October 2003

Retro Tricks and Treats:
Three Reasons to be Thankful This Halloween

As October 31, 2003 nears, I am reminded not of Halloween, but another autumnal holiday, Thanksgiving. Why? Because, simply stated, horror movie aficionados have a great deal to feel thankful about during this season of the witch. The genre is back at the box office in a way America hasn't seen since the "new" slasher age embodied by Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Urban Legend (1998) at the turn of the millennium. In particular, we have three promising talents to thank for reviving the genre this holiday season. So, to directors Eli Roth, Rob Zombie and Danny Boyle, here's a great big "thanks" from one horror fan to three others. You've brought back the thrill of a good scary movie with your stories and sense of style..

Let's begin with Mr. Eli Roth. This 31-year old, first-time director resurrected old-school 1970s and 1980s horror this season with his stunning, take-no-prisoners horror film, Cabin Fever, the story of five teens, a cabin in the woods, and a really disgusting flesh-eating virus. Although many critics have linked Roth's fine visual-style to Sam Raimi and his Evil Dead (1983) ethos, I think that may be a mistake. Roth's film is not so much a P.O.V, Raimi gorefest (with a large helping of Three Stooges-like humor...) as it is an homage to the early works of maestro Wes Craven. A small clue to this homage comes on Cabin Fever's soundtrack. Twice during the course of the film, the soundtrack plays a ditty called "Wait for the Rain" by composer/actor David Hess. As longtime horror fans will recall, that song played prominently in 1972's Last House on the Left, Craven's first motion picture, which starred Hess as a sociopath named Krug. The song featured lyrics such as "The Road Leads to Nowhere and the Castle Stays the Same," a theme that fits right in with Cabin Fever's nihilistic tale.

This audio homage was overlooked by critics, who probably don't remember either the song or The Last House on the Left, but Roth goes even further in his homage by successfully depicting a Craven-esque sort of culture clash between local authorities and yokels and his smart-mouthed "hip" teenagers. As one might recall, this was the dynamic that spurred the battle in Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, in which "civilized" vacationers battled it out in the desert with "savage" local cannibals. Only here, Roth has dropped in vacationing teens (who could be out of Craven's Scream...) and retained the scary locals.

Also - and here's the real connection, Roth portrays his authority figures (the police) in Cabin Fever as total idiots. In Last House on the Left, Craven pulled the same gag, giving the audience two dopey local cops who ran out of gas while racing to save a girl's life, and then had to hitch a ride on a slow-moving chicken truck. In Cabin Fever, the local cop is a moron obsessed with "partying," who can't seem to make heads nor tails out of a bloody crime scene. Naturally, he proves to be of no help to the teens at all.

Other Craven touches are also in evidence. Like Last House on the Left, here a girl's first blush of adulthood and romance (in Cabin Fever a tender and touching kiss) turns ugly. Roth also understands that horror can be funny (and Craven always notes comedy and horror are closely related). The result is a wicked sense of humor just beneath scenes of visceral violence. Mainstream critics were not sure how to take Cabin Fever but it is an assured and wondrous debut that demonstrates how well Roth understands and can manipulate the genre.

Then there's Rob Zombie. Okay, technically his directing debut, House of 1,000 Corpses, premiered in 2002, not 2003, but few people were lucky enough to catch it during its limited theatrical release last year. Now, in the autumn of 2003, it has arrived on DVD and met with smashing success. The film is a fun (if savage...) roller coaster ride that reveals Zombie is not a student of Craven (like Roth), but another icon of the genre, Tobe Hooper. To wit, House of 1,000 Corpses is set quite determinedly in the disco-decade of the 1970s, the era of Hooper masterpieces such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Eaten Alive (1976) and Salem's Lot (1978). It recounts the cautionary tale of four "out of their element" teens on a road-trip turned dangerous. The group stops briefly at a country gas-station/tourist trap and discovers a family of lunatics, not unlike the Leatherface clan in Chain Saw. They believe they have escaped danger, only to end up in a "false sanctuary," another Hooper trope that occurs in Chain Saw (the roadside barbecue stand), Eaten Alive (The Starlight Hotel) and so-on.

Working in tandem, the family of killers represent a sort of "partners in crime, reflections of evil" template as defined in my 2002 study of Tobe Hooper, Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre (McFarland). In other words, harkening back to the Hooper canon, one understands that the director preferred his villains to travel in pairs of groups like family units. Often, one member (like Cook in Chain Saw or the Barker in The Funhouse) seems normal but in truth covers-up the terrible exploits of a monstrous "ugly" villain like Leatherface, the mutant in The Funhouse or even Mr. Barlow in Salem's Lot. In House of 1,000 Corpses, Karen Black serves as the matriarch of the twisted family that includes a beautiful (but psychotic) daughter and a horribly deformed giant that survived a fire and is mostly mute.

Significantly, Rob Zombie remembers the central metaphor that defines many Hooper films, the co-existence of the normal world with the "world underneath." In Chain Saw, rural Texas hid a cannibal farmhouse of horrors. In The Funhouse, a carnival of terror hid in plain sight in suburban America. In Poltergeist (1982), a cemetery lay hidden under the corrupt foundations of a new tract home. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1987), the heroine, conveniently named Alice, literally fell down a hole into a subterranean horror wonderland run by the Leatherface clan. In the riveting and show-stopping climax of House of 1,000 Corpses, the villains send the surviving teenager into an underground of pure horror, where a demented, half-dead brain surgeon called Dr. Satan waits to perform horrific, bloody experiments on such sacrifices. As much as Roth's Cabin Fever plays on the social satire and commentary typical of Craven's horror efforts, Zombie's first effort highlights the surreal, world-under-world metaphors prevalent in Hooper's best works.

Lastly we come to Danny Boyle. Early last summer, horror audience flocked to see this director's low-budget re-invention of zombie cinema, 28 Days Later. This gritty horror film capitalizes on the ethos of another classic horror director, George Romero. It references Romero subject matter both in its choice of villains (zombie-like creatures) and its form, defined by frenetic editing style (akin to Romero's 1973's masterpiece, The Crazies) and it s low-budget, gritty, almost-documentary look, referencing the Pittsburgh-made Night of the Living Dead (1968). But more satisfyingly, Boyle remembers that Romero is a director of deep thought and political and philosophical musings. Romero's best films always blur the line between hero and villain, invariably end on a down, nihilistic note, and pointedly ask viewers important questions about our human institutions and society. Romero's films ask "what survives when our culture crumbles?" Only one thing: human nature. Here, Boyle remembers that axiom and his post-apocalyptic world (imagined by screenwriter Alex Garland) is merely a microcosm by which the director may ask us relevant questions about morality, religion, leadership and other humanistic issues.

It is no coincidence that in little more than one calendar year, the brilliant and intelligent horrors of Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and George Romero have returned to prominence. These great film artists were at the height of their power in the early 1970s, when doubt ran high in America about the government, and the country was mired in the bloody Vietnam War. Today, we have a similar quagmire in Iraq and the beginnings of a true Watergate-style scandal involving weapons of mass destruction and a new Nixon-like "enemy's list," in which enemies of the current Administration are punished for voicing opposition. In toto, the world seems much less safe than last century, and horror movies are once again doing the near impossible in dumbed-down Hollywood, thriving on ideas.

Though Cabin Fever, House of 1,000 Corpses and 28 Days Later all harken back and pay homage to the classics of the genre, they are also quite rewarding films in their own right. Sure they celebrate the tradition of savage 1970s cinema, but more to the point, these three directors have utilized the format to comment intelligently on today's zeitgeist. Cabin Fever deals explicitly with the fear of disease and infection, a hot topic after the Anthrax mail attacks of 2001 and fears about biological weapons. How would you treat your girlfriend, Roth's movie asks, if she were infected with a flesh-eating virus? At the same time, the film serves as a conscious metaphor for our worrisome Homeland (In)Security. Here, contaminated water passed along by rotting pipes and decaying infrastructure is carted off to be consumed as expensive bottled water. It's a sick and clever joke, yet it's also a swipe at current bureaucratic failures.

Similarly, House of 1,000 Corpses is a relevant film because, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it serves as an allegory an American foreign entanglements. A so-called primitive enemy (like the Viet Cong, the Taliban, or the Fedayeen), lives in underground caves and tunnels, only to pop up and kill civilians and policemen in a series of terrorist-style attacks. There's even a scene where these horror "terrorists" attack a car on the move (like a caravan in Baghdad). The bad guys are defined as warriors by the fact that they wear camouflage in this scene, not unlike military combatants.

28 Days Later deals with a host of conspicuously contemporary issues, from fear of disease to a crisis in principled leadership. Taken together, these films are a blast of commentary about current issues cloaked within the "safe" (and unnoticed) parameters of horror. They fall into the great tradition established by genre heroes like Craven, Hooper and Romero, and are all worthwhile films. If there is any weakness in the bunch, it's during the first thirty minutes of Zombie's House, wherein some of the editing looks like it was achieved with dull scissors. But with these homages all doing very well financially, one has to wonder if other young filmmakers will pick up on the style of the two-remaining 1970s horror masters. I'd love to see a really good anti-science/fear of reproduction film in the Cronenberg vein of Shivers (1975), or an anti-rational meditation on evil like John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980).

But then, I wouldn't want to devour all my tricks and treats on one Halloween, would I?