Friday, April 27, 2007

The Culture of Fear, Part 2: Horror Films in the 2000s

The horror genre’s first big box office breakthrough of the decade was Gore Verbinski’s remake The Ring (2002). That film’s success awakened mainstream American audiences to J-horror, a new wave of Japanese films about vengeful ghosts. The Ring has been followed by a slew of similar American remakes of Japanese ghost stories: The Grudge (2004), Dark Water (2005), The Ring 2 (2005), The Grudge 2 (2006), and Pulse (2006).

Writing on his blog in early 2005, John Kenneth Muir observed similarities between The Ring and The Grudge. In both films, he says, innocent people are victimized for being in the wrong place at the wrong time: the films “seem to suggest that ‘being there’ – the act of watching – is enough [to warrant punishment]. We don’t have to commit the atrocities we see on the tube ourselves to be held responsible for them.” His observation is that the films display no clear sense of karmic justice (as, for example, in the slasher films of the 1980s, where “sex + drugs = death”); the violence is haphazard and arbitrary. At most, the victims are guilty by association.

The notion of karmic justice was also absent from the “savage cinema” of the 1970s – films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), in which anyone could die at anytime for no reason at all. The universe in those films is ruled by chance and chaos, and the only way that the characters can survive is to ignore their civilized reason and resort to primitive instinct. I was certainly not the first person to write about these films as a reflection of Vietnam-era anxieties in America, and I am not the first person to point out the seeming significance of the fact that these films have recently been remade for a new generation as it faces a war with disturbing similarities to Vietnam.

Michael Bay’s big-budget remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre made a killing at the box office in 2003, the same year that several other stylistic throwbacks cashed in. Witness Rob Zombie’s carnival-esque House of 1,000 Corpses (Roger Corman meets David Lynch), the Romero-revival 28 Days Later, Eli Roth’s Raimi-esque debut Cabin Fever, and would-B-movie Wrong Turn – a halfhearted mash-up of The Hills Have Eyes and Deliverance. Since then, Michael Bay has produced the stomach-churning The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006), as well as remakes of The Amityville Horror (original 1979, remake 2005) and The Hitcher (original 1986, remake 2007). He is currently working on a remake of Friday the 13th (1980). Rob Zombie made The Devil’s Rejects (2006), and recently shot a remake of Halloween (1979). Universal has distributed a high-profile remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (original 1978, remake 2005), plus Romero’s own Land of the Dead (2005) – not to mention an excellent spoof: Shaun of the Dead. In addition, we have the usual lot of franchise sequels, hardly worth listing here.

Horror’s newest mega-franchise was born in 2004. Saw, a gritty independent film about a sadistic contest for survival, is arguably the most distinct horror film of the decade. The villain of the film is the Jigsaw Killer, a puppet master who appears to take delight in the psychological anguish of ordinary people in excruciating circumstances. He doesn’t want to kill; he wants to watch. In fact, what distinguishes this killer more than anything is the fact that he never gets his hands dirty… he’s more like a “civilized” government leader, who gets foot soldiers to do his dirty work. Early in the film, Dr. Larry Gordon remarks – with a twinkle in his eye, suggesting that he slightly admires his captor – that Jigsaw is not “technically” a serial killer, because he never physically kills anyone.

Like Larry, we can’t help admiring the Jigsaw Killer’s ingenuity; and like him, we are genuinely curious to see what these characters are truly capable of. Will a man who recently attempted to kill himself be willing to force his way through a maze of barbed wire… in order to save his life? Will a scam artist cause himself to get burned alive, thereby suffering poetic revenge for “burning so many people”? Will a drug addict be willing to kill a fellow addict, then search through his intestines for a key that will prevent her head from exploding? Finally, will Dr. Larry Gordon – a surgeon who has taken the Hippocratic oath – be willing to kill a seemingly innocent young man, in order to rescue his own family? We can’t tear our eyes away from the screen… because we can’t help thinking about how we would react in the same situation.

Perhaps for that reason, some critics remarked that sitting through the film was comparable to being tortured. American audiences, however, were more than willing to play the role of voyeur – to the tune of 55 million dollars. Why? Maybe we’re testing ourselves. At the end of the film, we don’t want the Jigsaw Killer to get caught, anymore than we wanted Hannibal Lector to get caught for eating Ray Liota’s brain. Why? Jigsaw reminds us not to take what we have for granted; he makes us grateful to be alive and safe – watching this “game” from the comfort of our own homes. In the words of Amanda, the murderous drug addict who reappears in Saw 2: “He helped me.” This begs a tantalizing follow-up question: But at what cost?

Saw has already spawned two sequels, with the promise of another one on the way. It has also inspired a widespread passion for like-minded films – most notably Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (2003, released in the U.S. in 2005), Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek (2005), and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2006). Most recently, Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes and its 2007 sequel, have claimed the throne. The goal of each of these films, it seems, is to push the onscreen violence a little bit further, testing the limitations of the characters as well as the audience: How much can we take? In the process, some of these films lose sight of the need for pathos, and become little more than a gore-filled endurance test. But this is par for the course. There have always been horror filmmakers with lesser imaginations, eager to follow the popular trends without fully understanding them. I submit that horror films on the whole are not getting becoming more “degenerate,” only wearing out a trend that is still timely for war-weary audiences.

To those who think that horror films of the 2000s are less intelligent than horror films of the past, I refer to seven years worth of comparatively traditional horror films: Ginger Snaps (Canada, 2000), The Gift (2000), The Bunker (England, 2001), The Others (2001), The Devil’s Backbone (Spain, 2001), Dark Water (Japan, 2001), May (2002), My Little Eye (England, 2002), The Mothman Prophecies (2002), 28 Days Later (England, 2003), Dead End (2003), Identity (2003), Marebito (Japan, 2004), Shutter (Korea, 2004), Land of the Dead (2005), Dark Water (2005), The Descent (England, 2006)… I’m sure there are many more that I’m neglecting to mention.

The last example, The Descent, gets right to the heart of this discussion about the subtext of recent horror films. I won’t give away the plot, but suffice it to say that the survivors are not only fighting to save themselves physically, but to save their human decency. Ultimately, that is the only thing that makes them different from the cave-dwelling creatures that are will kill them and eat them. How much are the characters willing to sacrifice in order to survive? That is the same dilemma faced by the would-be victims in The Hills Have Eyes (both versions), and by Dr. Gordon and Amanda in the Saw films… Like soldiers who must act without conscience in order to keep breathing, they choose to live. They are willing to go as far as they have to.

Afterwards, they face a new question of survival: After everything we’ve lost, can we ever go back?

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