Thursday, 21 June 2012
Or, This is why you can't have nice things.
In 2009 Kim Newman asked the question, Will horror eat itself? He was looking back on a near decade full of remakes, remarking upon a genre that has somehow stagnated despite a dramatically changed geopolitical and social landscape. Allegorical, metaphorical, and sometimes just plain in-your-face, the horror genre has tackled all kinds of social and political topics with varying degrees of success (I'm looking at you, If a Tree Falls). Newman's concern was that contemporary horror has failed to embrace this legacy of commentary while at the same time reveling in its history. Recent Hollywood horror has consistently consisted of remakes and the original films that make it into theatres aren't scary or interesting.
Part of the reason why horror is no longer horrifying has to do with the genre's re-imagining of its monsters and villains. Gone are the bloodthirsty vampires of yesterday, replaced with tormented souls whining about their immortality. Unspeakable evil now is now an emotional being with personal baggage. Instead of fantasy there is psychology, and physics instead of magic. Monsters used to represent our fears, either about the world or about ourselves. The de-monsterization of American horror suggests to me that we are either incapable of identifying what threatens us, or we simply don't want to face our fears.
The humanizing of horror villains has lead to a growing number of actual human antagonists in horror movies. Neo grindhouse and exploitation cinema has resulted in fewer straight-up monsters and more bad guys. I could interpret this to mean that contemporary horror does in fact reflect current political fears; in a century defined by terrorism, both home-grown and foreign, we don't or can't know whom to trust. Kim Newman takes a harder line with his reading of 21st century horror: whereas old horror movies taught us to to fear the Other, the new horror teach us that "other people are shit".
I could name a dozen movies that reflect this statement, but I only need one: Madness. Madness is a Swedish film made to look like--to be--an American horror movie. Set in Minnesota, Madness follows the story of two cheerleaders on their way to a cheerleading competition in Minneapolis. Along the way they pick up two guys, and the four of them are run off the road by hillbillies in a pickup truck. Eventually, inevitably, most of the cast dies a violent death.
It's the same story told in any number of horror movies produced in the mid-70s and later: innocense lost and lives cut short. Both old and new horror movies feature similar visual styles with newer films tapping into grindhouse aesthetics to deliver a movie awash in sex and violence. But contemporary horror lacks an important element that helped early slashers retain some dignity. Namely, redemption. Pick any film from the last century and in it you'll likely find (you might have to dig deep) a redemptive tale of pain and suffering. Final Girls from previous decades found strength through suffering, and survived their ordeals. Today's horror movie survivors may be strong-willed and brave but their suffering is meaningless; villains survive and good guys die.
That's not really a metaphor for anything. In most cases it's just bad writing.
Madness takes its cues from the American slasher. Hillbillies, which are distinct to American horror cinema, target two cheerleaders, another iconic American representation. Along for the ride are to young men, who are largely interchangeable, and whose sole interest in the cheerleaders is sexual. These guys aren't hero types, which aggressively pushes an already-expected Final Girl agenda. To Madness' credit, both a boy and girl survive, but whatever subversive commentary might have been achieved is immediately discredited by the make-out scene that ends the film. But because a lot of horror movies are also love stories, so too is Madness.
Madness is a looking glass, a mirror that reflects back on us all that's wrong with contemporary horror. The premise is hackneyed, the plot contrived. It's a movie you've already seen. Modern horror has, so far, offered little in the way of genre development and Madness, probably without meaning to, exemplifies the stagnation that plagues horror cinema. It's a problem born of nostalgia: Madness is mimicking films that are part of a trend that glorifies earlier horror tropes and aesthetics--they're dirty, violent, and unapologetic. There's nothing wrong with a new movie that wants to be like an old movie, but those old movies had closure and these new movies do not. Anyone will tell you, you need closure in order to get on.
And this is why we can't have nice things. We're unable to put the past behind us. The current cycle of remakes has resulted in nostalgia-driven film production but without the important redemptive plot lines that resonated with audiences of yore. The lack of closure in modern horror, coupled with more and more human monsters has led a glut of horror movies that show us a world filled with assholes we can't outrun.