Saturday, May 26, 2012

I Blame Aliens for The Hills Have Eyes 2

Just to be clear, I’m not claiming that literal extra-terrestrials are responsible for the 2007 follow-up to Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Nor am I saying that the film-makers were foreign-born and shooting in America illegally. Rather, I’m placing the blame for this sequel squarely on the shoulders of James Cameron.

It’s not just The Hills Have Eyes though. There’s also [REC]2, Hatchet II, and to some extent Child’s Play 3 and even The Descent Part 2. That’s right, ever since Cameron’s space marines faced off against Ridley Scott’s classic xenomorphs, horror has suffered from what I like to call Horror Sequel Militarization  Syndrome. That is, a growing number of horror sequels involve sending the military (or police in the case of The Descent 2) to investigate the original threat and succumbing to it as well. In some cases, it’s really the logical next step in the story, but it’s rarely a good idea. Here’s why.

The rationale behind the military-minded horror sequel is that it gives the filmmakers the opportunity to display how utterly badass their franchise’s villain is. Anybody can pick off a bunch of stoned-out-of-their-gourds teenagers, but the meanmotherfuckerdom it takes to annihilate a squadron of highly trained soldiers is the stuff of legends. This, supposedly, makes the villain truly unstoppable and thus much, much scarier, right?

How Badass Do You Have to be to Fuck with Vasquez?

Except that it doesn’t.  As I like to repeat to the point of cliché, the fear you experience in a horror film comes from placing yourself in the victim’s shoes and vicariously experiencing the danger. When the partying teens enter the woods/desert/abandoned house, they are unprepared to fend off the threat they’re about to face. This helplessness is what generates sympathetic feelings in the viewer, and thus causes us to fear for them.
This is the whole reason The Final Girl is such a potent archetype. She’s usually the virginal one, not because she’s pure, but because she’s not empowered by her sexuality. Take Laurie Strode, for instance.  John Carpenter, progressive-minded fellow that he is, wasn’t slut-shaming making Laurie the survivor. Lynda and Annie are the confident, risk-taking types who aren’t afraid to go after what they want. Laurie is the mousy, obedient one, and thus the one that comes off as the most helpless. Of course, as with all final girls, there’s more to her than you expect, and she’s able to summon the inner strength to survive her ordeal.
So what happens when the victims become heavily-armed warriors? In a nutshell, we don’t fear for them as much because they project strength, and rather than running, they’re usually confronting the enemy head-on. Thus, the horror sequel becomes something more akin to an action movie. Even though the protagonists’ weapons ultimately fail them, they go out fighting. And while the action may get your blood pumping, it’s not the same as fear.
Take One Mutant with a Meat Cleaver...

Add Six Heavily-Armed Professional Soldiers...

...And You Get One Neutered-Ass Horror Flick

I know what you’re saying. “But Aliens kicks Ass right in the balls.” And indeed it does. It’s one of my favorite action movies ever, and 3 out of 5 times, I’ll choose to watch it over the original (yeah Alien is better, but Aliens is more rewatchable). And Cameron even manages to make it genuinely scary in spots. In short, I have no complaints about Aliens, just the tendency to militarize horror sequels.
This militarization is especially troublesome in The Hills Have Eyes 2, because it undermines the whole premise and selling point of the film. The concept here is that the mutants aren’t simply out to kill and eat people anymore; this time they’re seeking women to keep captive as breeders. It’s a chilling thought, and one that would have been better served by a film with less testosterone. There are a scant 2 female characters out of a squad of around 10, and as soldiers, they’re some tough chicks.

Not Exactly Helpless

What was so disturbing about the original (and the remake thereof) is that the victims were just an ordinary family that included the most helpless of humans, a baby. While the dad was a retired cop who was armed, he was also the first to go, leaving the rest of the family without a protector.
For the sequel, I’d have gone with a group of female friends on a roadtrip/bachelorette party who get ambushed by horny mutants. They’d have been unarmed and possibly hung over. When half of them are captured and drug off to the caves for repeated raping, the others would have to go in after them with little more than a tire iron as defense. That would have been some scary shit. Soldiers… meh. Kill or be killed is pretty much what they signed up for (no disrespect to any soldiers reading this, I just figure y’all know how to take care of yourselves).
In the end, taking out a squadron of soldiers doesn't so much make the mutants look like a formidable enemy, it just makes the soldiers look completely inept. But then, the dialogue already did that before the first mutant showed his bad complexion.
So what do you think? Do military-minded horror sequels work? Which ones did I leave out? Sound off in the comments, yo.
Sloth Loves Chunk!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Watch Angry - When Horror Pisses You Off, and Not Because the Movie Sucked

Like any decent horror hound, I enjoy the physical sensation of fear that horror films can induce. I love the building suspense that precedes a big scare-how the tension of the film is mirrored in my tensing muscles. And I love the orgasmic release when something on the screen makes you jump in your seat, makes you scream, and finally makes you laugh at yourself for being ridiculous and because it feels wonderful to let go of all that tension in one explosive outburst.

I live for that shit.

But there's another element of horror, one that you can't laugh off because it hits you where you're vulnerable. You don't scream; you don't laugh; and the tension doesn't leave. It squats in your guts and festers, making you sick, making you shake not with fear, but anger. Maybe you've been there, maybe you've just feared being there, but something in the film has found your weak spot and is poking at it, clawing and jabbing with a jagged-toothed grin and eyes filled with sick pleasure.

I don't know if you've experienced anything like this, but I've found a pattern with myself: nothing enrages me more than people being preyed on by teenaged bullies. I don't know where this comes from, (getting old I guess) but twice in as many days I've felt my blood pressure rocket after watching scenes with thuggish, violent teenagers.

The first wasn't even a horror movie. It was actually the "Bully" episode of Louie CK's show "Louie." He's on a date that is, for perhaps the first time in the series, actually going well. He's taken his lady-friend out for some after-hours doughnuts, when 5 rowdy high-schoolers bust in and start making noise. After Louie asks them to quiet down, one of them comes over, introduces himself with a smile, and after some subtly threatening banter, makes Louis ask him not to kick his ass. And the whole time I'm watching this, I'm turning red in the face and screaming at Louie to karate chop the fucker in the throat, all the while knowing that he's actually doing the right thing by diffusing the situation and wondering if I'd do the same.

The second movie that had my blood boiling was Attack the Block. The opening scene where the five kids surround and mug the nurse made me livid. She sees their silhouettes from a distance and crosses the street to avoid them, but two of the kids shoot past her on bikes, then circle back to guard her rear as the remaining three approach from the front. Knowing what kind of movie this was, I couldn't get too worked up, because I was fairly certain they weren't going to rape and beat her to death, but it bothered me that she was in this helpless position where something really ugly could have happened. The kids' methods were animalistic; they found a vulnerable victim who had strayed from the herd, then used pack hunting tactics to get what they wanted. I so fucking hate that about human beings. And I knew that these thugs were going to turn out to be the main characters, so I was even more pissed that they had pretty much ruined the movie for me right off the bat.

Attack the Block, however, knows what it's doing and manipulates your fears and prejudices only to turn them around and shove them back in your face, making you feel like the asshole. By the end, even I was rooting for the kids and regarding a few of them as real heroes. Sure, the social commentary gets pretty ham-fisted, but the story is good, and it turned out to be a really fun alien invasion flick. Props!

But the one movie that had me enraged pretty much from beginning to end was Eden Lake. The thing that bothered me so much was that there was one psychotic teenager responsible for everything, and his friends who went along with him, as well as his victims, were too cowardly to stand up to him. With Eden Lake, this anger was used to fantastic effect, getting the audience's emotions high and giving the suspense scenes some real stakes. The protagonists are ordinary people, and thus not particularly interesting, but I found myself emotionally invested in their survival simply because I despised their adversaries so intensely. Still, the movie had me so worked up that any release the ending could bring was not enough. I left the film exhausted and thoroughly stressed out.

I bring these examples up simply to illustrate one of the great functions of horror: self-discovery. Up until about yesterday, I had no idea that thuggish teenagers were among my fears. Horror movies helped me discover the patterns in my own psyche, and though I'm not yet sure where they come from, at least now I know. Forewarned is foreskinned, they say.

I am puzzled by the source of this fear. I've never really been bullied, and back in the day I managed to talk my way out of the few fights that presented themselves. But in my old age I've lost some of that youthful resiliency, particularly my ability to bounce back emotionally from a taunt. Now I wonder if I'd back down, or if I'd totally Hulk out on someone who tried to threaten or demean me. My temper is so shitty these days that I might just start biting throats. Too bad I don't actually know how to fight.

And maybe that's the key. That's where I feel most vulnerable - situations where you could plausibly fight back, but being a civilized human being, you go to great lengths to avoid having to, and you're unprepared.

You see what just happened there? Horror viewing may have revealed my fears to me, but it was horror blogging that let me discover their source. I knew there was a rational reason for me to be doing this.