Over the years, a lot of critics have grown immune to the machinations of horror movies. I am not one of those critics, which is incredibly frustrating.
Last month, I was assigned to write a review of the wretched remake of "When a Stranger Calls." Going into it, I knew this movie was awful. Everybody else in the theater knew the movie was awful. The filmmakers probably even knew it was awful. Yet I was sitting in the theater with two thoughts running through my head: 1) God, does this movie suck; and 2) Don't go outside, Jill. Despite its awfulness, the movie somehow drew me in.
That always happens with horror movies, and it's why they frustrate me so much. I know most of them are quite bad, yet I have no control over my emotions when watching them. They are specifically designed to circumvent the intellect and hotwire your emotions. It's like a horrible basketball team that wins because they are allowed to use seven players.
The horror genre is essentially an illegitimate one. There really is no way to make an artistically worthy scary movie. People don't view Browning's "Dracula" and Whale's "Frankenstein" as great films but as cultural landmarks.
No matter how good the script, and no matter how talented the production team, no scary movie is going to be taken seriously because it doesn't engage the intellect. One can only admire the craftsmanship and ingenuity that goes into making these movies so much before you eventually realize there isn't anything to hang your hat on.
The best horror movies, at least for me, are those that don't try and swing for the fences. In the horror genre, there is nothing wrong with being unambitious. Better instead to wink at the inherent absurdity of what you are doing.
This is what makes the William Castle/Vincent Price schlock-fests from the '50s and the innumerable '80s slasher-movies so endearing. They have a certain playful incompetence to them that, for some reason, makes them compulsively watchable.
Here are movies that don't hold you up with impressive technical trickery or nuanced performances. The only real difference between a "good" slasher (like, say, the "Sleepaway Camp" series and "Terror Train") and "bad" slasher movies (pretty much everything else) is that the filmmakers of "good" slashers know they are making junk, so they have a sense of humor about it. The bad ones think they are doing art (but even they can be redeemed if you view them as sources of unintentional comedy).
The modern horror movie doesn't have the humor (unintentional or otherwise) of its predecessors. We are in the middle of what I call the "Snuff Horror Revival." This subset of films is personified by "Hostel," the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake, the "Saw" franchise, "Chaos," "Wolf Lake" and the upcoming remake of "The Hills Have Eyes."
To a certain extent, these movies grew out of the minimalist horror movies from the early '70s that played on the seemingly random nature of evil (all the more effective in the shadow of Vietnam). Some of the movies, like the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and Wes Craven's "Last House on the Left," worked in a cinéma vérité kind of way, but there was nothing inherently scary about them. Rather, they wore you down with their bleak, nihilistic worldview. What they were about was scary, not how they were about it.
Let me just say that I am not the type of person who objects to all Hollywood thrillers as inherently misogynistic. Maybe I'm just not that smart, but I never really pick up on this underlying chauvinism that supposedly colors most American thrillers. That being said, I am fundamentally uncomfortable with the snuff horror film.
Like their ancestors from the '70s, the new horror movies aren't designed to frighten but, rather, to disgust viewers. It seems to have been agreed upon that the best means towards achieving this end is to depict violence against women.
This is nothing new, of course. The whole concept of scary movies is based on a woman being in jeopardy, but that conceit used to be used in order to further the plot and generate suspense. Now, the suspense of whether she will escape from the madman is gone: The main interest lies in how she's going to die.
Of course, this was a central theme to the slashers from the '80s, but in comparison to what we are seeing now, those relics from the '80s seem positively quaint. The clumsiness with which they set up their murders and made desperate attempts at having a story gave them goofy, almost-endearing qualities.
Now, the movies are being made by "serious" filmmakers who think that somehow the violence in their movies stands for something and makes some grand point about where we are as a society. This argument is absurd — the violence is designed to horrify the decent people in the audience and titillate the perverts who find comfort in seeing attractive women being brutalized.
One of the most disturbing things about the snuff-horror revival is that there has not been any outcry from critics. The lone exception has been Roger Ebert — he gave zero stars to "Chaos," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Wolf Creek." In each review, he angrily questioned why exactly these movies needed to exist. He got into a spirited e-mail debate with David DeFalco, the film's director, in which DeFalco tried to argue that the brutality of the film had some social relevance. The exchange proved that a) Ebert is the conscience of the American film critic; and b) DeFalco is even more vapid than his film suggests.
The critics who do like these movies invariably praise the directors for what they've managed to do with such a low budget and make some highbrow argument about how they've tapped into the depravity of the psyche and blah, blah, blah. Of course, as soon as the movies make money, their directors will move on to more legitimate horror movies, the same way Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven did.
I do not know anybody who is actually scared by what they see in modern-day horror films. More than anything, people I've talked to feel worn down and depressed. They concede the movie affected them, but it didn't engage their minds on any intelligent level. It "got to them" simply because they are human and, as a result, are disgusted by what they have seen and heard.
There are no lessons from these movies — they are exploitation in the purest sense of the word. They take us down to the lowest levels of depravity, only to wallow there for 90 minutes. Along the way, we are forced to watch women (and a few men, for good measure) subjected to vile acts of brutality. Why? What is happening here? What we've got here aren't horror movies, or even mindless slasher movies. They aren't fun, or goofy or even unintentionally funny. They exist only to show us hell.
I am not suggesting that every film needs to be uplifting or beautiful. There is definitely a place for movies that show us humanity's dark side. Movies like "Taxi Driver" and "Seven" are prime examples: Sure, they take us to the lowest parts of the world, but they at least have a reason for existing.
Watching them, we learn something about what it means to be human. They find humanity, love and courage in the lowest places. We see reflections of ourselves in places we never would have thought to look. Evil may win out in these movies, but at least it seems like a fair fight. There at least is a hope that good men will act and evil will be unable to prevail. In the snuff horror movies, evil wins, and, to make matters worse, it runs unopposed.
Ray Gustini is a freshman majoring in political science and history. He can be reached for question or comment at [email protected]