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 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