The Zeitgeist Made ‘Em Do It


Speaking on behalf of a decent society, a recent IMDB message-poster sketched the basic terms of the so-called torture-porn debate in his Hostel Part II–inspired headline: “What is happening to us?”

As you may know, the latest Splat Pack sequel’s many horrors include a geeky young woman being hung upside down naked and ritually tortured to death with long knives. Scary times, these. No surprise that the online moralist—who imagined karma catching up with writer-director Eli Roth—was severely beaten in a virtual torrent of fanboy deathblows.

Whatever is “happening to us,” horror is unmistakably the genre du jour. Some three dozen violent thrillers will have been released to U.S. theaters before year’s end. Horror godfather George A. Romero has just completed his new Diary of the Dead. Rob Zombie will deliver his reincarnated Halloween by the end of August. A remake of The Eye opens wide in October, as does Saw IV.

And the grosses aren’t only at multiplexes: On Saturday, the scholarly cineastes at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens will unleash their ingeniously timed “It’s Only a Movie: Horror Films From the 1970s to Today,” a sprawling (splattering?) five-week retrospective complete with 30-odd features and shorts, discussions with critics and academics (no way it’s “only a movie,” man!), and an appearance by the great American satirist Larry Cohen, who’ll screen an archival print of his 1974 killer-baby opus It’s Alive (currently slated for a remake, natch).

“People were ready for something like this,” says Roth of the genre’s brutal new wave. Indeed, at millennium’s dawn, horror fans could see the rage coming like the undead tearing through a Pittsburgh shopping mall, like Leatherface buzzing down a country road. A month before the 2000 election, I reviewed a brilliant documentary about the blood ties of ’70s horror and history called The American Nightmare—which kicks off the MoMI series—and asked, “At this point, what real-life horrors would be required to return the genre to its former glory?” The answer wasn’t long in coming. In short order, we got the real horrors and then, inevitably, the reel ones.

When Roth says the history of post- Scream horror was written by Lionsgate, he isn’t just shamelessly stumping for his employer. Still the chief supplier of torture-culture power tools, Lionsgate capitalized on Dubya’s release of Shock and Awe by picking up both Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses and Roth’s Cabin Fever for peanuts in the spring of ’03; the former made $12.5 mil on a meager investment in prints and advertising (P&A), while the latter grossed $22 mil on a then-sizable $12 mil P&A drop. Half a year later, the company snapped up Saw for a mere mil and made more than 50 times that amount around Halloween with the help of an ad campaign that put severed limbs on the poster and held blood drives on Howard Stern. As our president would say: Mission accomplished!

To hear Roth tell it, the Splat Pack is not only servicing terror-craving kids who were “10 or 11 years old when 9/11 happened” and thus “need something harder to scare them” but supporting the troops as well. “I actually get a lot of letters through MySpace from [U.S.] soldiers in Iraq,” he says, “and they tell me that Hostel is massively popular on the military base. I wrote, ‘Why would you ever watch a movie like Hostel after what you see [on the battlefield]?’ One guy said that a friend of his saw someone with his face blown off and couldn’t react—because in the line of duty, you have to respond tactically, like a machine. You can’t show any emotion, you can’t scream, you can’t be scared. But those images get stored up. And when [soldiers] sit and watch Hostel, they’re not only allowed to be scared, but encouraged to be scared. All those feelings come out.”

Roth’s theory of horror as therapy has naturally gotten flayed in some quarters, but it has highbrow substantiation from Adam Lowenstein, a forceful talking head in The American Nightmare and a MoMI panel participant. Lowenstein, an associate professor of English and film studies at the University of Pittsburgh, happened to be teaching an undergraduate horror survey when the Virginia Tech massacre occurred. “My students were writing their final essays about films like Texas Chain Saw at the same time that they’re hearing this horrifying news about students just like them,” says Lowenstein. “What came out of our discussions was a sense that engaging these films in an intellectual way had given them tools to deal with a real-life event that was inexplicable and overwhelming. That felt very hopeful to me.”

Still, how does anyone in his right mind sit down to watch something called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—much less admire it?

“I just think kids like horror,” says Cohen, who co-wrote the torturous Captivity—which is due in July and mired in a marketing controversy—but proved his point decades ago when It’s Alive grossed $39 mil (huge for the ’70s). “Look at ‘Hansel and Gretel’: The witch is gonna fatten up these kids and then cook ’em; they shove the old lady in the stove and kill her. This stuff isn’t new. People say, ‘How can you make a movie about a monster baby?’ I say, ‘Look at ancient mythology, where people are giving birth to monsters all the time!’ ”

2005: Hostel
photo: Lionsgate

Indeed, a new monster is born every minute in the United States. Still, I remain a bit baffled as to what combination of teen rage and rebellion, routine thrill-seeking, and psychosexual retardation encouraged my friend and me to spend entire weekends poring over tapes of Blood Feast and Maniac; paging through back issues of Fangoria (the “makeup FX” equivalent of Hustler); and, eventually, producing our own Super-8 splatterfests. One of these, a minor masterpiece called He Never Knew Love, climaxed with its titular teenage geek—played by yours truly, age 15— taking a butcher knife to his left wrist before bleeding to death in the bathroom.

But I digress. A quarter-century later, my adult defense of the genre is that horror is cinema in extremis: the point at which the notion of “entertainment” is called most compellingly into question, the mode that most fully collapses the barrier between screen and spectator, all but demanding not only a visceral response, but a theoretical or philosophical one. Great horror—Tobe Hooper’s Chain Saw (1974), Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects (2005), and, yes, Hostel (all of which are in the MoMI series)—goes further still to challenge the tenets of the society that spawned it. Globalizing the genre, Hostel, named for a Slovakian tourist trap, enhanced its resonance by grossing big worldwide—even in Slovakia, where, Roth says, “our” fear of “their” loathing plays for shits and giggles.

Everyone sees something different in hardcore horror. Director Joe Dante delivered the definitive Bush-breeds-zombies tract in Homecoming (screening at MoMI alongside the late Bob Clark’s Deathdream) and calls the Splat Pack films “Abu Ghraib movies.” But he’s skeptical of their health benefits and laments the “coarsening” of the culture. The professor disagrees. “Horror’s dark gift is to remind us that the tragic events we think we’ve gotten over and understood always come back to haunt us,” says Lowenstein, whose horror-as-history tome Shocking Representation aptly ends in the aftermath of 9/11, with the likelihood of more terror coming soon.

Can things possibly get more intense from here? Of course. Horror 2.0 stalks the MoMI with indie auteur Lance Weiler’s multimedia expansion of his psycho-chiller Head Trauma: Audience members will receive menacing text messages and cell-phone calls, some even after
the show. “I want to disturb people,” Weiler admits in what sounds like a motto for our times. Slashing at apathy, this is a genre whose dire warnings we ignore at our peril. One way or another, horror follows us home.