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Scare Tactics

As Horror Films Mutate, an Old Form Emerges From the Shadows: Menace

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page N01

No smooch is as fine or unforgettable as the first one. It's so wet but it feels so good. I got mine in April of 1963. It was a very short event and a very short relationship -- she wised up -- but it was paradise as long as it lasted. The facilitator of my brief deliverance was certainly neither savoir-faire on my part nor any physical attractiveness -- pimples, questionable hygiene, a physique like a fossil -- but a gentleman named Alfred Hitchcock, who in the previous month released a film called "The Birds," which had now made it out to the suburbs.

Though the great master Hitch was slumming in the vulgar genre of the horror movie, he scared Mary Sue Buffendorffer into briefly lowering her guard for refuge in my manly arms in the Teatro Del Lago theater in Wilmette, Ill.


Ryan Reynolds has an ax to grind in "The Amityville Horror," a remake opening this week. (Peter Iovino -- Mgm)

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And this in turn reveals the central raison d'etre (pretentious French phrase meaning "reason to exist") of the horror movie: Its job is to get teenage boys on the base paths.

And that also explains its peculiar resiliency, because ever since Moog first took Oolah to the tar pit to watch the mammoths sink, teenage boys have always yearned to get in that particular game.

The horror movie will not go away. Look at the change in the Hollywood landscape as a signifier of its durability. At one point it was just one of many styles of films called "product" that between, say, 1930 and 1970, the movie city ground out like sausages or hula hoops at a rate of four or five a week. They were called "genre pictures," and they usually lasted no longer than a week at the bottom end of the then-popular exhibition strategy called the double feature. Some were actually, if accidentally, masterpieces ("D.O.A.," "Out of the Past"), and those of course we remember; but most were indifferent, hastily manufactured artifacts engineered into existence by weary craftsman charged with keeping to schedule and coming in under budget.

They were westerns, war pictures, low-end comedies (talking mules!), science fiction with hokey effects, cops 'n' robbers shoot-'em-ups, musicals, costumers and, yes, horror movies. And now all are gone, except by special case when some aging baby boomer star like Kevin Costner uses his little remaining clout to get a western like "Open Range" made. But the point of the enterprise then isn't that it's one of many, but one of none: Baby boomers will grow nostalgic for lost pleasures like horses, fast gunplay, formal courting rituals, and therefore dip back to yesteryear at the local show house. It almost never works and it didn't for Costner, but that's still the principle.

So the genres went away. The business changed, the audience changed, the theories changed, the marketing departments changed, everything changed. "New" movies are almost always hipper, faster, they mix genres aggressively, they smother their genre origins in new form, there are fewer of them, and they tend to cost a lot more money because you usually make more money on the megahit than you do on the steady progression of break-eveners.

Except for the horror movie.

On Friday, "The Amityville Horror," a remake of the 1979 horror hit that spawned a series, will arrive. It retells the story of the family massacre that shocked Long Island and part of greater Queens in 1974, inspiring a bestseller as well as the movie. This time, the stars are Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George and Philip Baker Hall. All around America, critics are yawning, whining, feeling sorry for themselves, poor babies. I think I have to see it, too, so feel sorry for me also, will you? Meanwhile, teenage boys are dreaming of squeals and screams, of brushed communion in the dark, of the delicious grip of fear liberated from danger and the possibility of, just maybe, oh please, just this once . . . or am I still thinking of the early '60s?

Meanwhile, one big horror movie, "The Ring Two," has already opened, as well of some lesser mutts like the disappointing "Cursed" and "Boogeyman." Then there's a big-budgeter with Keanu and computer-driven FX to die for that's still drawing blood at the box office, "Constantine."

And it continues: Upcoming are "Man-Thing," "Cold and Dark," French import "High Tension," remakes of "House of Wax" and "The Fog," "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," "Land of the Dead" -- this one returns George Romero to the genre for the first time since "Day of the Dead" and has all the horror-geek Web sites in a tizzy -- "Hatchet," "Saw 2," the vampires vs. werewolf sequel "Underworld: Evolution" and, finally, some kind of prequel to "Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

That's a lot of shots at the base paths.

Boys, rejoice. Moms and dads, don't let your daughters go to horror flicks at the Bijoux with no boys.

But possibly there's more to all this than the quest for flesh.

The existence of horror as a theme in literature certainly suggests that stories which inspired fear were a staple of the imagination long before boys and girls sat next to each other in darkened auditoriums, waiting for the scary parts and a chance to cuddle without moral meaning. It had to be a modern invention because life in the pre-industrial age was pretty much a daily horror story in itself.

But as a prose phenomenon, our own dark genius Edgar Allan Poe seems to have invented the horror thing back in the 19th century, along with the detective story, presumably as a way of dealing with his own gin-driven demons, which got him in the end. That too establishes a principle: When dealing with fear, it seems that a way to reduce the anxiety it creates is to confront it in safe circumstances. You're sort of rehearsing your own death, so that when it arrives, you won't go all to pieces. Thus, tales that look at what in life is seldom looked at -- death by suffocation or other forms of terror, the clammy pallor of the corpse's flesh, the stench of the tomb, the whole tradition of death-haunted dark places like cemeteries or alleyways or medical schools -- seem to have a documentable fascination.

Authors across the pond mirrored Poe's macabre imagination, with two of the most ghastly novels ever written, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," which was printed pre-Poe in 1816, and Bram Stoker's "Dracula" of 1897. And if you try and read 'em today -- baby, are they ghastly!

Anyway, those two classics pretty much defined what was to come in both novels and then film: Some kind of "other," something from an unknown species, was stalking us. His techniques might vary but the point was the same: to take control from you, the rational man, and put you at his whimsy where he might kill you at his leisure. The essence of it was the fear of death, but in a more practical or medical sense; the personification of the cold place toward which we all progress.

Shelley and Stoker also seemed to sum up the two directions the genre could take. If Frankensteinian, the source of death would be brute savagery, the strength of a maniac to rend you, and we see in the Freddys and Jasons that tradition of brutal killer. He represented the animal aspect of death, its indifference to its victim's suffering, its lack of engagement in its victim's life. Dracula's tradition, on the other hand, was mental, and weirdly sexualized. He was a seducer, and if death of a sort lay at the end of his wiles, it somehow wasn't the point -- domination was, as he sliced your will away and made you something worse that a splatter of corpse parts: He made you a slave.

The first horror movies took their cue from the prose of Stoker and Shelley, as well as their stately, 19th-century progress toward resolution. James Whale's "Frankenstein" and Tod Browning's "Dracula" (both 1931) were elegant documents. By our standards they lacked oomph, even if "Frankenstein" clocked in at a mere 71 minutes. But both also established the aesthetic of the horror movie, which would play out over the next 30 or so years. Like radio -- and also hemmed in by the Hays Office's Production Code, which limited what could be showed on-screen -- these movies relied on the imagination as the most potent tool of fear induction. There was no tradition of viscera, no acknowledgment of the anatomical secrets that lay within the body's vault. All that would come later.

Probably the high point of the horror movie as implicit harbinger of fear was Val Lewton's "Cat People" of 1942. Lewton, the producer, and his director Jacques Tourneur realized that they had no budget to show a woman changing into a cat, and in any event, the technology of the time was incapable of creating such sequences cleverly. So instead they relied on insinuation for a sense of menace, and the movie, still one of the scariest, used Nicholas Musuraca's brilliantly evocative cinematography to evoke fear without showing the unshowable.

You also might note that "Cat People" continued the internationalization of the horror movie. This, as much as anything, kept the genre fresh; every time it became moribund, a new international film culture would energize it. Tourneur, who sometimes directed under the name Jack Turner, was a Frenchman who'd come to this country and gotten into the business with his father, an early director from the French cinema who made the transatlantic trek. Raised in Paris, he was perhaps free of typical American cultural assumptions that would turn the movies crude and bloody in the 1970s. Lewton, born Vladimir Leverton, was born in the Crimea, then moved to Berlin as a boy. He, too, was free from normal American prejudices.

Of their progenitors, Whale, the "Frankenstein" guy, was British and gay, and only Browning, of "Dracula" fame, was a native-born Yankee, , though as a Kentuckian he may have felt as if he'd come from a foreign country in the Hollywood of the early 1930s, which was run mainly by entrepreneurs from Minsk by way of the East Side rag trade.

And the next big thing in horror was also foreign: This was the influence of the gaudy, brilliant films from Hammer Studios in the late '50s and '60s, with such long-faced cadaver-esque actors as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, on classical Dracula-Frankenstein themes like "The Brides of Dracula" and "The Curse of Frankenstein," but done with a great deal of style and pizazz -- and gore. The movies seemed to inspire another schlockmeister, Roger Corman at American International studios, to go into the horror biz -- always a low-end proposition suitable for entry-level industry aspirants -- with a series of Poe variations, made the more cost-efficient by virtue of the fact that Poe was, by then, in the public domain. Corman's most fondly remembered works were straight from EAP: 1964's "The Masque of Red Death" and 1963's "The Raven."

It all changed with a movie called "Halloween the 13th on Elm Street." Did you see it? I bet you did. The slasher film was a subset of the more elegant horror movie, but like bad money driving out good, it all but killed the horror movie. Its banal literalism took the imagination out of fear and replaced it with smaller, less intellectual meanings, usually cast as some sort of bogus morality tale in which sexual eagerness warranted a bloody death sentence by someone with a farm implement or a knitting needle.

I remember the early 1980s, when I first got one of these fabulous film critic jobs. The downside was sitting through "Splatteria III: The Dismembering of the Clampett Clan" or "The Oklahoma Meatgrinder Massacre" or some such. The headaches unleashed by watching attractive kids die week after week after week cannot be imagined. How many ways can we drive an ax through a woman's skull? How many profane behaviors can we allude to without exactly showing? How many fast girls can we send to the morgue in 83 minutes? These crucial questions were answered on a weekly basis by yours truly, on the theory that the answers mattered. I had to get beyond 50 years old to learn that they didn't.

Today, the slasher film is largely dead. It was killed not by parental and critical scorn but by market saturation; like other genres, it became so mannered and predictable, it lost its steam. The "Scream" films and "Scary Movie" 1, 2 and 3 marked the genre's last stand, based on the awareness that such rigidity had been formalized to the point where parody was not merely possible but mandatory.

Now, once again, there's been a mutation. We seem to be in what might be called a new period of internationalization. The zone of influence seems to be Asian, specifically Japanese. Both "The Ring" and "The Grudge," the relatively refined, star-driven flick released last year, began in Japan and they brought a new sensibility to the horrors. Unlike the slashers, the Japanese or Japanese-influenced films don't specialize in gore -- though generally, Japanese pop culture, being haunted by blade work rather than gun work, is gorier than American -- but in menace, almost like the great days of the '30s. They also in some way are postmodernist: They turn on and incorporate new media. "The Ring," for example, is based around an urban legend of an outlaw videotape so full of powerful, demonic imagery that even to see it is to doom yourself in seven days.

In both cases, the logic is quite iffy, the details sketchy, the cause-effect baffling (unlike the cause-effect of "Friday the 13th": knife-kill). But the movies return from the boo to the shiver. That is, the cruder American films mainly depended upon armed spooks and haunts jumping out of the darkness and stabbing; the suddenness was overwhelming, particularly when it was followed by the anatomical intimacy of stab wounds, which violated the body's taboos with shattering immensity. Thus it was, during the heyday of the slasher, that the makeup artists who designed the arterial spray effects became the stars of the genre.

The Japanese films insist on a more generalized, almost primordial fear. Though death is at the end of it, the actual mechanism isn't invasion of body by blade, but invasion of mind by ghost. The general aspect is dread, creepiness, fuzzy swarming doom -- the words are inexact because the phenomenon isn't logical, isn't visual: It's simply there.

"The Grudge" illustrates this best. It's set in a house where a man killed his family in a rage and the rage seems to still hover in the air, pictured as a kind of inky cloud out of which springs now and then the image of the murdered child. Lord God, is it unnerving, this vile, malignant presence. Ick. You hate yourself for loving it so much.

In fact the most financially successful horror movie ever made, though apparently not influenced by the Japanese, shares the artistic principles of postmodernism. That's "The Blair Witch Project," which again plays with media -- its conceit is that it's composed of raw footage that was "found" after the disappearance of young filmmakers in the Maryland woods -- and the very unreliability of the media (the camera is always looking in the wrong position or is shaky or out of focus) intensifies the emotions of the ritual of stalk and implied slaughter gigantically.

Of course the new "Amityville Horror" doesn't look like that kind of movie, but more a retro re-creation, as does "House of Wax," based on the '50s classic in the high Vincent Price mode. It just shows that in horror, it's still possible to scare the old way and therefore get the boys off the bench and into the game.


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