Saturday, November 05, 2011

Horror Films of the 1990s

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the publication of John Muir’s Horror Films of the 1990s for a long time – not just because I admire the author’s previous books, but because I came of age as a horror geek in the 1990s. It was a rough decade, seeming to lack the ingenuity of the 70s and the glee of the 80s. I remember a period when I felt like I was being punished for going to see horror films in the theater…The films were so uninspiring: HALLOWEEN 6, HELLRAISER 4, CANDYMAN 2, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, THE MANGLER, etc. I didn’t outright hate any of these films, but they were all pale imitations of the horror films I loved. Until SCREAM, and then again shortly afterwards, it seemed to me that the genre was dying a slow, painful death.

Muir acknowledges that the horror films of the 1990s are the “redheaded stepchildren of the genre,” often suffering “watered-down” scares and an overall sense of “sameness.” To be fair, the films Muir reviews here seem a bit less formulaic than the slasher films of the previous decade. The horror films of the 1990s overall have a bit more variety, but they are nevertheless haunted by bad storytelling. “By the 1990s,” Muir writes, “virtually every film to come out of the Hollywood machine was flawless from a technical standpoint, even sumptuous. Camera work is pristine. Music is evocative. The sound is impeccable… [but] these ‘face’ values hide the fact that the movie’s script is inadequate.” This reminds me of something Wes Craven said to me about the current (post-2004) spate of sequels, remakes and re-imaginations: It’s like jazz. The new masters of the form have more technical skill than their predecessors, but they don’t put as much of their souls into the music.

Muir identifies Craven as a true master of the form in the 1990s, providing insightful analyses of THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, NEW NIGHTMARE and SCREAM. (Of course, he also concedes that WES CRAVEN’S CARNIVAL OF SOULS is the most soulless exercise of the decade.) It’s no surprise that the author thoroughly excavates the work of established masters like Craven and John Carpenter, since he has written books on both filmmakers. He also gravitates toward the work of David Fincher, praising the critically-reviled ALIEN 3 and the harrowing SE7EN as two of the ten best films of the decade. I can’t help wondering if there’s a Fincher monograph in Muir’s future… or perhaps a study of the works of Chris Carter, whom he nominates as THE major influence on horror films of the 1990s (in spite of the fact that Carter only made one film which loosely qualifies for inclusion here).

It's fair to say that Carter, the creator of TV’s THE X-FILES, is at least party responsible for the popularity of 90's horror films featuring aliens and government conspiracies… and certainly he helped to popularize police procedurals and serial killer mythos with his TV series MILLENNIUM. All of these became popular mainstream horrors at a time when mainstream filmmakers (from Francis Ford Coppola to Mike Nichols) were eager to dabble in the commercially-thriving genre, blurring the lines between horror and melodrama.

One of the biggest obstacles that Muir faces in his book is presenting a solid definition of a “horror film” in the 1990s. He opts to include a category of films that I have always thought of as “psychological thrillers,” beginning with PACIFIC HEIGHTS (Amityville for the post-yuppie era) and SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY (which he labels “exhibit A in the case against 1990s horror movies”). These films are defined by the presence of an “interloper” (usually a highly sexualized woman… and, in one case, a dog) that single-handedly overturns the yuppie status quo. See THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, POISON IVY, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, THE CRUSH, MAN’S BEST FRIEND, THE TEMP, etc. Another popular breed of psychological thriller is the police procedural. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is the most obvious and influential example, with BASIC INSTINCT not far behind. What all of these films (psychological thrillers, horror movies, call them what you will…) have in common is everyday sociopaths - self-centered villains who lack basic empathy for their victims. In that sense, the “monsters” in these films are a more realistic extension of the faceless slashers of the 1980s… and arguably more frightening because they’re not simply outsiders who impose themselves on others. In the horror films of the 1990s, we are sleeping with the enemies. It's harder to escape from someone that you've invited into your house, someone who uses careful manipulation instead of brute force. (Taking this line of thought one step further, it’s no surprise that the vampire myth saw a resurgence of popularity in the 1990s… Our attraction to the monster, in this sexually-charged decade, more than equals our repulsion.)

Clearly, the horror genre was undergoing a kind of subtle reinvention - something every genre must do periodically in order to stay alive. The old horrors were too familiar to be scary, as demonstrated by another trend that Muir explains. His reviews show that self-reflexive horror didn’t begin with SCREAM (check out the expert analysis of POPCORN), but reveal how SCREAM did it best – by not just relying on parody, but also capturing the cynicism (and the downright terrifying lack of empathy) of the millennium generation. Muir’s book reminds one of those few years in the middle of the decade when Kevin Williamson was the biggest name in horror – contributing scripts for I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, THE FACULTY, H20 and KILLING MRS. TINGLE. Muir's review of THE FACULTY explains why lifelong horror fans were eager to dismiss the supposed wunderkind, why H20 was so well-received in spite of its simple-mindedness, and why KILLING MRS. TINGLE is a “perfect metaphor” for the impeachment of Bill Clinton (!). Most intriguing is his review of I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, which he defines as an astute metaphor for the post-yuppie era. The theme of the film, he says, is “actions have consequences.”

For me, the best thing about Horror Films of the 1990s is the way Muir defines some of the most challenging films of the decade as variations on this theme – films with a deep moral undercurrent. Of Joel Schumacher’s FLATLINERS, he says, “If watched in conjunction with Adrian Lyne’s JACOB’S LADDER and even [William Peter] Blatty’s world-weary EXORCIST III one begins to gain a sense of awareness where more 1990s horror movies could have taken audiences: to an excavation of the human spirit and human heart after a particularly restless and avaricious span in our history.” He also calls the horror-lite GHOST “a horror movie about America’s inevitable – but delayed – return to reality; about a national awakening from the corrosive yuppie values that so many people believed in and lived by in the Age of the Gipper.” SCREAM and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER are a return to this theme, focusing not on the reformed yuppies but rather on the younger members of Generation X. Copycats missed the subtext that made these films resonate… at least until 1999, when there was a kind of moralist horror renaissance in films like THE SIXTH SENSE, STIGMATA, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and STIR OF ECHOES. Muir also points toward Guillermo del Toro’s modern myths of the early 2000s… fodder for Horror Films of the 2000s.

What this batch of reviews does is help to redefine the horror genre’s lost decade as “the last age of innocence,” a time when reflective and inward-looking horror had a few days in the sun “before real-life terror took a firm hold in America’s rattled psyche” and torture porn became the order of the day. Viewed in that light, I must say I’m feeling a bit nostalgic for some of the comparatively mild horror fare of the 1990s. There’s a soft spot in my heart for silly flicks like STEPHEN KING'S GRAVEYARD SHIFT, PROM NIGHT 3: THE LAST KISS, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 and TALES FROM THE HOOD. Muir has his own favorites, and he's got me thinking about viewing some films I never thought I'd go back to: DR. GIGGLES, RAISING CAIN (which he describes as “a satire exposing the schizophrenic, contradictory messages sometimes sent by our culture to men of the day” – which sounds like a completely different film than the one I saw when I was a teenager), TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 4, THE CRAFT, THE FAN and THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU.

He also provides an impressive list of the best of the decade – a surprisingly varied assembly of films that deserve to come out of hiding: CEMETERY MAN (DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE), DUST DEVIL, THE REFLECTING SKIN, THE VANISHING (SPOORLOS), NIGHTWATCH (NATTEVAGTEN), THE ADDICTION, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, LOST HIGHWAY, THE NINTH GATE, FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, SLEEPY HOLLOW, etc. The list proves that this is a decade worthy of reevaluation, and Horror Films of the 1990s proves that John Muir is a master of explaining why horror films remain vital.

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  1. Great book review of JKM's new book, Joe. I've been waiting for this one. I see Amazon now has it in stock, too. I'll order it today (and see if I can get John to give it the old autograph, as well). Thanks!

  2. Anonymous11/05/2011

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    Kula May Ellison,