By Tom Lynch
We all have nightmares. For some, it’s a dusty leather glove with knives attached to the fingers, a torn green-and-red striped sweater. Others, a hockey mask and the woods, or an eerie white mask shaped in the likeness of William Shatner. The overwhelming buzz of a chainsaw in the dark. For me, it’s a little girl spouting obscenities and oozing split-pea soup.
Talk to avid fans of horror film, and they all have their tales to tell, of their first experiences with the genre, the thrill of it, the terror they felt from something new, watching something that, in a way, could’ve come from their own imaginations and dreams. The stories are all remarkably similar—one night, stayed up late after my parents went to bed, or, one night, my parents went out and the babysitter let me watch whatever I wanted—and certainly all have the same ending; a fan born, seed planted, the horror hatchet firmly lodged in the head. My parents actually encouraged me to watch “The Exorcist”—I was about 9, had some friends over to stay the night—and after the tumultuous ordeal we were so paralyzed with fear my dad had to escort each of us, one by one, to the bathroom. I remember being not entirely afraid of the demonic Regan as the monster, but, rather, of one day becoming possessed myself, evidence of a budding neurotic and narcissist.
Some argue that the birth of the modern horror movie, certainly the slasher film, was in 1960 with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Everyone knows the shower scene. The late-sixties and early seventies saw a boom in the fear of Satan and his minions—“Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Exorcist,” “The Sentinel,” “The Omen”—and in 1974 Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” reshaped the slasher flick and introduced teenagers as targets. Needless to say, that phenomenon caught on, led to John Carpenter’s iconic “Halloween” and right into the 1980s, when a near seismic shift occurred in tone and substance. With “The Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th” series, body counts accelerated, leaps in special effects were made and suddenly you started cheering for the monsters, awaiting with dumb anticipation the next gruesome death. Almost across the board, the 1990s were unmemorable for American horror, save for Wes Craven’s witty and self-mocking “Scream,” which pretty much resurrected the genre at large. Now, it seems a horror film is released in theaters weekly, maybe even two, not to mention the vast number produced that don’t make it to theaters and go straight to DVD or this new network FEARnet, which you can access through Comcast.
Horror films are often moneymakers, sure. 2002’s “The Ring” made $129 million in the States, 2004’s “The Grudge” did $110 million, the “Saw” franchise nears $300 million—the fifth installment opens this week—everyone loves a good scare. What’s changed in the genre? Effects, for one, as filmmakers enjoy the gloss of CG and need not worry with puppets and the amusing difficulty of creating the perfect exploding head. In story and form, however, it’s changed dramatically, as in most produced these days don’t really have any story or discernible form. It’s all setup for the kill, a jolt of violent stimulation, which usually induces laughter in a theater these days. Not to mention the gore; what the filmmakers lack in creative storytelling they attempt to make up for in grisly displays of carnage. Filmmakers like Eli Roth (“Hostel”) or Rob Zombie (“House of 1,000 Corpses”) will bombard the audience with blood, exposed innards, severed genitals, leaking pus from the eye socket and, believe it or not, more. Roger Ebert, in an email response to a question I asked about the state of horror, says, “Horror is out, vivisection is in.” No room for subtlety in the new millennium.
Has the abundance of visual gore harmed the genre? “It’s definitely hindered it,” says Jason R. Davis, filmmaker and director of the Chicago Horror Film Festival, which he founded in 2003. “What made earlier horror films great was not what you could see, but what you didn’t, and the imagination in between. Directors feel like they need to show you everything, and a lot of times, it turns from horror to grotesque action film.”
I bring up the overly assertive “Hostel” series, and “it doesn’t really have any substance,” Davis says. “A good horror film doesn’t have to have substance, but this was all about gore. ‘Hostel,’ that idea for a film could be a great horror story. I strongly feel it was the excess of gore [that hurt it].”
An acquaintance of mine who I know as a horror fanatic, local DJ and musician Beau Wanzer, thinks that “the films that were made in the seventies and eighties were much more mysterious, gritty and the atmosphere was much more bleak, which made them more realistic. They weren’t just about shock value. I think that the new films just rely on pure shock value and don’t put any emphasis in character development or atmosphere. They lack the sort of substance that sticks with you… Current horror films are too clean, too polished, making them totally dull and like every other digitally enhanced piece of garbage made today.”
It’s shocking, the lack of memorable horror films made since 2000; I’ve seen my share, and scanning a list of each one that hit theaters, I’m amazed how many of which I completely forgot existed. “Darkness Falls”? The one with the Tooth Fairy? Many are remakes, of course, either of the classics (the wretched rehashes of “TCM” and “Halloween” come to mind) or of those already crafted, usually with more skill and intelligence, in Japan (“The Ring,” “The Grudge”).
But maybe it’s what the people want. On the popular movie Web site imdb.com, the user rating for “Saw” is noticeably higher than that of the originals of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Omen.” “Torture porn,” or “horror porn,” whichever, are the new buzz terms tossed around that describe the genre’s recent trend of putting its victims through the most graphic and otherworldly painful endurances one can conjure. (I don’t recommend Googling “torture porn” without proper preparation for what you’ll see.) In the 1970s, a decade which saw a boom in high-end, “thoughtful” horror pictures, was also a decade that harbored many films made in reaction to U.S. foreign policy, the Vietnam War and Nixon administration as a whole. The inspiration, or fury, bled to the horror genre, which saw villains like Leatherface, Michael Myers and the Devil himself thrash conformity, establishment, religion and the wholesome “family values” so desperately clinging for air as the country’s morale plummeted and dissent was on the rise. Are we living in a mirror of that era? Yes and no, but “now” is certainly not the goofy 1980s or the comfortable, content nineties. Though lacking the profound creativity, horror pictures of today are treading through the “bleakness” Wanzer speaks of once again.
“The popularity of ‘Hostel,’ ‘Saw’ and other so-called ‘torture-porn’ films may be linked to our ongoing national conversation about the uses and abuses of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and to our deep-rooted fear of declining American power and prestige,” says Dr. Jamil Mustafa, who teaches a variety of horror classes, both in fiction and in film, at Lewis University in Romeoville. “Recently the number of movies depicting the United States as a post-apocalyptic wasteland decimated by artificially engineered plagues and ravaged by hordes of zombies seems to have skyrocketed, and these films certainly reflect and contribute to national anxieties regarding biological warfare, terrorism and immigration. In the 1980s and 1990s blood became scary again with the spread of HIV/AIDS, and vampire movies flourished. Now that we’re confronted with a terrifying economic downturn, I wonder how horror movies will respond.”
“We are living in a decade fraught with horror—The Bush Empire has come close to bringing the planet to its knees and has ushered in a whole new wave of racism,” says Rusty Nails, the director the Music Box Massacre (which lands on October 25, see Short Runs). “Movies like ‘Cloverfield,’ ‘Diary of the Dead’ and ‘Quarantine’ all reflect how little control human beings have in our world currently… there is a constant fear of the unknown destroying us and this can easily be linked to the terrible world policy of our current administration and the way the rest of the world regards America.”
The torture porn is a direct result. “The whole new torture-horror cycle—‘Saw,’ ‘Hostel,’ ‘The Devil’s Rejects’—are all coming straight from recent headlines, straight from Guantanamo Bay,” Nails says. “Straight from Bush’s disinterest in humanity for complete favor of monetary gain.”
Simone Muench, poet and professor at Northwestern and Lewis University, where she’s also taught horror-film classes, agrees. “I do think the political climate infuses itself in the general psyche, whether we choose to think of ourselves as political or not,” she says. “I find that films now in the twenty-first century have been a return to a lot of the filmmaking of the seventies, not in terms of the filming style, but that the filmmakers are really trying to recreate the extremist filmmaking in a way that shocks people out of their apathy. But instead you get things like ‘Saw,’ which has no narrative, no character development, just a boring string of executions.”
Regardless of quality, it seems, something brings audiences back again and again to the ghoulish brutality. “We have Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, which became so iconic in our consciousness,” Muench says. “In some ways I think we’re fascinated by it, but we don’t want to know the reality, we don’t really want to know about Abu Ghraib, we don’t really want to know what’s going on in Guantanamo Bay. So instead of investigating the real-life, we turn to horror film—they allow us to know what’s happening in these places, but we can see it through the screen, of the unreal, so we don’t have to be affected by it.”
But it’s not all bad. Most of the people I talk to agree that there have been some horror movies made in this decade that are worth keeping—almost all mention Neil Marshall’s 2005 film “The Descent.” Muench and I agree on the 2005 Australian film “Wolf Creek” as one of the most disturbing and devastating pictures made recently; Ebert, however, begs to differ, and in his original review awarded it the woeful zero stars, called the film misogynist and wrote that “There is a line and this movie crosses it.” Rent it, decide for yourself.
However, a lot of money is generated weekly from a genre that’s built to essentially make you uncomfortable. Maybe horror teaches us more about ourselves than any other type of film—what we fear most, our thresholds, our vulnerabilities. A polarizing culture of cinema indeed—for every basement-dweller dressed as Freddy Krueger at the horror convention there’s an equally informed cinephile eager to reject it. We still go back, though, to the theater, to the darkness. The fifth installment of the “Saw” series is on deck this week.
“It gives people what they normally don’t get in other genres,” Wanzer believes. “Most people can relate to a character who is heartbroken. Not many people can relate to someone who’s had their heart eaten. It’s a way to escape from reality.”
“The exact shapes these fears and the monsters that embody them take vary over the decades, but horror movies made today are exploring much the same social and psychic territory as those made in previous decades,” Mustafa says. “That said, I think the audiences for these films have changed dramatically and have become far more jaded. When I watched a reedited version of ‘The Exorcist’ at a Chicago theater in 2000, the most disturbing thing about the experience wasn’t Regan’s notorious ‘spider walk’ but the laughter with which the audience members—some of whom were pre-teens—greeted it. It’s hard to imagine what could scare these viewers.”
Well, it certainly scares the hell out of me.