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