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Who scares wins (sarah michelle gellar mention)

Sunday 12 March 2006, by Webmaster

The horror movie has risen from the grave. Christopher Goodwin examines why today’s audiences are baying for blood Just a few years ago, Hollywood had all but declared the horror movie dead, the last drop of blood drained from its lifeless corpse. Even modern masters of the genre such as Wes Craven, who had terrified two generations of audiences with films like The Last House on the Left (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), had veered into parody - even self-parody - with Scream (1996) and its sequels. Young audiences, it seemed, had become far too wise to the tricks of the trade to be scared any more. Horror had become a laughing matter.

It’s not funny any more. This week sees the release of the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, produced and co-written by Craven, and directed by Alexandre Aja, who made the cult French slasher movie Haute Tension. And in two weeks, Hostel will be released, directed by the American film-maker Eli Roth, with Quentin Tarantino as executive producer.

What most distinguishes these two films, and a crop of others such as Saw and Wolf Creek, is their astonishing goriness and unrepentant sadism, the degree of which has not been seen on screen since the British Board of Film Classification banned so-called “video nasties” such as The Driller Killer and I Spit on Your Grave in the mid-1980s. The characters in these films use and abuse saws, drills, gouges and any other device they happen upon, inflicting literally eye-popping, bone-cutting, artery-squirting, toe-crunching violence on those to whom they have taken a dislike. The difference these days, though, is that the kind of horror films that were once sold under the counter in Soho are now mainstream cinematic fare, often distributed by divisions of the major Hollywood studios.

And young audiences all over the world can’t get enough of them. Saw had a $1m budget and grossed $55m in the USA and $47m internationally; Saw II cost $4m and grossed $87m in the USA, and nearly as much overseas. Hostel, which cost less than $5m and features scenes of astonishing and unrelenting cruelty and brutality, has taken nearly $50m in the USA since its release at the beginning of January. The film tells the cautionary tale of two young American men and one Icelander who end up in Bratislava because they’re told the Slovak girls are crazy for foreign guys. They are, but not in the way they think.

Even the makers of this new breed of celluloid gore are happy to acknowledge the baseness of their intent. “The best part of seeing Hostel with an audience is seeing people pass out and vomit,” Roth said recently.

Why has horror made a comeback, and why is the new ultra-gore so attractive to adolescents today? Adam Simon, who directed the documentary The American Nightmare (2000), believes it’s impossible to understand horror films without looking at the social context in which they are made. In The American Nightmare, the leading horror directors of the 1970s and 1980s - Craven, George A Romero, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and David Cronenberg, all of whom came of age in the 1960s - make it clear how many of the most horrific visions in their films were informed by images they had seen on television: of lynchings, brutal police attacks on civil-rights marchers, the slew of televised violence that Vietnam became, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Their films fed on and translated into terrifying fantasy the dread and anxiety of those times, and their sense that the American dream their parents had believed in proved to be just so many dangerous and bloody lies.

“I think there is something about the American dream,” says Craven, who started his working life as a literature professor, “the sort of Disneyesque dream, if you will - of the beautifully trimmed front lawn, the white picket fence, mom and dad and their happy children, God-fearing and doing good whenever they can - and the flip side of it, the kind of anger and the sense of outrage that comes from discovering that that’s not the truth of the matter, that gives American horror films, in some ways, kind of an additional rage.”

That rage and intensity had dissipated by the time the likes of Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street had spawned their numerous sequels. They became tired, exploitative and far less terrifying. Hence the success of the Scream parodies from the mid-1990s.

Many people credit M Night Shyamalan, with films such as The Sixth Sense, Signs and, most recently, The Village, with bringing horror back into the mainstream. Tarantino, though, has been far more influential. He made ultra-violence ultra-cool again, and paved the way for the latest bucketfest of horror gore. More important, he has also championed some of the Asian horror directors whose films seeped into the video underground in the 1990s. Mainly from Japan, but also from Korea, these directors have been the most important stylistic influence on American horror directors in the past decade. One is Hideo Nakata, whose Ringu was remade by DreamWorks as The Ring (2002) and took $130m at the US box office, and as much overseas. Nakata directed last year’s sequel, and Dark Water (2005), directed by Walter Salles, was also based on one of his films. Another is Takashi Shimizu, whose Ju-On was the basis for The Grudge, which took $110m in the US.

Many of these American remakes featured starry actresses: Naomi Watts in the Ring films, Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Grudge, Jennifer Connelly in Dark Water. And other A-list Hollywood actresses have parlayed their thespian credentials into leads in horror films, including Halle Berry in Gothika (2003), and Nicole Kidman in The Others (2001). These actresses have helped bring about one of the most important revolutions in horror in the past decade: they have brought young women into the cinemas to watch films that used to be the domain of the adolescent male. They come to see, and learn, how these female characters fight back against the terrors that confront them. Fifty-five per cent of the American audience for The Grudge was female, for example.

“I remember going to theatres showing the first Ring,” Walter Parkes, who produced the film for DreamWorks, told Variety last year. “You would see groups of three and four teenage girls all peering out from under one overcoat over all of their heads. It was a surprise to me.”

Adam Simon believes much of the appeal of horror, particularly the new, extremely bloody kind, for western adolescents is that these films “have always been the equivalents of tribal rites of passage, of psychological endurance. But the traditional rules of horror films, from how to safely kill a vampire to the slasher guidelines parodied in Scream, made the audience feel safer. This new generation of horror films doesn’t play by those old rules”. The Asian originals, and sometimes their American remakes, are disturbing principally, as the writer Mike D’Angelo suggests in Esquire, because of their “sense of uncertainty, the unnerving feeling that rationality is a luxury we can no longer afford”.

Simon believes this latest profusion of blood and gore can in part be attributed to the horrific and appallingly graphic images easily accessible on the internet today. We have all seen the images of brutality, sexual sadism and torture from Abu Ghraib, and the execution videos, which have featured on-camera beheadings, put out by the insurgents. “The renewed emphasis on physical torture in these films seems to directly restage these images,” he says. “The same kids lining up to see Saw II or Hostel know exactly where to go online to see execution videos from Iraq or uncensored footage of bodies falling on 9/11. In a world where both sides in a potentially endless war have tossed out the rule book, it certainly shouldn’t be a surprise that the new breed of horror film mimics this rulelessness and sadism.”

But this kind of extreme violence, believes Simon, presented within the safe confines of the four walls of a cinema, has a tangible benefit: it allows adolescents to begin to figure out how they can confront their own psychological fears, and the dangers and violence the world seems to want to inflict upon them.

“It’s cultural homeopathy,” he says, “a little dose of poison to protect you from the real poison. Suicide bombers don’t watch horror films for inspiration or comfort; their potential victims do.” Or, as Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, puts it in The American Nightmare, these horror films allow us - and, in particular, adolescents searching for their own identities - to begin to face “the stuff in the darkness, the stuff in the shadows and in particular the stuff that we don’t open the door on”.

And it’s all bloody good fun, of course. Or is it?