Hollywood terror is now pale, tasteless

PORTFOLIO

Our protective layers have been scraped away -- now scary movies are less frightening than reality, yet somehow too much to take.

October 28, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

There's very little I don't like about Denzel Washington. But last week, when I emerged from seeing his latest thriller, Training Day, I felt bruised.

Washington plays a rotten-to-the-core policeman whose lack of morals and brutality are exceeded only by his ability to rationalize them. As his character tells a rookie narcotics detective, played by Ethan Hawke: "You have to decide if you're a sheep or a wolf; if you want to go to the grave or if you want to go home."

The movie, with its high-powered stars and shoot-'em-up plot, was undoubtedly designed to be a blockbuster adventure film, not out-and-out scary. But Washington's depiction of a rogue cop is, in a sense, too good. He embodies a truly terrifying kind of wickedness, the sort found in a person who is supposed to be a trustworthy protector, but who at heart is chillingly bad.

The plot unfolds in just one day: Between breakfast and nightfall, cops humiliate other cops, shoot bad guys, extort money, betray informants, friends and colleagues, and set up each other to be murdered.

Real life is far too unsettling right now for me to find escape in scary, violent films. Watching Training Day, I closed my eyes during the violent parts and felt increasingly uneasy about being in the theater. The experience made me wonder about how other films -- particularly those that were meant to terrify -- would play during these anxiety-ridden times.

Until recent weeks, I enjoyed being frightened by what was on screen. Scary movies give us a harmless way of exploring our own guiltiest secrets -- our deepest fears, most reprehensible impulses, seething desires for revenge -- all in the privacy of a darkened theater. No matter how great the suspense, how frightening the situation, on some level we know that the movie will end and that we will leave the theater unharmed.

After all, with movies, the worst side effect is a nightmare. There's even something relaxing about getting frightened by a film; there's a giddy sense of release when the monster finally meets his end or the killer gets caught. How different it seems now that real life has become truly terrifying.

"People love to see movies about disasters or about things that frighten them," says Marc Lapadula, a visiting professor who teaches screenwriting at Johns Hopkins University and Yale University. "But the movies are fantasies or they are supposed to be. We want to see things that we'd never want to see in real life."

He adds: "What these films do -- and why they are successful in making people feel a little less anxiety-ridden -- is that they open us up to the darker side of life. Maybe when fantasy articulates our fears we can better deal with them, but when reality supercedes fantasy, the irony is that these films no longer offer that kind of relief."

Reality is more frightening

It's no fun trying to guess whodunit at the movies when in real life we're praying that the authorities soon discover who's behind the anthrax scare. Since Sept. 11, we've been confronted with persons evil enough to kill thousands of people, innocents with whom they had no personal connection. There still are terrorists in our midst, authorities say: people who attended colleges and professional schools and rented apartments -- just like everyone else. Mundane activities -- opening mail, flying on an airplane -- have become potential vehicles for death.

A lot has been written about movies reflecting the fears of their eras. I remember the first time I saw the 1954 horror film Them! In it, radiation from secret atomic tests causes ordinary ants to mutate into 20-foot-long monsters. Scientist Harold Medford, played by Edmund Gwenn, spends the entire movie searching for the queen ant so that he and others can destroy her before she mates and gives birth to enough baby ants to overrun the world.

I watched that movie on TV and even though I was just a child, I knew what it was about: fears about the atomic bomb. How could I not? In a scene heavy with foreboding, Gwenn's character watches as monster-sized hatchling ants scratch their way out of proportionately enormous eggs.

"When man entered the atomic age, he opened a door to a new world," he intones. "What we'll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict."

I slept well that night, untroubled by the atomic age, but my relationship with the black ants in my back yard was irrevocably altered.

It is hard to imagine ever enjoying a plot involving the World Trade Center, but the opportunity will probably occur. The average time between an event and its Hollywood debut is about a year, experts say. "What's scary is -- as horrible as it is -- is that there is money to be made," Lapadula says. "Will Hollywood want to make a movie of this? Absolutely. When they think the time is right. But I think it will be a long while until they can write about this."

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