Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Foreignness And Home Soil American Horror Movies Post 9/11: A Short Musical Interlude

Things have been a bit slow here at Son Of Danse Macabre. My new job at inReads (you should totally sign up) has cut back on my personal reading time significantly (ironic I know) meaning that its taking me a lot longer to get through the last book of my Tarot hand than I would like. Not to worry though, once I'm past this chapter the work becomes a lot less research intensive and the next few chapters should proceed at a much quicker pace.

In the meantime long time friend Neil Fulwood has graciously agreed to fill in with a guest post. When I originally conceived the idea of doing some guest posts I figured on a few quick articles from fellow horror fans wanting to share the love. Imagine my surprise and delight when I ended up with this. It is as they say, a doozy and a pretty well written insightful doozy at that. Make sure you check out Neil's other work at The Agitation Of The Mind. There is plenty more where this came from.

In April, as the last of the snows melted in the larch forests like strips of soiled bandage, we came to Belsen and the first concentration camp: a hideous ‘liberation’ this time which erased forever the erroneous idea we had had that ‘Jerry is really just the same as us’. No way was he. – Dirk Bogarde, ‘Backcloth’, p. 113.
When Powell and Pressburger made their great propagandist works of art (the two can sometimes be synonymous) – works like ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, ‘A Canterbury Tale’ or ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ – the true horror of the death camps was unknown to the public; unknown to the majority of those on active service in the theatre of conflict. It is doubtful those films, with their wistful and nostalgic (almost playful) romanticism, could have been made if the extent of Hitler’s so-called “final solution” had been common knowledge. Propaganda is zeitgeist: it latches on to whatever reinforces its message. Powell and Pressburger’s six-year string of masterpieces held the tenets of Englishness aloft as a runner would an Olympic flame – but tempered enough by Emeric Pressburger’s European background to avoid being twee.
And the films that came after the war, when the world – jubilant for those few moments in the defeat of fascism – suddenly found itself confronted with the aftermath of six million Jews, gays, gypsies, blacks and other members of the collective non-Aryan dispossessed systematically put to death; these films are fuelled by that knowledge. Even the “boy’s own” spectaculars of the 1960s, the likes of ‘The Guns of Navarone’ and ‘Where Eagles Dare’ with their vicarious set-pieces wherein storm-troopers, Gestapo torturers and black-coated SS officers are mown down in waves. A need for catharsis borne of the great bloodstain of the twentieth century is the lubricant that drives their ballistically efficient narratives.
Every generation has its shattering moment. For my grandparents: the Second World War. For my parents, the Kennedy assassination. For my generation, 11th September 2001. For those born before or at the various points inbetween, substitute the Great War, Vietnam, or the strike action in Britain in the 1980s where a government effectively turned its police force and army on its own people in order to destroy the power of the unions. For the generation half my age or younger, too young when 9/11 happened to fully understand the implications and politics of it: the Breivik massacre in Norway.
Art responds. Cinema, arguably the most culturally expedient and intellectually accessible of all the art forms, responds most emotively. Perhaps most bluntly. If the Kennedy assassination and the subsequent bastardization of American politics under the Nixon administration resulted in a slew of deeply political dramas – from the satirical ‘President’s Analyst’ (Flicker, 1967) to the bitterly cynical ‘Parallax View’ (Pakula, 1974) and ‘Three Days of the Condor’ (Pollack, 1975) – it can be argued that, excepting two worthy responses in the form of Paul Greengrass’s ‘United 93’ and Oliver Stone’s ‘World Trade Centre’ (both 2006), 9/11 found its filmic response in a resurgence of the horror genre. Specifically, an approach to the genre that deliberately keyed itself in to the pared-down aesthetic of the classic 1970s horror movie, as if America were reaching back to the post-Altamont atmosphere of social deconstruction, the death of the hippie ideal sounding an all-too-real echo across the dust and rubble of Ground Zero.
Formed in November 2001, Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company has so far remade five key horror movies of the 70s and 80s: ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (Nispel, 2003), ‘The Amityville Horror’ (Douglas, 2005), ‘The Hitcher’ (Meyers, 2007), ‘Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009) and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (Bayer, 2010).
Additionally,‘Dawn of the Dead’ (Snyder, 2004), ‘The Fog’ (Wainwright, 2005), ‘House of Wax’ (Collet-Serra, 2005), ‘The Omen’ (Moore, 2006), ‘The Wicker Man’ (LaBute, 2006), ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ (Aja, 2006), ‘Halloween’ and ‘Halloween II’ (Zombie, 2007 and 2009 respectively), ‘Prom Night’ (McCormick, 2008), ‘Last House on the Left’ (Iliadis, 2009), ‘My Bloody Valentine’ (Lussier, 2009), ‘Piranha’ (Aja, 2010) and ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ (Monroe, 2010) have continued the trend.
Original fare like ‘Cabin Fever’ (Roth, 2003), ‘Wrong Turn’ (Schmidt, 2003) and its sequels, ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ (Zombie, 2005), ‘Hostel’ and ‘Hostel Part II’ (Roth, 2005 and 2007 respectively), ‘Turistas’ a.k.a. ‘Paradise Lost’ (Stockwell, 2006), ’30 Days of Night’ (Slade, 2007), ‘The Mist’ (Darabont, 2007), ‘P2 (Khalfoun, 2007), ‘Vacancy’ (Antal, 2007), ‘The Strangers’ (Bertino, 2007), ‘The House of the Devil’ (West, 2009), ‘Paranormal Activity’ (Peli, 2007; main release 2009) and the ‘Saw’ franchise (various, 2004 – 2009) have parallels with the slew of remakes and certainly maintain a thematic (albeit more visceral) aesthetic with the horror movies of the 70s. In particular, Ti West’s ‘House of the Devil’ was an exercise in capturing the visual style and narrative pacing of that decade. The post 9/11 horror boom also saw the return to the genre of two of its erstwhile influential practitioners: George Romero continuing his zombie sequence with ‘Land of the Dead’ and ‘Diary of the Dead’ (2005 and 2007 respectively), and Sam Raimi with ‘Drag Me to Hell’ (2009).

Land of the Dead’ is the first (arguably, thus far, the only) American horror film to present an explicit response to 9/11. Throughout the first three films in the sequence, small bastions of humanity holed up in - respectively - rural/agricultural, materialist/consumerist and military/scientific environments, and were defeated, from within and without, in each case. In ‘Land of the Dead’, the besieged group of survivors become a microcosm of America itself. The setting is a Manhattan-like island, at the centre of which is a luxuriously appointed tower block overseen by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). Those allowed into this self-contained paradise are those with money. Those without are forced to scratch out a living for themselves in the ghetto at the foot of the tower. As with the previous films, the survivors bring about their own downfall while the zombies gather outside. Only this time, the stakes are higher in both cases. When Cholo (John Leguizamo), a member of Kaufman’s militia, absconds with Dead Reckoning (the heavily-armoured strike vehicle that defends/polices the island) and threatens to launch on Kaufman’s tower block if his fiscal demands are not met, Kaufman doesn’t even have to respond with “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” in order to make the subject matter clear.
Drag Me to Hell’, made four years later, is equally attuned to the America it was released into, only here the focus is socio-economic instead of socio-political. A young professional, Christine (Alison Lohman), is trying to get ahead at the bank she works for. Her chances for promotion in the balance because her boss doesn’t believe she can make “the hard decisions”, Christine callously rejects an old woman’s pleas for a loan extension, effectively foreclosing on her property, and is terrorized by supernatural means when the woman puts a curse on her. While ‘Drag Me to Hell’ is more a funhouse scare-fest than Romero’s grim and cynical statement on American society rotting from the inside, it certainly captured the zeitgeist of what the British press called the “credit crunch”.

Many of the other films considered here are concerned with foreignness and home soil and the threat of the former that hangs over the latter. Eli Roth’s ‘Hostel’ and ‘Hostel Part II’ are set in Slovakia and both films, in their most effective moments, exploit the cultural differences between the almost gothically rural setting and the attitudes of the youthful American protagonists, a group of testosterone-addled lads in the first film, a more thoughtful quartet of young women in the second. Both are slow-burn in their plotting and take their time getting to the “torture porn” set-pieces; plentiful instances show the characters as lost, either literally (unsure of their geographical location) or culturally (non-comprehension of the language, customs, etc of the indigenous populace). And yet, finally, it is other Americans who are behind the horrors that befall them. Although sometimes crass in their execution, the ‘Hostel’ films pull off the double-whammy of commenting on the post-9/11 American mistrust of foreignness and the tendency (politically) to US incursion overseas – sometimes to the detriment of the country in question.
Turistas’ also takes place overseas, in Brazil. The travelers are a mixture of American, English and Australian backpackers (i.e. a decent cross-section of English speaking peoples), whose trip of a lifetime turns ugly from the outset: a bus accident, spiked drinks and loss of clothes, money and passports conspire to deliver them into the hands of Zamora (Miguel Lunardi), a doctor enraged by the harvesting of organs from poor Brazilian peasants for the benefit of “rich gringos” and determined that it is time to “give back” to the poor. The non-specificity of the protagonists’ nationality as a group (beyond the fact that they are westerners) is telling. ‘Turistas’ deals in the universal horror of being the “wrong man”: a group of travelers, assumed to be affluent purely because of their peregrinations, are punished for the sins of the genuinely (and amorally) rich.
The idea of foreignness remains prevalent in those films actually set on home soil. In this respect, a very clear link to the aesthetic of 1970s American horror exists. From the influential and controversial successes of John Boorman’s ‘Deliverance’ (1972), Tobe Hooper’s ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (1974) and Wes Craven’s ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ (1977) to the B-movie Satanism of Bernard McEveety’s ‘The Brotherhood of Satan’ (1971), Jack Starrett’s ‘Race with the Devil’ (1975) and Robert Fuest’s ‘The Devil’s Rain’ (1975), it was a decade defined by backwoods horror. Pace ‘Turistas’, these films deal with the fear of the (ostensibly civilized) city-dweller, the professional, suddenly at a loss and unable to transact rationally with isolated individuals or small communities, either morally corrupted (the devil worshippers of ‘Race with the Devil’ etc), inbred/backward (the leering rapists of Meir Zarchi’s 1978 controversy-fest ‘I Spit on Your Grave’) or reverted to cannibalistic savagery (Leatherface and his lunatic family in ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’; the hill-dwellers in ‘The Hills Have Eyes’).
The commonality is isolationism. ‘Cabin Fever’, ‘Wrong Turn’, ‘House of Wax’, ‘Vacancy’ – all take place in off-the-beaten-track locations, miles from anywhere. Mobile phone coverage is non-existent; the normal signs of civilization are few and far between. Even such staples of Americana as the diner, the gas station, the roadhouse and the sheriff’s office are places of danger. The locals are insular. Surly glances meet the newcomer. Your vehicle is liable to be vandalized, your property stolen, your fancy-ass city ways mocked. As things escalate, your pets are likely to meet a bloody end. That big guy in the pick-up truck is looking at your wife and daughter in the wrong way. Don’t even count your own life as inviolate.

The backwood horror, or hillbilly horror, of the 70s gets a technological upgrade post-9/11. Take the motel clerk in ‘Vacancy’ whose office, lined with monitors and recording equipment, is a cottage industry for the production of snuff movies – said movies being filmed in the very rooms he rents out. Or the hillbilly archetype in ‘P2’ who seems to have transgressed the geographical barriers: he’s got a blue-collar job in the city, an underground car park attendant number; he’s also looking at a woman in the wrong way. A businesswoman in a purty white dress, stranded after the office Christmas party. The locale might be the concrete jungle instead of the bayou, but our boy’s the hick nightmare incarnate that you’d normally have to take a wrong turn in the deep south to bump into. But he’s right here, a few floors under the very office you work in, and he’s putting the security cameras to improper use.
Mostly, though, these films exploit remote settings, the victims du jour out of their depth and off the map. Being lost is one of the primal fears of childhood. In ’30 Days of Night’, vampires descend on a snowbound Alaskan town. Weather, darkness and the supernatural conspire to fray the small band of townspeople to breaking point. A month of total darkness and the absolute finality of being unable to leave would shred most people’s nerves; bringing the undead into it just seems sadistic. Isolation is a form of imprisonment. The fear of being lost is inverted, and two of the primal fears of adulthood come into play: the loss of liberty and the invasion of one’s home.
In ‘Vacancy’, a couple’s hotel room is bugged, besieged and finally invaded. The safety of the traveller or holidaymaker’s one-night stop-over is denied. Recreation, pranks and maybe a little sexual activity at camp? ‘Friday the 13th sinks an axe into that one. A holiday home out in the wilds, just the place to make a short break of it after attending your friends’ wedding, or to get some piece and quiet while you finish that novel? Not according to ‘The Strangers’ or ‘I Spit on Your Grave’. The horror film, not matter how outlandish its antagonists or how over-the-top its blood-letting, always hardwires itself into a deep-seated and all-too-human fear. Even your bed, that place of sanctuary where you can pull the covers over your head and be safe in the comfort of sleep … even that’s not safe. ‘Paranormal Activity’ plays on images of its protagonists at their most vulnerable: asleep. In ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, sleep allows Freddy Krueger access into his victims’ minds; into their rooms; into their now very brief lives.
As the trauma of 9/11 gradually gave way to the moral and political implications of the war in Afghanistan, protest and censure greeting the images of prisoners mistreated at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, the imagery of the “torture porn” subgenre suddenly found itself with a socio-political undercurrent. This, married with the loss of liberty theme consistent throughout the “torture porn” cycle, gives these films a gut-wrenching immediacy beyond the obvious gruesome iconography and unorthodox use of DIY equipment and surgical utensils. The ‘Saw’ franchise perhaps represents American cinema’s fullest distillation of the theme, particularly in the use of lethiferous gizmos designed to kill their victim in the most ironic manner possible; Jigsaw, the films’ terminally ill antagonist, is intent on punishing those he sees as squandering the life he himself can no longer take for granted. The traps are designed to be beaten, but at a price to the victim; thus Jigsaw tests how far they are willing to go in order to survive/gain a new lease of life. Setting aside the questionable morality of the basic precept and the saga’s increasingly cruel and cynical arc, all the “torture porn” tropes are present: the victims’ loss of liberty, the seemingly arbitrary actions of their captor, the anti-aesthetic of ruined buildings (abandoned warehouses: the de rigueur real estate choice of the budding sociopath), the industrial and rusted appearance of Jigsaw’s fiendish mechanisms. In the evolution of horror anti-heroes, Jigsaw isn’t too far removed from Leatherface and his ilk – he just paid more attention during metalwork class. And let’s face it, the grimy anonymity of a disused factory may as well be the backwoods or the scorched hills or the snowed-in far north when you’re chained up, fitted out with a trap that’s timed to kill you in an hour and there’s no help from any quarter and no-one hears your screams. Factor in the assumption that Jigsaw must have staged an act of home invasion to kidnap his victims in the first place, and all the boxes are ticked; all the fears exploited.
Of course, the themes and fears discussed in this article aren’t restricted to American cinema. Europe has given us ‘Calvaire’, ‘Vinyan’, ‘Martyrs’, ‘Switchblade Romance’, ‘Them’ and a host of others – each of them an endurance test of a movie. It’s worth noting that some of the films considered here, while American productions, had foreign directors at the helm: Alexandre Aja (‘The Hills Have Eyes’, ‘Piranha’), Franck Khalfoun (‘P2’), and the US-born but of Hungarian background Nimrod Antal (‘Vacancy’). In the UK, hoodie horror is fast becoming the British equivalent of backwoods horror with the likes of ‘Eden Lake’, ‘Cherry Tree Lane’ and ‘F’.

In the 70s – a decade that this overview of post-9/11 horror keeps coming back to – two major American filmmakers made arguably the most controversial films of their careers in England. Both films were released in 1971; both, for different reasons, suffered long-time bans on home video in the UK; both have become bywords for movie violence. Neither, ironically, has ever been regarded as a horror movie. These films are, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ has escaped the questionable snares of the remake. ‘Straw Dogs’, however, has just been reimagined or rebooted or whatever the current buzzword is by Rod Lurie. Peckinpah’s film, an adaptation of Gordon Williams’ pulp thriller ‘The Siege of Trencher’s Farm’, was about the culture clash between an intellectual but ostensibly weak American academic and the less-than-cerebral but brawny yokels who resent him for his nationality, his bookish ways and his temerity in marrying a village girl. Lurie’s remake scraps the issue of nationality and relocates the action to the deep south, a setting more redolent of ‘Deliverance’ or ‘I Spit on Your Grave’.
Whether Lurie captures any of the psychological complexities of Peckinpah’s original remains to be seen, although robbing the material of its British antagonists (members of an island race who have often proved themselves throughout history as thuggish, tribal, inherently racist and resentful of class differences) seems as dubious a move as LaBute’s ‘Wicker Man’ remake jettisoning the Christianity/paganism dynamic. Or maybe Lurie will ride the tail-end of the zeitgeist, bringing things back, bluntly and brutally, to American soil.


  1. Indeed every generation has shattering moments, unfortunately!

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