AUDIENCES ARE SUCH EASY PREY
December 9th, 2008 - Eric Ford-Holevinski

I have a lingering fear whenever I watch a good horror movie for the first time, and it's got nothing to do with the movie itself. What I fear is that I'm watching the last good horror film that I hadn't already seen.

In a way, people like me are lucky. I'm easy to please; I don't have high standards when it comes to movies. The first job of a movie is to entertain; horror movies have the additional charge of frightening. If a movie can do one of those things, I'm satisfied. If it does both, I'll probably like it a lot, and if it goes further still and pulls it off with some originality and class, like John Carpenter used to do, I'll love it. There are many great ones: a quick sorting of horror movies from my Netflix ratings list tells me there are at least 40 that I've given four or five stars.

But, evidently, I'm a minority in the moviegoing world. When I see movies in theaters that I enjoy, I often hear the audience hoot and complain. If a movie has atmosphere, they say it is "too slow." If a movie leaves the viewer to imagine anything, they say it is confusing and whine that "it didn't explain/show stuff." If a movie ends with a vague, haunting or unsatisfying conclusion, they say "wtf? It just ends." And yet, if the filmmakers have pinched off the most retarded, cheap plot twist, audiences ooh and ah and hail the movie as genius. A roll call of my favorite horror movies reads like a laundry list of box office failures and critical laughingstocks.

In the audiences at Times Square I see a growing disconnect between what people want, and what they want. For example: when you see a character lay down his life to save another, in your gut you want this person to survive. You want believe that someone so selfless and good would be rewarded, not destroyed. So, you hope that in a future scene he will reappear unscathed, saying "I ducked at the last second!" or something. But deeper in your consciousness, or maybe in the frontal lobe of your brain, you want that person's sacrifice to be real, because you know there should be real consequences to people's actions (not to mention that if we could jump on grenades and live, we would all be heroes). When we see a monster we want to know everything about it, where it came from, how to kill it, but if we knew those things, it would no longer be scary -- and we want the movie to be scary. We want to be able to guess the ending. We want to be made to feel smart. We want the bad-guy to have a really terrible death. Great story-telling, though, is not giving people what they want. What set apart masters like David Cronenberg was their ability to deliver what people really want. But the type of person who goes to horror flicks today isn't looking to be scared, or challenged, but merely, I guess, to pass the time, or to see vapid twenty-somethings get killed. And as people watch movies with their hindbrains, and jeer whenever filmmakers hold anything back, the message is getting sent to Hollywood: save the cleverness for art house films, and make genre movies to the lowest common denominator.

And so, the people have gotten what they deserved. The self-ironic Scream signaled a new benchmark in horror; an acknowledgement of the audience's own cynicism and vanity. The characters in the movie are a mirror for the viewer. They know the rules and the clich├ęs, they've seen the same horror movies we have. They still get butchered, but it's more interesting and funny than other contemporary slasher flicks because not only do they, like us, think they know better, but the killers themselves have been watching the same movies and they know better, too. And there's a plot twist.

Every hit movie ushers in a million me-too flicks, but the years since Scream have been unusually pathetic for horror. When the slasher-with-a-twist fad lost steam, it was replaced with Saw: the next level of cynicism, where we get not only gratuitous plot twists, but films that rely mostly on gross-outs, violence and torture. To me, Saw represents the bottom of the barrel. It isn't even an attempt to scare anybody; rather, it presents the jaded audience with the question: "This situation is so cruel and sick, what would you do?" Movies like this, and the similar Untraceable operate on the basic assumption that human beings are selfish, hateful, and easily manipulated. The characters are blank slates, and there is no plot: the point of the movie is not to tell a story at all, but to invite the viewer to put himself in the movie, and show him that in the same situation, he too would be brought low. My generation enjoys this experience because we have a pointless fixation with "dark" stuff and because it's cheaply gratifying to think of civilized life, and the banalities of our capitalist society, as hypocrisy. The movies make people feel smart, while hiding their own stupidity behind a plot twist.

I had hope for a savior in this age. Eli Roth is clearly talented and promising. Cabin Fever and Hostel may not have been works of genius, but they both satisfied Requirement A, entertain, and Cabin Fever even met Requirement B, frighten. But there's a catch: everybody hated them. There's a force out there I find difficult to understand, which causes the public en masse, from the most predictable troglodytes to the intelligent friends you respect and go to movies with, to form a unified and irrational hatred of a movie. The wave seems to originate in a counter-reaction to marketing hype, or from the movie having broken some arbitrary rule, i.e. "I didn't like the scene with the guy dancing." Once it sets in, it becomes irreversible. In recent years I saw it happen to Cloverfield, Spiderman 3, Cabin Fever, Hostel and X Files (which I haven't seen yet). It goes beyond ticket sales -- a couple of these movies were still hits -- and becomes instead a kind of public bashing of the product, a psychological surge. This bizarre consensus-forming is dangerous: it can ruin careers and worse, stifle experimentation as the film money-men stick more and more to safe and proven formulas.

It's also unpredictable. The original Saw, like Cabin Fever, was thoroughly hyped. I remember reading a preview story months before Saw opened about how the two creators sent out a five-minute demo videotape and the handful of producers who watched it all wet themselves, said "This is going to be Big" and turned it into a feature film. It was supposed to change the landscape -- but, as Obi-Wan said to Anakin Skywalker (roughly), "You were supposed to stop bad horror, not help it!" Cabin Fever, too, got the Big Push. It got the same puff previews, it got giants David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino throwing their weight behind Eli Roth. But that only hurt it -- the most common criticism I hear is, "They made it out to be the greatest horror movie ever, but it was just ordinary and silly." Which is exactly what I felt when I watched Saw. Yet Saw was wildly successful and spawned four sequels, while Cabin Fever got buried faster than a sorority chick in Friday the 13th.

So, Eli Roth is stuck in limbo for now. The people behind The Strangers show promise, but it's too early to tell where that will lead, and that was still at its heart a conventional slasher. Meanwhile, most inventive or refreshing horror films, like Hatchet, The Descent, or Teeth, get a tiny release with no push. All this is indicative of a refusal on someone's part to take risks. Is it producers, distributors? Who? Additional side-effects of this risk-aversity include the sequel-prequel spin cycle, the remake parade, sequels to remakes, and endless Japanese-refurbs. I like Asian horror sometimes, but American filmmakers just don't get it, and apparently neither do the Japanese, who also didn't know how to adapt the masterpiece that was Ring.

Horror is waiting for a talented independent team willing to take a risk, and for the people holding the keys to the public to take a risk as well. In the meantime, I'm left to hunt for old horror movies, the kind nobody makes anymore or which are being made now and released as an afterthought.

And when it comes to browsing old horror, I always feel the fear: maybe I've found the last one. Maybe I've already seen everything good from the 1980s, or from other decades. I don't want to keep watching the same favorites over and over again every year, so I must find more. This Halloween season I went out of my way not to re-watch my usual list, but to see new movies I had never seen. It proved to be rewarding.

Most notably, I saw Halloween III, From Beyond, and Ginger Snaps. Each was riveting and memorable in its own way, and each possessed something absent from today's horror wasteland. Ginger Snaps earns my respect simply for doing something interesting with werewolves -- no small feat. It also deals with high school students who look, and act, like real high school students. The unpopular goth girls aren't perfect A-types with a splash of black and white makeup; normal students do drugs, as opposed to some fringe group of punks. It is a better teen movie than most teen movies. As such, you care about what happens to people, for once. By contrast, movies in the current field are plagued with Blank Slate characters. Blank Slates are okay for some things, but aside from the obvious mark of writers' laziness they present, there is only so much you can do to them. If the audience cares about the characters, all of their actions and misfortunes are automatically relevant -- but if a movie is loaded with boring nobodies, the only way to get a reaction is to torment/kill them in ever more gruesome and outrageous ways. The movie Hatchet carries this to the logical conclusion. It was hilarious and refreshingly unpretentious, but nobody wants every single horror movie to be like that.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch represents a once-common movie setup that horror has forgotten. An everyman protagonist (but with a personality), in this case a doctor, becomes concerned with a series of bizarre events. He investigates with the aide of another person, often an attractive woman. They discover an evil plot, a monster, whatever; and because nobody else would believe their story, they must take desperate and immediate action. I love this type of movie, but I'm not surprised they're going extinct, given the hunger for cheap irony, "gritty realism" and predictable twists in today's moviegoers.

Last, and best, of this bunch was From Beyond. Considering how H.P. Lovecraft defined horror in the 20th Century, it's disturbing how quickly the 21st has dumped him. Supernatural horror -- my favorite kind -- has fallen out of favor. Nobody makes movies about Ancient Evil anymore. Horror movies no longer ask what's going on out in the shadows, beyond human perception. We don't even get any real monsters anymore, which might be a blessing in light of the CGI invasion, or might be a result of it if horror directors realize current CGI wouldn't fly in horror. Part of the magic of the '80s monster movies was that physical effects and puppets had become so good that they were believable. When you watch The Thing, you don't see any zippers on the monster's back (Stephen King's phrase). There was a tangible presence, a credible threat in the monsters, which, combined with the directors' and writers' ingenuity, brought about a perfect moment for the genre. We got wildly fantastic, yet utterly convincing, creatures; the possibility of hells as deep as they were close, and tormentors of all shapes and sizes. The most supernatural we get now is an occasional exorcism or formulaic haunted house yarn with blue filters and slamming doors. Don't get me wrong, I don't want all my horror movies to be Lovecraftian... but is it too much to ask for one good flick in the Lovecraft tradition every, say, ten years? Am I wrong to lament that the closest to Lovecraft we got in this decade was Hellboy? The fact is, there's a lot of evil out there in the real world, and I think to some degree our interest in scary stories, as a species, is a form of confronting that evil. Stephen King asserted a similar point in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre when he discussed the relationship between the Cold War and popular horror tropes of the age. Faced with today's gathering forces of cruelty and lawlessness, I think Lovecraft's visions of eternal evil could hold water.

On top of that, many of the classics, like In the Mouth of Madness, Prince of Darkness, and The Shining, play like nightmares. No matter how post-modern we get, we can never escape that we had nightmares as children, and for some of us, revisiting that world and that kind of fear is what horror is about. The likes of Saw are more akin to those dreams you have now and then about your teeth falling out: disturbing, but not terrifying. They don't take you anywhere beyond what you already know, they don't require you to exercise your imagination or suspend disbelief, and as a result, they cannot set you free. By being too realistic, they feel plastic and fake. They cannot satisfy my ongoing craving.

So, I keep looking for golden oldies. And waiting.




Back to my Home Page

All work © 2008 Eric Ford-Holevinski