The Evolution of Horror Films

It could just be me, and it might be a critical eye too fervently trained to pick apart the most basic miscues in Hollywood and the surrounding industries, but the horror film industry has hit something of a boon of late. It seems to come in waves. In the 1970s, it was exploitation, slasher flicks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and going into the ’80s, it was the uber long franchise exploitation of that slasher formula in Friday The 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. Then there was a lull for a few years, as audiences got bored with the same old movies.

Much like its oft resurrected villains, the horror genre always comes back though, and in the 1990s, it found its stride in the teen slasher genre, this time exploiting the exploding high school, college age teen drama, with films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Fast forward a few years, and once again the genre faltered. When you’ve seen one psychopathic, inhuman killer, you’ve seen them all. And so, the next step was something much different, and much more disturbing, born of the proliferation of stylized violence in the films of Tarantino and the psychological mind screws of Asian horror. Hollywood loves its psychopathic killers though, and so after a few years of remaking Japanese films and rewriting classic genres, the horror industry discovered something new―the torture subgenre.

It’s not new though. Films featuring sadistic violence and torture have been around for a while, but with nowhere near the following or financial backing of today’s Eli Roths. If you head back to the hey day of the 1970s exploitation films though and dig through those Cannibal and sexualized vampire films, you’ll find a huge array of scenes in which horrific, disturbing things are done to poor unsuspecting girls and young travelers. What’s different about the Cannibal Holocaust’s of the film industry is that they were incredibly censored, buried and hardly watched by anyone, for foreseeable reasons. If one were to look up the top 10 torture scenes in films (and yes, there are a few lists if you look for them) you’ll find that almost all of them are in films made after 1994, with Pulp Fiction preceding most of them.

Tarantino’s famous leather-clad gimp scene started the whole flood, and when filmmakers saw that they could make a movie with that kind of scene and make money, and win awards for it, the torture started popping up a lot more often. It’s a powerful storytelling device, if done properly. The kind of tension created by tying up the hero of a film and doing unspeakable things to him is two fold. It creates immediate drama, a situation that may or may not end in tragedy. Second, it creates the opportunity for revenge and exacting pain upon the perpetrators of previous torturous scenes.

It makes for good film. But, when the horror industry started drifting away from slasher flicks, a formula that’s fairly straight forward―psychopathic killer stalks and kills teen girls―and started introducing protracted, sadistic killers, with ridiculous methods and disturbing, exploitative plots, things changed in horror. You can take the effort and trace it to the Japanese roots from which it directly arrived, or you can look to childhood inspiration of the Tarantinos and Rob Zombies out there and the exploitation flicks of the 70s. Neither direction is entirely right, as the roots of the genre are a mix of just about everything. Today’s horror films are direct relations to the 70s exploitation flicks in style. Teens wandering a desert road on spring break, attacked and chased down by sadistic killers to commence in a painfully long, ever-tense sequence of events.

However, today’s victims are often not as innocent as they once were. The killers are still insane, and their motives skewed by that insanity, but filmmakers are finding more and more ways to imbue their motives with a sense of urgency and the exploitation of commonly ill-considered traits. Eli Roth’s Hostel, the most disturbing and gory horror film released in the past decade or so, prey’s upon the hedonistic expectations of European backpackers.

Many might disregard the torture films of today as disturbing, self ingratiating visions from disturbed filmmakers, but they are something more entirely. Instead though, I think it’s a natural progression and exploration of genre methods that we’ve visited before, but never quite accepted. In a society that finds itself inundated with constant fear of bodily harm, ideological warfare, and an enemy intangible in almost every way, these films offer a very real, very physical release. Looking at exactly how the torture is portrayed within the film is equally important. It isn’t merely a matter of capturing a few backpackers and removing fingers. These films are about figuring out why someone could be so disturbed and how anyone could survive such brutality. With that kind of terror and pain, what could possibly occur that could be any worse?

It’s the same argument that horror film popularity has been using for decades, and like it or not, war time and mass fear breeds artistic angst and disregard for decency. Horror films are a great example of that.

Movie Critics Copping Out – The Cheap Politcal Allegory

Politically, this country has been a tad on the divided side the last few years. Ever since a certain Supreme Court intervention and four years of national tragedy and national travesty, mentioning your political affiliation is akin to announcing to the world which side of the ceasefire you belong on.

Appropriately, the world of the arts has reacted in kind, producing works of derision and political cynicism that capture the national energy of the moment. Rather than pretend that everything is okay, or that it is absolutely horrible, the world of popular entertainment has taken to declaring that everything is political, and their films and television series have been critiqued in kind.

Were one to flip through a newspaper’s film review section, it’s nearly impossible not to find at least one film that has a ‘political message’ meant to jab at the heart of the Iraq issue or to undermine the ‘Stability of the American Troops’ as the opposition will say it. Either side is enmeshed in a high stakes game of who is more observant of things that don’t exist.

The answer is neither side. While wishful movie critics conjure up dozens of possible scenarios in the films they are watching, in which a director (who often specifically denies doing so) has instilled some political message or another, pundits and the like do the same thing, trying to counteract the effects. There isn’t a single year since the start of the Iraq War that at least one major Hollywood Blockbuster hasn’t undergone the scrutiny of which faction represents George W. Bush and which represents whatever subsection of people he’s destroying.

It’s a natural progression though, to project political angst and anger from the immitigable presence of the President and his administration onto the very accessible films that millions of viewers absorb every day. Star Wars Episode III, while a film that surely had many parallels to the situation in Iraq and here at home is clearly not a political allegory, if only because that storyline was set nearly 10 years ago, before anyone knew who George W. Bush even was, other than a failed baseball team owner and new state governor.

And yet the critics started a buzz, mentioning that the situation was very similar to our own and that Lucas was very harsh on the “evil side”. Of course he was harsh on the evil side. It’s Star Wars. I’m not by any means saying that I wish to support the administration or contradict the message that these critics took away from Revenge of the Sith (believe me I’m not). I am, however, slightly annoyed that every time a major blockbuster is released, meaning a film with lots of explosions and often times a war of some sorts, the immediate conclusion of every major film critic is that it is a political allegory of some sort.

It’s a lazy way to categorize a film to automatically compare it to something so prescient in everyone’s minds that they have no choice but to agree. The ability to look at something and make broad comparisons to a real life counterpart is not movie criticism, it is basic observation. I can do it too. I recently saw Bridge on the River Kwai. Recently, Seattle has been arguing over a particular stretch of highway and how to rebuild it. And voila, I’ve compared a 50-year old war film chronicling the plight of POWs in World War II to the infighting of a few council members and entirely too vocal citizens of Seattle. I’m a movie critic now.

Of course, saying that relying on the easy parallels is an easy out is not the same as saying that films are not actually tackling these subjects head on. As I mentioned early in, there is a rapidly growing political awareness in film these days. However, in films that attempt to make such statements, the allegory is slightly less subtle (and denied by its directors). Films like Syriana or Good Night, and Good Luck targeted specific political actions that have not worked well for this nation. Even children’s films, such as Happy Feet, the otherwise happy tale of a penguin who only wants to dance, is under the surface an environmental call to action.

Film is one of those mediums that can reach every human being on the planet when done properly. Films are made with specific intent, and most of the time that intent is to make money. However, those moneymaking machines are projected with dozens of interpretations, hoping to create a public awareness for a message that isn’t necessarily there.

Other films, those that are specifically created to portray a particular message, are not nearly as popular, regardless of how good they are. However, it is in these important message-laden films that I find the most poignant displays of free speech and derision, not in 300, a film that relays a specific, age-old legend, and absolutely does not support the failing doctrine of a president without the nation’s trust.

Do American’s Need Edited Editions of Foreign Films? I Think Not

Asian film imports first hit American shores decades ago, driven by the rise of the International Film Festivals in Europe. Erstwhile agoraphobic Hollywood executives would drag themselves from their gold castles and actually find something worthwhile in the amazing epics being produced on the far side of the Pacific. The market never quite found the foothold it would need to be commercially successful though, at least not until the martial arts genre came flying in on the golden wings of Bruce Lee.

Since then, company’s like Sony and Miramax have gone out of their way to import film after film to US shores, featuring some of the most amazing directors, actors, and martial artists in Asia. Unfortunately, with their eagerness to share those findings with the American public, comes the dreaded cut. It’s what any foreign film fan hates to hear most―”American edit”.

It’s not new to the industry. Since the ’60s, foreign films have been going under the knife time and time again. It’s basically the American studio executives deciding for the American people what they will and will not understand. They take a perfectly amazing film and cut out vast quantities of the story, and remake the film in a manner more suitable to the short attention spans and fickle nature of a nation that doesn’t like to read at the movies. Unfortunately, those that most appreciate and wait eagerly for theatrical releases of these films, are also largely displeased with these methods.

The results are appalling sometimes, as not only do they take out vital scenes just because they contain cultural references that Americans may not understand, they dub over the original voices with English voices so as the American public won’t have to read subtitles.

It’s not new, and if you go back and watch any Kung Fu film released in America in the ’70s or ’80s, it’s there. It’s a shame that the results are so horrible, because some of these films are truly amazing. And it’s Miramax that’s the biggest culprit in these film cutting crimes.

Take Shaolin Soccer for instance, one of my favorite films from Hong Kong in the last 20 years. The original Stephen Chow cut of the film in Hong Kong was 113 minutes long, a respectable normally cut film. The American cut released two years later, and was only 87 minutes long. Somewhere in the film, they’d seen fit to cut almost a half hour of the comedy and/or action out. They’d essentially rewritten how the film would be shown, by taking out an entire subplot.

The same can be said of any imported film. The Protector, a Thai import released with 27 minutes cut from the film. The critics panned it for being nonsensical and baseless in its plot. I’ve seen the Thai cut, and I can say it wasn’t astoundingly well-written, but it was decent, and of course it’s baseless when you’ve cut 25% of the film out for a domestic audience. The results are unfair to the filmmakers as well, whose chances at success in the massive American market are skewered by the trigger happy finger of an American censor and cultural editor.

Other genres and markets feel the same backhanded scorn of the American studio system as well. In turns, Anime, Bollywood, and scores of amazing Latin American films are torn apart piece by piece for the good of our culturally ignorant masses. Anime, which dominates our children’s programming anymore, is essentially redirected during localization to clean up the slightly more liberal approach to just about everything Japanese audiences have. Even the violent, battle-filled anime such as Dragonball Z or Naruto is whitewashed at times, blue statements redubbed with goofier phrases.

When I go to see a film, I hope to see what the director wanted me to see, not what a board of stuffy American executives and censors decided would be acceptable for my less than worldly American brain.

The Ugly Face of Video Gaming Crossovers in Film

The pop culture machine, that great big mechanism that pumps out so much mushy claylike substances every year is a very peculiar beast. It grows. It changes. It reforms itself to best match the audience it is trying to reach. And it seems like every year there are a half dozen new mediums entering the fray, vying for our attention, and hence our very important dollar.

Then there are the veterans, the long time entries in the pop culture wars like film and television. Those mediums that have been around as long as the concept of a mass marketed cultural fad. Like cockroaches, these classics withstand any and all changes, adapting and changing when needed to meet the needs of the masses and stay around.

It’s the new ones you really have to watch out for. When something so new and so entertaining grows so quickly, sometimes it’s hard to realize that it is slowly taking over various aspects of our daily lives, infiltrating into our routines and becoming a part of the “the norm”.

The Internet has done that surprisingly well in the last 10 years or so, at first a fad, then a tool, and now a lifestyle. But, it’s the smaller things that we really don’t notice―mediums like video gaming.

Video games have been around since the 1970s, but at the time, they were nothing more than a fad, a hobby for computer programmers, and a very expensive proposition for anyone interested in playing them. And when the programmers tried to turn it into a business, and pumped out failed, broken software, the video game ‘fad’ almost died completely.

But, something odd happened. Instead of dying off like other pop culture one-hit wonders, video gaming found new life in a little gray box from Nintendo. Nintendo made it fun again, with new technology, easy-to-use interface, and affordable equipment. And the world responded with its eternal love and gratitude.

Actually, despite our overwhelming nostalgia for the days of the NES and Super Mario Bros., not everyone owned one right away, or at all really. The console was an expensive proposition for an unknown product, and the market had just slapped a lot of people in the face.

Regardless, it found success, and as the industry has grown, so too has the idea that video gaming is here to stay, and that when you purchase a shiny new console, you’ll be rewarded with shiny new games.

Unfortunately, like any pop culture product, the video game market has grown to the point of crossover. It wants more than anything now to find success in other markets. Video games themselves are not tremendously profitable, unless a game is a massive success. Development time and costs are outrageous, so why not try and fling a movie or two out? How about a shoddy sequel for a handheld system with a third of the development cost? What about a novelization? Cartoon?

These are not unfamiliar. If you remember back to the days when Mario and Sonic were the only two mascots around (and darn popular), they were everywhere. You could find Mario cartoons on Saturday mornings, Mario books in every book store, and I fondly remember my Mario lunchbox and thermos on my first day of school, just days before the release of Super Mario Bros. 3. The market was huge, but the shoddy quality and failed attempts at films made it a bad idea, and eventually Hollywood stopped trying so hard.

Unfortunately, now that Video gaming is so common that nearly 1 in 2 households have one (and nearly 2 in 3 adult males have one) the trend is back. Video gaming, like any other cultural trend that becomes a lifestyle, is still trying to find its place in the world. It is adapting, slowly shifting and turning in its skin until the fit is just right. But, that means we are stuck waiting until it gets it right.

Anyone who has seen an Uwe Boll film, or wondered why Angelina Jolie decided Tomb Raider was a good idea, knows what I’m talking about. Video games are born from outlandish ideas. They’re over the top and outrageous, that’s what makes them good video games. But, when you try and reinterpret that to the screen, you will fail. It is a given. The only remotely successful attempt I’ve seen (and it was by no means a good movie) was Doom.

Doom had it right because no one pretended it was a film instead of a video game. The director took a game script and put real people in it. It was humorously campy, and that is the only way a game script can work as a film. Unfortunately, other directors have not yet figured that out.

But, as the comic book industry can attest too, it’s a matter of growing pains. It took nearly 40 years for Hollywood to make a good superhero movie with Richard Donner’s Superman , and the only other good one between Donner’s film and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman was Tim Burton’s borderline interpretation of Batman . But, now we get great comic book adaptations nearly every year.

The key is to garner enough respect for these franchises, and for those that own the rights to them to demand the proper treatment of them, that they are not treated like pulp fiction fluff, the kind of slop that gets churned out on a $20 million budget and released in late January every year.

And with the growth, energy, and money that the industry is seeing, it’s not unforeseeable that major franchises like Halo might become halfway decent motion pictures. If we’re lucky, it will at least be as good as the game.

The Cult of Violence in Popular Film

In my last year of high school, my American history professor decided he would show us Saving Private Ryan. The result was a litany of forms to be signed by parents for those not quite 18, and questioning by most students why this was necessary. Only the year before a film had been pulled from an English class in the same school, only rated PG-13 for its portrayal of 19th century sex, but here was our teacher showing us an extremely bloody, violent battle-ridden film. The argument―”it’s history”.

Violence has long-held a certain mystique, the ability to stand tall above the censors and display endlessly gratuitous imagery for all ages. But it’s always been sex that truly upset the stuffy conservative minds of this country. The MPAA arose not because of excessive violence in films, but because of worries over indecent imagery related to sex.

A video game was pulled from the shelves and slapped with an Adult Only rating (the only time ever given) because of a possible unlockable sex scene. The game is one of the most violent offerings around―Grand Theft Auto. It’s an epic assault on every law written, complete with random shootings, drug dealing, and cop killing. But, sex put it over the top.

Left to their own devices, the sex and violence in film has flourished, finding routes of their own, slowly but surely pushing the censors to the borders, and squeezing as much as they can out of an R rating. The result is a numbing of audience receptors to the true ferocity of some violence.

If one is to show a particularly disturbing scene, it’s necessary to take it to an entirely new level of grotesque. Realism is the next key, in which these scenes are made to look as wholly and truly realistic as possible. Gone are the hokey squirts and sprays of dismemberment. Film makeup has gone beyond that. That limb can really come off and it will look incredibly disturbing.

This cult of violence in our films has bred a new way of approaching it entirely. Instead of submitting to the desires of a so many blood thirsty film goers, directors are starting to experiment with how to turn violent imagery into an art form, not mere grotesquery to satiate the masses.

Exploitation films have been around since the ’70s, when the splatter genre arrived in films like ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Friday the 13th’. Those films took violence and made it so ridiculously over the top, especially in the case of Jason and his hockey mask, that they made it fun to watch. The idea was to be scary, but in truth it was a chance to watch horrific images so ridiculous that they toned down what you might see in everyday life.

Similar films came out of Asia in time, high-flying martial arts films with explosive bloodletting, almost comical at times in its lack of realism. A samurai sword to the shoulder blade might produce more blood than a typical adult male carries in his body. Anime took it to the next level, with gallons of blood spraying free of a severed limb.

Today’s experimental filmmakers are taking heed of the results and rewriting the violence code once again, crafting movies with all the sensibilities of a 70s splatter-fest or sword skewering anime in homage to a style that exploits. Comic books are proving a superb source for these films as well, the works of Frank Miller in particular finding a home on-screen when most assumed they never would. Sin City and more recently 300 are hyper-stylized affairs rimming with violence, the kind that you’d see on an ink drawn page, so carefully planned and executed as to be art rather than violence.

Quentin Tarantino started a trend all on his own when he filmed Reservoir Dogs, infusing what some would have seen as mindless violence with reams of witty dialog and well crafted plot, begging the question of whether the movie could be the same without those bloody scenes. Pulp Fiction’s gritty, humorous back and forths couldn’t exist without the explosive, disturbing images to offset them. It’s the perfect balance of that which both naturally disgusts and intrigues you and that which you find funny. The humor is only enhanced by all that blood.

Kill Bill, arguably Tarantino’s most exploitative homage, is a combination of all the stylistic elements he’d been developing, a campy plot with tons of splatter film derived frivolities, but more than enough serious, revenge driven action to drive the plot.

Dozens of filmmakers have followed suit, and not only have we seen a resurrection of the horror film industry as a result, the Tarantino-esque attempts of many directors to deftly combine slick gangster violence with humorous exchanges and a wickedly sadistic plot pop up annually.

Film’s cult of violent intrigue is one that some find disturbing, and still more find disgusting, but one thing remains true―human beings enjoy it. Whether it’s built into our genetic code, a throwback to caveman values and primal instincts, or an internal desire to find solace in all the violence that isn’t real to better absorb and digest the excessive destruction we wreak on each other in reality, violence has a particularly soft spot in our hearts. This is something that will always slide under the radar, as the staunch censor-happy few pick apart the latest revealing sex scene.

Truman’s Paradox

Imagine you live in a perfect world. Imagine that there is someone up there, somewhere, who watches your every step, and has future planned out for you-to the minutest of details, that everything about your life is personally being overseen by the omnipotent being, as if you’re the chosen one. You’re guaranteed a good education, a steady job, caring parents, and a loving spouse. Every problem that you might have, there is someone who’ll interfere, and solve things for you. Isn’t that the absolute dream of most of the religions? Isn’t that, in fact, a promise that organized religion holds up to you? The benign, omnipotent, and omniscient being, overlooking your life in every conceivable way. A guarantee, that whatever happens, is the God’s Will, and that there is a higher purpose determining the course of your life. Isn’t that what faith is all about-believing in that fantasy?

Ironically, for the character of Truman Burbank in the Hollywood flick The Truman Show, the dream turns into a nightmare. For those who haven’t watched the movie, it is a satire, and indeed fantastic, story of a man whose whole life is a televised show, watched by millions for years, without his knowledge. The town that he lives in is a phony town-an effect, a combination of a high-tech supported illusion, and a gigantic movie set. His life is scripted and executed to that script. People that enter or leave his life, are actors playing their own, prewritten parts. When Truman realizes the truth, however, he wants to break away from this fake, designed world. He wants to go (I almost said back, but he has really never even been there) to the real world, where everything is uncertain, where he might have to struggle hard to live a life that’s almost guaranteed to him in that fake world. And when he does that, finally, the same crowd that is vicariously enjoying his surreal life actually applauds his freedom!

It’s not just in the reel life that Truman’s newly found freedom is applauded, though. Even in the movie halls, there is a perceptible relief. When the crowds come out, they are obviously happy that Truman got his freedom-even if it’s just a freedom to embrace the uncertainty of the real world (the romantic sub-thread of the story notwithstanding, as the uncertainty is in fact more pronounced there). That got me thinking! These are the same guys who want to desperately believe that there is someone/something out there, which controls their destiny. In a strange way, Truman’s life is how they want their lives to be-safe, assured, and without the burden of choice. The only difference is that the controller is a media baron, with his own selfish motive. Still, Truman’s life is much more secured than an average person. And principally, there isn’t much difference.

Symbolically, Truman chooses free will over determinism, exactly opposite to the ideals of religious determinism. In short, free will is a philosophical doctrine that says that human being can (at least in principle) choose their thoughts and their actions. On the other hand, the doctrine of determinism postulates that everything is destined to be what it is, and human beings have absolutely no real choice, whatsoever. Religious ideal of a supernatural being/power controlling our life is positively a form of determinism.

The curious paradox that ‘The Truman Show’ brings forward-of ordinary people (implicitly) being happy about Truman’s symbolic rejection of a quasi-determinism, by an exercise (even if symbolic) of his free will, even while the same people implicitly (as well as explicitly) crave for another kind of quasi-determinism, with their religious world view-is actually a very central paradox of human life. In fact, determinism brings with itself a comfort, and free will, a risk. For instance, if you know that there is no real choice, things are much easier, as there can be no penalty for choosing wrong (for that matter, you can’t chose wrong-you can’t chose at all). When there is no choice, there is no morality either, as morality is the codification of value judgments. There is no value in the absence of choice. Everything, just is!

On a more pragmatic level, it makes a huge difference as to who controls your life. The benign and omniscient power would have no ulterior motives (otherwise, it won’t be benign). So, there is a consolation there, when your life is controlled by such a power. But that involves surrendering your value judgments completely, and having faith in such a power. When one looks around at the state of the world, it’s hard to find such an unshakable faith. But imagine that tomorrow you’re in Truman’s shoes, but this time, it’s the real thing. Imagine God asking you personally, as to what you want. A life that God has personally scripted for you, or a life that you can steer, with no guarantees, like a sailboat in a huge ocean. What would you choose? A benign determinism or a random free will?