Thursday, July 12, 2007

Didn’t the Scene Where they Stabbed that Guy in the Eye with a Pair of Scissors Look Real?

By Lars Trodson

I wanted to riff a little bit about what Mike Gillis was just talking about, the horror film genre. A genre that has, as he so rightly points out, devolved into not so much “horror” -- which I associate with ambiance and tension -- into what Mike’s headline noted: torture porn.

I have seen a few of these movies myself, particularly in my stead recently as a movie critic for The Wire in Portsmouth, NH. I saw the remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and its prequel, “TTCM: The Beginning.” I saw “Saw.” I tried to watch “Cabin Fever” but actually thought it was some kind of weird prank -- I did not believe that people took the movie seriously. I also, in that time frame, caught the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and Wes Craven’sLast House On the Left." I also saw “The Descent.” That’s quite a menu.

What I took special note of when I saw the more recent films is that while it is obvious that acting and storytelling are no longer of any special importance to the moviemakers, the special effects people have become particularly adept at gore and filth and excrement and pus and any other kind of organic ooze that slithers across the face of the planet. The rooms and basements and catch basins in which a lot of these films take place are really rank, stinking places, and you do want to get the hell out of there. Not because you’re scared, but rather because you might catch something.

It had been some time, I think, since I had seen a horror movie when I went to review “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake. The original Tobe Hooper film is quite rightly viewed as a tight little classic. The remake stinks, it’s junk, but that didn’t stop it from being a huge hit.

I remember the scene in which the Jessica Biel character comes across her friend, who has been hung up on a big meathook. She tries to lift him off the hook, but when she can’t he asks her to kill him. She takes a big knife and stabs him the belly, and something inside me clicked.

The word sadistic came to mind. I wondered aloud why anyone would think of this as entertainment. What is fun about this? I felt the same thing during the prequel. At one point Leatherface hacks off an old guy’s pair of legs, and I suddenly felt a little bit of shame. Why am I sitting here? What use does this serve?

Wolf Creek” was also hailed as a return to form, I guess, and there was some suspense in this little film. But at some point the creep at the center of the movie takes one of the girls he has been torturing -- and who at one point almost escaped -- and stands behind her and shoots her in the back and she falls over, dead.

I don’t know what the filmmakers expected me to feel, but I simply felt glum. The whole enterprise, the whole shoddy genre, was lost to me. I didn’t get it, couldn’t understand the entertainment value, or why these slasher flicks had suddenly become so popular again.

There have been a lot of theories about why the horror genre has been reborn -- among them are the tried and true (people like a good scare), to the psycho-social (we’re trying to alleviate our daily fears brought about by Sept. 11.) Yes, well, whatever. I think the first is the best; people like a good scare. The only problem is these new movies aren’t really scary -- they’re not even tense. So what is it?

I think the answer lies specifically in the way young people view movies today -- that is, what they’re perceptions of movies are.

Moviegoers of my generation went to a film hoping that we would make some kind of emotional attachment during our time in the dark. We wanted to be caught up in the drama, the emotion, to feel and laugh with the characters on the screen. Moviegoing at its best was a very, very personal, intense experience. That’s what we sought out of it.

One of the expectations of a horror flick was borne out of that relationship. The idea of the story was to first get us attached to the characters, and then watch in extreme discomfort as they went through their travails on screen. Their horror was ours -- “No!” we’d shout. “Don’t open the door!” Horror movies were built around the expectations that we would be attached to the characters on screen.

Kids today go into a movie with no expectation of getting emotionally attached -- they might not even see the experience as one where they would expect that to happen. It’s a purely digital, detached moment in time. There is no unseen bond between the audience and the actors -- they’re a million miles away from each other, and they each know it.

So while I’m sitting there like an idiot reacting to a slasher movie with a completely outmoded set of 20thcentury moviegoing values, young people today think: “Did you see the effect when they cut off the guys legs?” Or, “I wonder how they got all that blood to squirt out of the woman’s eyeball?” They know it as fake, they see it as fake, the criteria used to evaluate the situation is based on the idea that it is fake, pure and simple.

In other words, it’s not a character on screen, it’s that Jordana Brewster, another character in a long line of celebrities who parade through the pages of the multitudes of celebrity tabloid magazines. She’s a hot little number that we’ll next see on the pages of Maxim. End of story. End of movie.

Let’s face it: there is no mystery in movies any more. When I was a kid, I was so naïve I often wondered where they hid the cameras. That kind of wonderment is long gone. Actors once craved mystery, they tried to be enigmatic; two qualities that are necessary if we are to believe at all in who they are playing onscreen. But actors today don’t want that -- they want you to be familiar with them because that’s why you’ll see their movie.

The standard for a movie today is not how real it felt, or that you became involved. The standard today is how real did they make the fakery look? And if you did indeed appreciate just how real the fake stuff did look -- man, they made that look real! -- then you are able to confidently judge the movie, and your moviegoing experience, a success.


Watch the classic horror film, "Nosferatu" here: