If you’ve read anything about Resident Evil 7 since it came out, you’ve likely seen one word repeated over and over again in every piece of criticism: Grindhouse. It’s a term that describes a certain type of horror movie. These critics go on to describe the game’s horror as brutal, dirty, and personal, but what exactly does Resident Evil 7 do to evoke such a specific aesthetic of violence?
I think it has a lot to do with how RE7 diverges from its predecessors.
The original Resident Evil started slow. Our primary enemies were dumb zombies, and our primary weapon was a simple pistol. This slowly escalated over the course of the game until we were using shotguns and grenade launchers to fight Hunters that leaped across rooms. The games of this first era of Resident Evil always progressed at a similar pace, starting as horror and ending as action, starting us against humanoid zombies and ending us against mutant abominations.
Resident Evil 4 switched up the pacing significantly by starting at that action endpoint. The first significant encounter of the game was so memorable because it subverted our expectations of how a Resident Evil game was supposed to play. Instead of exploring an atmospheric environment for a few hours, we were immediately thrown into a knock-down, drag-out fight with a horde of villagers, not to mention the chainsaw-wielding masked man who could decapitate us in a single strike. RE4 only escalated further from there. The change in pace was shocking, it felt transgressive, especially back when it first came out, but not exploitative. Why?
Because Leon in RE4 was a bonafide action hero. Sure, the fights were tough, but Leon was portrayed as supremely capable in cut scenes and quick-time-events: He could outrun boulders, harpoon whale monsters, and even held his own in hand-to-hand combat against a mad mutant soldier. He descended ladders by jumping! It didn’t matter how long the fall was; he’d just slide over the edge and plummet down, and landed fine. Leon might have been faced with extreme violence, but he could take it.
The same can’t be said for the characters in RE (or even RE2, in which Leon made his series debut). Those characters were clumsier and simply dodging zombies in a tight hallway was an ordeal. The animations were more subdued, climbing onto a waist-high crate took some effort. These characters were more normal, and that normalcy made them vulnerable. However, this vulnerability didn’t feel exploitative because the threats were also somewhat subdued. Zombies were easier to kill than those villagers.
In both cases, the competency of the protagonists matched the violence visited upon them.
RE7 takes these two opposing ends of the spectrum and pushes them even further apart. It ups the violence and action from RE4, while also decreasing our physical prowess from RE. This results in an extreme gap between our capability to handle violence, and the violence that we experience.
Ethan is an everyman, he’s not a soldier, he’s not a cop, and he’s not even a “tough” everyman (like Billy, the convict from RE0). The first-person view of the game limits our situational awareness, and the general slow speed of movement makes us feel less than athletic. Yet within the first hour, this everyman schlub experiences insane physical and emotional torture: He quickly finds his missing wife, only for her to go crazy, Evil Dead style, and slice up his arms with a large knife. She slips in and out of this crazed state — stabbing your hand with a screwdriver, cutting off your hand with a chainsaw — and you’re forced to watch her die over and over again — she bashes her head in against a wall, you bury the hatchet in her neck, and you shoot her in the face. Then you’re captured by the Baker family who owns the farm, forced to eat organs, and nearly get your tongue cut out of your mouth.
During all this time you can barely fight back; your continued survival feels more like luck than skill. There’s a bullying quality to this violence, the Bakers and game are beating up on someone weaker than them, kicking him while he’s down, and then cutting off a limb for good measure. It feels abusive, vicious, cruel, and exploitative. This, I think, is the core of the grindhouse aesthetic people have mentioned so consistently. Yes, RE7 takes a lot of inspiration from Texas Chainsaw Massacre but evoking that one movie is not the same as evoking the sensational and extreme violence of a grindhouse horror flick. That feeling stems from the presentation of the violence, the context of it. Resident Evil is exploiting Ethan’s weakness so it can abuse him more than it could abuse its previous heroes.
This all sounds pretty fucked up, so why do we keep watching something so brutal? Why play a game that victimizes us with such one-sided, bloody, unyielding violence? Because Ethan does fight back. There’s a difference between the presentation of the character and his actual arc in the game. The controls and animations portray him as an incompetent combatant, especially in the beginning, but his actions tell a different story.
There are a lot of boss fights in RE7, a lot of one-on-one fights with crazed, mutated family members. These are more knock down, drag out affairs: Bosses have a lot of health, so even if we’re good at the game they’re long fights; we have little ammo, so we’re always scrounging and crafting supplies on the fly. Generally speaking, they’re just hard. They feel more than a little unfair at first, but these are unfair fights we’re meant to win.
Ethan survives, he overcomes those extreme and unfair odds to strike back at his oppressors. When it comes to grindhouse horror, we come for the oppression, but stay for the vengeance. We come to be scared, but we stay to fight back at the things that scare us.