Cruelty: The Revenge"
Those who know me will instantly recognize this as a compliment. I am not a fan of the recent trend of wink-wink fratboy comedies disguising themselves as horror films (read: "Cabin Fever", "Freddy vs. Jason"). I have very little respect for movies that condescend to their audiences and their performers by defusing "uncomfortable" emotional intensity with humor or narrative sleight-of-hand (read: "Kill Bill"). The way I see it, horror films are supposed to be about fear, just the way that romantic comedies are supposed to be about love. There are different degrees of fear, of course -- just as there are varying degrees of emotional intensity among "What a Girl Wants", "Bringing Up Baby", and "Punch-Drunk Love", there is a scale of terror that ranges from "The Willies" to "Audition", from "Arachnaphobia" to "The Blair Witch Project". Sometimes the fear is exhilerating, like going on the Tilt-a Whirl at the county fair. And sometimes the fear is nauseating, like going on the Tilt-a-Whirl at the county fair after eating a deep-fried Twinkie.
But what makes a horror film a horror film is that the stakes are high and lives are in danger. This is not to say that horror films can't be funny -- "Jaws" is hysterical at points, as are "Carrie", "Halloween", and many others. But when the shit hits the fan, no one is laughing -- especially the filmmakers. Death is nothing to laugh at. People hurt. There is confusion and sadness. But dealing with death and fear can also bring about incredible growth and insight, and can draw the best qualities out of a person -- oftentimes qualities that that person might not have known they had. I'm sure most people have heard at least one amazing, heartbreaking story about a hero that emerged out of the masses on September 11th, 2001. The papers were full of them. The people on the planes, the people who carried the handicapped down the stairs of the Towers, the people who passed out free shoes -- these are people who looked terror in the face and said "Uh-uh. Not today".
A friend and I were talking today about the huge wave of horror films released in the last 8 months and wondered what the cause could be. They say that the entertainment a society consumes is a good barometer of the national psyche of the time. So what's with this "return to hardcore horror", where films like the sadistic "Final Destination 2" and the brutal "Wrong Turn" make the audience squirm in their seats rather than laugh at the villain's one-liners or cheer at the amusing deaths? Are we jonesing for a fright? Has genuine terror been reuntroduced into our emotional routine, something that we need to experience to feel complete?
Has the attack on our country turned us into fear junkies?
We're coming out of (or at least I hope we are) an Age of Irony that, in horror terms, started with "Scream" and lingers on in films like the above-mentioned, where the characters are 'too cool' for the trappings of the genre and yet nonetheless fall prey to them. For the first time in ages (excepting breakout foreign fare like "Funny Games" and "Audition" and indie flicks like "Blair Witch"), the multiplexes are bustling with normal folks buying tickets to see mean, ugly, unflinching horror films. Big-studio horror films, no less! Terror is back on the menu. And with "Texas Chainsaw Massacre", it comes Southern-fried with a heap of fixin's.
The story at this point is familiar to most of us, although many details have been changed. We still have a vanload of unsuspecting teens on a Texas highway. We still have a backwoods family with a highly deranged little boy. And yes, we still have the Saw. But this time, we have honest-to-God WB teens in the van. And teens from Emmy-winning shows! The backwoods family is bigger and more diverse, and the ending has our heroine Erin in the driver's seat rather than the flatbed. Aside from a touch too much sentimentality in the addition of a baby and some heavy-handed religious imagery (the crucification scene was a bit much -- we don't exactly need Oscar moments in a movie named after a piece of machinery), this is a relentless, well-footed piece of terror filmmaking with heaps of tension, half a dozen genuine shit-your-pants scares, and -- believe it or not -- a point.
This film is about cruelty. Pure and simple. Leatherface and company are the victims of cruelty from their surrounding community because of the his disfigurement (in the form of a skin disease) -- or of perceived or expected cruelty, at least. This begets brutality on the part of the whole family. Like a rot or a disease, this cruelty spreads, and those caught in its path are forced to choose -- it's sink-or-swim time when there's a dead girl in your van or a fucking mongoloid with a chainsaw standing over your best friend. Those who take the easy way out fall. When discussing what to do with the body of the suicidal hitchhiker, Andy (Mike Vogel) votes to leave it and take off. Erin (Jessica Biel) says she's not dumping a girl on the side of the road like a "piece of trash". When Morgan (Jonathan Tucker) has a gun to Sheriff Hoyt's face, Pepper (Erica Leershen) says "Shoot him!", while Erin insists, "Put it down!". Morgan tries to take off when Kemper (Eric Balfour) disappears, but Erin won't budge. Sure, by the end she would give Mother Theresa a run for her money, but at every juncture, when given the choice between saving her ass and doing what is right, Erin opts for the latter -- be it looking for a missing friend, dragging someone through the woods, or helping someone to die rather than suffer.
It may seem odd that I'm getting this worked up about a slasher movie. But it irked me when I read reviews of this film that said it was unredeemable, cynical, and morally bankrupt. People, this film is a morality play about treating others with respect! It's about how cruelty begets cruelty, and about how the cycle can be broken -- what's so cynical about that? Before you get to the lesson, you have to go through some pretty heavy shit, but that's the whole point. You won't enjoy being freaked out by this story and horrified by its telling. You'll be shaken and stirred -- when we left the theatre, the audience looked as if they'd been beaten with sticks for 98 minutes. But if something gets in your gut that deep, it's gonna make you think about why it shook you up, and that's a good thing.
Technically, the film is pretty darned flawless. The acting is surprisingly good after things get rolling (the opening scene with our Scooby Gang is not the best -- I got a bit worried early on) and Jessica Biel seriously blew me away -- this girl manages to be in mortal terror for about 45 minutes without getting even slightly annoying. Her reactions are genuine and natural, and her fear is palpable. The others pale by comparison -- especially Leershen, who also annoyed me in "Blair Witch 2". Jonathan Tucker, who played Tilda Swinton's gay son in "The Deep End", is also good, and as in that film he is feminized and subjugated mercilessly -- he should put it under "special talents" on his resume. R. Lee Ermey is as hateable as ever as the elder Hewitt brother. And Leatherface -- let's be honest, folks -- he's really a saw-stand (albeit a sad and misunderstood one, in this version). But his sheer size and speed are quite alarming and I certainly wouldn't want to run into him in a dark alley.
There is also an obsessive, disturbing fascination with the body. We are forced to see every hair and bead of sweat on these characters' faces; you can almost smell their body odor. There is spit everywhere, and snot, and piss, and vomit, and blood. Someone asked me if the movie was gory, and when I think about it, aside from a few shocking moments it actually isn't -- even though it felt like it at the time because of all of the sweat and puke. Because when you think about it, the body is pretty disgusting (not to sound like Cronenberg). And to see the messiness of the human form made Leatherface's fetishisation of it all the more disturbing -- in the end we are all just as icky as the heavy-handed meat metaphors that pop up every few scenes. Not the kind of thing that leaves you with a tickly feeling in your tummy when you leave the theatre. No -- if you want a feelgood movie, go see "Intolerable Cruelty".