When the shoddy, pointless, not-scary remake of John Carpenter’s 1980 horror film “The Fog” opened recently, I made sure my Friday morning schedule was clear so I could catch the first matinee screening. I had to; I review movies for a living and “The Fog” wasn’t made available to critics beforehand. Not that I blame Columbia Pictures for that. They had to know they had a limp one on their hands and critics are usually irrationally unkind to the horror genre anyway. Why should we be allowed to see it before it opens?
“The Fog” kept trying to conjure ooga-booga scares out of incredibly thunderous door-knocking by these sad-ass ghosts with leprosy, the kind that jump out at you from behind doors in your town’s lame annual Spooky House. Ghosts don’t knock on your door and announce their visit. They come straight for you through the wall. Everyone knows that. And if you’re re-writing a movie that has already been made once 25 years ago, and badly even then, and all you can think up this time around to make the audience’s popcorn fly is really loud door-knocking, you should stop writing scripts and go to work for Amnesty International instead. They could use your help in shaking up some global human rights violators.
Here’s one terrible thing you can count on: cheap remakes of old horror films are here to stay because they don’t cost much to make and even if they fail at the domestic box office they clean up in “ancillary” sales like DVD and cable. They can flat-out suck it — and with the exception of last year’s “Dawn of The Dead” they’ve all done just that — and horror audiences are easily lured into theaters to see them.
I know because I’m the horror audience. I love to be made afraid. I love to leave the theater breathless from all the prolonged tension and the third act release. I love the irrational dumb need, after coming home from seeing one, to turn on all the lights and check all the closets. And, failing being terrified out of my wits, I just love to watch people get their heads chopped off. Not real people in real life or anything. I’m not one of those “Faces of Death” goons. I want to see fake people get fake killed — big difference. If possible I want to see it done with imaginative, evil glee.
It’s because you know how “Chainsaw Massacre” ends already. You know going in what those wax figures are really made of. You know who lives in the fog. You know the zombies win, that Jason will never die and that Chucky, who’s more drag queen than anything else these days, will be back too. In the disillusioned late 1960s and 1970s, horror films, even grindhouse weirdness like the groovy satanic-hippie-cannibals-on-LSD classic “I Drink Your Blood,” did more than gross-out the burnouts. They commented on the world outside. But in this genuinely frightening decade when you can watch the real people get their real heads really cut off online, the narratives have retreated into a now-comparatively safe past. Leatherface is as warm and familiar a presence as Rosemary Clooney singing a lullaby to Bing Crosby in “White Christmas.” And we will pay to see him again and again. We are suckers for doing this, cool fake killings or not.
There are exceptions, naturally. Just not many. There’s a pile of brutally extreme Asian horror out there now and if you can sift through it all you’re probably unemployed. There was 2004’s surprise hit “Saw,” which was no masterpiece but knew how to be creepy and unsettling. It was grainy. It was set in dark apartments and wet basements and children’s bedroom closets. It also featured nasty, inventive killings (remember, failing actual horror, all you need are a few really excellent murders and that almost counts as Not a Waste of Time). “Saw” could even be read as a one-dimensional political critique of surveillance culture. It had just enough of everything.
So now “Saw II” is here to cash in on that abundance. No matter that you found out everything you needed to know about the “Jigsaw” killer in the first movie. It’s not important. There will be significantly less fear this time around. Less uncertainty. Just more weird killings. The bare minimum. The ad pretty much promises that with its giant peeled back fingernails. Then there was this year’s no-budget, nuevo-grindhouse, publicity-courting shocker “Chaos,” a movie that, in spite of copyright infringing on “Last House on The Left” so blatantly that it made Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” look like an original script, was dementedly repulsive and vile enough to make out-of-it thumb-critic Roger Ebert wish he’d never laid eyes on it. That’s cool, even if the movie itself was reprehensible.
There are others, little blips on the radar like “The Roost” and the gay-slasher-in-West-Hollywood anomaly “Hellbent.” They each come equipped with a few twists that make them interesting viewing, but a few homegrown stabs and some gruesome imports don’t start a Hollywood revolution. And it’s too much to ask the big studios to get on the ball with this problem. The people in charge there need money to support their lifestyles and PG-13-rated, atmospheric yawns starring Oscar-winning actors like the sewage-y “Dark Water,” is their idea of how to get it. They want certainty and so do we. So let’s keep demanding nothing but what we know and that’s what we’ll keep getting. It’ll be like having warm cookies and milk under a snuggly blanket. And it’ll just be the opposite of horror. Which is scary.
Dave White has a blog you might like more than “The Fog.” It’s called “Dave White Knows” and it can be enjoyed at www.livejournal.com/users/djmrswhite.
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