January 2004

President Scary

American troops are mired in a foreign war with guerilla soldiers, the motivations for that war are suspect, and in domestic movie houses a deranged killer named Leatherface slays teenagers with his chainsaw.

So what year just ended, anyway, 1974?

It was 2003, but who's counting? President George W. Bush's failed foreign and domestic policies are keeping at least one demographic happy. Long-time horror movie fans can rejoice in a new bounty of meaningful horror films, and the ascendance of a national zeitgeist wherein relevant cinematic terrors again thrive.

The sixties and the seventies represent a golden age of horror films, a Pax Horrifica, if you will, when the Vietnam War, the Energy Crisis, Roe v. Wade, and even Watergate sparked serious cinematic nightmares from a generation of young horror maestros. George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) showcased corpses of the "recently dead" re-animated in American cemeteries, and astute critics detected parallels with the bodies of American soldiers returning from Vietnam. Tobe Hooper's original Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) concerned teens who met violent ends, all because they ran out of gas in rural Texas. Larry Cohen's It's Alive (1973) highlighted the misadventures of a mutant baby, and focused attention on a plethora of reproductive issues from the birth control pill to abortion. In Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975), the Nixon-like town hierarchy of Amity conspired to keep beaches open, although the Mayor and town council knew that a hungry great white shark patrolled their waters.

By the nineties, the national mood had changed and so did American horror movies. This was the decade when even the definition of "is" was worthy of media debate, and self-referential jokes dominated the horror genre, particularly in the popular Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). The American economy boomed, we had no foreign enemy, violent crime and poverty rates declined, and President Clinton was so successful that for his enemies to de-throne him they resorted to exposing his sex-life and an apparently shady two-decade old real estate deal. Accordingly, horror gurus of the nineties reflected this shift in national mood, inviting us to laugh at in-jokes and appreciate a sense of nostalgia about old classics, like John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) or Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980).

Although many of these films entertained horror aficionados, our nation felt so prosperous and safe that there were few viable contemporary dreads to reference. As a result, many horror films lost bite and relevance in the race to seem ironic and post-modern.

But now - like Leatherface's chainsaw, the buzz is back.
In our new century we've witnessed terrorism at home and abroad, and the current Administration appeals shamelessly to the fears of our populace, citing its War on Terror for every policy from the Energy Bill to the privacy-lacerating Patriot Act. Considering this renaissance in fear, it's no surprise that old-school, straight-faced horror movies captured box office gold again and again in 2002 and 2003.

In the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a group of draft-age teens end up in the Texan equivalent of the Sunni triangle, terrorized by "primitive" locals who treat them not as fellow countrymen, but as ingredients for supper. At the film's conclusion, Leatherface pulls an Osama Bin Laden, abruptly disappearing - perhaps to strike again, even after the apparent re-establishment of American law and order.

In Eli Roth's Cabin Fever, it is not anthrax that kills Americans, but a flesh-eating virus infecting the water supply, a sure sign of vulnerability in our national infrastructure! Oh, Tom Ridge, where art thou?

In last year's ghoulish The Ring, a videotape is "embedded" with the spirit of a murderous ghost and distributed by a reporter so the suffering of one individual can be enjoyed by the masses. An absurdity? Perhaps, but The Ring debuted before gruesome images of Uday and Qusay Hussein's bullet-riddled corpses dominated the family-hour on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. And to think, the media and government complain about disturbing images in horror movies!

The 1970s may have seen "malaise days," but the turbulent disco decade also gave America the best horror films of all time. If the first three years of this President Bush's administration are any indication, we should get ready for more "shock and awe," as well as several more relevant horrors in the years to come. Remakes of seventies classics including Westworld (1972), The Stepford Wives (1975), The Amityville Horror (1979) and Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1979) are coming soon.

In 1988, George Bush, Sr.'s sloganeers suggested to voters they "not worry," but "be happy." Considering this 21st century renaissance of fear in cinemas and in our national discourse, his son's 2004 re-election slogan might go something like this:

Be afraid, be very afraid....