With contemporary horror films turning to clichés faster than you can say Saw IV, a three-day festival of “groundbreaking films,” roused the interest of fans and bloggers wanting subversion of the same-old. Unfortunately, the only thing subversive about the selections in “8 Films to Die For: After Dark Horrorfest”—deemed “too graphic or too disturbing for wide release”—was that they took generic conventions to unpleasant and mostly uninteresting extremes.
The Festival’s poster said it all, displaying a terrified, naked woman with her back arched, and a nasty-looking demon atop her, his skeletal hand cradling her airbrushed ass. Women remain the victims of choice. This cliché indicates a lack of imagination visible throughout the festival’s themes, characters, and plots. Featuring the usual monsters—zombies, vampires, ghosts—the films also followed a familiar formula, in which something bad happened a long time ago, someone stumbles upon it now, and the shit goes down for 90 minutes.
As Chuck Palahniuk describes in “Till Death Do Us Part,” this formula is the basis of horror’s “cycle” movie, wherein a chain of events is set into motion and we can sit back and watch the whole mess play out. “It’s always a chain of events that the audience recognises early,” he writes, “but the lead character recognises too late.” But, what Palahniuk leaves out here is the ineffective cycle film: if viewers are too comfortable with the cycle, they may just be bored rather than scared.
The Gravedancers (Mike Mendez, 2005) is just that: boring. We understand immediately that the ancient incantation the three drunk college friends recite as they boogie around headstones under a full moon is the cause for the spooky occurrences that comprise the first half of the film. We know this because we have seen the same events, in condensed form, afflict some other unlucky soul before the opening credits even roll; we know that a cycle is put into motion. What’s left are the specifics, and in The Gravedancers, they read like an unimaginative rehash of any of the Poltergeist films. The drawn-out discovery of the source of the paranormal problem is just as tedious as in The Ring, a film that similarly relies on viewers’ conditioned reactions to creepy music scores and eerie settings (or those always cheap “jump” scenes), rather than in a story that truly scares.
And uncovering the quality scares should be what something like Horrorfest is all about, but the aim seemed to be more to shock than to frighten. Opening night, I half-expected lines of fans in leftover Halloween costumes, but instead I shared a theatre with weekend dads and noisy high schoolers. At the theatres I attended, many of the fans who did walk in eager, often left a little bemused, mostly at the low budget looks. (The weekend took in a respectable $2.3 million, but because this number applies to the Festival as a whole, it’s unclear whether any one film did better than another.) Once the sold-out showing of Rinne (Takashi Shimizu, 2005), started running, it took about 10 minutes before over half the audience left, audibly annoyed at the subtitles. A shame, given that Rinne (Reincarnation) delivered a solid J-horror style story.
The Festival’s main marketing ploy—the movies were “too scary”—might explain viewers’ resistance to the psychological themes in Rinne. For most of the films, audiences were anticipating which part was just too over the top for wide release. With some films, it was obvious: Dark Ride (Craig Singer, 2006) depicts a young blonde’s decapitation as the man she’s pleasuring has an orgasm in her mouth. He’s unaware of her demise, of course, as his eyes are closed as he climaxes. It’s a misogynistic and deplorable image, but fails to horrify in the context of the film, as the details of her death don’t offer information on the killer’s pathology or the film’s themes. In Dark Ride, the scene is just repulsive.
Other films displayed their “extremity” in ways more contrived. While it’s true that the gritty The Hamiltons (Butcher Brothers, 2006) lingered just a little too long on the pretty girl, tied up, begging through her tears to her captor, “Please, don’t kill me,” after she’s seen an unlucky friend flayed and tormented, films like Last House on the Left and Hostel have stretched these same type of intense torture situations to even greater, more ghastly lengths. In the case of this film, billing it as having controversial content may have eclipsed the film’s scariness altogether, as the only time I heard the audience go “Eww” was when the “brother” and “sister” started making out. I guess none of them watches Lost.
Movies that do forge new ground, deployed safe, “cycle”-style plotting. In Unrest (Jason Todd Ipsen, 2006), a medical student is haunted by her cadaver—not a bad idea, as horror films go. The film claims to have used “real bodies” alongside its prosthetic dummies, and includes the kind of details that only a real doctor (Ipsen is one) could know, like the stunning cadaver tank full of dismembered bodies floating in formaldehyde. Sadly though, Unrest abandons its grisly philosophizing on mortality as it pertains to gross anatomy class for a formulaic plot involving an archeologist-turned-cadaver who unwittingly unleashes evil spirits while on a dig in Brazil. There’s even a goofy monkey idol, reminiscent of The Exorcist‘s Pazuzu, appearing sporadically in mirrors to portend the spirit’s arrival. Maybe I’m morbid, but I find the concept of the morgue as a classroom more frightening than some obscure Brazilian curse. Once a film starts meddling with Aztec voodoo, it sacrifices any semblance of convincing threat.
This lack indicates an important shift in the horror genre. Don’t we all live in a world where something doesn’t have to be supernatural to scare the hell out of us? We’ve got terrorism, pandemic flu, school shootings, even the environment’s a mess. Tobe Hooper says in Adam Simon’s The American Nightmare (2000), “I was never afraid of ghosts; it’s people who scare me,” and as citizens start to realize there’s more pressing problems than werewolves and vampires, the more resonant horror films will reflect this shift in what really scares us. As much as the genre embraces the supernatural in the form of angry spirits and demons, it’s the threat of Leatherfaces that has us checking our locks at night.
So it’s no surprise that one of the festival’s strongest films, Penny Dreadful (Richard Brandes, 2006), features not a ghoul with a grudge but a girl with a clinical anxiety problem. The film uses a well-worn set-up (creepy hitchhiker and a flat tire) as occasion to sort through the difference between irrational and rational fears, leaving the audience more or less trapped in a car with a dead body. Watching young Penny (Rachel Miner), an acute motorphobe, “face her fears” for the film’s duration is uncomfortable for sure, but also surprisingly therapeutic, as Miner’s performance invokes psychological classics like Rear Window or The Blair Witch Project, two films that also had characters wondering if they’d gone crazy or if their environment had slipped. In a society of full of anxieties, disorders, and color-coded terror alerts, it’s satisfying to watch someone else experience crippling, irrational fear for a change. It’s easy to scoff at Penny, traumatized as she is, struggling to get inside the car and shut the door, for fear something bad will happen again, but how many of us still feel uneasy getting on board a plane?
The roaming band of hungry, turn-of-the-century, child-laborer zombies in Wicked Little Things (J.S. Cardone, 2006) hits no such relevant social nerve. It’s over-plotted nonsense, another premise so we can see the ubiquitous blonde, sent out to investigate strange noises, look around corners, and ask, “Hello? Is anyone there?” And after Horrorfest’s “8 Films to Die For,” I began to wonder the exactly same thing.