October 31, 2009

Decade In Horror

"Today, we can easily imagine the extinction of the human race, but it is impossible to imagine a radical change of the social system - even if life on earth disappears, capitalism will somehow remain intact." --Slavoj Žižek
The aughties have been kind to horror fans, with a veritable cornucopia of new trends which have altered the horror landscape, in some ways irrevocably.  The world, for its part, has outdone the movies in terms of sheer horror this decade, though that's not to say all that much has changed.  Scientists and experts have known for fifty years that our planet faces imminent man-made destruction; and covert American organizations have been torturing people for about as long.  But the undeniability of these facts have pushed themselves into the forefront of the collective unconscious and made this decade's "torture porn" subgenre a basic inevitability, as unavoidable as the zombie plagues we have all come to need in our lives so much.  Unless, of course, you are the antidote.  Then, likely, you've been pushed further into Pan's Labyrinth where the fascists can't go.

From the very beginning of the decade, Asian horror movies blew minds with their disjunctive weirdness, unexpectedly spawning a diametric slew of bland Hollywood tweeny flicks.  After watching so many J- and K-Horror movies over the past ten years, their patent weirdness have made them all somehow blur together to where I can only distinguish maybe a half dozen notable films from the rest.

French horror came on strong around the middle of the decade.  Owing much to the American slasher movies of the 80s, these movies were as terrifying as the slasher films were when I was a kid .  Where Asian horror confounded and disturbed, the Frogs created terrifically claustrophobic environments for straight up slicing and dicing.  The best of the bunch left me twisted up hours after they ended.

Critics today seem as dumbfounded as ever when groping for an essence to movies.  Most avoid reviewing horror movies altogether, feeling justified that they are as a whole distasteful, sure without basis that they have a negative effect on our society.  But do horror movies really make us want to do things we would not have otherwise done?  Do their depictions of violence engender us with lacivious desires?  Why is it that, while one filmmaker can titillate an audience with depictions of violence, another instills revulsion against the very same acts with no less amount of blood or gore?

Neuroscientists have made exciting discoveries in the human brain of neurons which fire off in imitation of the actions of others.  One study showed that, when people watch the tarantula in Dr. No crawl over James Bond's face, these "mirror neurons" create corresponding connections in the brain so that the viewer  experiences in a true sense what Bond on screen is experiencing.  This discovery has opened exciting new avenues of study into, for example, the evolutionary source for empathy; but neuroscientists seem to scarcely notice the implications it has on enjoyment of movies.  Such is the omnipresence of media today that it often goes unnoticed, even when right in front of our faces.

So much of our discourse about horror movies remains in the vein of outmoded literary criticism, wrought with mysticism and moral confusion. Linda Williams was prescient enough to conflate horror, melodrama, and pornography under the umbrella of "body genres" before there was a neurological basis for it. The concrete effect of movies on our brains and bodies muddies the ethical waters and should force us to start judging movies holistically, according to their effects, rather than making a value judgment as to their "meaning."

Horror films are, by their nature, extreme and the films I am most taken by are extreme in one way or another, either in terms of their effect on the viewer or in the way they stretch the possibilities of the genre. These are not necessarily the "greatest" or the "best" horror movies of the decade.  They are my favorite horror movies.

Click the hyperlinks to watch the trailers.  10 horrors, in no order, particularly:

Inside (2007)
It's the scariest movie of the decade. Inside is so unrelentingly terrifying, so enveloping in its power, that you may not notice how classic it is in its horror structure.  It is really just an amalgamation of horror tropes you see in any movie, but it revitalizes them to a sublime degree.  Specifically, it uses the "Breaking Injury" trope that normally finds its victim with a crippling injury, but in this case, it's a swollen pregnant belly that hinders easy escape.  Taking place entirely in one house, you wouldn't think your suspension of disbelief would hold up after the ninth or tenth hapless victim bumbles in, but it does, and claustrophically so.  Once "La Femme" breaks into the house, dips a pair of scissors into alcohol, and attempts to perform a C-Section on our 9-months-pregnant sleeping protagonist, the movie never gives you another moment to breathe.  

Designed to be a throwaway throwback for double billing with Tarantino's Death Proof, I think Rodriguez's Planet Terror will endure as one of the greatest zombie flicks of all time.  Just wait and see. Time will treat this film very well.  The "missing reel" which playfully skips the second act and all its arbitrary circumstances for how the main players wind up teaming together is a stroke of genius! The seat-of-your-pants production and special effects just go to demonstrate how innovative Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios is.  Hilarious and disgusting, endlessly entertaining, it's one of my favorite movies of the decade from any genre. And was there a better line than "I'm going to eat your brains and gain your knowledge?"

Baby Blues (2008)                           As if using post-partum depression as the impetus for a horror film doesn't sound over-the-top as it is, this Southern Gothic flick manages to frighten the hell out of you while playing with action movie conventions.  It's chock full of one-liners worthy of Bruce Willis and even features an overwrought means of killing people, yet so macabre that you have to wonder how it was ever made.  One scene in particular has this frazzled mother of five cornering her daughter with a pitchfork, chiming, "This little piggy went all the way home!"  It's horrifying, and even more so to find yourself laughing. 

Slither (2006)
Long-time Troma collaborator, James Gunn, makes his directorial debut with this extremely well-made horror-comedy about alien slugs invading a small Southern town.  It's almost slick to a fault, but the creativity, humor, and gross-out horror work togther so well, you can't help but fall in love with it.  Michael Rooker's (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) performance as the mutating man about town is wonderful.  He's disgusting and yet he never lets you forget he's a man held captive in his own body.  The disturbing scene of a woman pregnant with thousands of alien slugs ("The little fuckers are tearing me apart!") is one of the most memorable scenes from any horror movie this decade. 

Let the Right One In (2008)
There is something unsettling in the mixture of adolescent ambivalence with a vampire's need for blood.  Adapted with skillful inference from the novel, it's the story of a bullied kid befriending a gender-ambiguous vampire some time in the early 80s.  Horror rides in the backseat as the psychology and subjective experiences of not just the two pre-teens, but all the town's characters, are explored.  More than any other horror film this decade, LTROI expands the limits of the genre.  The American remake will show that this movie is inseparably linked to the barren Swedish landscape that also gave us Vampyr.  It's the best vampire movie since Near Dark and an instant cult classic.

Audition/Imprint (1999/2007)
Audition was officially released in 1999, but most of us first watched it at the beginning of the decade, and were unwittingly set up by its Fassbinderian pace to be terrified in an entirely new way.  Miike Takashi opened the door in the US to the J-Horror invasion, so it's appropriate that he capped it off with Imprint, a film that's as difficult to watch as it is captivatingly strange.  Banned by Showtime before it aired, it features a Meiji-era prostitution island haunted by demons, a talking parasitic twin, aborted fetuses galore, and a torture scene to make a CIA doctor cringe.  Mistakenly perceived as misogynistic, the film has something to do with Meiji surrender to western Capitalism in the late 19th century and the cultures' mutual contempt for the status of women.  Oh yeah, and every woman on the island has either blue or red hair.

Stuck (2007)
Stuart Gordon masterfully extends to our entire contemporary existence the alienation that comes with struggling to communicate through your touchtone phone with that friendly robot who handles all your billing concerns. What if you were inconveniencing a stranger by being stuck dying in the windshield of their car?  Based on a true story, thankfully, Gordon gives us a vengeful dénouement and his funniest, most inspired movie in years. It's a curmudgeony take on personal responsibility that will freak out anyone who has ever been left feeling less than human in our digital age.

The Abandoned (2006)
Spanish filmmaker, Nacho Cerdà, proved himself to be an unusual talent with his horror short Autopsy which featured a mortician fulfilling his sick whims upon disturbingly motionless corpses.  In his full-length debut, he explores the terror of being hunted by your doppelgänger in this deliberately paced creepfest.  Where Dostoevsky's The Double was about a man's doppelgänger attempting to take over his social life, the identical other here is instead a harbinger of death, a death that should have happened earlier in life but was somehow avoided. Marie and Nicolai suffer any injury they inflict upon their doppelgängers, making it that much harder to fight for their survival  It's a movie with strange powers to disturb in ways that remain mysterious to me.

Dumplings (2004)
Fruit Chan's Dumplings was seen by most American audiences as one of the three short segments in 3...Extremes.  Like Planet Terror, it works much better in its full-length form.  Admittedly overly moralistic, this cautionary fable of a woman willing to do anything to regain her youthful beauty is more squeamish than it is suspenseful in its horrors.  An impossibly beautiful 60-year-old lady sells dumplings out of her apartment made from a very special ingredient she obtains from her other job as an underground abortionst.  She claims her nubility comes from the special recipe and wealthy women like Mrs. Lee, wanting to keep her philandering husband from leaving her, are willing to pay the steep price.  Unfortunately, the dumplings have some rather unsavory side effects.  Dumplings, elegant and understated, leaves you with a nasty aftertaste that is hard to wash out. 

Hostel/Hostel: Part II (2005/2007)
I'll come clean.  I probably enjoyed Park Chan-wook's sentimental Vengeance Trilogy more than this original "torture porn" diptych. But believing as I do that depictions of torture cannot be repressed in this age of extraordinary rendition, I don't mind standing up to resist the Eli Roth backlash. The Hostel movies are as wonderfully stupid as the naïve and entitled American kids who gallavant around the world like they own it.  It's an appropriate horror narrative in the face of American decline and 3rd world capitalist resurgence.  Up until quite recently, we as Americans tended to believe as much in our birthright as we did in the safety of our Chinese-manufactured toothpaste.  But where SawCaptivity, and Wolf Creek tried to turn us on with their depictions of human confinement and torment, Roth's Hostel movies successfully convey his own horror at our return to pre-Magna Carta rules of engagement.  Roth has said he knew he wanted to make horror movies after watching Ridley Scott's Alien as a child and being so terrified, he vomited in his seat.  It's a valuable insight into what makes him tick as a horror director.  Easily, the most insipid review I've read in years was Nathan Lee's take on Hostel: Part II (read here) where he calls Roth "pathetic" and a "pussy" with all the critical faculties of a frightened kid puffing out his chest to prove he isn't scared. He schizoprhenically decries the MPAA's R-rating and Roth's "desperation to shock" while noting that his violence toward the female characters is not brutal enough (hence the misogynistic insults?).  Lee somehow misses the point entirely that Roth has skillfully depicted some rather grisly violence towards women without, for a change, giving it a sexual undercurrent.  I think Eli Roth's movies are a great example of how horror films can best be judged holistically and according to the worldview they instill through their violence.  If critics could begin to examine movies according to how they actually interact and affect the viewer, rather than basing their judgment on blanket principles, maybe they would be taken a bit more seriously.

Honored Mentionables:

• Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy, particularly Lady Vengeance.
• Guillermo Del Toro's Devil's Backbone
• Lucky McKee's May + The Woods
A Tale of Two Sisters
• Fabrice du Welz's Calvaire 
Martyrs + Frontier(s)
The New Dead Trilogy (best to forget about Diary of the Dead)
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (if only for Jennifer Carpenter)
The Descent
Return to Sleepaway Camp
The Host

1 comment:

Bev said...

I really like the idea of looking at film from a neurological perspective. When I review albums, I often want to spend more time telling the reader what the album might do to them than, say, evaluating its relative originality.