Modern Day Morality Tales?
Writing about a film genre that I have little interest in has proven far more difficult than I first imagined. This is several drafts into some thoughts I wanted to commit to paper about contemporary horror films and I doubt I’ve got it quite right. As unlikely as it may seem, the idea started with a discussion I had with a FBW customer a few weeks ago and germinated from there. He mentioned that our 2009 year-end review “was mostly about horror films”, an observation that has stuck with me. Coincidentally, I’d been reading through a recent issue of Cineaste that also focused on the same topic. I’ve been mulling over the contemporary horror film ever since, trying to form some coherent thoughts and valid interpretations about a genre that seems difficult to define and/or easily deconstruct. It hasn’t helped that my start point for the undertaking was a general distaste for the some of the genre.
While horror is a contentious and controversial film genre, it has legions of fans and obviously not all of them are drooling half-wits. One of the biggest problems with modern horror remains finding the better examples of it. Even devotees of the genre seem unable to come to any consensus as to which ones are worthwhile and which ones aren’t. As a result, it’s become a closed genre of sorts where consistent recommendations for/on/about clearly well-executed examples are hard to find. It’s seems to be a genre that needs to be further subdivided into smaller sub-genres before any potential candidates come forward. At the risk of getting mired in a never-ending exercise of defining what those subsets are, it seemed wise to limit the divisions. For the sake of expediency, I arrived at the following – Supernatural, Psychological, Slasher and Gothic. This presumption is quite likely littered with holes but I couldn’t find a simpler way to divide the genre.
With some stellar recent exceptions, it would appear that the Supernatural/Monster film has ramped down in recent years while the psychological and slasher/serial killer output has risen substantially. Gothic horror has been co-opted and revamped (if you’ll excuse the choice of terminology) for a predominantly female audience and is on its own, quite separate, but upward trajectory. The preeminent sub-genre in recent years, however, has been twofold – the psychological horror, specifically J-horror and it’s many imitators/mutations and a small but controversial extension of the ’70s/’80s slasher film, named for both real and marketing purposes as “torture-porn”.
It’s probably easiest to dispense with the New-Gothic growth first. Horror has traditionally been a genre that focused on a young male audience, because that’s who watched it. It was a demographic truism that film producers understood and exploited. To draw in a larger slice of potential viewership, film producers/makers had to find a way to appeal to a female audience and fundamentally retooling vampire lore and centering it on a female perspective turned out to be the ticket. Its evolution can be traced from Anne Rice adaptations to Buffy to True Blood, and to it’s latest incarnation, the newly minted Twilight franchise (and its inevitable and soon-to-be-numerous imitators). It’s a patently corporate genre-exploitation-for-profit-exercise that will continue as long as the money keeps rolling in (and the 13 to 55 year old female demographic exists). It’s also the least complicated of the recent horror genre trends to figure out.
Which leaves the significantly overlapping sub-genres of contemporary psychological horror and slasher/serial killer horror to rationalize. These are the easiest to simply write off as the products of a sick and declining culture, but that is an intellectually lazy way out. The tricky part about commenting on the trend to more brutal, visceral and sadistically grotesque horror is the slippery slope facing the observer/critic to charges of prudishness. One risks being labeled as such for simply pointing out that much of the new horror output is technically and artistically rubbish, even when it clearly is. Most of these pictures are so outlandishly ludicrous and poorly executed as to make one wonder if that might be the point. Contemporary slasher horror might just be the death metal of cinematic choice, something virtually bereft of artistic value, except as a counterpoint to the bland mainstream drivel that studios continually dump into theatres….a sort of quasi-counter-cultural, or perhaps more accurately, counter-mainstream movement. In the end though, I think that might give too much credit to the fan base of contemporary slasher/horror. There may be some truth to the idea that the most viscous and gratuitously violent examples of modern horror remain a forbidden fruit to nihilistic teenagers in suburban rec-rooms, a way of flipping the bird to distant-dad and medicated-mom, but the fan base extends well beyond this demographic so the key to its increased popularity lays elsewhere.
A second, more likely explanation involves the obvious intersections between sex, vulnerability, sadism and death in modern horror. I’m the first to admit that I’m well outside my ability to understand or articulate these deeper psychological connections, but it’s so central to the genre as to seem a fairly overt pop-cultural expression of these complex societal issues. The typical response to queries aimed at the slasher/horror fan base – as to what it is about the genre that appeals to them – rarely elicits much of a response beyond… “I dunno, I just like them”. The analysis seems to stop there. The apparent disinterest in trying to articulate a reasoned summation on the merits of some of the more extreme examples of modern horror gives one pause to consider that some horror fans don’t seem to have ever considered it. The sensory shocks, scenes of grotesque and gag-inducing gore and the mystery of the character’s larger motivations seem to provide enough of a draw to warrant another sequel or another minor variation of the basic plot.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid having your own views bleed into a topic like this. I readily admit to intensely disliking films like the Saw franchise and anything Eli Roth puts out. I think they’re both bad for cinema and bad for society. Supernatural/Monster horror is another story however. The Host, Let the Right One In, Drag Me to Hell, 28 Days Later and Pontypool all land up high on my recent favourites list. I like the whole Zombie/Infection/Romero oeuvre too. I can rationalize these choices because most of them fall into the realm of fantasy. I can also handle some gore when it’s part of the narrative. This position may be hypocritical but I would counter that being thrilled or scared by the unknown is very different from reveling in the terror, torture and dismemberment of some onscreen victim. To me, that seems far too close to the barbaric world of cheering as people get eaten by lions. The line representing what is acceptable and what isn’t seems to have been nearly erased and I wonder whether this is a cause or an effect of changes in our society.
That said, my biggest concern remains not the degree of gore inherent in some recent horror sub-genre film making, but rather how little ink is spilled on the disturbing moral conservatism of the subtext. It seems abundantly strange that the fan base seems oblivious to the conservative moral underpinnings of many (if not most) of the recent wave of slasher/horror films. The Saw/Hostel/Wolf Creek/Captivity films all have at their core a morally rigid, deeply conservative ideology. Thematically, plots typically revolve around a central narrative device that has those seeking casual sex being captured and tortured to death as punishment for loose ethics. Woman who abandon their traditional matriarchal duties are often subject to the same fate. So, do these films represent a fictional inquisition of sorts where deeply moralistic (and predominantly Christian) values are reinforced by condemning those who don’t adhere to hellish torture and an agonizing death? If you look at the judge, jury and executioner at the centre of these films, more often than not, they’re middle-aged, white males. Surely this thematic consistency isn’t lost on the genre’s audience, which begs the further question, is it possible that these films act as a kind of bastard-confessional for the viewer, a way of exorcising their own demons? It might be too large a leap to make this connection, but in the absence of alternative readings on the recent turn toward ever-increasing levels of violence in the slasher/horror sub-genre, I wonder if there’s something to this idea.