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Annoying Trends in Modern Horror Movies


2003 could almost be termed the year of the horror movie, as there were so many of them.  Unfortunately, as I’ve made clear in previous essays, not many of last year’s horror films were Oscar worthy.  The big problem with ‘03’s movies, aside from bad acting, writing, etc., was a widespread lack of originality. 

     The horror genre is by nature a poor man’s art, not unlike what rock and roll is to the music world: a down ‘n dirty art form that works by appealing to peoples’ baser emotions.  One doesn’t need a college degree to understand a good horror movie, which at heart seeks to stimulate one of mankind’s core emotions: fear.  If other equally disreputable subjects are breached along the way, such as (gasp!) sexuality and violence, all the better.  A movie like, say, the 1941 CAT PEOPLE had those things in abundance, which made it quite subversive in its day (thus, pundits who single that film out as an example of “refined,” “tasteful” horror are missing the point).   

     The problem is that far too many filmmakers in and out of Hollywood have misinterpreted horror’s down n’ dirty aesthetic to mean lowest common denominator--or, more accurately, airheaded adolescents, who, continuing a trend initiated back in the sixties by American International Pictures, have become the target audience for the vast majority of modern genre fare.  This would explain why so many recent horror movies are populated with teen or twentysomething dorks: the new TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, JEEPERS CREEPERS 1&2, CABIN FEVER, MAY, HOUSE OF THE DEAD, WRONG TURN, FREDDY VS. JASON, ad nauseum. 

     And I do mean DORKS: the Idiot Plot, which requires that all the characters act like idiots in order for the story to proceed, is a given in today’s horror movies.  Nothing else would explain the behavior of the protagonists of HOUSE OF THE DEAD, who stupidly attend a rave on a deserted island; if you ask me, they deserve to be menaced by flesh eating zombies!   

     Still, at least HOUSE OF THE DEAD’s makers managed to come up with an alternative (however imbecilic) to the tried-and-true roadside cannibal device, which decrees that any time young folks are on a cross-country road trip (which they always are in these movies), they’ll most likely end up in the clutches of a family of psychotic cannibals.  That was a device popular in seventies horror movies, where it made more sense--nowadays it seems pretty inexplicable that nobody would think to bring a cell phone, a triple-A card, or (in the case of CABIN FEVER, where the gang is menaced by contaminated water) bottled water.

     Speaking of roadside cannibal movies, note the settings of most of them: forests.  The forest setting was a horror staple in the seventies (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, EQUINOX and quite a few others) and eighties (FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH, THE EVIL DEAD, et al).  Forests are a natural environ for horror, redolent as they are of scary stories told around a campfire and providing a ready-made atmosphere of darkness and shadow away from civilization...an environment, in other words, where cash-strapped filmmakers are less likely to be hassled by cops looking for shooting permits!  THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT brought the forest setting back with a vengeance, and WRONG TURN, CABIN FEVER, DREAMCATCHER and VERSUS, to name but a few, have followed, proving that forests are great places to stumble onto inbred cannibalistic families, mysterious flesh-eating viruses, mutant butt worms looking to conquer the world and gateways to other dimensions (which, in VERSUS at least, look an awful lot like this one). 

     One element that isn’t recycled from seventies and eighties fare is modern day CGI effects.  Not that they’ve helped any; the animated critters of DREAMCATCHER look every bit as goofy as the humping cucumber monster from IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, while RESDIENT EVIL’S CGI zombies pale in comparison to the flesh-and-blood walking dead of classics like CARNIVAL OF SOULS, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and ZOMBIE.  While on the subject of CGI, I might as well single out another irksome modern convention: computer generated gore.  Having grown up with the incomparable prosthetic work of masters like Dick Smith and Tom Savini, the sight of animated blood appearing on somebody’s skin really doesn’t do much for me.  FREDDY VS. JASON is the worst offender in this regard, along with Takashi Miike’s ICHI THE KILLER, a film I otherwise enjoyed immensely. 

     Video game based movies are another relatively new development (traditionally it’s been the other way around): witness FINAL FANTASY, RESIDENT EVIL, HOUSE OF THE DEAD and the upcoming ALONE IN THE DARK.  Thus far, the trend has not made for better movies, but rather an even higher than average dosage of generic nonsense.  Speaking of nonsense, check out HOUSE OF THE DEAD, in which director Uwe Boll inserts clips of the actual video game into the action--I guess he was worried we might forget about the movie’s origins.   

     An even newer—and far less encouraging—development is the ride inspired movie.  Promoted by Disney in a crass effort to cross-pollinate their theme park and movie divisions, this new trend has given us PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, which was pretty good, but also THE HAUNTED MANSION, which was so awful it nearly cancelled out my good feelings for POTC.  The problem with these movies is they perpetuate an extremely obnoxious cycle: the family friendly, PG-rated, middle-of-the-road horror movie epitomizing the concept of a “feathered fish”, an animal that can neither swim nor fly (other examples include the ‘99 MUMMY and HAUNTING remakes and THE SCORPION KING).  Looking on the bright side, I don’t think Disneyland has any more horror-themed rides left to adapt into movies (although I’m certain THE MATTERHORN and SPACE MOUNTAIN: THE MOVIE are on the horizon).  

     While on the subject of then-vs.-now, let’s take a look at the rampant sexism of eighties horror, which seems to have been expunged...or has it?  FINAL DESTINATION 2, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, RESIDENT EVIL and FREDDY VS. JASON’s cast members all get killed off but for a lone female survivor.  This is a convention of past horror movies, in which the “good”--non-sexually promiscuous--girl manages to survive the carnage that befalls her horny friends: FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH PART II epitomizes this point in a scene where a chick and her boyfriend get impaled by the murderous Jason while screwing (a scene admittedly lifted from Mario Bava’s 1971 TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE).  The late Lucio Fulci called Jason “the punisher of rock music, sex and drugs...Americans have this great respect and fear for religion...they really believe in divine punishment.”  In today’s American horror movies women are actually allowed to have sex and take drugs without dying for it...but then again, the lone survivors are inevitably the most goody-good (read: virginal) of the bunch, proving that the more things change the more they stay the same.

     Another novel element in today’s horror movies is a racial consciousness.  Unlike the old days when the token African American was always the first to get killed, now black folks are kept around, sometimes until the end of the movie, to offer hip/ironic jibes...and then get killed (see HALLOWEEN RESURRECTION or FREDDY VS. JASON, where a black girl confronts Freddy with the taunt “what’s with those razors...you tryin’ to compensate for somethin’?” before he offs her).  

     Hipness and irony are requisites in today’s horror films, which are invariably preoccupied with looking cool, even at the expense of coherency.  See UNDERWORLD, where everybody parades around in skin-tight leather outfits at all times, and VERSUS, whose hero is similarly attired despite the fact that he’s just escaped from prison.  The characters of those films also seem concerned with striking cool poses throughout—the message seems to be that fighting evil ain’t the point...rather, it’s how one looks while doing it. 

     Few connected with today’s horror movies, I’ll assume, have viewed THE LOST BOYS or WAXWORK lately.  Remember those films?  Both were hailed as the trendiest things around back in 1987 and ’88, respectively, but nowadays...well, they ain’t any more (I find it difficult to believe anyone ever bought “the Coreys” as vampire killers).  Ditto the once hipper-than-thou SCREAM flicks, which are looking pretty stodgy these days: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, Skeet Ulrich, David Arquette, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jerry O’Connell’s collective fifteen minutes have passed, meaning their bad acting is more apparent than ever and their presence in these films utterly pointless but for the fact that they were “in” back then. 

     I’d say the same of CHAINSAW’S Jessica Biel, FREDDY VS. JASON’S Kelly Rowland (a.k.a. Destiny’s Child), Jonathan Cherry of FINAL DESTINATION 2 and HOUSE OF THE DEAD, and UNDERWORLD’S Shane Brolly, all of whom owe their presence in these films to flavor of the month-ism and not any exceptional talent (although in the cases of Biel and Rowland I will acknowledge their physical appearances were probably a factor).  I look forward to the day when the above films will seem as anachronistic as WAXWORK does now...and I’m certain that day will NOT be long in coming!

 

--2/13/04
 


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