Spoiler warning: plots of The Graduate and Anomalisa discussed.
Unless I am with other people, or if I’m feeling unnaturally brave, I will never watch a horror movie. The suspense, stress, cringe, and anticipation of jump-scares are all too strenuous for me to handle on my own. Therefore, during this Halloween season, I have watched no horror movies to recount on this blog.
Yet the feeling I’ve had watching those movies, the squeamishness, the dread, the “No, don’t make me watch this,” came up unexpectedly in a movie of a totally different genre--The Graduate.
And it wasn’t the part where Mrs. Robinson tries to seduce him, or when Benjamin asks for his hotel room, or when Benjamin brings Elaine to the strip club. No, it was the very last scene, after Benjamin crashes Elaine’s wedding and escapes with her, when their excited, smiling faces fade into regret and disappointment. It was uncomfortable to watch, and I was tempted to stop the movie before it got to the end credit.
Of course, I had questions. What happens next? Where are they going, and what is their future? Benjamin has even less idea of his future than he did in the graduation party, and the life to come will probably be worse than the life he just escaped. In the topic of horror, perhaps this fear can be categorized in the Terror vs. Horror paradigm; Benjamin’s impending fate is terrifying, while his unseen, painfully awkward future would be horrifying.
But one could say that the scene itself is horrific-- (the idea of) Elaine was the closest thing he could get to happiness and normalcy, but he loses her. After ripping through California on car and by foot, he realizes that he became bored of her more quickly than he did with her mother.We see in Benjamin’s face that he truly loses everything.
In Benjamin's defense, who hasn’t daydreamed about their ideal romance, imagining every perfect scene with the person they love? Everyone is their own private filmmaker. The Graduate simply does the dirty deed of realizing these romantic fantasies, only to muddy it up with hopeless reality.
The same romantic idealization is seen in the R-rated stop-motion picture Anomalisa, directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. In a world where everyone is voiced by Tom Noonan, Customer Service expert Michael Stone finally meets Lisa Hesselman, a woman with a unique voice. In his hotel room, he appears completely infatuated with her, relieved that the many years of grim mundanity are finally coming to an end. In fact, after Lisa sings an unimpressive rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” she exclaims, “Oh my God, are those tears?”
And to no surprise, Michael falls into the same trap Benjamin did--he shoves his hopes and dreams into a stranger he’d only recently met. And he faces great disappointment, as Lisa starts to displease him and sound more like Tom Noonan (aka everyone else). Unlike Benjamin, however, Michael attempts to shape her back into his idealized woman, chiding her for letting food hang out of her mouth and telling her she’s “too controlling.” But Lisa’s charm is irreparably broken, and Michael’s only hope in life is lost. The sunlight in the room becomes obnoxiously bright, suggesting that (the idea of) Lisa has just been a meaningless dream. Just when life was looking up for Michael, that one breakfast scene thrusts Michael back to misery.
But Anomalisa actually has obvious elements of horror. Not only are the puppets somewhat unnerving (unlike normal puppets, their faces appear pasted onto their heads), but also there is a nightmare sequence in which everyone, from the hotel manager to the staff members to Lisa’s friend, are “all one person" and are after Michael. The hotel grows ominously dark as Michael (who at one point drops his animatronic face) frantically plans his escape. But even in his nightmare, Michael has (the idea of) Lisa to hold on to, a last hope.
And then he wakes up, and (the idea of) Lisa is lost. Reality becomes worse than nightmare.
Women have no responsibility to conform to a man’s idealization. But we (as in mainstream audience) still expect romantically-satisfying endings. We are primed with movies and shows that have protagonists “winning the girl” or rekindling a waning relationship. Hollywood constantly peddles these opiates, and when movies like The Graduate or Anomalisa come around, we're kicked in the gut.
So who needs ghosts or zombies for a cinematic scare? With the right dose of wishful thinking and a swift counter-punch of reality, anything could be a horrifying thriller.