Monday, March 16, 2009

"The Horror! The Horror!"

Eric Clapton--"After Midnight" (mp3)
Yo La Tengo--"Black Flowers" (mp3)

It had been a long time since I had seen a contemporary horror movie when I decided to put The Midnight Meat Train atop my Netflix cue. I can't really even remember why--someone had praised it for some reason, someone had said it was destined to become a cult classic, something like that.

"Sounds like a porno," my daughters said.

"Sounds like a porno," my students said.

Well, it wasn't a porno, at least not a sexual one, but I still watched only 45 minutes of it before I realized that I wasn't going to achieve any satisfaction. Basic plot: this photographer, eager to develop at grittier style at the behest of a critic, starts hanging out in the subways at night and stumbles upon a well-dressed butcher (literally) who, each night, slaughters everyone on a subway car. Photographer gets in deeper, as does hot girlfriend, with ironic/tragic results that you could never have expected. Let's just say that humanoids are involved. I should have known. The story was written by Clive Barker, after all, the mind behind the Hellraiser series that I had put out of my mind.

I probably also should have known because the last time I checked in on the horror genre was for one of the Final Destination flicks in a motel room a couple of years ago. Okay, so you can't cheat fate and whatever you try is only going to play into fate's hand. I get it. And, I also had a disappointing experience with Scott Smith's second book, The Ruins, a book Stephen King called "the best horror novel of the new century" and that I call "the worst book I've ever read."

In short, here's my problem: unlikable characters stumble into a situation from which they can't possibly escape, and for most of the time, they don't really even try, until a desperate attempt at the end when they are quickly and efficiently dispatched with, setting up a situation where others who come looking for them will end up in the exact same situation.

When examined with that wide lens, the plot of The Ruins fits a lot of horror novels and films. In The Midnight Meat Train, the characters are kind of likeable or (sometimes I get confused here) at least good-looking. Otherwise, the two stories, and the Final Destination series, and, I'm guessing, movies like the Saw series or the Hostel series (?). It may well be a weakness in me, but I do not enjoy that storyline.

Give me likeable characters, give them a fighting chance, kill some of them off, throw all kinds of ironic twists at them. That, I can handle, even enjoy. It's the Halloween movies, with Jamie Lee Curtis, that come to mind, at least the early ones. You learn after the first one that she isn't going to conquer the killer, but at least you know that she's going to make it, and maybe save some other along the way. Yeah, there's going to be some collateral damage, but most of them are going to be people who aren't clued in to what's going on, who get caught up in the path of a supernatural serial killer. But, Jamie, she'll get by with spunk and grit and wits.

So, I'm willing to admit that I am way behind the times. But what does it say that a whole genre of films is based on the idea that evil will triumph, that the next installment will offer not much more than more creative ways to do away with the interchangeable characters? I mean, I can handle the Ironic Universe that we seem to have found ourselves in, but when irony trumps any kind of hope, even in a silly, gory movie, you've lost me. Sorry to be so out of touch.

Clapton and Yo La are available at Itunes.


Freddy K. said...

One could argue that Ellis' American Psycho and its irredemably brutal protagonist foreshadowed - or even provided a blueprint for - the modern "horror-porn" film.

The gore films of the 70s mostly focused on inexcusable crimes and the consequent violent delivery of audience-applauded justice ("I Spit On Your Grave," "The Last House on the Left," even "Straw Dogs"). In the '80s and early '90s, most of the focus was very much a Jamie Lee Curtis or Neve Campbell, the naif trapped by cruel fate.

Lately, your description seems to rule the day, and it is indeed sad for the genre. But, as someone who loves a good horror film, you can still find some great zombie movies out there. Zach Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead" is lots of fun, and "28 Days Later" is a terrific horror film.

I tend to prefer violent suspense -- "Identity," or "Joy Ride" or "Vacancy" are fun recent examples -- over pure horror stuff.

Oh yeah, and my "Nightmare..." movies sucked ass.

Bob said...

Great points. I might suggest that like Burgess' narrator Alex, in A Clockwork Orange, the American Psycho narrator gains some "likeability" simply because he is the narrator. In The Ruins, it's seems clear to me that Scott Smith does not like his characters.

I enjoyed 28 Days Later and Identity, too. Will have to check the others out. Thanks.