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Danse Macabre, Page 2

Stephen King

  Finally, she plunges down to the basement, where one of the hokey stories they were told before their rash entry into the woods turns out not to be bullshit after all. Michael (or is it Josh?) stands in the corner, dumbly waiting for the thing from the woods to do what it will. There is a thud as that unseen thing falls on Heather from behind. The camera drops, showing a blurred nothing. The film ends. And if you're like me, you watch the credits and try to escape the terrified ten-year-old into whom you have been regressed.

  There have been fewer imitators of Blair Witch's documentary style than you might expect, given its absurd box-office numbers. I believe that's because mainstream Hollywood moguls find something inherently offensive about amateurs playing with cameras, and they certainly don't want to look like amateurs themselves. In one Blair Witch sequence, you can hear a plane droning overhead, and even though it works in the context of the film, I can't think of a single Hollywood producer who wouldn't tear his toupee off in the screening room when he heard it. Or how about the studio exec who wouldn't be able to restrain himself from saying, "These kids are nowhere. Can we replace them? Who's hot at Disney right now?"

  The mainstream faux docs I can think of--Cloverfield, Quarantine (the remake of the Spanish [Rec]), Diary of the Dead--are all pretty good, but only George A. Romero's Diary approaches the purity of Blair Witch. Not until District 9 do we find genius perfected. It's not "pure," if we take that to mean absolute adherence to the idea of amateurs with cameras--and, of course, D9's not a pure horror movie, either--but the technique allows the film to achieve a sense of reality that's seldom seen in the old monsters-from-space genre. With its use of mixed media--documentary footage, fake news reports, even what looks like home movies--District 9 is closer to Orson Welles's radio version of War of the Worlds than it is to an entertaining but ultimately disposable big-budget flick like Independence Day.

  Even the D9 mother ship feels real. Instead of an aweinspiring, almost heavenly apparition, like the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this baby looks like a stalled-out tractor-trailer rig that the driver, probably drunk, left in a no-parking zone. D9 is nothing like Blair Witch in terms of its subtext--Neill Blomkamp's film is about xenophobia rather than madness--but I'd argue that without Blair Witch, D9 wouldn't exist . . . at least not in its current form. And before leaving Blair Witch, I want to recommend Daniel Myrick's most recent film, The Objective. It isn't as successful as Blair Witch, but it's remarkably ambitious and has the same creepy vibe.

  The comedy/horror-doc hasn't come along yet, but I'm confident there are at least three in development. In any case, enough with the pagan symbols and crumbling houses hidden deep in the woods: let's talk zombies.

  They've been around in the movies for a long time. I Walked with a Zombie (great title, not-so-great flick) came out in 1943. Macumba Love--a panting engine of sexuality featuring the large and delectable breasts of June Wilkinson--shambled into double-bill theaters in 1960. Getting warmer, but still no genius. Romero's Night of the Living Dead followed in 1968. It was a groundbreaking horror movie for sure--fans can tell you to this day where they were when they realized that Barbara's brother Johnny really was coming to get her--but the true genius was Romero's follow-up, Dawn of the Dead, with its uniquely American situation: survivors of the original plague trapped in a mall surrounded by the living dead. The all-American shoppers' heaven becomes a glittering chrome-and-plastic hell; the consumers become the consumed. Released in 1979, around the time that mall multiplexes were becoming not just common but de rigueur, it was the perfect fright film at the perfect time, and one of the few unrated movies to succeed commercially.

  Genius perfected would be Zack Snyder's 2004 Dawn remake, which begins with one of the best opening sequences of a horror film ever made. Ana (the gifted actress and director Sarah Polley) is relaxing in bed with her husband, Luis, when they are visited by the cute little skate-girl who lives next door in their suburban Milwaukee development. When Luis goes to see what she wants, cute little skate-girl tears his throat open, turning him into a zombie . . . and in the Snyder version, the zombies move fast. (Romero never liked that part, but it works.) Through a miracle of inspired editing (just when did she pick up those car keys, for instance?), Ana is able to escape, first into a neighborhood that's become a slaughterhouse, and finally into the countryside (with a handy mall nearby).

  I'd argue that the most effective terror sequences are either the result of instinct or pure accident rather than screenwriting or direction, and that's the case here. Polley is a Canadian actress whose face was largely unknown to American audiences in 2004 (her main claim to fame was getting fired by Disney after refusing to remove her peace-sign necklace at an awards ceremony when she was twelve--you go with your bad self, Sarah). If we saw an actress like Julia Roberts or Charlize Theron as Ana, we'd know she's going to live. Because it's Polley, we root for her to escape . . . but we're not sure she will. Those first nine minutes are a sonata of anxiety.

  The opening action ends with Ana crashing her car against a tree (and once again, witness the miracles that can be accomplished in the editing room: the car runs at the tree on the driver's side, but in the next shot hits dead center). The credits that follow, set to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around," are accompanied by documentary and faux-documentary footage (there's that Blair Witch influence again) that's supposed to show us the onset of the zombie plague. But the first shot shows something entirely different, and it's here that Snyder shows us exactly what this inspired remake is about and how well he knew what was driving our fear-engines at that particular point in time.

  What we see in that brief black-and-white shot is what looks like a thousand devout Muslim worshippers, bowing toward Mecca in unison--an image of mass belief that most Americans found troubling. By 2004, only three years downriver from 9/11, rampant consumerism was the last thing on our minds. What haunted our nightmares was the idea of suicide bombers driven by an unforgiving (and unthinking, most of us believed) ideology and religious fervor. You could beat 'em or burn 'em, but they'd just keep coming, the news reports assured us. They would keep on coming until either we were dead or they were. The only way to stop them was a bullet in the head.

  Remind you of anything?

  And don't accuse me of racism or religious prejudice, either. We're not talking about political, religious, or intellectual concepts here; we're talking about terror, and that's exactly what Snyder's zombies are, it seems to me: fast-moving terrorists who never quit. You can't debate with them, you can't parley with them, you can't even threaten their homes and families with reprisals. All you can do is shoot them and then steer clear of the twitchers. Remember that their bite is worse than fatal.

  "Are they dead?" one of the mall survivors asks Steve, the repulsive rich guy.

  His response: "Dead-ish."

  Man, that's scary.

  Yet some of the terror in Dawn transcends subtext and goes straight to the id. The movie's most frightening moment has nothing to do with politics. One of the mall survivors (Kenneth, played by Ving Rhames), has been communicating with another survivor (Andy, played by Bruce Bohne) who is stranded on a nearby roof. They flash chess moves at each other on restaurant dry-erase boards and note zombies who resemble celebrities (Andy, a dead shot, then picks them off). After being bitten by a ghoul, the dying (or already dead) Andy flashes one final sign: not words but a jagged smear of blood. In that single three-second shot, Snyder tells us all we need to know about the insatiate hunger that lives in the decaying interior of an undead brain.

  In the end, the survivors--those who haven't been killed by zombies or each other--set sail on the loathsome Steve's booze-cruise boat, heading for an unnamed island where they hope to find safety. The final credits suggest that hope is probably vain. It's not a cheery conclusion, but it didn't hurt the movie's grosses (Dawn dethroned Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ at the box office, suggesting that John Lennon was wrong--zombies, not the Beatles, turn
ed out to be more popular than Jesus). And that ending probably reflected the audience's deepest underlying fear: How can you escape terrorists who don't care about dying?

  There's no need for us to list the dozens of imitations; comedy follows imitation as day follows night: Shaun of the Dead (brilliant), Black Sheep (amiably absurd but in the last analysis not up to much) and Zombieland, which I haven't seen at this writing. That one looks hopeful--I mean, hey, Woody Harrelson plays a stench-killing gunslinger named Tallahassee, you gotta like that--but I have my doubts. Partly because it looks like a slam dunk, mostly because I don't like seeing my beloved monsters dressed up in clown suits and made mock of. I like mine raw and mean and still bleeding.

  Which brings us to the best horror movie of the new century, Dennis Iliadis's brilliant revisiting of The Last House on the Left. The engine driving this movie is the most powerful the genre has to offer: fear of the Homicidal Other. There have been hundreds--perhaps even thousands--of these in the long history of the fright film, and most have the same underlying premise: You meet the Homicidal Other either as karmic retribution for doing something wrong (think of Janet Leigh in Psycho, who never would have been showering at the Bates Motel if she hadn't embezzled a bunch of money from the Phoenix business where she worked) or--this is worse--because you just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  There are very few Homicidal Other sequels that I care for (Saw II is one of the few exceptions to the rule), because they trade on a moral ambiguity that makes me uneasy. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger is flat-out evil--no question about it. We hate him and fear him from the get-go, and why not? He's a pedophile, a murderer, and a disfigured psycho from beyond the grave. But seven sequels later, he has become, grotesque but true, a kind of pal.

  By the time Freddy vs. Jason rolled around in 2003, we were no longer expected to root for the nominal good guys (teenagers without an ounce of fat on them). What we were rooting for as the sequels plodded on and on was a high body count. These sequels are basically snuff movies. I go, hoping to see something new, and rarely find it. You can argue for Rob Zombie's excellent reimagining of Halloween if you want to refute the point, but I'd note that Zombie's take on Michael Myers--an inspired collaboration, for sure--isn't a sequel but a remake. Which brings us back to the Iliadis version of Last House, the best horror redux in modern times.

  The Collingwood family--Emma, John, and daughter Mari--are on vacation at their lake house, which is marked by an ominously inverted sign reading LAKE ENDS IN THE ROAD. Mari (played with courage and grace by Sara Paxton) borrows the family car to go to town and visit her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac), who works in the local grocery store. While they're talking, a young man named Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) tries to buy a pack of cigarettes with a bloodstained twenty-dollar bill. When Paige won't sell to him--he has no ID--Justin offers to trade them some good pot, which is back at the motel where he's staying with his family.

  It's this chance meeting that leads to the terrible events that follow, but it's also where Iliadis begins to spring the film's surprises. Clark, whom some of you may remember as Silent Ray in Mystic River, gives a nuanced performance as the son of a homicidal maniac (Krug, played by Garret Dillahunt). We identify Clark's disturbing thousand-yard stare as the look of a dangerous psycho, but it's actually the numbed-out shock of an abused child who is more his father's victim than his son.

  Mari and Paige are taken captive by Krug, Krug's girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome), and his brother Francis (Aaron Paul, of Breaking Bad fame). After a botched escape attempt by the girls, Paige is stabbed to death, Mari is raped (Krug does it himself after Justin refuses his father's invitation to go first and "be a man") and then shot as she tries to swim across the lake to the house where her parents are awaiting her return. It's in this house that Krug and his devil's band seek shelter from a sudden summer storm--a coincidence, but a believable one, since Mari has purposely directed them toward it. So the Homicidal Others are given lodging for the night by the kindly parents of the very girl they have violated.

  Justin, who has taken Mari's necklace, leaves it where he knows the parents will find it. At roughly the same time Emma Collingwood spots it curled around the base of a coffee cup, she and John hear an irregular banging sound coming from outside. It's Mari, badly wounded but still alive (in the original, she's killed after being raped). She has dragged herself from the lake and crawled up onto the porch, and is pushing a rocking chair against the side of the house.

  What follows is a carnival of parental revenge. Mom half drowns Francis in the kitchen sink, then stuffs his arm down the garbage disposal and turns it on; Sadie is shot to death in the bathroom; Krug has his head exploded in the microwave oven after the outraged surgeon father has paralyzed him from the neck down. This last touch is the film's only false move--partly because it's presented in a clumsy flashback as the family crosses the lake to safety, partly because it's the only place where Last House looks like "just another horror movie," and partly because--dammit--you can't run a microwave with the door open!

  The 2009 Last House is the most brutal and uncompromising film to play American movie theaters since Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (which didn't play many; the MPAA initially gave it an X rating, and it was finally released unrated). The murder of Paige and the rape of Mari in the woods are particularly excruciating, because there's a sense of filthy reality about these crimes that the depredations of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees can't match. There's zero audience-rooting going on for the bad guys here; when Mari finally loses the struggle to keep her plain cotton underwear on and we know it's really going to happen, we are filled with rage and sorrow (and if there's an emotion more foreign to a Friday the 13th movie than sorrow, I don't know what it is). Our identification is all with the victim. The villains are bad people, and they deserve what's coming to them. What they do not deserve is a sequel where they become our buddies.

  The very effectiveness of some horror movies--the ones that show us the Homicidal Other with all his masks thrown aside--dooms them when they come before the critics (Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, a magazine I write for on a triweekly basis, gave Last House an F rating), and this one, like Michael Haneke's jolting American remake of his German film Funny Games, took a predictably vigorous pasting. Only Roger Ebert seemed to partially get it, praising the performances (Dillahunt, he points out, isn't just acting scary; he creates a character) but neglecting to note that great performances rise from stories where the motivations are believable and the things that happen have an air of inevitability.

  The original 1972 Last House on the Left, written and directed by Wes Craven, is so bad it rises to the level of absurdity--call it Abbott and Costello Meet the Rapists. The bad guys are cartoons, the glare lighting is Early American Pornography, Mari's mom (in this version named Estelle and played by Cynthia Carr) looks suspiciously like Loretta Lynn and the cops are a couple of bumbling stereotypes out of a 1930s Dead End Kids comedy. The chainsaw climax, set in what appears to be a pine-paneled rumpus room (it may have belonged to one of the producers), is hilarious. The soundtrack is a wonder: This may be the only movie about rape, murder, and kidnapping to be set to a cheerful ricky-ticky public-domain soundtrack. There's even a kazoo, a musical instrument I do not associate with terror. The one positive thing you can say about the original is that Craven must have had an extremely steep learning curve, because he started his career deep in negative territory.

  The Iliadis version is to the original what a mature artist's painting is to the drawing of a child who shows some gleams of talent. From the opening shot--a dream glide through the nighttime woods--the cinematography of Sharone Meir is a work of beauty and a study in contrasts; from Krug's brutal murder of the cops who were transporting him to prison, we jump to a serene underwater world where Mari floats beneath a cloud of silver exhaled bubbles. There is a similar ballet--a more nerve-wracking one--in the kitchen of the Collingwood cottage as Ma
ri's mother makes subtle, enticing advances toward the odious Francis, trying to get him to let his guard down enough for her to use a butcher knife on him. The analogous scene in the 1972 version, where Mama attempts to bite off the bad guy's dingus, is just grotesque. Worse, it's funny.

  I maintain that if the recent Last House hadn't come trailing the baggage of its infamous predecessor--and if it had been a foreign film that came equipped with subtitles--it would have been a critical success on the level of Repulsion, Diabolique or An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (the short film by Robert Enrico that was telecast on CBS as a Twilight Zone episode). To some degree, Last House suffered from its own refusal to compromise, and I think it also paid a price for all its infamous predecessors, not just the original source material. But there's something else, too. Horror movies produce nerve-music rather than headmusic. Because most critics (Ebert has always been an exception) tend to be creatures of the head rather than the heart, they can be amused (in a patronizing sort of way) by fright flicks that are too outlandish to be taken seriously, but they have a tendency to react with anger and outrage to the ones that operate successfully in the deep fathoms of primal fear. Last House, like Hitchcock's great film about the Homicidal Other, does exactly that. And, like the Iliadis film, Psycho was originally greeted with a chorus of largely negative reviews.

  Sadly, not many scare-and-splatter films are worthy of even such light analysis as I've given those I've addressed in this essay, but that doesn't mean there aren't others that are worth viewing (or reviewing). Here are some others that have worked for me over the last fifteen years or so: From Dusk Till Dawn: Robert Rodriguez's furious horror/action picture, starring George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino. Although it was released in the mid-nineties, Clooney and Tarantino play seventies-style bad guys who find themselves hiding out in a strip club populated by vampires. Twilight looks pretty thin compared to this.

  Scream: A knowing, funny/frightening sendup of the slasher genre, featuring a psycho in an Edvard Munch Scream mask. Written by Kevin Williamson, Scream alternates laughs with authentic scares. Especially notable for the When a Stranger Calls riff that opens the movie. Not Drew Barrymore's finest hour, but certainly her finest horror hour.