Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Horror Relaunch

by James Hansen

While the 2008 French film Inside proved that new horror movies can still be fresh and seriously frightening, America’s slices of horror continue to take a different path. Although there are certainly exceptions, there have been more revamped horror series in the past few years than ever before with even “classic” works finding recreations for younger audiences who know a different kind of horror. The new Friday the 13th, if nothing else, makes clear that good horror ideas do not age, and rarely need to change. Teens wander into woods. Have sex. Get drunk. Run into [masked] killer. Die in increasingly gruesome ways. Repeat until movie is over and a couple kids have “escaped” only to discover the killer magically reborn in the last instant before the movie smash cuts to black and the credits roll. Spoiler alert? Please.

Thus (surprise surprise) goes the new Friday the 13th. This is not to say the movie is not without value, stylistically well executed, and a bit stirring – all three are apt descriptions. Sure, its stock material where the “good guys” are motivated by tits and ass, and the killer kills indiscriminately for no apparent (read: marginally substantive) reason. But does it really matter? Granted, the movie does not deserve a pass – none do – but how is anyone to fairly view, analyze, and understand modern horror movies in the first place? Acting? Direction? Pure style? Whatever the case, something needs to change, and if the movies are not doing it themselves, then maybe we – viewers, fans, and critics – need to alter our patterns for them.

For Friday the 13th, as well as other horror movies, it is quite possible that it should all go back to the psychoanalytic family. This is, after all, a movie where the killer is avenging his mother, and the hero is saving his sister. While this remains the kind of reasonable analysis that has dominated academic discussions of horror films since Carol Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, it appears that in recent horror franchises (Saw, The Devils Rejects, Hostel) the rooting interest for the viewer has slowly shifted from the would-be innocent teenagers to the villains. As this change occurs, so must the theories we use to write and discuss.

Undoubtedly, the brash tongue-in-cheek attitude of Freddy vs. Jason, Jason X, Leprechaun in Space, Bride of Chucky, etc. has contributed to this greatly. Rather than have terrorizing villains, they have become useless models of comedic death, destruction, and battles. Perhaps it is all to blame on Scream who took the magicians’ hat off, cleaned it out, and explained each trick to the audience. Though the mindless glorification of violence in Friday the 13th and some of the other franchises make these discussions more problematic, the relaunch of classic horror into a new horror environment signals a good place to begin.

Starting at the end of the original Friday the 13th, the new Friday the 13th is immediately less interested in establishing, or, at the very least, putting stock in, the Jason mythology. Mother spouts her anger at a counselor for not watching Jason when he drowned. She is promptly decapitated and the endless death spree begins. With a baffling, and surprisingly effective, opening 20 minutes, Jason is shown to be a ruthless killer, who nonetheless will always wait to see some tits before he spears, beheads, or mutilates his victims. In what is essentially its own Friday the 13th short film, complete with its own cast of one-dimensional characters, the opening is a miniature prelude for everything that is to come and has come before. Odlly enough, the prelude seems more interested in its narrative than the rest of the movie, which makes the actual movie a bit tiring and repetitive. But, when it comes to the stock narrative, how would it not be?

Rather than focus on any kind of mythology or reasoning behind why characters die at the hands of villains, Friday the 13th, and modern horror in general, features narrative that focus on how characters die. Even while morality and humanism are tossed around in the plot (especially in the Saw franchise which, working in complete opposition of itself, clearly labels its morality in order to focus on the how rather than the why), Friday the 13th moves from death to death like a sledgehammer loudly slamming its way through sheet metal. Extended to excruciating lengths, at least in the mind of many viewers and critics who have subsequently dubbed the inane and misguided term “torture porn” for these modern horror movies, death becomes something that is not understood, but rather something that purveys every action of the characters until their long, painful final moments come. Jason, like the creators of new horror franchises, never shies away from making death take a little bit longer, and he, of course, always prefers to have an audience. This new form of entrapment, which Friday the 13th proudly revels in, inculcates a new age nihilism which few viewers willingly accept. At the same time, just as in the narrative of Friday the 13th, it takes a brutalized victim enmeshed within that system to turn the tables and break free.

So...what’s the point? While I have not been attempting to justify, support, or reject the methodology of many modern horror movies, most specifically the relaunched Friday the 13th, I have tried to raise many new issues with analyzing new horror which I think are especially important in this time of horror pastiches run wild. It seems rather unessential and unmotivated to write a generic review of an essentially plotless horror franchise which has no real interest in “good” acting or a “good” story. Instead of focusing on the acting (which is uniformly “bad” even for a horror movie) or direction (which is blunt yet effective) or the success of the scares (of which there are several solid moments), the repetitive nature of the narrative along with a complete totality placed in the ways characters die calls for a different kind of analysis which few critics or academics have yet to approach. Rather than allowing the franchise and form to remain dormant with toss-off accusations and typical criticism, let’s bust out from under that dock to see the complexities in a new kind of scare.


Anonymous said...

I don't know that the face of the horror genre is really changing all that much. I mean, I'm no expert, but it seems there have always been franchises built on body counts and gore rather than terror and atmosphere.

While I agree we need to rate/review a film based on its intentions rather than our ideals (and in this regard, I agree with you on FRIDAY THE 13TH - that first reel is great, and then it's downhill from there), I think there is still room to ask, "Is this a great horror film?" In the case of this latest installment, no. Whether the genre is changing or not, a great horror film (in my opinion) is imbued with some sort of intangible, sometimes-unidentifiable quality that allows it to just get under your skin - that's where the scares are.

James Hansen said...

It's not that body counts haven't been important in the past, of course they always have, but if we take a fundamental look at older critiques of horror, I think they are unsatisfactory for some equally fundamental changes in how the movies are put together. I'm actually not arguing for weighing intentionality at all. Rather, we need to look at the actual content instead of just saying "its a horror movie so it is [insert your opinion of horror in general here]."

I would argue the shift in horror ideology calls for a new kind of analysis for the movies. I'm not exactly sure what it should be, but I think its something worth considering. I don't mean to suggest that we shouldn't ask "Is this a great horror movie?" We certainly should. But the standards by which we weigh that need to change when the movies do. I think horror has changed which is why I'm making that argument. If you think horror hasn't changed (which is fine!) then my call for something new is probably misplaced. But it doesn't change the fact that we're all looking for great horror. Just what we're looking for and how we're looking for it will vary.

Thanks for the comment!