Moving Pictures April 2009

Don’t Fear the Reaper

Learning to love the slasher-film renaissance
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Julia Ames
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Video: "Jason X: The Doctors"

James Parker provides voiceover commentary for a scene from the Friday the 13th franchise.

The modern slasher movie, like your correspondent, is a child of the 1970s. But the slasher himself, the splatterer, the reaver of life, swinging out of the darkness with his death claw cocked, is as old as the hills (which have eyes, as we know). The slasher enforces those clauses of our contract with existence that we feel to be most punitive—the suddenness, that is, with which the whole thing can be revoked, and the sharpness or rigidity of the objects that are often involved. Getting slashed is human, all too human. “Reality was giving its lesson,” wrote Ted Hughes in one of his Crow poems, “Its mishmash of scripture and physics, / With here, brains in hands, for example, / And there, legs in a treetop.” Or, in the words of Tobe Hooper, creator of 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: “The true monster itself is death.”

Slasher films, as a consequence, have always done rather well. The classic slasher flick is produced at high speed, on a squeaker of a budget, and bows briefly for an anointing of critical scorn before going on to make piles of money. With a bit of luck, that critical scorn will be amplified into cultural censure—1980’s rape-revenge slasher, I Spit on Your Grave, for instance, was widely and windily reviled, to the enduring profit of its makers. “The more the film was attacked,” writer-director Meir Zarchi confided to Variety last year, “the more money shot into my pocket.”

Zarchi was talking to Variety because he’s currently involved in an I Spit on Your Grave remake, news of which increases the sensation that this year we’re caught in some kind of slasher loop or wormhole. January brought a 3-D remake of 1981’s My Bloody Valentine. A month later, New Line Cinema released its remake of 1980’s Friday the 13th, which was followed last month by a remake of Wes Craven’s 1972 directorial debut, The Last House on the Left. And October—high season for slashers—will give us a sequel to Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of 1978’s Halloween.

Spin-offs come with the territory, of course, unkillable recurrence being something of a slasher theme. To date there have been nine Halloweens and six Texas Chain Saw Massacres. There have been eight films starring Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, and next year there’ll be another. Hockey-masked Jason Voorhees, God love him, has trudged with zombie stoicism through a dozen Friday the 13ths. In a tolerant spirit, the slasher fan gets in line for the new sequel or prequel or remake or “reboot.” If it’s crap, so what? The next one might be better.

But why this press of remakes, this slasher-jam at the box office, right now? Naturally, theories abound. One hears (often from the filmmakers themselves) that horror tends to boom in wartime, and that our lately renewed interest in torn flesh has the same relation to Iraq that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Last House on the Left had to Vietnam. (“Thanks to George Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld,” Eli Roth, director of Hostel and Hostel II, told Fox News, “there’s a whole new wave of horror movies.”)

But a better explanation might be that the success of the two newest slasher franchises—Roth’s Hostel flicks and the Saw cycle—has simply concentrated the mind of the industry. The first Hostel made more than $80 million worldwide in 2006, off a budget of less than $5 million; the first Saw, $103 million in 2004, on an investment of barely more than amillion. These numbers are electric, invigorating: they have reanimated the slashers of yore, like the fortuitous lightning bolt that gooses our man Jason in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, or the severed power line that zaps him back to sentience in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.

Saw and Hostel succeeded, above all, because they are serious slasher flicks. The extremity of their goriness reclaimed the splatter death from mainstream movies (where it’s become unremarkable to see a man fed screaming to a propeller, or run through with a drill bit). And the immersive nastiness of their aesthetic—decayed bathrooms, foul workshops, seeping industrial spaces, blades blotched with rust—distilled the slasher-flick elixir: atmosphere. No franchise thrives without it. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had it: a choking, sunstruck intimacy, with madness pulsing in the eyeballs. Halloween was suburban-autumnal, a minor rhapsody of long shots and breezy streets and scuttling leaves, the whole effect tingling like wind chimes inside the empty psychosis of the slasher Michael Myers. Friday the 13th was strictly B-movie in its technique, but it succeeded in perforating an American idyll: summer camp was never the same after those nice guitar-strumming sing-along kids got slashed in their lakeside cabins.

Just as crucially, Saw and Hostel feature excellent and novel villains. If G.K. Chesterton had been a gore hound, he might have come up with somebody like the Saw franchise’s Jigsaw, the terminally ill torture whiz whose schemes have a queer philosophical power. “Hello, Paul. You’re a perfectly healthy, sane, middle-class male. Yet last month you ran a straight razor across your wrist. Did you cut yourself because you truly want to die? ... Tonight you’ll show me.” (Paul duly perishes trying to escape the maze of razor wire that Jigsaw has constructed.)

The Hostel franchise, meanwhile, has refreshed one of the deepest conventions of the genre—travel as a means to getting slashed. Once more the backpack becomes the symbol of elemental trespass, as American kids blunder irreligiously across eastern Europe looking for sex and pot and complaining that they can’t understand the local TV. Correction comes in the form of Elite Hunting, an international torture ring whose victims are abducted, strapped to chairs by huge Slavic mafiosi in creaking black-leather coats, and then chopped or drilled to death. Elite Hunting’s paying customers, drawn mostly from the CEO layer, are a fascinating crew: “D’you think we’re sick?” one of them worries in Hostel II, en route to his maiden torture session. “Fuck no!” says his buddy, a corporate carnivore in the American Psycho mold. “Dude, you look anywhere in the world where there’s no law, whether it’s fuckin’ ... Chad or New Orleans, this is the shit people are doing, bro! We’re the normal ones!” (Takes hit of coke.)

Sensitive readers will have registered the use of the word torture twice in the last paragraph. Perhaps they’ve already heard the term torture porn, a label invented in 2006 by the critic David Edelstein for the particular nexus of gore and excitation that he located in Saw, Hostel, and—interestingly enough—Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The phrase has since become one of those bywords for civilizational collapse, like Perez Hilton or too much estrogen in our drinking water.

But civilizational collapse, the rending of the established order, has always been part of the slasher’s brief. Look at Grendel, the ur-slasher, the slaughterous bog-dweller whose war on society and eventual comeuppance are chronicled in the thousand-year-old text of Beowulf. Slasher-wise, Grendel’s got it all. He’s a blue blood of homicide, directly descended from Cain, with a mother who (like Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th) will avenge his death with her own string of sub-slashings before being (again like Mrs. Voorhees) decapitated. He has, in addition, the true slasher’s great hatred of parties—nothing primes his purpose like the sound of a harp being struck. And as he makes his last incursion into the drowsed mead hall, we can even see the Beowulf poet employing a Dark Ages version of that staple of slasher-flick technology, the Steadicam. In Seamus Heaney’s translation from the Old English:

The iron-braced door
turned on its hinge when his hands touched it ... while a baleful light,
flame more than light, flared from his eyes.
He saw many men in the mansion, sleeping,
a ranked company of kinsmen and warriors
quartered together.

Scaly knuckles against the door, and the snoring victims picked out in hellfire flashes—a single smooth shot, as it were, from the camera mounted on Grendel’s forehead. Ten or so centuries later, armed with his new Panaglide (Panavision’s clone of the Steadicam), director John Carpenter would pull off something similar in Halloween.

Not only is there nothing new under the sun, there’s precious little of novelty under the moon, either. Sir Halewyn the Miserable, the supernatural serial killer of medieval European balladry, liked to slice out hearts with a sickle—much in the manner of My Bloody Valentine’s murderer, Harry Warden. Your hockey-masked machete artists, your chain-saw assassins, are cinematic iterations of an ancient and venerated principle. If they unsettle, if they horrify, if they augur the end of the Western world, they’re only doing their job. They are a company, a guild. Leatherface, Jason, Michael Myers, Freddy, Jigsaw, and the sportsmen of Elite Hunting—traditionalists to a man.

James Parker is an Atlantic correspondent.
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