Friday, December 5, 2008

Why American Horror Sucks...

Foreign films are not a bad thing. Over the past couple of weeks, a few remakes were announced, or semi-announced, based off of Asian horror/thriller/monster flicks. First, we have the Korean Monster film, The Host, which is set to be remade, along with a remake of the brilliant Asian thriller, Oldboy, which is rumored to be helmed by Steven Speilberg, and star Will Smith. While the latter is not going to be a straight remake, it started me thinking, what are a few things that we as American filmgoers are afraid of. The two things I came out with, were gay cowboys, and subtitles. Now, hopefully the public will realize that Brokeback Mountain was a great film, but that's not what I'm here to talk about, I am here to tell you all that subtitles are not a scary thing.

In the United States, we are graced with brilliant films such as Hostel 2 and Saw 55340934. Now, sarcasm aside, there is no doubt that these films hit the right spot for people, looking for a good scare. However, they don't fit that bill, when you take a good look at them. David Cronenberg, the God of disturbing gore, once said that "what makes a true horror film terryfiying, is the strong sense of sympathy for the main character". It's a basic premise. You have a main character, thrust into some sort of problem, and you feel a strong sense of sympathy for the said character. Yet, neither of these films do this.

The true deathblow to American horror, may be seen in the third film in the Saw series. The first two films in that Halloween staple had the aforementioned sense of sympathy. The two men shackled at the ankles, simply looking to escape, or the father who really just wants to see his child one more time, to tell him just how much he loves him. Not only that, but the films were somewhat fresh. No one, and I mean no one saw the twist of the first film coming, and the second one, arguably, upped the twist level to an M. Night high. The style was fresh, the idea was smart and interesting, and the visual flares, particularly in the first film, were well made.

Yet, the series continued, and fell into the hands of Darren Bousman. Now you have a film series, looking for actresses in a VH1 game show, and holding back American horror cinema. Another recent piece of news that started me thinking about this, was the announcement that it looks as though Rob Zombie is going to ride his flame blood laden metal horse to save the day that is the sequel to his Halloween remake. The reason American horror films are lacking, is the epitome of that film.

Take the original Halloween for example. At one point, this brilliant horror staple was the most profitable independent film release, ever, and for good reason. It has great, if insanely basic story, along with a classic villain, and did one thing modern horror films don't even dream of attempting. The film is scary, without shedding one drop, if any, of blood. Yet you have the modern Halloween, and with that comes the abusive parents, the horrible home life, and the therapy, all accounting for probably one of the most uncalled for back stories in film. Along with the cliche back-story, came the Michael Winterbottom meets a mud fight visuals, the grainy film stock, and the Saw 2.0 version gore, all making up a not very compelling, not frightening, just cliche deathblow to modern horror. Zombie has done his great thriller in The Devil's Rejects, and I still believe he's a solid director, I just think he really skipped a beat with this pile of drek.

All of that said, not ALL modern horror films are bad, you just have to look over in lands of subtitles, a thing that is almost as frightening as the thought of Michael Bay producing a remake of the Birds (oh, wait), to us over here in the U.S. Take the aforementioned "The Host" for example. Anti-American in it's sentiments, but then again, what foreign film ISN'T anti-American, and completely compelling in it's story, this film was championed by critics, but never seen by citizens. Honestly, if you've seen it, I am sending you a mind hug right now. It's not cliche, it's not boring visually, and most of all, it's genuinely compelling to watch.

Late in '07, there was a film released, presented to us by the genius Guillermo del Toro, called The Orphanage, or El Orfanato. It's a creepy ghost story, and may be the most frightening film I have seen in probably three years. However, it doesn't rely on an arm getting cut off, a girl getting abused, or even a twist, it just rely on brilliant film making. There is one scene in particular, and those of you who have seen it, get creeped out along with me, in which the main character is playing a child's game, in which she counts, and every time she finishes her counting, a child or group of children appear behind her. The way the camera just moves the children in and out of frame makes this the creepiest scene I've seen in a while. Through out the film, the true frights come from long shots down hallways, swift camera moves, or the beautiful and haunting score calmly playing in the background. That said, I could count the amount of people who have seen this on my left hand.

Not all directors want to subject you to subtitles. Some film makers feel as though it may be profitable to take their own films, and remake them, in English, for us all to watch. Or not. This year, the third best film I've seen happens to follow this suit, and is Funny Games. It comes to us from Michael Haneke, who previously helmed the equally as frightening Cache, and doesn't shy away from anything. It's similar in plot to another film from this year, The Strangers (more on that in a second), and is almost like, and I know this is a dead comparison, but if Gus Van Sandt directed a remake of A Clockwork Orange. It's a dark film, with grey, monochromatic color scheme, grainy visuals, and lyrically disturbing filmmaking, that doesn't shy away from the confrontational style that Haneke has seemed to fashion. You get Michael Pitt looking straight into the camera, asking us why we truly like these torture porn films, and taking these gorno conventions, and with a press of a button, taking all the visceral reaction we just had, watching one of the bad guys get it, all away. It's a home invasion story, with poetic direction, and a lack of box office gross, and I ended up seeing it with a couple who walked out half way through, complaining false advertising (no joke).

All is not lost for American horror though, especially with a young director, Bryan Bertino, who helmed the '08 release, The Strangers. This solid little indie release is a breath of fresh air, or at least a last second gasp in the flood of drek. It takes a solid story, two lovers are going to a cabin after a friends wedding, and turns it into a new style American horror film. It takes a lot of style from '60's-'70's style horror films, the most obvious being The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and also some of the more modern stylings. It takes the in your face, docudrama style of TCM, along with the grainy and gritty visuals of Saw, and also gets a couple of great performances from it's two stars, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. Another reason this film steps out of the shadow of the rest of American horror, is in the skill of not only the direction, but sound design and particularly score. There is a score here, but it's so minimalist and when it is not only used, but when it drops out, it only adds to the terror. There's just something about a grainy record player playing a scratchy jazz song that creeps me out. So here's looking at you Bertino. May you make America proud!

Now, I hope I have opened your eyes to a few foreign horror flicks that you all should check out. If not, and if you would like me to maybe do a complete list of say, 15 horror films I say check out, just leave a comment or two in the comments section. This is a pretty jumbled post, but I really just wanted to express my thoughts, and sure it's after Halloween, but it's never a wrong time to be scared. It's also some talking points for this weekend.

Thanks for checking this out! Leave any thoughts on the note or horror films in general, and I will get up a list of 15 horror films I think are must see's sometime in the near future. Do you think American horror gets a bad rap? Or is it simply that the popular films are a horrible example of American horror? Could it be that we have just lost the true meaning of fright? What are your thoughts?

Come back later for more news and notes!

Go see something good!


  1. I would completely agree that American horror movies are in something of a rut. This is something I touched on briefly in my look back at John Carpenter's Halloween at the end of October, as well as a paper for a film class I wrote just this week on the movies Halloween and The Thing (both of which I love!).

    Torture porn is not real horror, and it frustrates me to see people watching that garbage over and over instead of taking a look at the classics of the genre.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to your list of 15 movies. I've only become really interested in horror films in the last year or so, so I'll be sure to take your recommendations to heart.

  2. I think you're right, there's never a wrong time to be scared. I had watched a half hour of "The Host" on G4 with my roommate the other day, and i'm very compelled to go and rent it (or maybe we could get together over break and watch it?).

    But you had also mentioned in your blog about Guillermo Del Toro's "The Orphanage". I remember seeing a preview for it, and wanting to go and see it really bad (because I love the shit out of Del Toro's work) but after it's debut in theaters I never heard anything about it again. Is it worth the rent?


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