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.

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."

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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