Kicking the corpse

Why the new wave of horror films can't scare us

Writer-director Tim Burton's recent biographical film, Ed Wood, offers an easy metaphor for the state of the horror film: an elderly, decrepit Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) dressed in his Dracula getup, now incapable of scaring even an 8-year-old trick-or-treater. The image encapsulates one of the central concerns of Burton's films: the horror film lover's longing for the "truly scary" monsters of old.

But what of a horror filmmaker's longing? Judging from the recent output of men who once were considered masters of the form, the appropriation of horror's devices for other genres' ends has left little around that could truly be called horror.

For genre auteurs such as writer-director John Carpenter, whose 1978 classic Halloween influenced not only horror films but almost any movie hoping to traffic in relentless suspense, there's a lot more at stake than stylistic conventions. For people like Carpenter, making a horror film these days represents a real challenge--to somehow avoid the same creative fate as poor, obsolete, strung-out Bela. Perhaps for this reason, Carpenter's latest film, In the Mouth of Madness, adds one more title to the growing library of horror films whose very subject is the horror film.

As the cheapest parlor magician knows, once your audience is onto you, change your act. If they know all your tricks, get out of magic entirely. But if your audience continues to demand magic, or if magic is all you know, try a third route: work along with their expectations, explaining your tricks as you go. It worked for Penn and Teller. And the filmmakers once hailed as masters of modern horror hope it can work for them, too.

Their names almost seem too colorful and contrived to belong in the genre: John Carpenter; George Romero, whose gory 1968 zombie epic Night of the Living Dead might have signaled the decline and fall of the horror empire; Wes Craven, director of The Last House on the Left and the father of Freddy Krueger; Friday the 13th creator Sean Cunningham; and of course, Stephen King. In the last few years, each of these men has offered his own take on the modern horror film's relationship to its audience.

Carpenter's is the most audacious so far. The opening credit sequence of In the Mouth of Madness, set to blaring guitars and creepy synth music, features a series of extreme closeups of the insides of a giant printing press churning out the latest book from Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), the movie's fictional equivalent of Stephen King. This opening announces the film's subject in a surprisingly literal way: Carpenter's latest intends to expose the very mechanics of pop culture's horror factory, in which scares are churned out by titanic machines to satisfy the cravings of a happily sickened public.

According to the movie's lore, those who read Cane's writings go insane, form a religious cult based around Cane's apocalyptic fantasies, and seek to bring about the "beginning of the end." Cane's latest book, In the Mouth of Madness, is his most potentially dangerous; it's actually supposed to to link "our" world to the "other"--the fictional world of the author's dark imagination.

When Sutter Cane unexpectedly disappears, leaving his newest book unfinished, his publisher (biblical warhorse Charlton Heston, here literally damning us all to hell) assigns insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) to find Cane and the second half of his manuscript. Trent's search leads him into a whirlwind of nightmarish scenes set within the confines of Cane's fictional world. (Trent pounds on tables and refers to "Reality!" so many times that the film might serve as the centerpiece of a drinking game.) Cute self-referentiality abounds; the opening scene, set in an insane asylum, features Muzak pumped into rubber rooms. The song is "We've Only Just Begun" by (groan) the Carpenters.

Ironically, 17 years ago Carpenter was credited with a "beginning of the end" of sorts. His creepy, minimalistic Halloween marked the rise of low-budget fright flick techniques from the drive-in to the multiplex, and even today, it still stands as the paradigm of the modern horror film.

Starting from a standard babysitters-menaced-by-a-legendary-maniac plot pitched to him by an artless producer, Carpenter somehow went on to produce a classic. The film's combination of geometrically perfect plotting, a mysterious villain, moody suspense sequences, imaginative but bloodless killings, and a dash of sex turned Halloween into one of the most profitable independent films of all time. Never mind Halloween's plot inconsistencies and technical gaffes (P.J. Soles tripping over dolly tracks, Carpenter's own cigarette smoke drifting into frame). This movie scared people.

But rather than following Carpenter's lead and continuing to reinvent the horror genre along fresh, edgy new lines, the American film industry instead churned out over a hundred inferior photocopies of Halloween, set on a Terror Train after Graduation Day after Silent Night, Deadly Night. Fortunately for Carpenter's imitators, the credibility of "stalker"-formula horror films rested on having low-budget origins, which virtually guaranteed these pictures would recoup their costs and inspire more of the same.

The most successful of the post-Halloween crop was writer-director Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th. Despite its undeniable mood of terror and isolation, it was cheaper than the less-imaginative Halloween, more misogynistic, and most significantly of all, bloodier. And it made a killing at the box office.

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