Monday, February 11, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Contemporary Horror Film

Some time ago, a friend pointed me to an academic article on “the rhetoric of crisis” in recent horror film criticism. The writer, Stephen Hantke, starts with a very simple observation: Although business is booming, fans and critics agree that “the American horror film is in a [creative] slump.” Hantke goes on to quote the final chapters of several studies of horror films (including mine) to prove his point. All of these studies, he notes, focus on a well-established canon of classics rather than examining the films of the most recent two decades. Hantke interprets this as proof that the genre is in trouble and suggests that, if people want to see something other than sequels and remakes to the well-established classics, we have to explain why the recent sequels and remakes aren’t working for us as well as the originals did. Seems simple enough, right?

It’s got me thinking about my reaction to Rob Zombie’s redux of “Halloween.” I simply couldn’t help comparing it to the original, and for me the remake didn’t live up. Why? I just never got emotionally involved with the characters. I didn’t feel that the victims were sympathetic enough, or that the killer was mysterious enough.

Not long after I saw the remake of “Halloween,” I went to see the Coen Brothers movie “No Country for Old Men” and I got to thinking that Anton Chigurh is a more interesting variation on Michael Myers. Not just because he uses a murder weapon that makes Myers look boring by comparison… but because he’s a human being without a conscience – a “faceless” menace who believes that life and death are as random and meaningless as the outcome of a single coin toss.

My opinion: Zombie’s remake of “Halloween” should have featured an Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh is as relentless as the Michael Myers of Zombie’s film, but actually has more in common with Carpenter’s original concept of Michael Myers as the boogeyman. Chigurh is an abstraction – he represents different things to different characters. The Vietnam generation characters (Josh Brolin and Woody Harrelson) regard him as a stumbling block that they have to personally overcome. The World War II-generation character (played by Tommy Lee Jones) regards him rather as a monster that can’t ever be entirely destroyed. At the end of the film, I couldn’t help thinking that the apathetic Chigurh represents the Iraq War generation – he is as hardened to the reality (necessity?) of violence as Zombie’s Michael Myers. The genius of “No Country for Old Men” lies in its perspective on him. It is through Jones’s character that Chigurh becomes the mythical monster of a horror film – not simply an agent of physical death, but a generator of the less tangible fears that lie at the core of the horror genre.

The suspense in Carpenter’s original film comes from our understanding that the monster is death, death is inevitable and unknowable, and the randomness of death is sometimes unendurable. Zombie’s “Halloween” does work on one level – as a slice of life narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end. But Carpenter’s “Halloween” is a myth. (Carpenter himself understands myths only too well, being a dedicated fan of America’s greatest mythological art form – the western.) Like “No Country for Old Men,” the original “Halloween” reveals the unknown through its honest inability to offer a reassuring explanation for the things we fear the most.

I think perhaps that’s where so many recent horror sequels and remakes have fallen short of their predecessors – they lack a sense of magic and mystery, the supernatural and THE UNKNOWN. For more thoughts on this topic, check out my review of “Pulse” on, a great little website devoted to the horror film “canon.”

1 comment:

  1. I started writing a reply to this, but it sort of mutated into an essay of its own (which I'll post to Classic-Horror in due time). There's a lot to ponder on here.