Kicking the corpse

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

At the end of the movie, we find that Sutter Cane's latest book has become a feature film aimed at bringing even illiterates into the fold. A quick pan across the film's poster reveals the director's name: John Carpenter. When we get a look at the picture, it turns out to be composed of the same footage we've been watching for the last two hours.

On the surface, this seems like the same ending as Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Yet there's an important difference. At the end of Craven's movie, the final Elm Street sequel (the one we've just seen) begins production, thereby preventing fictional evil from crossing over to our dimension. But at the end of Carpenter's tale, the horror film does not save the world; it destroys it.

In her 1989 book Nightmare Movies, Kim Newman offers a new subcategory of horror picture: the "post-genre horror film." Significantly, Newman designates Martin Scorsese's surreal After Hours as the most significant example. Which makes sense: Scorsese's films, probably more than any modern film artist's, show us the cracks between genres. One of the faces that peeps through most consistently is that of the horror film. Taxi Driver degenerates from a hyperrealistic study of an alienated urbanite into candy-colored gore fascination, and the mobster protagonists of Goodfellas share Jason Voorhees' seemingly paradoxical attitude toward murder--energetic but indifferent. ("It's just business," the hoods keep insisting.)

The horror influence is strongest in Scorsese's remake of the 1962 small-town thriller Cape Fear, which transforms the story's villain, Max Cady, from a scary but flesh-and-blood rapist into a supernatural wraith whose persona--right down to his elaborate body tattoos--amounts to a walking collection of icons. When, near the film's climax, the burned, drowned, stabbed, beaten Cady simply refuses to die, the movie begs a chicken-and-the-egg question: by deliberately invoking the style and tone of stalker movies, is Scorsese appropriating horror film devices? Or is he simply conforming to the audience's expectations of a genre, the thriller, that has already infused itself with these conventions?

Stephen King's book The Dark Half asks a similar question: "Am I using horror, or is it using me?" The novel (later adapted for the movies by George Romero, King's collaborator on their cheeky 1981 homage to old EC horror comics, Creepshow) centers on Thad Beaumont, a frustrated "respectable" novelist who makes a good living as a horror writer under the pen name and personality of George Stark. Stark, whose homicidal adventures are putatively autobiographical, is a straight razor-wielding trailer-park thug. When Thad abandons his old pen name and series of slasher books to pursue a more reputable career, Stark springs to life, threatening to kill Thad's friends and loved ones randomly until Thad submits and allows George to write again. (Revealingly, the novel was dedicated to "the late Richard Bachman"--King's old pseudonym.)

Stephen King's continual use of writers as the main characters of his stories, while annoying, seems a natural reaction to his frightening popularity. Like his fellow horror purveyors, King is fascinated with his own power to disturb the masses, and he's consumed with the idea of supernatural horrors leaking into "our world."

But what's going on within the horror genre today isn't really a struggle between the fictional world and our world. More likely, what these movies and books are expressing is a conflict between art and artifice--between pure horror that doesn't consciously acknowledge itself as fiction, and postmodern horror in which the tricks of the trade are served up for the audience's knowing amusement.

Whatever the nature of this conflict, it's clear the current state of horror is one of desperation. What movies like Wes Craven's New Nightmare and In the Mouth of Madness are telling audiences is that the form isn't strong enough to stand on its own anymore, and that unless they blend in a little something else--slapstick, sexploitation, or pop culture self-referentiality--horror just might be, in a word, damned. In recent years, Craven, Carpenter and company seem to be playing "Taps" over the mutilated corpse of their beloved genre, looming over it in quiet reverence.

But as any horror fan knows, those fingers will start twitching soon.

Editor's note: Ronald Pogue is a Dallas free-lance writer.

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