Merciless Movies: Panic over horror flicks is nothing new
By Steve Palopoli
BOTH Wolf Creek and Hostel are just out on DVD, released within a week of each other after stirring up a shitstorm in theatrical release. I think only one of them is a legitimate contender for cult-movie status—you can guess which one or just wait for me to get back to that after a long-ass tangent that starts like this: Since these two movies have inspired some of the worst film writing I've seen in years, and since most of that bad film writing invokes one or more cult films, I'm going to step up on this subject.
First, hear me now but believe me later when I say that there have always been stupid mainstream articles about how horror films are destroying the fabric of our society, and for the love of God, won't anyone think of the children? Like horror films themselves, these articles tend to come in cycles, and since the '80s they've been squawking mostly about slasher flicks.
But the crybabies are at it again with Wolf Creek and Hostel, wringing their hands over a supposed new genre of "torture movie" that has infected the multiplex. Oh, the humanity! Or lack of it! Yes, these articles say, these new films almost certainly represent a horrible new level of sadism in audiences. These movies depict torture and in the process make us all potential torturers.
OK, many of you who have already identified the flawed logic at work here probably think I'm exaggerating, but the latter claim came directly from what was probably the worst of these articles, a New York Magazine piece luridly and ludicrously titled "Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn." That's right, people, torture porn! Run away!
I'm not putting down anyone who doesn't want to see a violent movie, or specifically a movie with depictions of torture. That's a matter of personal viewing taste. I don't really like to watch movies about people going insane; when they're done well, they just freak me out and make me worry for days about how easy it is to lose your mind. I have a close friend who avoids zombie movies because of a fear of them that I will never understand no matter how many times she explains it to me. These are all matters of personal taste, and after a while you learn not to watch what is, for whatever reason, too much for you. I relearned this lesson earlier this year when I, like an idiot, took my girlfriend to Wolf Creek thinking it would be "fun." This is a woman who can't sleep after watching a 1960s British horror anthology. Clearly, Wolf Creek was a poor choice. Brave as she was, she still spent half the movie with her hands over her eyes. My bad.
But this New York Magazine article falls into the same two idiot traps that pervade the cinematic-panic genre: 1) it makes the mistake of thinking the films are new, different or more extreme in their depictions of violence; and 2) it fails to grasp the movies it's supposedly explaining.
I'll address the second point first, using Hostel as an example. I liked this movie quite a bit, but here's my question: is it even a horror movie? Maybe, but it starts out as a sex comedy and ends up as an action flick. In between, director Eli Roth makes every attempt to subvert horror clichés: graphic depictions of torture are directed at men rather than women (with women the facilitators), and the violence, rather than being random, is institutional, with a particular hatred for Americans boiling the film over into geopolitical implications. In fact, the more you watch the film, the less striking the violence seems, and the more interesting (and pronounced) the subtext becomes.
Now, Wolf Creek—which is just culturally unacceptable enough to probably earn it a place as a true cult film—is a different story. It's one of the most merciless movies I've ever seen. But its structure is lifted directly from Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre—a lot of buildup, followed by ghastly violence, and then a long drop into an existential void. And if the authors of these anti-horror articles are genuinely worried about whether the audience is identifying with the villain or the victims, they should proceed directly to Carol Clover's definitive book on the subject, Men, Women and Chainsaws.
The New York Magazine article also claims these movies are "new" in their shocking depictions of torture, or at least that they're the first movies like this to play in the mall instead of the grindhouse. C'mon now, does the author really think (as stated in the article) that most people who saw Make Them Die Slowly saw it on New York's 42nd Street? I guarantee you that 99 percent of the thousands of reasonably normal—if somewhat geeky—people who've watched that movie saw it on video, which is true of all of the most extreme horror films and also what makes the "new mainstream acceptance" angle so ridiculous. People have been watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre in their homes—probably with their children right in the next room!—for almost three decades. Even the most extreme horror films made their way into the mainstream years ago, and when people could suddenly order over-the-top foreign shockfests like In A Glass Cage and Men Behind the Sun on DVD from Amazon.com, it was all over for the crowd that would like to protect society from horror movies.
I put together my personal list of the 10 Most Merciless Movies in cultdom, and the fact that only two of them are from this century gives you an idea of why I think these stories about new extremes in horror are bunk. My picks, in increasing order of me-freakability, are Nekromantik (1987), Brain Dead (1990), Wolf Creek (2005), Irreversible (2002), Bloodsucking Freaks (1976), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Last House on the Left (1972), Audition (1999) and Salo (1975).
Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback, confessions about weird films you love and questions about that one movie you saw one time to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.