Thursday, May 1, 2008

Torture Cinema: The Reinvented Slasher?

After some insightful commentary on the necessity of torture from Annalee Newitz in her Horrorhead column over at i09, I applied the same critical mind to the slasher genre to see what I could come up with.

Now, you know you’re getting older when you find yourself saying things like “Remember those great old slasher films?” I find myself saying that more and more as horror cinema takes its latest turn into what many regard as “torture cinema.” Films like Wolf Creek, High Tension, Turistas, the Saw and Hostel films, and The Devils Rejects have ushered in a whole new era of slasher film, one steeped in meaningless depravity. Much of the classic slasher formula remains intact in these new films, albeit buried beneath buckets of blood, guts, and gore. There is aggressive sadism behind the carnage in these new films that makes them more visceral than their predecessors and, ultimately, more unnerving on a very real, very primal level. Some would argue that killing is killing and that there’s no difference between Jason Voorhees slaughtering nubile co-eds in the Friday the 13th film series and the wealthy businessmen paying to torture and slaughter nubile coeds in Hostel: Part II. But a closer look at these films shows that there are indeed key differences.

In the classic slasher films of the 80’s, there was a gleeful abandon of credibility as virtually indestructible supernatural killers like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger sliced and diced their way across the screen. Their motivation was simple: revenge. There was a cause and effect to their actions, much in the same way those making social commentary in these films saw a cause and effect relationship between promiscuity and drug use and the moral decline of the day. Audiences could watch in relative comfort, knowing that those guilty in some way were receiving comeuppance for their sins - real or perceived. There was a sense of detachment in that knowledge. In the worlds of Eli Roth and Rob Zombie and Greg McLean, the social commentary is still there (but the thinking is more global as in anti-American sentiment abroad versus domestic mores) but the motivation behind the carnage is blurred, making the experience that much more unsettling and effective on a whole new level. Whereas the classic slasher film wrapped up the experience in a tidy bow, the new torture films present audiences with the idea that bad things happen for no good reason. Some people are just plain nuts – and they look just like you and me. Talk about inducing paranoia.

Devin Gordon, in an April 2006 Newsweek article, writes that “it’s practically cliché that you can tease out a generation’s subconscious fears just by watching its horror movies,” and a film like Hostel certainly seemed to strike a nerve when it arrived at the local multiplex just as we were inundated with reports of sadistic prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. That abuse was made all the more horrific because it wasn’t enacted by some covert team of government interrogators trying to extrapolate plots of mass destruction from would-be terrorists but rather by the cherub-faced everyday young men and women we sent off to fight a war, the same ones for whom we tied yellow ribbons around trees in gestures of support. There was an air of incomprehensibility to the news, one that unsettled and discomfited and reminded us all that sometimes good people do really bad things. Roth reflected that in his film with the story of American youth abducted, tortured, and killed at the hands of everyday businessmen who just so happened to have the inclination and money to buy victims. The killers in Hostel and its sequel are just like the suit-and-tie stock brokers and real estate brokers and company executives driving in the Lexus next to us on the freeway. And it's in this convincing facade of normalcy juxtaposed against the heinous inner workings of these killers that shakes audiences to the core. Whereas we rarely asked the “what if?” question when Jason Voorhees survived an axe to the head or Michael Myers walked out of a burning hospital unscathed, we view these images and ask very real questions. What if there are organ harvesters waiting to snatch me from the beaches of Cancun? What if there are underground societies where our college-aged sons and daughters are abducted from European youth hostels to be sold to the highest bidder with the most depraved mind? The answers frighten us as much as the graphic on-screen images, thus, when we leave the theaters, we take a piece of them back home with us. And after a Jason, Michael, or Freddy movie-going experience? We took a sigh of relief after the requisite final shock, chuckled at the lunacy of what we had just seen, and then argued over whether it would be mozzarella sticks or chicken wings at Applebee’s or TGI Friday’s.

Torture cinema, while reverent to the classic slasher roots in which it’s steeped, has simultaneously promulgated the genre while turning the slasher formula on its head. The set-ups are still there: youthful, party-going victims in isolated locations who run afoul of a demented madman or two. But whereas Jason or Michael or Freddy cut to the chase and lopped off a head or sliced through a jugular before moving on to the next victim in need of systematic dispatch, the madmen in torture cinema tease and tantalize the terror from their victims, savoring the anguish. For audiences used to quickly covering their eyes just before the big kill, it’s as if filmmakers have now stuck toothpicks under our eyes, forcing us to endure the same sadistic torture as their onscreen victims. Indeed, it’s grueling to sit and suffer along with the victims, whose painful screams linger longer onscreen and in our ears than those of their cinematic brethren of slashers past. It’s s if we’re the ones being tortured.

Our beloved final girls are still present in these reinvented slasher films, too, but gone are the days of Laurie and Alice and Nancy where they ran a bit, hid in a few closets, had some hair ripped out in a well-choreographed struggle, and then took a little breather before the sequel. No, the new generation of filmmakers don’t seem to care as much for our beloved heroines as we do – often dismembering, disemboweling, and otherwise dispatching with these scream queens late into the third act. Case in point: in Wolf Creek, a 2005 Texas Chainsaw Massacre retread set in the Australian outback, a deranged Crocodile Dundee-like psychopath severs the would-be final girl’s spinal cord and matter-of-factly declares, “Now you’re just a head on a stick.” Laurie Strode never had it so good.

Film historians have often likened watching a horror film to riding a roller coaster; and as engineers have developed new coasters at dizzying new heights with nauseating new twists and turns and drops and jolts to enhance our experiential fear, so too have filmmakers upped the ante in horror films with ideas and imagery meant to rattle us to our cores. Subtlety, it would appear for now, is a thing of the past. Until at least the next reincarnation of the horror genre.

1 comment:

The Vicar of VHS said...

Great read. I always felt that Eli Roth's Hostel movies actually had at their base a very thoughtful and disturbing theme that, probably because of his PT Barnum-esque public persona, the director doesn't really get credit for. In Hostel, for instance, it's all about the commodification of the human being, turning people into products. Early in the film when the stupid Americans™ are in the brothel in Amsterdam, there's a tracking shot down a hallway to the room where our would-be protagonist is supposed to have his fun--there are doors off to the side, strange lighting and eerie shadows, moans and groans coming from all sides, leading to a final closed door at the end. Later, when our actual protagonist is being dragged to the death room in the Factory, we get pretty much EXACTLY the same shot--doors off the to side, weird lighting, groans and screams, leading to that final closed door.

It doesn't take a film scholar to deduce that when a director shows you two dramatic situations in pretty much the same visual style, he's drawing an equivalence between them. In a world where everything's a product, human beings are bought and sold as well--for labor, for sex, for death.

What's chilling about it is, it doesn't seem too far removed from reality; that is, a viewer (this viewer at least) could totally see this happening--it's the logical bottom of the slippery slope. In that way, I actually think Hostel flirts with the profound.

Hostel 2 was excellent too, I thought, going into the world of those business-suited, morally bankrupt buyers-and-sellers of human life and again showing them to be pretty much just like the people you apply for loans to at the bank--chilling, because it rings true.

I don't know how much of the same could be said for Rob Zombie's flicks (though I enjoyed them too, for different reasons), but Roth has something dare I say intellectual going on in these movies, and I don't think he gets credit for that.