Wait! It's still not dead! You should know better than to turn your back on the horror movie. It's been with us since just about the beginning, and it's always been tenacious. You can source it-if you'd like-to some deep-rooted paranoia of predation. What predators? You know the types: supernatural beings, scientists gone mad, psychopaths. Political catastrophists ranging in disposition from Orwellian to McCarthyite. Hostile extraterrestrials. Gravely undisciplined children and other disagreeable relatives. Nuclear warmongers, viruses, the mass media. And yes, of course, those anarchist voices in your head, tirelessly agitating for psychological implosion. Well, that's the worst of them, right? Um ... right?
ILLUSTRATION BY MORGAN CHARLES
By now, all the horror constructions have been subverted, but by no means precluded. As viewers, the more astute we become about artifice, the higher our tolerance for on-screen atrocity. So, if being horrified really is what you want, you must prepare to leave the protective enclosure of genre. Brace yourself.
It seems innocent enough at first. The giddy insurrection and outright spoofery of, respectively, the Scream and Scary Movie series didn't diminish horror's prospects, but instead ushered in a surge of hipster approval, securing a broad audience that was game for all that lurks between The Blair Witch Project and the M. Night Shyamalan projects. The last couple of years have brought us a fresh gush of horror flicks, and now, like marauding zombies, they just keep coming.
Yes, there's a lot of money in it, if not a lot of original thinking. The recent crop includes a good neo-classic (28 Days Later), a lame prequel (Exorcist: The Beginning) and the unfortunately inevitable remakes of three originals: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead and, due later this month, The Amityville Horror. As for speculations about what these efforts are worth to the culture, I'll defer to a blogger in the UK who observed, of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, "The tag line on the poster was 'horror movies are back!' Well, after this, I wish they'd fuck off again."
Let's hope Shaun of the Dead cheered the bloke up. Still, it can't change the fact that we're now awash in overmediated narratives of human suffering. They're everywhere, having spread (insidiously!) to every kind of movie. Call it thriller, suspense, disaster, historical drama, even comedy, but don't ever doubt what sort of feeling dwells within its darkened heart. Lousy movies still use horror for cheap thrills, good ones for moral leverage. Some reality shows try to split the difference, treating horror as a high concept.
The question of how to take it all in is what terrifies us, or should. When it comes to the horrors of the movies, are you a passive observer, an active spectator or a witness bearer? Does it depend on the movie? Answer carefully, because how you watch might make you an accessory to evil. Not just because your occasional subsidy of some dumb, debasing slasher flick lowers the collective moviemaking IQ. But because indifference enables depravity. When the journalist in Hotel Rwanda says, "If people see this footage, they'll say, 'Oh my God, that's terrible,' and they'll go on eating their dinners," he's talking about you.
Indeed, for all its eloquence on paranoia of the other, horror can be chillingly revealing of the self. Nowadays a horror film is a movie that knows you've seen it all, even the worst, and asks who, as a result, you think you are.
Dinners, Raisinets, whatever. Yes, here's where it gets really scary. You were warned. Of course, in an elemental way, Hotel Rwanda is horrifyingly close to being a slasher flick. It differs both temperamentally (thank goodness) and by being essentially true, which is what's so horrifying.
Worse, consider how easy it is to move your guilty sympathy from a man holed up in his hotel against a machete-wielding mob to a man holed up in his bunker against an invading military mob. That would be Adolf Hitler in Downfall, a total movie-convention reversal: the evil as protagonist, those righteous souls who didn't just keep eating their dinners as the rapacious mob. If you ask me what the epitome of a modern horror movie is, I'd say that anything requiring us to see a dramatization of Magda Goebbels poisoning her children probably comes pretty close.
Downfall drew inspiration and some material from the 2002 documentary Blind Spot, in which Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary, talks about her time with the Führer. What I remember best from that very plainly presented film is its single stylistic flourish: the occasional image of Junge watching her own interview on a TV screen, mesmerized by the grim tale pouring out of her own talking head. At the time, it seemed like the filmmakers' desperate, self-conscious attempt to diversify some visually inert material, but in retrospect it feels like foresight-a desperate, self-conscious attempt to identify the moral inertia associated with excessive spectatorhood.
Indeed, for all its eloquence on paranoia of the other, horror can be chillingly revealing of the self. Genre occurs by consensus, so how can it ever contain what always comes down to an individual experience? Nowadays a horror film is a movie that knows you've seen it all, even the worst, and asks who, as a result, you think you are. We might like to imagine ourselves as akin to Hotel Rwanda's version of Paul Rusesabagina-watchers foremost, obliging by nature and maybe a little slow to act on moral certitudes, but, when abandoned by soulless superiors to a genocidal horde, somehow able to do what's right. To our great alarm, though, we feel more like Traudl Junge-haunted, disassociated, still watching, always, and yet wondering how much evil we've enabled in our lives simply by not facing it.
So I'm not at all surprised that, as of this writing, another movie about a lethally mesmerizing videotape is ruling the box office. That was always the thing about The Ring, which takes our complaints about the abomination of home entertainment to a new level. The plot itself is a postmodern curse: just watching literally takes the life out of you. And once you've watched, the only way to spare yourself is to put the thing in front of someone else's eyes. Such is the logical conclusion, and the true horror, of what we always knew about the movies: don't ever turn your back.
On the other hand, if everyone gets everyone else to watch, does that mean we'll all be okay?
Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every second Friday.