What the hell happened to horror?

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Released this week in cinemas, Sam Raimi’s ‘Drag Me to Hell’ is a bold attempt to show modern horror filmmakers and torture porn stars how they used to do things back in the day: splat, saliva and flying eyeballs; smash editing, in-camera effects and crazed invention

But with this movie, the ‘Spider-man’ director isn’t just creating an unashamed tribute to his own sordid past (particularly the ‘Evil Dead’ movies), he’s asking an important and timely question: what the hell happened to American horror?

It’s a widely established fact that horror cinema, alongside its parent genres fantasy and sci-fi, has always been disproportionately affected by, and eager to comment on, political and cultural shifts in American society. From the Red scares of the ’50s through the sociological upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s into the consumer takover of the ’80s, horror movies have reflected the mood and obsessions of their times more openly and unabashedly (and often astutely) than any other genre.

So it’s unsurprising that the events of September 11, 2001 had a cataclysmic effect on American horror. What no one could have predicted, though, was the form that impact would take: rather than inspiring a period of bullish, patriotic national confidence, the films exposed an America drowning in self-doubt, preyed upon by external forces beyond their control, and steeped in blankly amoral, brutally graphic, utterly uncontrollable violence.

These films – the ‘Hostel’s and ‘Saw’s – became hugely popular, and alongside a series of unnecessary remakes – including graphic reimaginings of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ and ‘Halloween’ – defined a new movement in cinema: torture porn. For some, the movement represented just another stage in the inexorable development of horror, and a perfectly acceptable challenge to the status quo. For others, they are the product of s sick society able to derive pleasure only from ever more graphic depictions of suffering and mayhem.

The horror movies of Raimi’s time were a very different monster. The ‘Evil Dead’ films, for example, border on slapstick: their intention isn’t just to terrify or disgust an audience (though both are undoubtedly important), but also to dazzle them with ingenuity and stylistic originality. The same could be said of Raimi’s contemporaries, from the cold-steel-and-diseased-flesh intellectualism of David Cronenberg to the enthusiastic genre-mashups of John Carpenter, from the politically driven humanist overdrive of George A Romero to the twisted fairytales of Wes Craven.

One of Craven’s earliest films receives the remake treatment itself this month: the long-banned ‘Last House on the Left’, one of the most gruesome and unforgiving of all mid-’70s exploitationers. It’s fitting: the torture-porners have often used that era’s grindhouse movement to justify their own tendency towards extremism: if it was acceptable in the ’70s, why not now? The possibility that we might have moved on as a society – and no longer find gratuitous scenes of, say, rape or sexual torture either titillating or acceptable – seems never to have crossed their minds. And while many of the films possess an undoubted political element – such as the depiction in ‘Hostel’ of innocent Yankee travellers exploited by vicious foreigners – this subtext seems generally to be coincidental rather than intentional: think of the remake of ‘Dawn of the Dead’, in which director Zack Snyder siphoned out all of Romero’s sly anti-capitalist satire in favour of rapacious, bludgeoning, ultimately forgettable action sequences.

Discussing morality in horror cinema (as in all filmmaking, even all art) is a touchy subject, but it is undoubtedly true that if a film possesses intelligence, political insight or a certain originality of either character or technique it makes an absence of moral certitude – and even a tendency towards outright exploitation – easier to countenance. The majority of modern horror movies showcase a lack of overriding intelligence or originality on all levels, from narrative construction to character building, to filmmaking skill, a trend Raimi’s new film throws into such sharp relief. After all, when you can make an impact on an audience purely through the application of makeup effects and power tools, why bother to learn the techniques of filmmaking?

Perhaps there’s an element of not-like-it-was-in-my-day going on here; for many of us, torture porn movies are simply impossible to stomach, and can’t quite understand the fascination of those who enjoy them, just as those growing up with the atomic giant ants and creeping communist blobs of the ’50s may have felt the same about Regan’s spinning head and Michael Myers’s bloody knife. But for many viewers ‘Drag Me To Hell’ is more than just a nostalgia trip, it’s a rallying cry: ‘What do we want? Flying eyeballs! When do we want 'em? Now!’

Author: Tom Huddleston



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