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Frightful films - the decline of horror (the grudge mention)

Sunday 18 December 2005, by Webmaster

Horror movies have been riding high at the box office but with a few exceptions standards are falling, writes Tom Ryan.

Night. A pair of swings, hinges squeaking in the gathering storm. The camera tracks across the threshold of a two-storey Victorian Gothic, up the stairs and on towards the creaking bedroom door.

White curtains swell before the open window. A little boy is suddenly woken by his belongings - toys, a mobile hanging overhead, a coat thrown over a bedstead - seeming to come alive. Then the frightened cry: "He’s here!"

This is the opening of Boogeyman, released earlier this year. But it could easily be They, or dozens of other horror movies, old and new, designed to scare our socks off.

What makes Boogeyman, different, however, is that its creators want to do more.

A US production filmed in New Zealand, Boogeyman manages to hit the bullseye with its fright tactics but also to ground its nightmares in the emotional turmoil of the everyday.

The protagonist (Barry Watson) is a likeable young man who’s grown up with an understandable phobia. As a kid, he saw his father snatched by a creature lurking in his bedroom closet.

Raised by his mother (Lucy Lawless) to believe that his father had simply abandoned them, he’s almost managed to convince himself. But he’s been terrified of closets ever since and the repressed trauma is about to erupt back into his life. His survival will depend on his ability to deal with it.

What follows is like an extended therapy session. Smart as well as scary, it’s unexpectedly lyrical in its evocation of the terrors of being alone in the dark, surrounded by monsters your parents no longer remember.

For every Boogeyman, though, there are a dozen horror movies that are content to recycle the old cliches.

Over the past couple of years, there’s been a deluge of remakes - The Amityville Horror (routine), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (lamentable), Dawn of the Dead (generally unsatisfactory) - as well as Hong Kong filmmaker Ronny Yu’s awful double-headed sequel, Freddy vs Jason, and the Hollywood-based takes on the Japanese Ring cycle and The Grudge (Ju-On).

Asian horror has certainly left its mark on Hollywood. Imported directors have reworked successful films - ironically, Hideo Nakata’s American-made The Ring Two, starring Naomi Watts and Simon Baker, is the best of the series he set in motion in Japan in 1998 - and some creaky old shock manoeuvres have been revisited.

Horror movies such as the latest Australian outback thriller, Wolf Creek, are about a disruption of the normal, the everyday being threatened in some way.

Most recent examples drop their characters into a situation where they’re tormented by monsters made up of flesh and blood and some kind of psychological disturbance.

As in the recent House of Wax (Jaume Collet-Serra’s nominal remake of the 1953 film), The Devil’s Rejects, Rob Zombie’s nasty sequel to The House of 1000 Corpses and the visit to hell in Wolf Creek.

Sometimes the danger comes from some malign supernatural force. In The Skeleton Key, Kate Hudson falls afoul of a hoodoo (as distinct from voodoo) curse in an old mansion outside New Orleans.

In the Russian Night Watch, the ancient forces of Light and Darkness do battle on the earth in modern times.

In Exorcist: The Beginning, it’s the devil spreading his wings, and he’s doing his worst again in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a courtroom drama in which the rational attempts to interrogate the irrational.

Sometimes aliens are the problem, as in Dreamcatcher and Steven Spielberg’s impressive War of the Worlds. Then there are the nature-gone-wrong monsters: werewolves in the pedestrian Dog Soldiers and Wes Craven’s botched Cursed; zombies in the smart British comedy Shaun of the Dead and in Land of the Dead.

There’s nothing wrong with conjuring up bigger and better frights and nudging away at what Stephen King describes in his 1981 book Danse Macabre as "our phobic pressure points".

Horror’s not working if we’re not scared. The problem is most of those responsible for these films have nothing else on their minds.

In a smart horror movie, the monster forces us to confront something that can be truly terrifying: that what we’d accepted as normal isn’t just fragile but might be based on an illusion.

The monster could be the product of "normality" gone awry, like the giant snakes in the Anaconda films that erupt from the jungle to repel intruders bent on exploiting their terrain. Or it could be a threat to the characters’ sense of security.

Horror movies have always played games with audiences, but the ones that matter are those where there’s a real moral urgency.


"Horror movies take people where their minds go only during sleep states or altered states. They deal with images and situations that mirror the anxieties which shoot through us all.

"Everybody has their Freddy Kreuger. To one person it might be a historical event; to another it might be their parenting. He’s whatever there is within a culture that is hidden, denied, too dangerous or violent to deal with, or to even admit exists." - Wes Craven, American director of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Scream films and The Hills Have Eyes.

"I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face.

"Just because you’re making a horror film doesn’t mean you can’t make an artful film." - David Cronenberg, Canadian director of Shivers, Scanners, the 1986 remake of The Fly and Spider.

"There was this face of horror that was defined by Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. On Boogeyman, we looked for new visuals. Scream and Scary Movie have deconstructed and demystified the horror movie; you have to look for the new language of horror movies and it’s coming to the rest of the world via Japan and Korea." - Stephen Kay, American director of Boogeyman, The Last Time I Committed Suicide and the 2000 remake of Get Carter.

"Ever since I was little, I’ve loved to surprise and scare people, or make them laugh. I’ve always tried to figure out what made them scared, or what made them laugh. I was always thinking along those lines.

"I learned that when people are vulnerable is when they are defenceless and the most likely to be frightened. " - Takashi Shimizu, Japanese director of the Ju-On: The Grudge films and their US remakes.

"Art is a reconstruction of the world, and violence and horror are as much part of the world as butterflies and happy faces.

"There are so many more people trying to sell us the bullshit that the world has to be happy and sunny, and you have to have good breath and shiny hair. With that, we lose touch with imperfection and that makes for a really harsh, cold measure to live by.

"I think horror makes us human because it reminds us of our imperfection." - Guillermo del Toro, Spanish director of Cronos, Mimic, Blade II and Hellboy and its upcoming sequel.

"Most of the interesting films I’ve ever seen are about crime in some way, or moral ambiguity, or evil, actually - good versus evil.

"I’m fascinated by human nature and ambiguity. I recognise the darkness within myself as well as the decent impulses, and it’s a constant struggle within me to not mess things up." - William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, The French Connection and The Guardian.