By Richard Haydn Brooks
A woman shaving her legs succumbs to the ravages of a flesh-eating virus and begins to cut chunks out of her nubile flesh. A family figurehead is beaten, crucified and finally set alight. Werewolves make lunch out of soldiers in the Scottish Highlands. A woman searches through the guts of a corpse for a key that will release the device about to tear of her head. A maniac wearing the skin of a victim’s father sexually taunts her. An alien parasite with a craving for meat turns a small American town into ravenous zombies. On top of all that, a thousand audience members vomit in their concessionary snacks.
Welcome to the face of horror in 21st Century cinema
“The seventies were great for horror movies everything seemed to blow my mind” Rob Zombie Oct 2003
By 1979 the war in Vietnam was finally drawing to a close and cinema audiences everywhere found that films like The Wolf Man and Psycho were a bit too tame for their tastes after witnessing true human horror every night on their TV courtesy of the American military.
As well as the new wave of filmmakers like Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola; movie houses found that new names in celluloid art had repossessed the name of horror.
William Friedkin brought us The Exorcist which terrified the world with its shocking depiction of exorcism and possession (not to mention challenging peoples faith). Wes Craven gave us realistic shockers like Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes and Italian filmmaker Dario Argento made us believe in the supernatural with his chiller Suspiria. This new breed of horror director had refreshed the true meaning of the genre and had audiences running down the aisles screaming (sometimes vomiting) with fear.
But why had they succeeded now when horror movies still had the cheesy scent of the old school universal monster features?
The answer lay in Vietnam.
Documentaries and news correspondence from the war had brought us images of death that shocked us for its clarity and realism; these were the same techniques employed by filmmakers producing horror movies at that time. People didn’t want to see some pale undead vampires with euro-trash accents seducing virginal women. They wanted the reality of a situation and to see the nightmarish horror up-close and personal.
This is something that master of horror, Wes Craven understood when he unleashed Last House On The Left (1973). Everything was shot like a documentary, the act of raping and killing the victims were brutal and you had to watch the horror to understand how dirty the killers felt afterwards. Other movies like Halloween, Dawn Of The Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre followed but towards the beginning of the 1980’s the screaming stopped.
Corporations like Coca Cola had taken over the old studios and making movies for art was a mantra long forgotten. The new gods were focus groups and consumerism.
Real horror movies like The Shining and An American Werewold In London made way for franchise friendly villains such as Jason Voorhees of the Friday The 13th movies and Freddy Kruger of the Nightmare On Elm Street films; only a few films such as Hellraiser dared to tread the boards of artistic purpose.
Studios realised that teenage audiences were the key to making money and in an effort to appease ratings sanitised their horror movies for the sake of a plastic lunchbox.”It’s like porn if we can make these movies without sex then we will be onto something, this is what has happened to horror, its become safe.” Rob Zombie said in 2003.
In the late 90’s and early years of this century, horror had become sanitised. Movies like the House Of Wax Remake and Scream had taken the horror out of horror movies but that all changed in 2003.
“The Boogieman is real and you found him.” Excerpt from the film House Of 1000 Corpses.
Halloween 1999 at Universal Studios, LA sent people running and screaming with fear from a new maze created by Rocker Rob Zombie. Relishing the feeling of making the public pee their pants in terror. He approached Universal with a pitch for a horror movie titled House Of 1000 Corpses. Shot on a tight budget, the film concerned a group of people who, whilst researching a local myth known as Doctor Satan, run a fowl of the firefly family who are the sickest bunch of depraved psychos going.
Shocked by its graphic depiction of violence, the gallons of gore and the skewed morality of the characters, the studio promptly shelved the film deeming it not fit for release but, in 2003 a smaller studio took a chance and gave Corpses to the unsuspecting public.
The film was a success and became a cult hit, spawning a meaner and grittier sequel called The Devils Rejects which fashioned itself after the movies of Sam Peckinpah. Rob Zombie’s intention was to bring back the days of the 70’s horror movie and he succeeded in taking a risk where others have feared to place their studio cheque book.
What followed was four years of horror and box office glory. The words ‘torture porn’ and ‘goreography’ became buzz words in the new wave of celluloid horror due to the nature and themes of the movies released in the genre. Following Rob Zombie were other explorers in terror such as Alexandre Aja, Eli Roth, James Wan, Neil Marshall, et al. These film directors were ladled The Splat Pack and spewed forth from their minds the following films.
Eli Roth: Cabin Fever (2003), A group of students rent a cabin in the woods for a weekend of debauchery only to succumb to a flesh-eating virus and eventually each others prejudices and paranoia.
Hostel and Hostel Part 2 (2006 & 2007), An underground organisation lures men and women into a lurid business were the wealthy can torture and murder anyone for profit.
Alexandre Aja: High Tension (2004), A young woman is terrorised by a deranged killer but then decides to turn the tables on him in this Gallic shocker.
The Hills Have Eyes (2006), A remake of Wes Craven’s 70’s shocker about a family who run into a trap set by a group of mutant cannibals in the Mexican desert.
Neil Marshall: Dog Soldiers (2002), Six soldiers, full moon, no chance. The tagline pretty much sums up this werewolf shocker.
The Descent (2005), Six women go cave diving only to find their way out blocked and the cave populated by creatures who want them for lunch, this is my personal favourite and reminiscent of the claustrophobic horror of Alien.
James Wan: Saw 1 – 4(2004, 2005, 2006 & 2007), The Jigsaw killer lures victims into horrific traps in order to test their will to survive. Technically he is not a murderer because the victims make their own choice about living or dying, this makes him and the movies all the more sinister. Trap wise the pit of infected hypodermic needles is unforgettable.
James Gunn: Slither (2006), an alien parasite infects a small town and turns the population into meat-eating monsters. This is a throwback to the 80’s monster movies which were filled with laughs, slime, gags and gore.
These movies were made for peanuts and created a large return at the box office, causing more studios to make their own horror films. The downside to this is that everything is circular. Are we going through a second golden age now only to have it replaced with more commercialism and action figures?
Another downside has been the reactions from right-wing politicians and members of the public. Outraged by the extreme violence and missing morality, some have called for tighter control on these film makers.
In a recent interview, an American newscaster faced off against Hostel Director Eli Roth. Accusing him and his fellow Splat Packers of corrupting the world with blood and violence for the sake of a few dollars. Mr Roth reminded him that not only are these films a throwback to the good old days when horror was more of a promise than a threat, he reminded him that in circular fashion these films are a direct reaction to the war in Iraq and its televised horrors just like in the days of Vietnam. Accusing him of blaming the Government military policy for his deviations Eli hit back by saying that audience members just want to scream and release the tension brought on by modern society. Sitting in a darkened movie theatre having the willies put up you is a great way to do it.
For now the Splat Pack reign supreme in the field of modern horror movies, only time will tell if this will last or return to the sanitised days of late 80’s and 90’s horror.