15 Minute Rule - The Horsemen

There's been a lot of talk about the state of current horror films being largely built around meaningless scenes of bodies being torn about. When that talk turns to WHY modern horror has gone in this direction you get a lot of the typical old saws (if you'll pardon the pun) about the decline of society and civility, the loss of morals, the lack of imagination.

None of these arguments ever held much weight for me. Firstly, as much as all these flicks get their jollies off of gore and dismemberment, I don't know that ONE of them has topped some of the prime 70s gore flicks. Secondly, people have been making those same arguments about various incarnations of horror for years, but I think there is something particularly different about this current era of horror film that seperates it from what's come before. I'd never been able to put my finger on it, but now that I've seen The Horsemen, I think I've got a theory:

We're not afraid of anything anymore.

I can hear some of you scoffing from here. "We live in a time of fear!" you're yelling at me through your monitor. "Fear has been the primary emotion of the past decade!" "Two words: 'Fox News'" "I'm afraid RIGHT NOW!"

Yeah yeah yeah, sure, but listen: What are you REALLY afraid of? Honestly? We talk about being afraid of global warming or terrorism or school violence or economic collapse, but are we really afraid of these things? How much do we really think about them? How much do they guide our actions? How much do we take precaution against them? How much do we sacrifice for them? How much do we actively engage with them? OK, OK, I don't mean to jump on you, dear readers, but in the broad cultural sense, I just don't know that there's as much actual FEAR out there as we've been led to believe.

I think there are two things necessary for fear: An element of the unknown and a lack of control. I think nowadays people think we know everything and that we've got stuff pretty much under control. When people talk about things getting "out of control" now, what they really mean is that things aren't going their way, and if people just did what they wanted, everything would be fine. That's not "out of control," that's "out of MY control until I can wrestle that control back."

My good friend Polly Frost is fascinated by disappearance cases. There's more than you'd think, she tells me, mostly young people, mostly women, who are last seen getting into cars with strangers, or walking off drunk into the night by themselves or going down to Mexico and evaporating into the haze of crazy parties. They put up information on public websites detailing where they are, where they'll be, when they're leaving and if they're alone. "These people don't think anything could POSSIBLY happen to them!" she explains to me. They're not afraid. Who is?

This is deadly for horror movies. I don't believe you can make a scary movie unless you yourself are, in some way, scared. Horror movies examine what scares us, and if nothing scares us then all our horror movies can be are remixes of other scare flicks.

And it seems to me, in the same way the prat fall or the fart joke is the baseline for comedy, intense physical bodily harm is the baseline for horror. If you aren't afraid of unknown forces, mental illness, repressed animalistic tendencies, God, predestination, moral failings, karmic retributions, sexual failings, judgment, apocalypse or any of the genre's other many cornerstones upon which the horrors build, really the only thing that's left to you is getting torn apart. In a society that's possibly become narcissistic and onanistic, where nothing of consequence exists outside of the self, the only thing to fear is something explicitly harming the self. Which I suppose may be a lack of imagination, or at least abstract thinking. The only thing these guys can possibly imagine as being horrifying is the fairly unlikely event of getting kidnapped by a deranged killer who enjoys setting up Rube Goldberg death machines for amusement and instruction.

What got me thinking about this regarding the 2009 Jonas Akerlund film "The Horsemen" is the title itself. The titular horsemen are the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse. Within the film a group of murders are accompanied with the phrase "Come and see" written around the corpses, pointing the intrepid detective Dennis Quaid to the verse in Revelations detailing the End Times arrival of Death, Famine, Disease and War. What could the killer possibly be thinking, quoting this verse? What kind of connection are they trying to draw to themselves and these scriptural harbingers of doom?

Not much of one. The ending, which I'm going to spoil for you here, as the greatest "spoiling" of all would be to actually watch the garbage, involves Dennis Quaid's son revealing to Quaid that he was part of a collection of kids whose families didn't treat them right, so they've decided to go about viciously murdering them, bringing about the END TIMES of mommies and daddies not doling out enough hugs (or too many, in the case of Ziyi Zhang and her adopted father, a criminally wasted Peter Stormare). There is so much spectacularly wrong with this that I'm not going to go into it in detail, but instead provide a Top Ten list of biggest idiocies:

1) To complain that his dad didn't pay enough attention to him and got all withdrawn after is wife DIED OF CANCER, the son attempts suicide in a fantastically grotesque fashion while having his father watch, which will certainly teach him a lesson and is totally morally equivalent.

2) Also, in doing so he's leaving his younger brother without his support...

3) ...And with a dad who not only lost a wife to cancer, but watched his son hang himself by meathooks and drown in his own blood.

4) Did I mention the kid hangs himself with meathooks? By himself? Which is so impressive, it's impossible.

5) The kid attempts to drown himself through puncturing his lungs, which happens earlier in the film but is executed by someone with medical training. Not some jerky kid. And then he wonders why it isn't working.

6) Also, when did he puncture his lungs? Before or after he hung himself up on meathooks?

7) The kids committing these murders are broadcasting them out to a whole online community of kids who think their parents are jerks and who have all managed to keep this whole thing entirely under their hats and off any FBI watchlist this whole time.

8) Some of the kids kill one of the abusers, some of them kill themselves while making the person who mistreated them watch. For kids who sat together and planned out a bunch of extremely complex and involved murders, it's weird they didn't try to talk their friends out of killing themselves. OR maybe talk the other friend INTO killing theirself. That seems like a weirdly crucial point of the plan to have a disagreement about.

9) The movie actually seems to AGREE with the kid. If we painted him as super-crazy and deranged, that'd be one thing, but the movie seems to be tsk tsking at Quaid's poor parental skills right along with him. Also, the kid's a teenager and at one point complains that Quaid would have realized his plan if he'd ever actually GONE INTO HIS ROOM like a good helicopter parent should, which may be the first time I've ever seen a teenager complain that his parent has given him TOO MUCH privacy.

10) The kid is quoting scripture while doing this, and we see him in church and sort of get a hint that his beloved mother was very religious, which makes this whole course of action seem a little...problematic as far as his belief structure goes.

It's this last point I really want to address. The title of the movie references a Bible verse. We have scenes of the family in church and a few scenes involving Bibles around the house. The main psychopath quotes scripture. But never for one minute do I think anyone in this movie or anyone involved in this movie has any actual Biblical belief, or even any actual interest other than that some verses in Revalations sound real spooky and crap.

I don't think you have to be religious to make religious horror, but I certainly think it helps. And even if you're not, you have to at least take it seriuosly within the world in which it's existing or with the characters who take it seriously enough to act on it. Being religious myself, my love of religious horror is probably what kept me watching this piece of drivel well longer than I should have. I kept hoping, waiting for some moment where they might actually take their own words seriously, where any of this might pay off. Nada.

And then I got to thinking, what horror movies in the last twenty years or so used religion and ACTUALLY took it seriously? The only movie that came to mind was the Exorcism of Emily Rose, which I love. AH, and Red State, which I also kinda loved. But that's about it. I can name you a bunch of movies that use demons, exorcisms, priests and devils, but not a one of them is actually invested in them or what they represent. They aren't even using the religious trappings to SAY anything, or even make it a metaphor for something else. They're just using it as window dressing. They're as scared of or by it as they would be of a rubber spider.

It's not just that they don't find religion scary, I don't think they find teenage alienation or the numbing effects of grief or any of the other possible themes you could pull from the film scary, either. They just think some of the images look cool and that hanging people up from meathooks and self-evisceration is INTENSE and everyone kinda wants to play martyr in front of their parents at some point. Essentially this is the horror movie version of that scene in A Christmas Carol where Ralphie imagines going blind from soap poisoning. And just about as scary.

Why make a horror movie of something you don't find scary? That's like making a comedy full of jokes you don't find funny, or a thriller with set pieces free of intensity or rising action, but I feel like that's pretty much every damn horror movie I see. If I could make one plea to any horror filmmakers out there, I suppose it would be this: Before you try and scare me you should at least be able to scare yourself.

NetFlix Review #10: Martin

God bless George A. Romero. As I slog my way through the project I'm currently working on it was a joy to watch this flick by a true horror maestro and see him balance good scares and sexy thrills with his usual flare for social commentary. Here we have Martin, a troubled young boy who may or may not be a vampire. He doesn't have the fangs or the supernatural ability, he can walk out in the sunlight, he seems pretty normal. Except that every now and then he gets a little twitchy, and when he gets a little twitchy he likes to go out and drug pretty young women, then cut them open with a razor and drink their blood. Martin, as I'm sure you could imagine, is quite a handful, so he is sent off to Pittsburgh (which really should be renamed Romerosburgh) where his uncle will house him and attempt to save his soul, and then kill him.

The basic gist of the movie is that there are three different realities being subscribed to. Uncle Cuda, played with gusto by Lincoln Maazel, is old school old world. He believes that Martin is full-on Nosferatu, from a family curse that shows up every few generations to turn one of them into a bloodsucking child of the night. He covers the house in garlic and crosses and brings priests over to try and cast out the evil spirits living within Martin. Then there's Martin himself, who believes that all his uncle's superstitious mumbo jumbo is ridiculous, but still gives his age as 84 and calls up a local disc jockey to complain how vampire movies get him all wrong. And finally there's Uncle Cuda's daughter, Christina, who doesn't believe any of this nonsense.

Romero has a really rich set up here, and mines it as best he can. The film, made in 1977, does a great job of exploring generational tensions and the shifts in religious beliefs happening in the 70s without ever getting to overtly preachy or didactic. The film also has a great sense of place and time, which comes from a director working so closely with a town the way Romero has with Pittsburgh. Everything feels dingy and real, from the train station Martin arrives at for the film's beginning to Uncle Cuda's cluttered home and shop to the fields just outside of town where Martin takes an awkward yet successful date. One of Romero's strengths, in my mind, has always been taking something fantastic and making it feel creepily mundane and real. I remember when I first saw Night of the Living Dead. That opening scene with Barbra and her brother in the graveyard is so chilling and creepy to me because when the first zombie shows up, he kind of just looks like a drunk. He doesn't run up and attack, he just sort of ambles clumsily over, and as a viewer I sat there thinking, "No way. No way is that the zombie. What the hell is going on? IS that a zombie? OH MY GOD, IT'S A ZOMBIE." I enjoy a lot of the new zombie flicks, and I don't think there's one right or wrong answer in the Fast Zombies versus Slow Zombies debate, as both have their different spook factors and etc. etc. But one of the big plusses to the Romero zombies is that they really do look like us on a bad day. Their eyes don't glow red, they don't bare their teeth and howl and run at you with attack faces. They look sad, drunk and down. If you ran across a 28 Days Later zombie, you'd know that thing was bad news and you'd start running. Romero zombies would just look like another homeless person on the subway, until of course they bite you, and that's effin scary.

But those are zombies, and we're talking about vampires now. OR ARE WE? Romero plays fast and loose with reality here, and he does it in fantastic ways. As much as Martin whines to the disc jockey about how movies get vampires wrong, and yet in the absolutely hilarious "flashbacks" we see to his "youth," everything looks like the most overwrought of old school vampire flicks. They're shot in black and white, and even though Martin claims to be 84 years old in 1977, which would make him a teenager around the turn of the century, everything in the flashbacks look Victorian. Except, you know, the modern sinks in the bathroom and such, which COULD be low-budget filmmaking, or could be Romero having a laugh. There's also Martin's approach to picking and attacking his victims. He chooses beautiful women, and then drugs them with a needle. Afterwords he strips them naked, and whether he simply lays with them or actually has sex with them Romero leaves ambiguous. However, what happens next is not ambiguous. Martin takes a razor, opens a vein and drinks.

Romero does a great deconstruction of the vampire mythos. First of all, he casts John Amplas as Martin. He's skinny and awkward, with hair that always falls into his eyes and a young yet hangdog face, he's not your typical vampire, but he might be your typical kid who would spend too much time at Hot Topic wanting to be a vampire. Then there's his dysfunctional relationship with women. When he talks to the disc jockey he complains that he just doesn't seem to understand "the sexy stuff," and no girl has ever seemed too interested in him, which is why he has to drug them. However, when we see his "flashbacks" we see a beautiful young woman calling for him. Martin is that typical surly teenager who broods and mopes and then cannot understand why no one falls in love with his brooding, mopey nature. He thinks its romantic, but everyone else just finds it frustrating. Except a certain unhappy housewife who Martin makes deliveries to for his uncle. Again, Romero brilliantly contrasts Martin's poseur-despair with the housewife's actual urban angst. Martin believes that they're kindred souls and cannot understand why she still seems unhappy even after they've made love. The movie undermines the romantic vision of the vampire and examines what a person who actually sneaks into girls' rooms at night to seduce and destroy would really be like. The answer: pretty creepy.

Unfortunately, one of Romero's greatest strengths is also his greatest weakness. He's great because he's so DIY and low-budget, but there are also times where you can really feel that low budget creeping up on you. The place where this really hurts the movie is with the comedy. Ideally, this movie is a laugh riot, and Romero knows this. He's populated the movie with site gags and wacky shenanigans, but for all the great set-ups, there aren't that many actual laughs in the movie. I know what I'm seeing is funny, but its not moving me to laugh, and I'm a pretty easy laugher. There are so many scenes where I feel like I could describe them to you and they'd be hilarious, but they just aren't on-screen. Martin dressing up as a stereotypical vampire to plague his uncle, the deadpan "exorcism" scene which Martin disappointedly walks away from, the incredibly well-conceived chase scene in which Martin finds one more victim than he expects and the whole thing becomes a sort of Keystone Cops/slamming doors chase scene throughout a house while the slow-acting poison takes its time working on its victims. Romero ran into the same problem, I felt, with his most recent film, Diary of the Dead. Conceptually the movie is brilliant, but the execution is kind of horrendous. I'll give Romero credit, even though he's been pigeon-holed, not just as a horror guy but nowadays as an explicitly zombie horror guy, he's tried to reinvent himself and investigate something new and current with each film. However, regarding Martin I will say that very rarely would I ever profer a movie up for a remake, but in the right hands Martin could easily be redone to be a gut-busting dark comedy.

But the movie itself, my brilliant remake dreams aside, is pretty great. Good ideas, fun storytelling and Romero rocking it as only he can. Speaking of which, fun trivia notes! Romero actually acts here, playing the first priest to visit chez Cuda. Romero's wife plays Uncle Cuda's daughter, the sympathetic and ever-suffering Christina, and her boyfriend is Romero staple and horror legend Tom Savini! So if you're a fan of horror, or Romero in particular, check it out. It's a fun flick.

Here's a question to possibly start some discussion in the comments section: Do you think that Romero may just not have the film skill set to make the comedy work, or do you think comedy is implicitly more difficult than horror, or most other film elements? I'm thinking about Steven Spielberg, a master of cinema, who claimed after 1941 that he'd never do another comedy again. He's certainly got moments of humor in all of his movies, but he's vowed to never return to the genre straight-up again. A similar thing occurred with Martin Scorsese and After Hours. The closest Coppola ever got to a comedy were Jack and Peggy Sue Got Married, both of which I kind of hate. In fact, the only of the big modern American film geniuses I can think of to successfully pull of a comedy was Stanly Kubrick with Dr. Strangelove. I'm sure I'm forgetting someone or some film, or someone's going to come here and ask me why Mel Brooks or the Zucker Brothers or Mike Nichols aren't modern American film geniuses, but you see what I'm getting at, right?