Modern Horror Cinema: From Screams to Scream


A wonderful era of American independent cinema is summed up in the pithy line spoken by a pale-white solider, home from the battlefields of Vietnam, in Bob Clark’s Dead of Night (1973): “I died for you, now it’s your turn to die for me!”


The slice of cinema now known as the Great American Nightmare, marked by figures including George Romero (The Crazies, 1973, Dawn of the Dead, 1978), John Carpenter (Halloween, 1978), Tobe Hooper (the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974) and Wes Craven (Last House on the Left, 1972, The Hills Have Eyes, 1977), can be understood in several different ways.


The most sympathetic reading casts these filmmakers as artistic subversives, working into their genre-based projects a myriad of acute comments on the social tensions of their time, producing smart allegories on everything from the Vietnam War to the crisis of the nuclear family.


This is the thesis proposed by many influential critics, such as Robin Wood, and it is summarised in Adam Simon’s entertaining, retrospective documentary, American Nightmare (2000). Horror films of the ‘70s, in this view, offer perhaps the last significant marriage of commercially popular art with radical politics – with a bit of avant-gardist formal experiment thrown in for good measure.


It can equally be argued that the special qualities of these films were largely intuitive or unconscious. Craven, for instance, has described his early films as “screams of rage”, more visceral than intellectual. And Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, 1974) mixes a feel for what is socially topical with a true schlockmeister’s sense of exploitation cinema’s capacity to shock, amaze and amuse.


The first signs of a decisive shift in the horror genre were evident by the mid ‘80s: films such as The Return of the Living Dead (1985) that, however energetically, transformed thrills into laughs, and serious subtexts into facile winks to the audience. Just over a decade later, Craven’s Scream  (1996) returned horror to a position of box-office supremacy, but at an enormous cost: horror movies were now so self-consciously hip – their characters glibly discoursing about “fear of the dark” and other chestnuts – that they wielded none of the primal force of rough and ready gems like Dead of Night.


Three contemporary films reflect this generally depressing trend. Robert Pratten’s London Voodoo (2004) is based on a strong premise reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) – a married couple moving into an apartment that has been built over the remains of African slaves – but its amateurish grasp of drama and characterisation sinks it swiftly. Nonetheless, a scene where the husband pleads to his flamboyantly possessed wife – “I was never there for you, I missed the birth of our child. But in my own crazy, selfish way, I love you!” – is a corker.


Australian producers have turned their attention – thirty years late, we might say – to horror. Martin Murphy’s Lost Things (2004) recalls the local classic Lost Weekend (1978) in its tale of bickering teens confronting disturbing forces of nature. But playwright Stephen Sewell’s brittle gender-war dialogue gibes uneasily with the film’s extremely primitive grasp of horror movie conventions (especially the overarching, Twilight Zone-type history-spookily-repeats device).


The best horror movies today come from directors such as the Mexican Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, 2001) and Spain’s Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, 2001). Christian Molina’s Rojo Sangre (“blood red”) is not in that league, but is nonetheless a clever horror-comedy that, in its marriage of the Faust myth with the modern nightmare of the snuff movie, makes a good double with Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002).


© Adrian Martin October 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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