It's basically the exact opposite of a good horror movie, since those are designed to look gritty but then Trojan Horse a pleasing moral to the audience. So where does a movie that's less scary than the nightly news but less reassuring than a horror film leave us? As far as I can tell it leaves us nowhere at all; if there was any point to this mess than I missed it.
(Actually, that's a bit of an exaggeration, because this film does prove at least one thing - Ryan Reynolds definitely has questionable taste in projects. But somehow learning and relearning that lesson doesn't exactly make me more comfortable to be living in a random and violent world.)