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Monday, February 20, 2012

Heroes of Horror: New Blood & Old Hats Part 3


While the French fear filmmakers who migrated to North American shores have been confined, or sentenced to remake purgatory--denied of their dark originality that brought them here in the first place--others have shown a good deal of promise. James Wan is a Malaysian born filmmaker who exploded onto the horror scene with the intriguing SAW (2004), the first in the massively popular franchise. Horror series' have become a popular trend that has intermittently emerged and hibernated since the 1930s. From the Dracula's to the Frankenstein's to the Mummy's and even the Abbott's and Costello's meetings with whomever, all the way through the slasher icons of the 80s; the Jason's and Freddy's and Michael's of the world.

James Wan brutally gave the slasher sub genre a lethal injection of creativity in its birthing of Jigsaw, a most unusual villain. Clearly influenced by the Giallo pictures of Italy (especially the works of Dario Argento), Wan's film packed quite a lot of suspense and unrelenting terror in its shoestring budget of just over a meager million dollars. The ending was a big surprise, but was eclipsed by the even bigger surprise felt by everyone involved when this little movie sprung a lucrative trap that snagged over a hundred million from patrons. With Wan serving as a producer for the remaining six entries, the films eventually deteriorated into what amounted to gorier big screen versions of CSI with some dark soap opera theatrics.

Being born in Malaysia, a country steeped in supernatural lore of ghosts and black magic, Wan's subsequent movies have delved deeply into supernatural subjects. Displaying an assured hand when it comes to spooktacular thrills, he moved on to the ambitious and much bigger budgeted DEAD SILENCE (2006), a creepy little movie that had a great deal of potential, but failed to realize much of it. Wan's next film, DEATH SENTENCE (2007), likewise bombed badly. That film was essentially a remake of DEATH WISH (1974), loosely based on the novel of the same name that was the inspiration for the classic Bronson picture. For whatever reason, Wan was unable to retain that box office glory when he had a great deal of money at his disposal. Things would change with his next film, though. His best so far is INSIDIOUS (2010), another monumental success with a budget as small as that of SAW and a box office return that almost equaled the new millenniums slasher champion. Despite dealing with familiar topics of late involving demonic forces, the plot was original in that it dealt with the haunted potentiality of astral projection.

Mimicking recent creep-tastic hits such as PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007), INSIDIOUS was able to capitalize on primal fears without the use of gimmicks such as the 'shaky cam' and succeeds in taking your breath away in more ways than one. Keep repeating it's only a movie. Hopefully, Wan will be able to maintain his momentum as he is one of the few true horror heroes in today's industry who has had a good degree of success without falling into the remake, or sequel pit. He is currently one of the relatively few true hopes for modern horror these days, and one of the few who doesn't need to resort to extreme gore to grab his audience by the throat.


Branching away from Wan and in relation to the SAW series, Darren Lynn Bousman has shown himself to be a successful director of horror. However, he has thus far been mostly relegated to helming sequels, or remakes of exploitation favorites. His bizarre REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA (2008) has become something of the new ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (albeit on a smaller scale) with its built in cult and fans enacting the roles on screen at theater showings. The commerciality of the SAW series has served him better, although this could just as well hinder a career as help it. SAW 2 and 3 are actually worthy sequels that refuse to tamper with the formula, but find ways to keep the familiar territory fresh. The directing style here follows Wan's closely at least until SAW IV (2007). At this point, the series took a nosedive into CSI territory with a beyond convoluted amount of character filler that even Jigsaw wouldn't be able to decipher for one of his complex traps of death. Bousman next tackled a remake for a controversial 80s backwoods horror favorite.

The original MOTHER'S DAY (1980) from director Charles Kaufman was yet another in a long line of rape-torture and revenge movies that were very popular with trash fans throughout the 1970s and early 80s. But it had something the other didn't. It was a blackly comical take on consumerism and America's obsession with products and popular culture masked behind scenes of extreme violence and rape. It's a bizarre combination, but if Romero can mix sadism and subtext, why not somebody else? Lacking the black comedy of the original, the new version possesses a strong pedigree behind the scenes and a standout performance from Rebecca De Mornay. Outside of that, it's nearly indistinguishable from any number of other HOSTEL style torture pictures and 'Home Invasion' movies that have been cropping up with rapidity. Bousman has seemingly followed in Wan's footsteps by switching over to supernatural pictures with 11-11-11 (2011) and the upcoming THE BARRENS (2012). He's so far had some great success in sequels, it remains to be seen if he can separate himself from follow ups and remakes to stand out.


All of horror's big guns have been the subject of remakes. All of horror's big guns are still in the game, yet they're all seemingly running out of bullets. Like an old car, it's eventually going to start giving you problems and it's not going to run as good as it did when it was new and shiny. Wes Craven made a controversial splash in the 1970s delivering a double knock out with THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977). Both films have different settings, but both share story similarities in that they deal with civilized people reduced to savagery to survive. The 70s being a time of great creativity, anger and experimentation (as well as many of these filmmakers stating they didn't know what they were doing), some of these pictures are extremely rough around the edges. This tinge of amateurishness is perceived as either sloppy, or adding to the geek show ambiance. Craven's LAST HOUSE has this vibe to it, and its savage violence will always be the source of its remembrance as opposed to any technical polish it may, or may not have. In the 80s, Craven had the underrated DEADLY BLESSING (1981) and SWAMP THING (1982) that kept him in reasonably good stead with horror fans, but it was his NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) that . The concept of a maniac slaughtering his victims in their dreams was a novel and frightening one (it was also the source of the 1984 movie, DREAMSCAPE that was released earlier that year).

Lost scene--of numerous others--that no longer exist, or have yet to be found, from LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)

Unfortunately, Craven fell off the wagon with such clumsy and ill mannered flatulence like the useless sequel, THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2 (1985) and the bewildering DEADLY FRIEND in 1986. Following a similar trajectory akin to Tobe Hooper, more crapola followed bearing titles like SHOCKER (1989), THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991) and VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN (1995). Having seemingly lost his touch, with an occasional flash of ingenuity, the director began producing other peoples movies around this time till he essentially reinvented both himself and the slasher sub genre with the hip, self referential, and mocking movie SCREAM in 1996. For today's audiences, the SCREAM series will be Craven's legacy. His movies have been forgettable affairs for the most part and this includes those where he was the producer such as THE BREED (2006), a ridiculous unacknowledged remake of the superior THE PACK from 1977. Craven also took a producer credit on the remake of his own HILLS HAVE EYES and also on the inferior 2007 sequel to the remake of the original (confusing, aint it?). After a failed attempt at cloning his own ELM STREET series (not to mention that ELM STREET was getting its own remake as well) with MY SOUL TO TAKE in 2010, Craven retreated to the safety of the SCREAM series with the fourth chapter; and that, too, failed to recapture the former glory of the once popular pop culture slasher series. Whether he continues his directorial career, Craven's place in horror history is assured. He has had one of the longest careers in horror, despite noticeably fluctuating quality for much of his terror tenure. For me, his best years are from 1972 to 1984.


Having previously discussed the lightning storm of amazing European talent bringing nightmares to vivid life on screen, there are also some Euro talents that have incurred the wrath of horror's fan base on a regular basis. One of those two is Marcus Nispel, a filmmaker who has had an undeniably successful career in commercials and music videos. His horror debut was the 2003 Michael Bay produced remake of Hooper's seminal THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974). While it jettisoned the 'Family as Cannibals' plot device, Nispel fashioned a gritty, grubby and grimy little movie that was aided by procuring the services of the original films DP, Daniel Pearl. If the film is guilty of any crime, its being the bacteria that has begat the plague of remakes that hovers over horror and continues to spread like the bite from a reanimated corpse. Nispel's movie was followed by an even nastier sequel from director Jonathan Liebesman entitled THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (2006).

On a side note, Liebesman had made a strong debut in 2003 with the occasionally scary, but overly silly, DARKNESS FALLS. That films box office success got him the Leatherface gig. As fate would have it, Liebesman was originally attached to the then upcoming Michael Bay produced FRIDAY THE 13TH remake. However, he was subsequently replaced by Marcus Nispel! Liebesman has since went on to directing big and loud mega budget studio pictures like BATTLE: LOS ANGELES (2011) and the soon to be released WRATH OF THE TITANS (2012).

Meanwhile, Nispel essentially turned his version of FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009) into a loose CHAINSAW follow up that never quite feels like a FRIDAY film. Overlong and pacing issues aside, the opening grabs your attention, but fails to keep it for the remainder of the film, despite some fine cinematography again by Daniel Pearl. This franchise made its name on its death scenes and this reboot-reimagining-remake (whatever they're calling them these days) fails miserably in that department. It doesn't skimp on the nudity, though, and has no qualms about paying naked tribute to the many jock ass-sex as sleaze angles that permeated dozens of horror movies during the 1980s. Two other inferior and failed Nispel remakes, PATHFINDER (which had a damn fine trailer[2007]) and CONAN (2010) have done nothing to improve his reputation. Currently, Nispel is still aboard the remake train reportedly at work on an all new version of THE FLY.


Hollywood is filled with instances of individuals being dealt a cruel twist of fate; filmmakers make a big splash with a down and dirty debut, but fizzle out after being saddled with mediocre material. At the same time, others seem to thrive while continuously cranking out crap. The forgotten Ohio born filmmaker, Jeff Burr is one such director who fell victim of the former. His 1987 horror debut, FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM was a raw, taboo trashing and sadistic return of the anthology film that packed necrophilia, cannibalism, incest, child murder and other unsavory's into a 100 minute running time. Boasting a great cast including the likes of Vincent Price, Clu Gulager, Cameron Mitchell and Martine Beswick, WHISPER got a title change when it was briefly unleashed to North American theaters as THE OFFSPRING; a reference to the films first tale. From here, Burr would fall into the bottomless pit of sequels and remakes. His next, actually being pretty good, was the sequel to the sleeper hit, THE STEPFATHER (1987). That film, STEPFATHER 2 (1989), saw Terry O'Quinn return to menace a new family. Meg Foster and Hooper's CHAINSAW 2's Caroline Williams star. In a slight change from the first movie, the level of gore was increased, which lumped this in more comfortably with other horror films that were more blatant about their slasher heritage.

With one impressively creepy gorefest and a well made sequel under his belt, Burr was next attached to direct the much derided third chapter in the TEXAS CHAINSAW saga. This one, LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 3 (1990), wallowed in its grotesqueries, but suffered severely at the hands of the MPAA. Also, David Schow's original script apparently had a lot of elements that were deemed to disturbing to be filmed (such as dancing with entrails!). The film does have some powerful moments (the opening credits sequence is impressive at capturing the right atmosphere), but unnecessary contrivances such as an Excalibur Chainsaw and silly pseudo comical moments lessen the films overall impact. The trailer featuring Leatherface retrieving the Excalibur saw from a lake prior to it being struck by lightning is better than the actual movie and it features no scenes from the film. After this troubled production, Burr remained trapped in remake purgatory excreting such minor movies like PUMPKINHEAD 2: BLOOD WINGS (1994) and two entries in the PUPPETMASTER series. Working sporadically in the genre, it's a shame he never capitalized on his offensively endearing debut horror feature.




Yingqi Zheng said...

I love you blog posts. As a video production students, your blogs gave me lots of useful information. I am Asian, the horror films between esten and western are quite different. I think Asian people focus on more about ghost, soul.. kind of things. Western horror movies put more attention on serious killers. After watched several series of horror movies, I still like SAW best. Because it's not only about kill person but also have complex logic thinking and killing methods. Those are twists that attract me to follow. I am kind of disappointed about some end episode of horror movie series, such as the ending of Final Destination. I pay huge expectation on it but it disappointed me. No new logic and no new trick. Anyway, thanks a lot of your posts, they help me a lot.

Kaijinu said...

I love REPO! and I adore Bousman, but I'm not really sure about Nispel myself. his TCM remake is fun, but very enpty, and the F13th reboot is technically a sequel disguised as a remake. I do prefer TCM: The Beginning more, actually, it was way cooler than the redux.

Franco Macabro said...

My god dude, I swear, you and I think so much a like! I wrote an article just like this one, but never printed went on and on about the "State of Horror" and I talked all about these new horror directors...

James Wan is definetly one of the promising ones..

I need to check out Bousmans Repo! I remember giving it a chance and then tuning out (shooting a short film about Halloween that day, wasnt the best of conditions to watch a movie) but I need to give it a re-watch for sure. Im a huge Rocky Horror Fan, so Im guessing I'll like something about it. But I remember thinking the songs werent all that great.

Great series of articles man!

Something I've never understood is why the new Jason and Freddy movies never got any sequels? I mean, Im sure they made a what gives? Why no more of them the way we saw them proliferate in the 80's?

venoms5 said...

@ Yingi: Hi, Yingqi. Thanks for your kind remarks! Yes, I agree regarding Asian and American horror pictures. American horror has mostly disappointed me lately. The best seem to come from the lower budgeted pictures which give more room for creativity in my opinion.

@ Kaijinu: I prefer THE BEGINNING as well since it captured that 70s spirit more than the previous movie did. Not that i didn't like the remake, just that BEGINNING was a bit more of an edge. They both had good qualities about them, though.

@ Fran: Well post it up, man! I recently watched his MOTHER'S DAY and I'm shocked it hasn't come out here yet. I enjoyed it a lot even though it's essentially another SAW style home invasion movie. The performances and script win out, though. There's been talks of more of the Jason's and Freddy's, but I guess the backlash from the remakes has put them off, possibly?

Alex Jowski said...

Great conclusion to this series. You've pretty much covered every vital horror director there is.

Maynard Morrissey said...

Absolutely amazing post!

Agree, James Wan is definitely one of the few true hopes in horror. Haven't seen Death Sentence but enjoyed all 3 of his horror movies. Very excited about his future projects.

Not sure about Bousman. He's a hit-or-miss director. The MD remake and Saw 2 were just brilliant - other stuff like Saw 3, Saw 4 or the episode he did for "Fear Itself" are quite mediocre. Not so excited about his future stuff.

Craven is also a hit-or-miss director, though in the last years he sadly is more miss.
I'm an avid lover of the Elm Street movies, Scream 1&2, Deadly Friend, LHOTL, THHE and the still pretty underrated The Serpent And The Rainbow - but stuff like Shocker, TPUTS, Cursed, Scream3&4, my Soul To Take or the script for the shoddy Pulse remake just made me scratch my head.

I hate all of Nispel's movies, but I'm a fan of Liebesman's stuff. I ADORE the TCM prequel and stuff like Killing Room or Rings are just amazing. Unfortunately, his latest effort Battle:LA was the worst in-theater-experience of my life.

venoms5 said...

@ Alex: I got at least one more part to go for this one. So part four will be 'The Final Chapter', lol.

@ Harry: Wan looks to be staying on course with the ghost style movies and hopefully he can surpass, or at least maintain the same momentum he had with INSIDIOUS.

I did enjoy the TCM remake, but felt the sequel captured the 70s style much better, since it didn't shy away from the cannibalism aspect of the original. The biker gang added a lot, imo.

Maynard Morrissey said...

Strange, I hated the remake but loved the prequel.
At least the remake is far better than TCM: Next Generation LOL

Wan is currently working on Insidious - I'm not sure if I'm happy about this.
I love Insidious, but I'd prefer him to do something different (um... was that English?)

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