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The Wider Angle 7-7-07
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The Wider Angle: Ruminations of a hardcore cineast
 
by Celluloid Dreams correspondent Ken Karn
 

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Saturday, July 7, 2007

"Oh, the horror...the horror..."

There was a day a few weeks ago when the movie trade press ran 2 stories about the viability of the horror genre.  One announced that horror was hot, as this year would see the major release of a record number of horror films.  Another declared that horror was dead, citing the lower than expected opening grosses for Hostel 2.  Both stories included the requisite quotes from Hollywood “professionals”, and the most respected trades, including Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, ran these examples of in-depth reportage on the same day.  Was it an off day for the editorial staff?  How can both articles be accurate prognosticators of future box office returns?  Is it a desire to publish all points of view, or at least a balanced perspective, on the many life-threatening issues facing the movie industry in today’s marketplace?

The simultaneous publication of these diametrically opposed viewpoints reveals that the bastions of the entertainment industry press admit (willingly or not) it’s all really a bunch of crap.  I bring up this latest proof of William Goldman’s famous quote about Hollywood (“Nobody knows anything”) because I do know something about horror films and it pains me to see such retched journalism on a subject near and dear to my heart.

Let’s be clear about one thing:  Hollywood does not do horror.  The best horror films are independently produced.  The studios will bankroll the sequels, American remakes of foreign horror hits, and blatant copies of successful indie fright flicks.  Horror films have a tried and true tradition of being made on the cheap with non-star talent.  That goes against everything Hollywood believes (see Goldman quote above) and it’s no surprise that Lions Gate (a non-major entity) rules the horror roost.

Horror is a genre that encompasses a wide range of movie types.  Compare and contrast Saw and The Sixth Sense, if you will.  Both are horror, but different in more ways than they are similar.  Can you find a similar dissimilarity among romantic comedies?  I think not.  The Big Thinkers in Hollywood draw a sharp line between hard R-rated torture porn (Saw, Hostel) and horror that is more psychologically based (read non-graphic violence).  They further believe that the audience for these sub-genres is distinctly different.  Apparently they don’t count fanatical fright flick fans...like me.

In theaters at the moment we can see this range in horror with Hostel 2 and 1408.  Last year torture porn was in and the original Hostel and Saw III had healthy grosses.  The studios, however, had many PG-rated horror flops (expensive, name talent, you get the picture). This year Hostel 2 has grossed around $17.6 million in 4 weeks of general release.  1408 has earned $46.6 million in its first 10 days.  While the Big Thinkers will draw many conclusions for their studio clients based on these numbers, you and I know it’s all a crock of hooey.  No trends, no great revelations, no nothing except the fact that John Cusack and Stephen King name recognition pulled in more viewers who would never consider seeing Hostel 2.  When the DVD numbers come in you’ll see that the gore hounds were waiting to see Hostel 2 at home all along and those numbers will be large.

All of this data analysis fails to consider the film fans, such as me, who go to see anything that might promise scares and chills, gore and mayhem.  I have seen both films in the theaters and, for different reasons, found each to be a worthwhile experience. 

Eli Roth, director of Hostel 1and 2, has no interest in getting you to feel warm & fuzzy about his characters.  He does, however, want you to get to know them... at least a few of them.  Beth (Lauren German) is a feisty, strong-willed young woman who we grow to respect and genuinely fear for her life.  Stuart (Roger Bart) seems like a decent enough guy who gets caught up in his friend’s blood lust fantasy.  When Roth pulls the rug out from under us we learn who these people really are.  I liked that.  I also enjoyed the final sequence where children play soccer with a dismembered head.  What I had trouble enduring is the needless and agonizing torture of the one truly innocent character.  I also had trouble telling how serious Roth was with the entire exercise (I hope not too much).  While there were some tense moments, there were virtually no real scares--a huge problem for a horror film and probably the biggest reason that audiences didn’t respond.

1408 gets a lot of mileage out of a balls-out performance by John Cusack, one of our genuinely likable actors.  Director Mikael Hafstrom plays the suspense card well and builds nicely to the final twist and resolution (horror films never have a true resolution).  He uses little blood, no entrails, and a monster that could be all in one man’s head to great effect.  There’s tension, some jump in your seat scares, and plenty of discomfort being in the head of a very troubled man.  1408 has a much clearer focus and better storytelling than Hostel 2, but both films deal with a theme that is one of the cornerstones of all horror cinema:  what darkness lurks in the heart of man.  1408 is clearly aimed for a wider audience (and the many fans of King & Cusack) but still edgy enough for my taste.

The Big Thinkers would never put my butt in the seats of both movies, but I’m cool with that.  As long as I can see it on DVD the Big Thinkers will never prevent me from getting my fright fix.  I had a further taste of the bad advice given by the BT’s (marketing division) when I saw the trailers in front of 1408 for Captivity and the new version of Halloween.  Both were so assaultive that I felt like I’d been mugged.  Apparently the public needs to be pummeled about the head and face in order to be interested in the latest horror offering. Also, both of the showcased flicks emitted the distinct odor of done to death.  Captivity  looks like Se7en and Saw, Halloween looks like...well, the previous 9 Halloweens.  Just like Mr. Goldman said, eh?

I’ll leave you with a primo horror recommendation that just came out on DVD:  Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.  See it, enjoy it, thank me later.

2007 Ken Karn/Celluloid Dreams

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of Ken Karn, and do not necessarily reflect those of Celluloid Dreams staff or other contributors.

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8-27-07 "Superbad"
 
7-7-07 "Oh, the horror... the horror..."
 
6-19-07 Ruminations on the Movie-going Experience
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