Crosstalk: The state of horror cinema

Crosstalk: The state of horror cinema

Scott: Okay, so Halloween is upon us, and with another quickie sequel to Saw due on Friday, it's as good a time as any to talk about the current state of horror, a genre which many find useless but to which I pledge my undying (or is it undead?) allegiance. Granted, in order to get to the meat, you have to gnaw your way through a lot of gristle and bone first, and many critics don't have the stomachs for it. And yet I find that even bad horror movies often have more to say about the times—or least, they reflect the times better—than their more respectable counterparts in other genres.

Take the Saw franchise, for instance. Right now, the Saw and Final Destination movies are among the most bankable brand names in horror, and the studios putting them out can't make them fast enough. So why are people showing up to watch essentially the same story play out over and over? I imagine most would say they like them because the deaths are always novel, coming as they do by way of elaborate Rube Goldberg devices set up by a psychopath (Saw) or via Manos: The Hands Of Fate (Final Destination). But you can always look to genre films to capture the tenor of the times, and I would argue that these two franchises exploit a deeper fear among young people, post-9/11: Namely, that they have no control over their own destinies. Death could come at any time, and even if they can see the gears at work, they can't do anything to stop it.

Granted, the two franchises seem different on the surface. The puppetmaster in Saw merely puts his victims in situations where harm can come to them, and it's up to them to make difficult choices to stay alive. But those choices are of the Sophie variety: Sure, you can make it out alive, but in order to find the key to unlock the time-activated bear trap attached to your head, you'll first have to find the key lodged in your cranium. (Here's a rusty spoon. Have at it.) As I said in my review of Saw II, it's a little like a schoolyard bully grabbing a weakling's arm and doing the "stop hitting yourself" routine. Any sense that the victim is in control is entirely illusory.

As for Final Destination, that's a clearer case. I actually find these movies intriguing conceptually, because there's no tangible enemy in them; these poor teens are running from Death in the abstract, and trying futilely to dodge their role in the grand design. If you think about it, that's about as close as a dopey teen horror flick is going to get to The Seventh Seal. (Though I guess Bill & Ted got there first.) They're playing chess against Death, and in this case, Death is Garry Kasparov. I'm not sure what possible investment an audience could have in a character in one of these movies, because they have to know that it's always checkmate time for the humans. I guess it's just cool to watch some woman get beheaded by a log.

Of course, having all the protagonists potentially die has gone from completely taboo 10 or 20 years ago—when the "last woman standing" premise was more common—to a new cliché, thanks to the surprising influx of gritty, visceral throwbacks to the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Since those represent some of my favorite (and least favorite) recent horror films, I'll save them for later.

So let's hear from you, Noel. What do you like? J-horror? Americanized J-horror? Remakes of classic and non-classic horror films from the '70s and '80s? Mechanized death? Super-realistic torture? And more to the point, are these our only choices?

Noel: I find the idea of J-horror fascinating, because of what it says about the Japanese—namely, their anxieties about wayward youth and the dangers of living in a technophilic society. But so many J-horror films are interchangeable, with their longhaired little girls, ominous clicking, and incomprehensible plots. And the American versions? Well, they straighten the plots out some, and they keep a lot of the creepy imagery, but few have found a way to update the themes so they resonate with our culture. You know how everyone makes fun of the Japanese version of American English, which gets the words but misses the meaning? That's how I feel when I watch a Hollywood remake of a J-horror film.

I think you're right that the most relevant-to-American-youth horror films today are torture-fests like Saw and Hostel, and I agree that the relevance is tied to 9/11, but I think it goes beyond the fear of unexpected tragedy. If you look closely at Hostel—and Wolf Creek, for that matter—what they're really about is what happens after everything goes to hell. When that kid in Hostel is strapped to a chair with a chainsaw-wielding sicko heading toward him, we in the audience have to ask what we're hoping to see. Do we just want him to escape and get the hell out of there? Or do we want to him to get hold of that chainsaw and exact revenge?

(Of course, there are some who want to see the dude in the chair get cut a little first. These are the same people who can't stop watching the footage of the World Trade Center collapsing.)

My problem with these kinds of movies is that I don't find their kill-or-be-killed approach all that satisfying, intellectually or aesthetically. Look, horror movies aren't that hard to make, really. They're all about sound design and screen space, and any semi-competent director can figure out when to drop into an eerie hush and when to keep the audience's eyes trained on the dark shadows in the corners of the frame. So just because a movie scares me doesn't make it a good movie. It's how it scares me that matters, and whether it plays on something more than the fight-or-flight response.

Do I think that there are modern horror movies that do that? Yes, but I'm going to dodge the question about what they are for a moment, and throw some questions back to you. How much does the "taking the ride" aspect of a horror movie affect your appreciation of it? And does it matter whether it's a ride you've taken before?

Scott: I think you're dead-on about Americanized J-horror, which definitely loses something in the translation. Part of the problem is that the original Japanese directors are doing some of the translating themselves, like Takashi Shimizu's The Grudge and The Grudge 2 (doesn't this guy get tired of doing two versions of the same movie?) or The Ring 2's Hideo Nakata. (That not remotely scary sequence with the deer still makes us chuckle in these parts.) I was initially jazzed by the idea that certain J-horror conventions—the ghosts with the blank faces and odd hitch-walks, the pale children frozen in trance-like states, those disturbing little undercurrents on the soundtrack—would replace the cheap shock effects of their American counterparts, but it never really materialized. I thought Gore Verbinski's remake of The Ring, the opening salvo in the American J-horror movement, did a surprisingly good job of streamlining the plot and capturing the unique tone of these movies. Truth be told, I thought it was scarier than Nakata's original, and certainly more comprehensible on a narrative level.

In spite of the reasonable success of The Grudge 2, which I attribute more to its PG-13 rating than any great anticipation from the masses, I don't see the J-horror craze lasting much longer in the States. The American versions have failed, as you say, to locate any thematic resonances that might speak to kids stateside, which really just leaves a pile of effects that are quickly losing their novelty. And then there's the fact that chief J-horror innovators like Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Pulse) and Takashi Miike (Audition) have been wondering off into other territory: Kurosawa's Bright Future and Doppelganger indulge his weakness for existential ennui rather than trying to scare people, and Miike, though he'll no doubt continue to push his craft to new extremes, has recently branched out into the bizarre abstraction of Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, and the restrained, Poe-like creepiness of his Three… Extremes entry. But that's what artists do: They refine, expand, and try to stay fresh, which is why there's an expiration date on the Shimizus and Nakatas, who are just cashing in on faddish facsimiles.

As to your question about "taking the ride," I'll confess that that's a big part of why I'm attracted to the even the schlockiest horror films that come down the pike. ("Hey, you want me to review that not-screened-for-critics When A Stranger Calls remake on Friday? No sweat! And while I'm at it, how about a review of the incredibly silly 1979 original?") As you say, it isn't that difficult to make a horror movie, at least as far as delivering the shocks. That whole cat-on-a-tin-garbage-can effect still works on us because we're helpless to stop it: It's dark, we're tense, the music is ominous, and we know something's coming, but we don't know precisely when, and we can't help but flinch when sound and image come together to say "Boo!" Hardened horror junkie that I am, there are still moments when I'm looking off at the curtains and exit signs, even when the movies are doing nothing to earn my distress. All that said, playing with sound design and screen space may not seem all that difficult, but you can certainly make some important qualitative distinctions between the way a Val Lewton protégé does it, and the way some Michael Bay protégé does it. Figuring out how to get under viewers' skins in a lasting way—as opposed to those cheap jolts that wash off you like rainwater—is what separates artists from hacks.

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Of course, there are those rare occasions when you can have visceral jolts and a more penetrating feeling of dread, such as The Descent, which may be the scariest movie I've seen a theater since The Blair Witch Project, and equally skilled in its suggestive interplay of light and shadow. (How The Descent didn't turn out to be a Blair Witch-style word-of-mouth hit baffles me, though I have no doubt it will find some traction on DVD.) As I said in my review, there's no more ideal setting for a horror film than a cave: It's a tight, claustrophobic space, its catacombs are mysterious and unstable, and most of all, the only real light source is the small space illuminated by a flashlight or lantern. In all honesty, the film could have just been about these six female adventurers padding around in an uncharted Appalachian cave system, and it would have been terrifying enough. But once those hideous, carnivorous, albino bat-people start crawling around, the level of intensity was just staggering. I saw it in a roomful of seen-it-all, battle-weary critics, and the movie seemed to reduce everyone to jumping, shrieking, seat-clutching kids all over again.

But as a horror aficionado, I reserve a special (and admittedly sick) affection for the stark realism of films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Last House On The Left, a tradition that's been revived lately by fine films like Wolf Creek and The Devil's Rejects. And here's where we part ways: You want horror films to do more than play on our basic flight-or-fight response. Hence your rejection of something like Wolf Creek, which is about as unvarnished a flight-or-fight scenario as you'll ever see. To me, these movies hold an almost anthropological fascination: What could be more revealing of what it means to be human than how people respond to mortal stress and agony? The characters in these movies are intensely vulnerable, yet resilient and resourceful, and I feel as viewers that we can connect to their raw experiences pretty deeply. Again, there's skill involved in doing it right, so don't take me for endorsing movies simply for their willingness to feature, say, unblinking torture sequences. But in the best cases of horror realism, I appreciate their immediacy and lack of pretense; by stripping away the heavy effects and artificial plotting, and even any conventional impulse to entertain, these films cut close to the bone. They're about as pure as moviegoing experiences get.

Still, the best of these movies have other things going on, too. You don't have to scratch too far beneath the surface to find some post-9/11 commentary on torture and revenge in The Devil's Rejects, for example, and the class undertones of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have already filled out a few term papers. Since visceral experience alone doesn't appear to be enough for you, Noel, what do you look for in a good horror film? Have you found any keepers in the current crop, or is the genre stuck at a bunch of dead-ends?

Noel: You mentioned one already. The Descent is more like what I was hoping Wolf Creek would be, with people thinking and working their way through an impossible situation. That's what my nightmares tend to be like. And like my nightmares, The Descent ends in sweat, panting, and desperation. (Also, there are C.H.U.D.s.)

My all-time favorite horror movie is George Romero's original Dawn Of The Dead, which I also love primarily for how it shows people dealing with horror on the ground level. All of Romero's Dead films show characters building shaky little communities out of the remaining elements of their former lives, and that world-building always fascinates me, especially because I know that simple human arrogance is going to cock it all up before the movie's over. Even the Dawn Of The Dead remake, which was criticized for lacking the political resonance of the original, worked for me because it handled the world-building/world-destroying remarkably well.

I also admired The Devil's Rejects for its no-compromise sleaziness, though I wasn't as knocked out by the tortured-become-the-torturers political subtext, which seemed kind of facile to me. I prefer a little more nuance to my shock (because I'm a pretentious snob). To that end, my favorite horror movie of 2006 isn't really a horror movie at all—though it is gross, scary, and by a renowned horror-movie director. It's Guillermo Del Toro's upcoming Pan's Labyrinth, which uses childhood fantasy arcana as a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War, and uses the Spanish Civil War as a metaphor for… well, I bet you can guess. Only there's nothing overt about any of these metaphors. Pan's Labyrinth merely lulls the audience with a story that goes deeper and deeper into two complex and untenable situations—one imagined, one real—then comes around at the end to show how even tactical mistakes can be vindicated by history. Now that's something to ponder, and the kind of message that resonates no matter your political persuasion.

If you ask what I'm looking for in a horror film—and hey, you just did—it's themes and characters that haunt me long after the movie is done hollering "boo" at me. On that note, over the weekend, while watching Flags Of Our Fathers, I had a thought about what the future of horror films might be. But I want to save that for the big finish. You answer first: What's next for the horror genre?

Scott: I'm wracking my brain trying to figure out what in Flags Of Our Fathers could get you thinking about the future of horror films. I'm guessing you were just bored to tears waiting for the film to wheeze to the finish; either that, or you found something suggestive in that Iwo Jima dessert with the extra-ripe strawberries. (Mmmm… Iwo Jima.)

Before I get into the future of horror films, I feel inclined to defend my pet film The Devil's Rejects, which has more to offer than scrupulously stylized sleaze. What makes the torture scenes in that film fascinating (and yes, politically relevant) is how effectively Rob Zombie toys with our sympathies and sense of identification. We're introduced to a vengeful cop who wants to take down the Rejects, who are some of the most gleefully vicious outlaws in movie history, and yet at a certain point, his all-consuming desire for revenge morphs from righteous to sadistic. By the time he has them tied to a chair and beings torturing them to within an inch of their lives, our sympathies have shifted completely to the Rejects, which is especially miraculous considering how we just watched them pitilessly torture and slaughter the members of Banjo & Sullivan. Zombie is able to pull it off partly because he's always harbored a sick kinship with these characters as outsiders and rebels, but mostly because the quest for revenge eventually poisons the avenger. There's sharp political subtext in that idea—goodness knows, our need to avenge 9/11 seemed a heck of a lot more righteous then than now—but it's so deeply embedded in the story that it doesn't feel planted there by Zombie. It just flowers naturally.

So where is horror going? It seems to me that the genre has hit a crisis point creatively: J-horror is dying off, Hollywood is running out of '70s and '80s horror staples to remake, and surely at some point, the Saw and Final Destination franchises will lose their novelty. (Though maybe I'm giving audiences too much credit on that last one.) At the same time, the genre feels more liberated than ever to go in any direction it pleases. With a studio like Lions Gate willing to throw its weight behind The Devil's Rejects, Hostel, and other unsavory fare, there really doesn't seem to be any limits on the dark, subversive places a horror film can take us. It worries me when thoughtless splatter films open to great success, while a witty crowd-pleaser like Slither gathers respectful reviews but no audience. If studios feel that regurgitating the same formulas is the surest and easiest route to success, there's nothing to stop them from churning those films out. I worry, too, that there are no great horror auteurs emerging from the pack; outside of Zombie, who I believe is a major (though dangerous) talent, there are no Romeros, Carpenters, or Argentos that we can count on to put their distinctive stamps on cinema and carry their genre to new places. And yet I remain optimistic, because good, thoughtful horror films keep getting turned out one way or another, whether they slip through the studio system, find backing from the rogues at a major-mini like Lions Gate, or get imported from overseas like Shaun Of The Dead or The Descent.

Nevertheless, my crystal ball is a little murky. You sound more certain. What can we expect from the horror of tomorrow?

Noel: Less subtext, more text—that's what I'd like to see. Like I said earlier, I got what The Devil's Rejects was trying to do; I just didn't think it was especially profound or weighty. Now imagine this as the plot of a horror movie: An American journalist works the beat in Baghdad, investigating U.S. war crimes. He's kidnapped by a terrorist group, tortured mercilessly, then killed. Switch perspectives: A member of that terrorist group is captured by the U.S. Army and sent to a military prison, where he too is tortured. Now that's a scary movie that'd make you grapple with some things.

It doesn't just have to be the war in Iraq. There's a lot of stuff that scares us these days: terrorism, killer viruses, weather disasters, etc. Some people might consider it bad taste to apply the grammar of a horror movie to real-life tragedy, and it probably is. But it's also gutsy, and could be really effective. (Consider Casualties Of War, where Brian De Palma brings all his operatic suspense tricks to bear on a Vietnam War story.)

It doesn't just have to be ripped-from-the-headlines stuff, either. Remember how Alien pioneered a new generation of science-fiction horror? Well, how about a horror Western? Or a horror war story, like I was describing above, though not necessarily set in Iraq? If horror is all about playing on our fears of death and pain, well, there are a lot of circumstances where death and pain come into play besides via ghosts and psycho slashers.

More than anything, I'd like the horror artistes of tomorrow to play around with what the genre can be and do. Again, horror is so easy to construct, and its audience is pretty much built-in. Why not let it rip?

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