Horror movies: Fright light

Commentary

October 28, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

Whatever happened to horror flicks?

In the 1970s they exerted a magnetic ray-gun pull on our most gifted moviemakers. In Jaws, Steven Spielberg's Great White Shark ignited deep dark childhood fears of the devil and the deep blue sea. In Carrie, Brian De Palma harrowed high-school terrors to their roots in volatile teenage sexuality (you may recall, Carrie achieved telekinetic powers when she began to menstruate). In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Phil Kaufman's alien "pod people" - identical replacements of real human spouses, pals, lovers and colleagues - explosively dramatized and satirized the scary fluidity of "adult relationships" in the Me Decade. And these are just three favorites. Even a movie I detested, William Friedkin's The Exorcist, created a new benchmark for the literal depiction of a religious horror story. (Mel Gibson must have watched it before he made The Passion of the Christ.)

Primitives like George A. Romero in his Living Dead series and John Carpenter in Halloween at least tapped into youthful rebellion against Middle American blandness. A Canadian minor master, David Cronenberg, used mangled anatomy to express tortured psychology in a string of movies from The Brood (1979) to his near-masterpiece, The Fly (1986). Just as Cronenberg was peaking, three distinctive voices surfaced, all in 1987: Sam Raimi in the uproarious Grand Guignol of Evil Dead II, Kathryn Bigelow in the best latter-day vampire movie, a Southwestern called Near Dark, and Joseph Ruben in The Stepfather, a movie that really did what Cronenberg's current A History of Violence only pretends to do - reveal the insanity beneath the quest for a perfect family.

But horror movies thrive on iconoclasm, even nihilism - and those attitudes are hard to come by in an increasingly corporate and conservative culture. In the new millennium, horror movies are sure-fire financially and almost certain to disappoint as art or entertainment. Indian summer's ridiculously devout devil-in-the-flesh film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, will end up an enormous hit. (It takes a total decayed corpse like Venom to sink without a trace.) Last spring's atrocious remake of House of Wax, thanks to Paris Hilton's addition of prurient interest, will end up making money when you add in home-video and foreign sales.

Yet these movies don't succeed on any level. They don't provide satisfying bouts of audience participation, such as old-school trash like Prom Night; an audience at House of Wax gets too dispirited to scream out insults at the knuckle-headed victims. Today's shock opener, Saw II, may turn out to be (pardon the expression) a cut above the typical slasher movie. But it's still a torture film, unrepentantly reliant on ingenious grisly jolts.

Spielberg, De Palma and Kaufman showed that mass-market nightmare hits could also be thinking-man's horror movies. You couldn't separate their scares from their psychological acuity.

They followed a tradition of less-known but inspired horror films that became classics (if not instant successes) because of intuition or insight - qualities that outlast the latest special effects. Three of the best involve talents still making headlines. 2005 marks the 50th anniversary of James Agee's death and his collaboration with Charles Laughton on the actor-turned-director's adaptation of Davis Grubb's The Night of the Hunter. It starred a never better or scarier Robert Mitchum as a homicidal preacher in Depression West Virginia, going after two young children who hold the key to a stash of hot cash. The Night of the Hunter is a 20th- century Gothic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, complete with a young hero who uses instinct to survive a perilous river journey and to derive his own morality from a chaotic universe.

Truman Capote was at his screenwriting peak for Jack Clayton's cunning and empathic The Innocents (1961), an exquisite adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Deborah Kerr gave the performance of her career as the governess who grows to believe that her two charges have been visited by ghosts - though it all may be an expression of her controlling nature and/or her repressed sexuality and desire to please her dashing employer (Michael Redgrave).

The late Robert Wise first endeared himself to movie-lovers with his low-budget 1940s horror films for producer Val Lewton, The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher. He returned to the genre in 1963 with The Haunting, a clammy, creepy tale of hysteria among paranormal researchers in an old dark house.

The only recent horror movie comparable in its power of suggestion to The Innocents or The Haunting is The Others (2001), which showcases Nicole Kidman's edgiest performance. She does an intense, Kerr-caliber turn as the mother of two kids who are allergic to daylight. That Iberian prodigy Alejandro Amenabar (Open Your Eyes, The Sea Inside) directed The Others. Indeed, the smartest horror-makers these days come from Spain (Amenabar) and Mexico (Guillermo Del Toro, The Devil's Backbone).

Talented American directors, burned too often by the big studios' insistence on the lowest common denominator of horror, have left the field to moviemakers who could learn from Horror Films for Dummies.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

On the Web Michael Sragow talks more about horror movies at baltimoresun.com/sragow

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