By Tom "Dark Lord " Waters
January 1st , 2006
We've got M. Night Shamalan to thank for that, and generations of bad film-makers who watched Hitchcock in film school between bong tokes. While Shamalan doesn't specialize in horror, he's made an increasingly worsening career out of stamping his name on projects whose sole purpose is to turn the story upside down and faux-shock viewers with a reality warping twist at the end.
There's a dichotomy in modern horror films that didn't really present itself until I settled down today to watch the sequel to The Ring this cool autumn evening in the dark comfort of my home with my girlfriend cuddled up beside me: fright and slaughter. There are two branching paths in the ever-derivative slate of recent films and I will always pledge my allegiance to the former. On one hand, movie goers are drawn in by a captivating series of hints, allusions and slight of hand before the final powerhouse of bone curdling terror waltzes onto the center stage just when the allusion of it reaches a fever pitch. Psychological horror. Subliminal shock and awe. And then on the other end of the spectrum viewers are subjected to an endless procession of guts and beheadings. Gore for the sake of it with nary a second to bother with plot outlines, character dimension or continuity. Unfortunately, some fright flicks disguise themselves as one genus in the group and turn out to be another. It's getting harder and harder to find a truly horrifying film these days.
I'm an aficionado of horror movies, but a discerning one. I will only watch the ones that rise to the top. The cream if you will. There are too many teen slasher sex romps and hour and a half slaughter fests out there with smart trailers and a parade of test panels before they make it to the screen. The last time I saw a trumped up horror movie at the theater I was sadly disappointed. "Saw" had all the pre-release hype of "Hudson Hawk" and the results were just as pathetic. It was a suspense thriller in the style of Alfred Hitchcock. A story that takes place (for the majority of the movie, at any rate) on one stage with two opposing characters puzzling their way through a trap. It was poorly acted and written with more holes than Pinhead's face. It wanted so badly to trump "Seven" without any of the careful crafting and buildup that its far superior predecessor had achieved ten years prior. Carey Elwes and Danny Glover on their best day on the set didn't have half the subtle emotive force that Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman pulled off. Granted, I've always felt that Brad Pitt fell a bit off the mark at the end when presented with his wife's 'pretty head', but the rest of the movie was so brilliant that it didn't matter. The pacing and the planning (or lack thereof) leading to the giant twist at the climax to Saw just weren't enough. It was, to use a non-critic's terminology, weak. I watched it a few times afterwards and plot devices either weren't properly placed beforehand or brushed over ambiguously for the big 180 that fell flat on the bathroom floor and walked up before the credits rolled.
We've got M. Night Shamalan to thank for that, and generations of bad film-makers who watched Hitchcock in film school between bong tokes. While Shamalan doesn't specialize in horror, he's made an increasingly worsening career out of stamping his name on projects whose sole purpose is to turn the story upside down and faux-shock viewers with a reality warping twist at the end. Much like Kevin Smith, each successive film has gotten a little bit less interesting and a little bit more banal. The other problem with "Saw", like so many horror films today, was its eagerness to splash blood across the screen before the appropriate tension was wound up. It suffered from attention deficit disorder. Half of the film felt like a music video with short clips of skewering, slicing, dicing and bruising in rapid succession. It was all brutality with no humanizing elements for the viewer to develop much of a relationship with the victims. I was shocked to find that they've whipped up a sequel in quick order for "Saw" in less than a year's time. These days if a probably franchise breaks even at the box office, four more movies are placed on the production docket. There's no room in the accounting department for new ideas and I hope that they hired a new crack team of typewriting monkeys to pen the script for the sequel.
And I realize the flaw in my argument. The "Ring" series, as any horror addict will be quick to point out to the layman, was originally a six film double trilogy over in Japan. Twenty years ago, the Japanese series would be released in a handful of art house theaters with subtitles for discerning viewers. We're too dumb for that now. I've never enjoyed subtitles which, I suppose, excludes me from being a true noir freak. Now if there's a masterpiece overseas or in another language, it's watered down, casted with a cache of hot Western Talent, and re-tooled for Americans. It's a testament to the original's frightening ferocity that it still scares the bejesus out of us upon first viewing. Like pond-scum streaked antagonist Samara, it rises to the top. And we get most of the really scary movies from left field. Unfortunately, it's a rare occurrence in a sea of re-makes, schlock fests and gore strewn slaughter celebrations targeted at post-pubescent teens.
It's never the special effects budget or the kickass soundtrack that grabs us, either. It's simply and succinctly a great story, whether it revolves around ghosts, possession, ghouls, werewolves, zombies and otherwise. The emphasis is on the back story and the strings pulled leading up to it. Too many times films in the field fail because they aren't patient with the violence. Impulse gratification and a quick fix won't do in horror. Slow and steady wins the race. An unfolding tale told well will do the trick. And the Japanese have surpassed us in this as well.
In the last ten years, the Japanese have been plotting our demise in this category. Say what you will, but "The Grudge", another re-make handled ala Robert Rodriguez by series creator Takashi Simitzu was a compelling spin on the haunted house story. Have Americans forgotten how to weave a good ghost story? Are we incapable of true terror? Stephen King (through his thorough and exhausting critique of the genre in "Danse Macabre") forced the working theory that horror films from decade to decade represent the dark mirror-image of the culture's deepest fears at the time (The Cold War, Aids, 9/11)and, to a lesser extent, scary representations of teenage puberty (vampires, werewolves and other shape-shifters) . I'm not sure where that puts us now. Perhaps we're too far in denial to face our fears on the big screen. Maybe the Japanese are doing a decent enough job of painting our night chills. But my theory is that the creeping terror that strikes deep into the hearts of men has mutated and found another medium. Video games.
Where horror films have failed and fallen into tired cliches out West, survival horror games have flourished. Like the movies, they are a small niche in an overcrowded market flooded with populist, homogenized garbage, but the masterpiece quotient is much higher. The "Silent Hill" and "Fatal Frame" series, along with the torrent of "Resident Evil" games (which are hit or miss depending on the spin-off or sequel) stand out above and beyond the best horror films out there. It's no surprise, then, that "Silent Hill" and "Fatal Frame" are both in development as major motion pictures. Four "Silent Hill" games have been released to date on multiple platforms, as well as a side story on the Game Boy Color in Japan only. All of the stories revolve around the Lovecraftian resort town of "Silent Hill", where the fog is oppressive, the monsters are an abomination to the naked eye, and hell is just around every street corner. The protagonists (different with each installment) are haunted by a concealed pain and drawn to the unholy power that the town holds. Innovative, isolated and thrown off guard by an ever-changing reality, they are forced to face their innermost demons made whole or perish trying. There's something more visceral and hands-on about survival horror games as opposed to horror films. The player is forced to form a bond with their character and, in doing so, is drawn into the fray moreso than film voyeurism is capable of accomplishing. The "Fatal Frame" series, which also changes characters with each sequel, hangs onto the constant of a supernatural camera as the player's only form of protection against tortured ghosts. Drawing heavily from Eastern ghost stories and folk lore, the characters often run as if through molasses or a nightmare from their pursuers and have to face ghouls head on through the aperture of a mystical device in order to capture their tormented spirits. Both are frightening beyond description in their own right. "Resident Evil" is sometimes a schlock fest that relies on cheap scares and zombies that pop out of the least expected hiding spot. But occasionally, the series produces cinemas, scenarios and monsters that get so far under your skin that you're hooked. Admittedly, I'm a "Resident Evil" fan boy. I own all the games, guides, and some of the merchandising.
That's the draw of effective horror. It doesn't have to hit the mark every time but if it hits hard enough, we'll keep coming back for more. That one scene or that one moment that stops your heart and chills you to the bone. The cruel pulsing terror at that moment when you're heart speeds up and adopts a fight or flight response to what you're viewing or experiencing. Your worst nightmare recreated. Your deepest, darkest fears manifested for mass consumption. Facing the unknown. Losing someone you love. Finding out that the world might not be a place that makes sense or that really bad things happen to good people.
Both genres aren't going anywhere anytime soon, but it would be nice to see more originality instead of a swamp full of re-makes, re-hashes and schlock-fests. Success strikes in the strangest of places. "The Blair Witch Project," "28 Days Later" and most recently, "The Machinist" come to mind. Strange set pieces with left-field plots or a new spin on an old formula. True horror fans aren't asking for a totally new idea, although that would be nice, but put a twist on it that isn't Shamalan-esque. Bring something fresh to the industry. "Blair Witch" and "28 Days Later" were both filmed on rather small budgets and grossed a phenomenal amount of money. What made the movies a success? Storylines. Not award-winning special effects by Rick Baker and other craftsmen in the field, not a five million dollar promotional powerhouse, but word of mouth based on how effective the brand of terror was. Put down "Blair Witch" all you want, but it was something new. Much like "The Ring," it scared the shit out of me the first time I watched it. "28 Days" came off as the most realistic non-zombie zombie film I've ever seen. If a legion of undead, unthinking monsters took over the world, that's probably how I would deal with it, too. There was a layer of realism that the zombie subgenre has either never seen before, or hasn't seen in a long time. Just a shred of originality goes a long way in a world that rewards Freddy and Jason with sequels that rival even James Bond.
I don't mean to sound like a crotchety old man, but it seems like Western horror films golden age reached its height in the '70s and blustered through a silver age in the '80s. The holy trinity of American horror ("The Exorcist," "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Shining") will undoubtedly never be trumped. There will never be another Stanley Kubrick. The proof of "The Exorcist's" primal fear lies in the fact that it was re-released decades later and horrified a new generation. The '80s gave birth to a series of young upstart film-makers looking to turn the world on it's ear. Wes Craven, David Chronenberg, and John Landis spring to mind. The first "Halloween" was effective at what it did. "Friday The 13th" and " Nightmare On Elm Street" definitely had their moments within the first few installments. And there were the occasional surprise hits: "The Re-Animator," "Scanners," "Phantasm," and "Poultergeist." Something was lost when sequels became king. The formula was replicated, duplicated, and diluted. It took a Brit to invent a new mythos in the 90's with "Hellraiser." Clive Barker blustered onto the scene like a bastard child of H.P. Lovecraft. Unlike most Judeo-Christian brands of fear, he took a decidedly more Jungian, archetypical approach to crawling into people's brains and giving them the fright of their lives. Then Wes Craven returned and reinvented himself with the "Scream" trilogy. If it wasn't a trilogy, it would have had more of an impact. It's a schlock series in tribute to a formula that the director himself made legion, and started a chain reaction in film that brought teen slasher movies back around, as if anybody needed that.
As a writer of humor, people are often surprised at how much of a dark side I entertain. Aristotle said that all laughter is derived from cruelty, and looking over the abyss and staring at our own mortality has a way of making you celebrate the funny side of life. The two lifestyles co-exist symbiotically. It's certainly not an anomaly. Robin William's surprisingly talented performances in "One Hour Photo" and "Insomnia" are proof that those who labor in comedy harbor a vicious counterpart. I relish in the twisted, psychologically perverse films. "Dead Ringers," "The Fisher King," "Bad Lieutenant," "Jacob's Ladder" and "Boxing Helena" while not horror films by most standards certainly have an element of inner torture to them.
I grew up on a lot of benchmark horror movies and a lot of cheap spin-offs. I saw "The Exorcist" in the third grade and couldn't sleep thinking that I was going to start vomiting pea soup. A next door neighbor insisted that I watch "Evil Dead II" with him in the sixth grade. I've seen more than my share of "Friday The 13th" films in the theater and will never forget the impact that just the movie poster for "Halloween" had on me while I was leaving Alice In Wonderland as a child. It's a vein of storytelling that's capable of so much more. Hopefully I'll see more surprises in my lifetime than spin-offs.
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