Kicking the corpse

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

After that, the gore craze hit hard, and the selling points of the new horror film shifted from thrills and chills to breasts and blood. The standard horror devices were still in place, but they were deployed so poorly and obviously that after a few years, even undemanding moviegoers finally had to admit that, yes, they really had seen it all. By the early '80s, the splatter picture was passe, and its stylistic remnants--notably the dispassionate, unstoppable killer--were absorbed into mainstream suspense pictures such as Fatal Attraction, Unlawful Entry, and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, and into cyberpunk-influenced science fiction adventures like The Terminator and its clones.

Thirteen years after the original, Cunningham produced the most playfully self-critical entry in the series. The brilliant, wordless opening of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday follows a beautiful woman along deserted country roads up to her (cue Harry Manfredini's familiar "ki!ki!ki! ma!ma!ma!" theme) lonely cabin beside (piano shudder) the haunted Crystal Lake. A lurking camera follows her into her cabin, where she walks around a bit, peeks around corners, and changes a light bulb--all dragged out in time-honored horror movie fashion. Satisfied that she's safe, she disrobes for a shower. After giving us a chance to gawk at her figure, the film cuts to a gruesome hand yanking down a power switch.

Now in virtual darkness, the woman throws on a towel, emerges from the shower (already inexplicably dry), and heads downstairs--where Jason Voorhees, hockey mask, machete and all, leaps from the murk. He chases her (true to form, he walks slowly, while she runs, falling repeatedly) through the woods to a clearing where (FOOM! FOOM!) huge stadium lights kick on. The woman does a somersault over a barricade, and hundreds of FBI men leap up to blast the undead hell out of Jason.

We realize that the trappings of the genre--the lonely cabin, the broken light bulb, and yes, the shower-- were all part of a giant ruse to trap Jason; the FBI employed horror movie devices to trap a horror movie monster. What we've seen is an elaborate joke on the audience--a semiotic shaggy dog story whose punchline is the flaming, masked head of Jason bouncing on the ground like a soccer ball with psoriasis.

Cunningham and his collaborators bring the series to a delirious close, ending the movie with an effects-loaded, symbolic purging in which the forces of heaven and hell, along with a few actual props from other horror films (including the Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead that fueled Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies), combine to drag Jason down to a definitive end. We hang over Jason's mask lying in the dirt, our genre familiarity leading us to expect that Jason will rise up again. Instead, in a brazenly self-conscious sight gag, the familiar clawed hand of Freddy Krueger rises up (from hell) to pull the mask down with a snicker.

Obviously, Cunningham and crew arrived to finish off the stalker genre a few years too late--it was already dead. But they at least make one important point: the "monster" being definitively neutralized here isn't Jason, but the movies that showcased him.

In contrast, Wes Craven's New Nightmare seems intent on digging the monster up. After a string of box-office failures, Craven came back to his most popular creation, Freddy Krueger, the wisecracking, razor-clawed, all-powerful, dream-invading bogeyman of Nightmares on Elm Street 1-7.

In his New Nightmare, Craven presents a "real-life" world, featuring series stars Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, and John Saxon. All of the actors play "themselves" in a behind-the-scenes tale about the making of an "ultimate" Elm Street movie. Complications arise when Freddy Krueger returns, invading "our" world, trying to keep the latest entry in the series from being produced.

Our new Freddy is meaner and more mechanical than before, his claws almost robotic. Also gone is his Crypt-Keeper sense of humor. Which makes sense: this time, the character represents a genre fighting for survival. As he stalks and slices, the film occasionally cuts back to a screenplay-in-progress by "Craven." We eventually figure out what we're watching is a film within a film within a film; the screenplay for the movie Freddy wants to prevent from being made is the very film we're now watching.

The ultimate explanation for all this narrative game-playing occurs about two-thirds of the way through the picture, when Wes Craven himself appears to explain that horror films fulfill an important function in our society. The act of telling scary stories, he says, literally keeps demons like Krueger at bay; movies like those in the Elm Street series rob evil of its power to do harm. (This might be one of the most astonishingly self-serving statements ever made by a filmmaker; did any other director ever threaten to let loose the forces of hell unless you kept buying tickets to his films?)

To John Carpenter, Hell means more than being menaced by a badly scarred bogeyman, and correspondingly, In the Mouth of Madness pushes the newly forged conventions of the postmodern horror movie to perverse extremes. The self-conscious dialogue consists mostly of the kind of philosophical exchanges stoned high-schoolers have at 3 a.m., ("Reality is just what we tell each other it is!" "What if sanity and insanity changed places?") The picture is a psychedelic slide show, zip-panning and flash-cutting from one freak-out image to the next, and the absurd plotting works against any rational sense of story structure. Once Neill finds himself inside Sutter Cane's book, one illogical thing follows another. At one point, the hero's female companion turns into a freakish beast and then disappears. "Cane," Neill reasons, "must have written her out."

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