While it’s not unusual for a critic to find cultural resonance in B- and C-grade horror pictures (critics have been doing that for generations, often with an unearned swagger that pretends Pauline Kael‘s "Trash, Art and the Movies" never happened) it is unusual to see one do a full-Kael press and defend such works as, first and foremost, good movies. Yet thatâ€™s what Fort Worth Star-Telegram film critic Christopher Kelly does in "Don’t Expect to Escape Nightmares with a Smile on Your Face." Surveying the recent crop of glossy splatterflicks, Kelly starts with a proclamation that had me saying, out loud, to no one in particular, â€œYouâ€™ve got to be kidding me."
"The most gruesomely vivid, elegantly made horror movie in recent memory opened with little fanfare on Dec. 25, 2005 in approximately 1,500 theaters nationwide," Kelly wrote. "Titled ‘Wolf Creek,’ It’s a low-budget shocker from ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ old school, about three carefree twentysomethings whose hiking trip goes terribly awry after they are kidnapped by a maniacal serial killer in the Aussie outback. As is often the case with horror pictures, it was greeted by many critics like a Christmas present wrapped in soiled tissue paper. (Sample review, from Roger Ebert: ‘There is a role for violence in film, but what the hell is the purpose of this sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty?’) The fact that the movie announced the arrival of an immensely gifted new director named Greg McLean — whose patience, control and ability to play the audience like a very cheap fiddle would have done Alfred Hitchcock proud — seemed lost on most adult moviegoers.â€
Seitz goes on to invited Kelly to discuss his argument at Seitz’s blog, The House Next Door â€” the results are fascinating (and refreshingly civil) stuff. David Poland at The Hot Blog has a few things to say on Kelly’s piece as well, while, on the same topic, Devin Gordon at Newsweek covers some similar ground reporting on the new horror wave:
Some criticsâ€”smart ones like New York Magazine‘s David Edelstein, not
just nervous Nelliesâ€”argue that the trend verges on "torture porn."
Even people within the industry are torn. "It’s not the violence that
bothers me so much as the tone. A George Romero movie was so political
and funny and subversive," says Picturehouse Films president Bob
Berney, who marketed "The Passion of the Christ." "To me, these newer
movies are purely sadistic." Then again, he adds, "I remember my
parents saying stuff like this, and I ignored it. They wouldn’t let me
see ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ and I went 25 times."
Also at Newsweek: David Ansen also makes the whole "horror films=dark underbelly of American psyche" argument.
We do find it infuriating when a reviewer either walks out of or simply dismisses one of the above films based on its subject matter rather than whatever merits it may or may not have as a film â€” if you’re incapable of comprehending any potential allure such a film may hold for audience, then, fair enough, but don’t go through the motions of evaluating it. "Wolf Creek," "Hostel," the "Saw"s, "The Hills Have Eyes" â€” they’re all different films of varying quality, but you couldn’t accuse any of them of being coy about their graphic content.
We’ve mentioned before that we believe the recent return to popularity of extreme splatter-fare is just a natural turn for a genre based on both certain formulas and on circumventing expectations to take â€” however tempting it is to make a sociological argument about signs of the times, 9/11, Abu Ghraib, and on and on…meh. In the end we just don’t buy it, though we understand the temptation. It’s the holy grail of reverse film snobbery â€” the genre film (and horror seems to get saddled with this expectation the most these days) that trumps all high-minded arthouse fodder in capturing the essence of our time, accidental high art without any pretensions to be anything other than entertaining. We just don’t think any of the titles being thrown out there are that film.
+ Don’t expect to escape nightmares with a smile on you face (Dallas Fort-Worth Star-Telegram)
+ Blood and guts: Christopher Kelly sees art in mainstream splatter (The House Next Door)
+ Horror Porn Is… A Response To 9/11!!! (The Hot Blog)
+ Horror Show (Newsweek)
+ Bloody Good Flicks (Newsweek)