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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Heroes of Horror: New Blood & Old Hats Part 1


It's safe to say that horror has changed a great deal over the years. Every facet of this oft derided cinema style has been altered in some way from previous decades as well as coming full circle in others. With the passage of time, the genre has gotten more and more graphic, eventually falling into a glut of repetitiveness and lazy ideas till someone comes along and shakes things up again. So far, there has yet to appear the new Bava, Raimi, Romero, Carpenter, or Hooper. There's been some promising talents to crop up, but like so much of 70s brutal horror and exploitation, this is more down to an enterprising hotshot hungry to shock an audience ultimately proving to be a flash in the pan till the fire has extinguished itself. The 70s, a decade brimming with grotesque visionaries, produced some of horrors biggest names, but also a lot of unrealized potential. Either these upstart directors continually produced pictures of little to no substance, or simply fell off the radar altogether. Many of them went on to careers in the industry, or found bigger fame in other genres. Where and who are the new crop of Horror Heroes?

Reflective of the trashy, low budget exploitation movies of the 70s and 80s, horror today tends to gravitate towards that very same "gore the merrier" attitude with so little left to the imagination. Only now the budgets are greatly increased and the films look a helluva lot slicker. Bigger isn't necessarily better, though. It's the same evisceration, decapitation, disembowelment over and over with a darker shade of blood with each passing flick and as much in the way of creative killing as the minds of the writers can muster. This is what passes for imagination in so many of horrors crop these days. For many, non stop gore is enough. That's not to say there isn't some ingenuity out there making the rounds, but like years past, this is relegated to a number of the independent filmmakers which are receiving some fierce competition from hungry foreign directors from Europe and Japan. In many of these cases involving foreign imports, if American producers can't beat them, they remake them.

One of the many retitlings of Hooper's EATEN ALIVE (1976)

Speaking of imagination, the guiding hand behind these vintage movies often cared about the finished product as well as satisfying the audience paying to see them in addition to giving them both goosebumps and something to think about on the way home. It wasn't always about grossing out the audience. There used to be a time when horror fans got giddy with the mere mention of an upcoming Romero movie, or the new production from Craven and Raimi. Hell, even at his lowest ebb beginning in the mid 1980s, Tobe Hooper still had the ability to rally his terror troops in the hopes he'd pull a good movie out of his hat. Some of Horrors Heroes have went on to "greener" pastures (Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson), but still retain their roots, so to speak. There also comes a time when these elder statesmen have reached the pinnacle of their craft and need to be "put out to pasture", despite carrying on with purportedly dismal results.


George Romero, frequently pointed out by his fanbase, is an example of this. Rarely has one of his non-zombie pictures attracted any lasting notoriety; yet when he delivers a new film about his most famous subject, fans reject it with contempt. Understandably, DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) is an extremely difficult film to follow up on. In its day, DAY OF THE DEAD (1985) received a fair amount of criticism from fans for various reasons, but is now considered a classic. Since then, Romero has turned out a few new zombie adventures with each being different from the one before it and with each having something to say between the lines. There has been a serious divide among fans regarding Romero's newer dead opuses, but one thing differentiates them from the rest of the independent pack; films like LAND OF THE DEAD (2005), DIARY OF THE DEAD (2008) and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2010) are all original takes on the dead tired zombie genre. They all tread different territory. Meanwhile, mega drivel like FLIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (2007) and DIE-NER (2010) receive a befuddling amount of high praise. Romero has directed a fair number of good movies outside of the living dead canon (MARTIN, CREEPSHOW), but he was so impeccably rough around the edges and didactic with his approach to the zombie mythos, everything he has done, or continue to do will constantly be compared to DAWN OF THE DEAD; and to an extent, his groundbreaking NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD from 1968.

Romero was so successful in his revisionism of the living dead that he inspired an entire European onslaught of flesh eating cinema that lasted some two decades. Guys like Jorg Grau, Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei have attained cult status with their own good, bad and downright nasty examples of the flesh shredding, shuffling dead. The Italian walking dead movie threatens to rise again with the release of the modern day gladiator zombie-slasher flick MORITURIS (2011) and the apocalyptic EATERS (2011), the latter of which is presented by Uwe Boll of all people. Boll's "name brand" will surely succeed in putting the proverbial bullet in the brain of the possibility of a new Italian zombie renaissance.


There also used to be a time when directors who frequently dabbled in the genre churned out consistently well mounted pictures and even those that frequently regurgitated mediocre movies still managed to amass and maintain a loyal cult of followers. Nowadays, a director can excrete multiple mediocre movies and be heralded a 'Master of Horror' because his film homages past artists and their superior accomplishments (1,000 cut rate corpses in a big ol' creepy house, anyone?). Some others armed with a slim resume even go so far as to adorn their own film with their name above the title (It's not easy bein' Green). John Carpenter earned the right to do this with consecutive GOOD movies. Prior to the blind imperiousness of some of today's 'rock'em sock'em horror directors, there was one such moviemaker who exploded out of the gate with one of the genres most controversial and critically appreciated examples of the cinematic endurance test. Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) is a prime illustration of a movie that descends the darkest recesses of man and visibly shakes its audience out of a shock induced state of catatonia without utilizing anything in the way of extreme gore. The power of the film would fool you into thinking you saw flesh being penetrated by the jagged sharpness of a chainsaw, but that would be your imagination filling in the blanks. Very few, if any horror pictures can pull this off today.

Sadly, Hooper would lose momentum shortly after the start of the 1980s. However, he did direct the single scariest and unsettling vampire movie ever made with the Stephen King adaptation of SALEM'S LOT in 1979 and a choice slasher entitled THE FUNHOUSE in 1981. After directing the troubled production that was POLTERGEIST (1982), Hooper went further downhill, but did manage to turn in a reasonably dark vision with the pseudo remake, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS in 2004. Hooper faithfully sequelized his seminal piece of deranged Americana in 1986, but ultimately fell off the terror train with such wretched movies as SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION (1990) and CROCODILE (2000).


In the 1960s you could count on filmmakers such as 'Master of the MacGuffin', Alfred Hitchcock and Italy's macabre maestro, Mario Bava to regularly deliver chillers to the masses. Both artists are like night and day when comparing their styles. Hitchcock was capable of crafting incredibly stylish motion pictures with veritable ease as well as becoming one of cinemas most significant moviemakers. While he isn't known as a horror director, his PSYCHO (1960) alone is responsible for a legion of future slashers, and his THE BIRDS (1963) could be viewed as the film that made audiences take the 'Nature Amok' sub genre seriously. The pedigree and popularity of both those milestones will always keep Hitch in close association with horror. Arguably Britain's most influential export in the movie world, his closest approximation to emulating that style in America would be Brian De Palma. Again, this director is not known for being a horror filmmaker; his monumentally frightening 1976 film CARRIE has solidified himself a spot among the horror faithful. Some of his other films such as SISTERS (1973), PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974), THE FURY (1978) and DRESSED TO KILL (1980) have elements of horror in them as well.

Steven Spielberg is among a small contingent of filmmakers who either started in horror, or flirted with it occasionally before embarking on a career of greater expanse ranging from adventure spectacles to powerfully dramatic features. His early works on the TV show NIGHT GALLERY and the terrifyingly taut TV Movie DUEL (1971) notwithstanding, Spielberg was responsible for one of horrors seminal works, the first major blockbuster, JAWS (1975). Spielberg may not be a horror director, but this movie that almost wasn't contains more sheer terror than a dozen so called horror films in today's market. JAWS is that rare breed of movie that resonates as much fear now as it did during the time of its release. His INDIANA JONES & THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984), a film that was so shocking that it caused the creation of the PG-13 rating, also has enough 'shock and awe-fully' gory moments to fill the bloody coffers of the average horror hound. What's overwhelmingly sad about the mention of Hitchcock, De Palma and Spielberg is that those three randomly selected filmmakers have made far better horror movies than the very directors who claim to be the genres champions of today. The glut of what passes for horror these days is infected with a PORKY'S level mentality and it doesn't appear to be going away any time soon, nor does it appear to be growing up.


Adam Green and his HATCHET 2 crew

By comparison, what we get today from directors who work predominantly, or exclusively in the horror genre puke up garbage like HATCHET (2006) and 2001 MANIACS: FIELD OF SCREAMS (2009), the crap sequel to the borderline mess that is 2001 MANIACS (2005). The director of HATCHET is the noticeably enthusiastic Adam Green. Boldy stating a return to "oldschool American horror", HATCHET gets by on splashy gore effects, decent atmosphere and cameos by genre regulars such as Kane Hodder, Robert Englund, Tony Todd and little else. Oldschool American Horror was scary, not funny the last time I checked. Allegedly, this throwaway fear flick has since earned itself a cult following. It did manage to garner an infantile sequel that repudiated much of the mythology that came before it going so far as to introduce the supernatural into the mix. HATCHET 2 stars horror heroine and fan favorite Danielle Harris. Here, she manages to mangle an accent that comes and goes; there's even more splatter effects laced with even more painful comedy and even worse dialog and direction. After a disastrous limited theatrical showing, this one quickly hit DVD and apparently sold enough units to deserve(?) a third installment which threatens to slap the horror genre in the face a third time later this year.

Green did helm one of the most intense horror pictures of the new millennium in the form of FROZEN (2010); a taut terror tale about three friends accidentally left stranded atop a ski lift which will be closed for an entire week. Surprisingly, this single locale provides numerous opportunities to generate genuine horror and Green doesn't disappoint. Sadly, Green would return to juvenile horror-ible with the aforementioned and thoroughly abysmal HATCHET 2 (2010). Amazingly, the films title bears the directors name above it in a pretentious bit of showboating the likes of which hasn't been seen since Carpenter's days. Incidentally, Carpenter had made a few GOOD movies prior to utilizing such a practice. In its minor measure of defense, HATCHET 2 does sport some spectacular poster artwork. Green also added his name to the even more vapid, hopelessly puerile crapola that is CHILLERAMA (2011). His 'Diary of Anne Frankenstein' segment displays the most creativity of the bunch, but that's not saying a whole helluva lot. This movie, an anthology which is supposed to be a tribute of sorts to the bygone days of the drive in, is anything but. It's more of an insult and an embarrassment to those involved. If you find non stop dick jokes your idea of hilarity, then this is your movie. Incredibly lame, the film also sports the participation by another director who has been heralded as one of horrors hopefuls, Tim Sullivan.

Sullivan (left) with another horror hopeful, Eli Roth (right), a guy who was beginning to shine before he slowed down to a crawl after a seemingly frustrating experience with the superior HOSTEL 2 (2007)

Sullivan has worked in various capacities on various movies of varying quality, but his directed efforts leave a lot to be desired. Just based on his two MANIACS movies and that pathetic CHILLERAMA segment, there's nothing visibly apparent to show any ability to drum up the most elementary of horror basics. Elementary is a good word to describe his horror-ible movies; his "Werebear" segment in the aforementioned eyesore that is CHILLERAMA being a chief component to the sorry state of horror these days. Astonishingly, Sullivan is reportedly spearheading a series of horror related productions bearing a "Tim Sullivan Presents" moniker. The mind boggles. Guys like George Romero and Tobe Hooper had true ambition and brought their nightmares to the screen with an incredibly small amount of funds and driven by dedication to their craft. Both NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) became serious cult classics because they were scary and relied on societal issues to enhance their value. They had a lot to say about mankind as well as distorted familial values and not a dick joke in sight. Today, the filmmaking horror hipsters are uber cool because they stuff their films with familiar faces and nods to past horror favorites made with ten times the bloody beating heart and soul. To hell with actual skill or a good script when you got Sid Haig and Bill Moseley for marquee value, right?




Alex Jowski said...

Fantastic article! I am eagerly looking forward to part 2. Actually going to watch Frozen right now, been meaning to for awhile.

venoms5 said...

Glad you liked it, Alex! I didn't link to it, but FROZEN is reviewed here, too. A really good movie and I was shocked it's from the same guy that did the HATCHET movies. I'm curious to read your thoughts on it.

Alex Jowski said...

Frozen has been sitting in my Netflix queue for awhile - waiting for a reason to watch it.

You are right - there really are no more truly original "Heroes of Horror" like there used to be.

venoms5 said...

So far there isn't. I thought guys like Greg McLean, Alexander Aja and Eli Roth were gonna be it, but they seemed to have dropped off the radar, or busy doing other things. Other guys like Ti West might break out. Lucky McKee's THE WOMAN floored me the other night, so maybe he'll emerge to be something special over time?

Alex Jowski said...

I have been hearing good things about Ti West. House of the Devil was good and I am curious to see what his cut of Cabin Fever 2 would have been like. Have not seen his latest film yet though. He does have the coolest profile pic on imdb however.

venoms5 said...

HOUSE OF THE DEVIL was really good. I enjoyed it a lot. He took the concept of 80s horror and made it his own. Which is something a few of today's ANIMAL HOUSE horror directors should try to do instead of resorting to trickery to sell their wares. Much like Leone took the American western and made it his own with ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

CABIN FEVER 2 started out strong, but really went off the rails about halfway through, imo.

James Wan is another director I'm looking out for. Loved his INSIDIOUS and DEAD SILENCE had its moments.

Eric Raymer said...

Great article - I'm also really surprised that Tim Sullivan gets any attention at all. Everything I've seen from him is truly execrable.

I'm still holding out hope for Pascal Laugier myself. I know opinions are divided when it comes to Martyrs, but I really liked Saint Ange. It has similar themes, but is way more restrained with the gore.

I'd be interested to hear your opinion on the Paranormal Activity franchise, especially since Oren Peli seems to be a brand now... I'm not a fan, but find it interesting that series based essentially on atmosphere alone has gotten so popular after all the Saw/Hostel nonsense.

venoms5 said...

I totally agree about Sullivan, Eric. I don't enjoy dissing on anybody, and it's great that a fan is realizing his dream, it's just that the movies are horrible and some of the filmmakers (not just Sullivan) today seem to have this condescending attitude and bloated ego before they've seriously established themselves.

I loved MARTYRS. Maybe I should say I found it a fascinating film experience? It's one of those movies that's difficult to recommend. I think Laugier is definitely a talent to watch out for. Aja was another, but he seems stuck in a remake rut right now.

The Paranormals I plan on touching on if not in part 2, another part. This was actually just gonna be a single piece, but the more I thought about it last night, I thought it might be cool to go all out with it in the hopes of getting a variety of opinions on the subject.

Franco Macabro said...

Great article man, strange thing, I wrote an article like this one a while back but never got around to printing went something similar to this one!

I ended up saying that James Wan was one of the few "lights at the end of the tunnel" when it came to making horror on a consistant basis the way all those horror directors from the 70's and 80's did. Zombie was another.

My question has always been what the hell happened to Eli Roth? For a while there it looked like he was picking up the torch for horror...but then Hostel II flopped and he dissapeared? What the hell?

I need to see more Adam Green movies...Ti West is another promising one, I'd love to see him cross over into a main stream big budget horror film.

Guillermo del Toro is another grand master...I hope he keeps making more horror films. I wish him the best of luck in trying to make a tent pole mega budget horror film. Hope he achieves it in this new world we live in where horror movies, in my opinion are getting choked to death and relegated to straight to dvd status.

Kaijinu said...

Awesome Article! I'm glad to see my top five old school horror directs here! I really wish to see more horror from Spielberg (enough with the damn aliens!), Duel was great and so was hat psuedo-slasher-slash-ocean -adventure antics of Jaws!

Nice nod to Hitchcock, too. I love this man, he was great, and his "studen" Palma sure got some of it right.

I'm actually a fan of Adam Greene, he's actually going more for late 80s horror than early 80s, though I do agree, Frozen was indeed a better film compared in terms of true horror.

Also, glad to see another Hostel 2 enthusiast! I actually gave it a high rating in my book!

Franco Macabro said...

Kaijinu: I'm a fan of Hostel II, though it is extremely similar to the first Hostel, it is still a solid entry in my book, I mean, it's so damn gory! I loved that scene with the scythe, and the blood bath! Never understood how the first could be such a hit, and the second falter...

Kaijinu said...

ntancip thefilm connosieur: Hostel II had a stronger story to it, unlik Hostel which is technically just a slasher film done so differently it shifts into "torture porn".

Hostel II is very light on torture. Aside from the scythe scene, there were barely any other torture scenes unless you could the "accidental scalping" as one. I'm not a very big fan of torture porn despite my love for (nearly) all SAW films, so I guess ou can tell why Hostel Ii is such a big hit for me.

venoms5 said...

@ Fran:Thanks, my friend! Part two is up and those additional directors you mention are in there as well. The third part may or may not be the last. Not sure yet.

@ Kaijinu: I'm a big fan of HOSTEL 2 also. I agree with you 100%. Much better than part 1, imo. It's in part two of this article, also.

Maynard Morrissey said...

Bravo, Congrats and Kudos - all 3 new Blood & Old Hats articles are just amazing. How much time did you spend on writing them?

Yay for Romero, godfather of zombies. His latest zombie flick (Survival) was a huge disappointment, but all the others are just awesome - still, my favorite Romero movie will always be the chilling Martin.

It's sad what happened to Hooper. His first few movies are all timeless classics (Funhouse Eaten Alive, TCM, Poltergeist) but everything after TCM2 was dreadful. Mangler, Crocodile, weak Masters Of Horror episodes etc. etc.

Fully agree on what you say about Spielberg, Hitchcock & De Palma - they aren't horror directors per se, but everything horror-related they created was just awesome.

Haven't seen Chillerama yet (hopefully soon) but IMO none of the 4 directors are huge horror hopes.

Hatchet was bloody brilliant but after the mediocre 2nd part and the immensely weak Frozen, I lost all hope in Green.
Apart from a few gems (Detroit Rock City), Rifkin is quite a weak director - and Sullivan is just an untalented idiot.

Can't say much about Lynch though I enjoyed his WT2 more than the 1st part.

venoms5 said...

Hi, Harry. I am glad you enjoyed reading these. There's at least one more chapter coming. Each one took around 3 to 4 hours to write, choose pics and post. The notes for part 4 were already done, I just wanted to work on something else before posting it, lol.

I hated CHILLERAMA with all my being. I was planning on doing a review for it, too, but I may need to be inebriated first.

Nice! Another DETROIT ROCK CITY fan!

I wasn't crazy over HATCHET 1, but two was almost unbearably bad.

I do enjoy Romero's zombie pictures, mainly for how different and subversive each one becomes. He's not imitated himself, that's for sure.

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