Thursday, June 29, 2006

Christopher Kelly: Fear Factors

Fear factors: Don't expect to escape nightmares with a smile on you face
by Christopher Kelly
The Star-Telegram

The most gruesomely vivid, elegantly made horror movie in recent memory opened with little fanfare on Dec. 25, 2005 in approximately 1,500 theaters nationwide. Titled Wolf Creek, it's a low-budget shocker from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre old school, about three carefree twentysomethings whose hiking trip goes terribly awry after they are kidnapped by a maniacal serial killer in the Aussie outback. As is often the case with horror pictures, it was greeted by many critics like a Christmas present wrapped in soiled tissue paper. (Sample review, from Roger Ebert: "There is a role for violence in film, but what the hell is the purpose of this sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty?") The fact that the movie announced the arrival of an immensely gifted new director named Greg McLean -- whose patience, control and ability to play the audience like a very cheap fiddle would have done Alfred Hitchcock proud -- seemed lost on most adult moviegoers.

An isolated case of a terrific B movie falling under the radar? Not exactly. Because the very same thing happened a few weeks later with Eli Roth's Hostel -- a viciously entertaining exploitation thriller, about American college students who find themselves trapped in an Eastern European slaughterhouse where rich businessmen pay to torture hapless victims. The movie creepily captured the experience of being a clueless American in a foreign country that pays you very little heed. (It also showed us what it might look like to have your eyeball slowly pulled out of its socket with pliers.) Once again, the reviewers turned up their noses. ("[Hostel] willfully takes us someplace cruel -- and deeply unfunny," wrote The Denver Post.)

And again and again . . . with Final Destination 3, the technically dazzling third installment in the teenagers-who-can't-outrun-Death franchise, and with Alexandre Aja's The Hills Have Eyes, the unrelentingly menacing and bloody remake of the Wes Craven cult classic. Needless to say, neither of these films (both of which are currently still in theaters) will be in the running for next year's Best Picture Oscar.

Except there's another story here: namely, that these movies aren't slipping under the radar and disappearing straight to video. Instead, the largely teenage and college-age audiences who flood the multiplexes on Friday nights have turned them all into modest hits. In the case of Hostel, which opened to $19.6 million and went on to gross $47.3 million, it might just end up being the most profitable movie of 2006. (That film arrives on DVD April 18, a week after Wolf Creek.)

"In the box-office slump of the last year, these movies are the only movies that audiences are responding to," says Hostel director Roth. "Both Saw II and Hostel were made for $4 million, and they're beating movies that cost $200 million dollars."

Are the critics simply out of touch? Well, yes. Because if you can't recognize the often-astonishing level of craft on display in these films, then you're watching them with your eyes closed.

But the teenagers are getting it -- and embracing perhaps the only movies around that dare to speak to larger social concerns and anxieties, especially about the often-faceless, unfathomably evil villains we must contend with in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Hostel, Final Destination 3, Wolf Creek and The Hills Have Eyes are hardly uplifting, redemptive horror stories, where the hero wages battle with a bad guy and emerges a better, stronger man. Nor do these movies offer any of the self-reflexive irony-soaked fun of films like Scream from the 1990s or the spook-house pleasures of the Asian-influenced horror movies like The Ring from earlier in this decade.

What has emerged, instead, is a modern strain of horror that takes us straight back to the politically conscious, deeply despairing 1970s classics like The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the original Hills Have Eyes. The often hopeless message of these movies is, "Your life may seem perfect right now, but the other shoe is about to drop, at which point there will be no one around to save you." And it's a message that seems scarily appropriate for a generation of teens and twentysomethings who were mostly raised in privilege but whose lives have had a pall cast over them -- first by the omnipresent threat of terrorist attacks and now by an ongoing war in Iraq.

To Read the Entire Essay

Also check out the debate, at The House Next Door, on this essay:

Blood and guts: Christopher Kelly sees art in mainstream splatter


Reel Fanatic said...

I wasn't a believer in this little subgenre until a friend practically begged me to see "Wolf Creek" ... it is an absolute masterpiece of horror, in my opinion

Susannity! (Susanne) said...

It's funny, when I was a teenager and into my early 20s, my favorite movies were horror films. I also read horror like a fiend. I'm not quite sure why, I just loved them. I then moved into dramas, especially realistic human dialogue and interaction. I still love those, as well as other types of films, but I've just recently started watching horror again. My husband can not stand horror because of the blood and guts, and perhaps that is why I moved away from it for so many years. I watched Saw awhile ago and it made me, an ex-paramedic with a stomach of steel, cringe hehe. I also watched the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake - liked it. I just watched Hostel like two weeks ago and absolutely loved it. I love many of the 'classic' horror films, but one thing I like about some of the newer horror films is that they have become a bit more clever. Remember how everyone would laugh when someone had just seen 3 dead bodies and then go into a basement armed with a flashlight? I feel that the scripts now are more sophisticated, and the battles won and lost more sensical than they used to be. Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing the Hills Have Eyes remake soon and lots of other spookie movies. =)

Thivai Abhor said...

Reel Fanatic and Susanne,

I have always been a fan of horror--literature and film--but it is always the case, with all creative efforts of wading through the 90% of the crapto find the 10% of really good works.

I haven't seen wolf creek yet, but I will definitely check it out now, especially as I have been looking for a good contemporary film to us for the horror genre section in my film class.

I watched "Monster" last night with a friend and the film was devastating and truly horrific, both in the depiction of the horror of Wournos' life and what it drove her to do. This was truly a work of horror, even if it would not necessarily be included in th genre.

I'm not a big fan of blood for blood's sake--splatter/gore and find the argument of a film like Last House on the Left (and others) as trying to wake us up to the horrors of society--I remember when it came out, no one was discussing how it was a metaphor for the Vietnam War... although the ending of the Night of the Living Dead has always remained with me, especially the way in which the hero's body is disposed of...

See The American Nightmare

Thivai Abhor said...

Oh yeah, I recently saw High Tension on the recommendation of a friend--I found it predictable, boring, and senseless. By the time I got to the twist (I had quit watching it, but my friend insisted I stick with it to the end) I was laughing at the ridiculous plot twist.

Don't waste your time...

Thivai Abhor said...

OK, spurred by this article I checked out two films:

The Hills Have Eyes... a laughable film with ridiculous situations and totally unbelievable (yeah, I know it is schlock, but if you see it talk to me after the burning man scene). To stupid to be scary!

Wolf Creek--better effort, with beautiful landscape shots, effective set up of main characters' personalities/relationships, and understated build up to the horror. Last third of the film slides into typical genre imagery/action... a worthy effort for the genre from a first time director, but left me saying why did I watch this (cruel/sadistic violence)... of course I'm a film teacher/scholar, but the celbration of the violence in the movie sets me to wondering... I did go camping that weekend and some of the imagery stuck with me at night (and led me to sleep with my axe near my pillow--so I guess for afficiandos that is a plug for the film?)