PASSING SHLOCK: New Horror, Innovation, and Putting One Over on the Mainstream

There is always a slew of new horror films ready to make a cheap buck at the cineplex, and audiences eat them up. So many exist, in fact, that a few films have recently snuck into wide release (none financially successful, I might point out) that, were it not for their questionable genre pedigree, would have never seen the light of day, and which would have easily passed in an arthouse if they weren't so defiantly "genre" in their setup and conventions. Up for consideration, I offer Rob Zombie's HALLOWEEN 2, Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody's JENNIFER'S BODY, and Sam Raimi's brilliant DRAG ME TO HELL. All three films, with varying degrees of success, use and manipulate genre conventions to unnerve the viewer, and they do so with such slickness that it sort of passes unnoticed, leaving mainstream audiences used to simple, clichè-filled cookie cutter horror sort of satisfied, but scratching their heads at what the hell it was they just saw.

Rob Zombie is a director who is definitely an auteur of exploitation. Unnerving, raw and brutal are the trademark adjectives for his two best films, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS and HALLOWEEN 2. For all the psychobabble and theories about familial relations written about in countless papers and articles as the underpinning subtext of all horror, Zombie's films are almost completely, exclusively about familial relations and generational psychosis, masquerading as exploitation schlock for the masses.
Consider his interpretation of Michael Myers, and that character's arc from film to film. Ultimately, Myers is a child trying, in his own way, to please his mother and find his way in the world. I don't think this development is too far of a stretch, especially given its place in slasher film history, and it's easy for an audience to accept. Where Zombie sneaks one in, however, has more to do wth actual content and visual thematics, specifically the heavy allusions in the sequel, which pushes just as many buttons and boundaries as his earlier film, DEVIL'S REJECTS.

The content of HALLOWEEN 2 I'm referring to, and which people in cineplexes seem to be having trouble with, is the "white horse" motif. Providing a description of what the appearance of a white horse in dreams or nightmares means in analytical terms right at the beginning of the film, Zombie sets up H2 to be explicitly concerned with dreams, often obscuring whether or not Myers himself is even committing the brutal killings. Certainly, Myers gets a lot of screentime, but often the design of the film is hazy and smoke-filled, much like in the multiple dream sequences with the horse and Myers's mommy dearest. What this does is create a sense of uncertainty as to the reality of the film, and it has varying degrees of success.

Along with that, Laurie Strode, the Final Girl in the films, played by Scout Taylor Compton, is portrayed as increasingly unhinged and wreckless, just as likely a culprit as a killer whose head was blown off at the end of the last film. And then there's that wonderful, clichèd final shot of Laurie in the cell at the end, finalizing her descent into madness. Zombie isn't afraid to raise questions and leave them unanswered. Laurie may have imagined everything and committed the crimes herself, but there's no certainty. Is Laurie simply inheriting madness through genetics? Is it due to the traumatic events she goes through herself in both movies that leads her to the hospital? Is Michael even "undead" at all, leaving Laurie as the most likely culprit? Boldly, the film operates in much the same way as an art-house psycho-drama, though filled wall to wall with gruesome and brutal violence, and featuring one of the most intense sound designs I think I've ever heard. Zombie's pushing forward with his exploitation art-house, but sadly the audiences don't seem to be there from either side.

Sam Raimi is interested in pushing boundaries in ways completely different than Zombie, but with similar subversive results. With DRAG ME TO HELL, he continues his fascination with genre-bending, blending horror and broad comedy into something wholly singular. Unlike Zombie's visceral approach to undercutting genre conventions by juxtaposing slasher films with their implied social context and theoretical meanings, Raimi seeks to point out the absurd moments of horror by making them patently absurd through slapstick and overt camera moves. Some may argue that this was already pioneered with his own EVIL DEAD 2, which is stylistically similar, but his inspiration for DRAG ME TO HELL's comedy is more Tex Avary than Moe Howard.

Consider a scene in the middle of the film where Christine, the afflicted heroine, encounters her gypsy tormentor in the shed behind her house. While being strangled by the gypsy woman, Christine is able to grab an ice skate and use it to make an anvil, suspended from the ceiling of the shed via rope and pulley, fall down and crush the old woman. Only in a cartoon universe could such a scene make sense, and Raimi's sense of horror is the absurdity of the situation being put out front, in full view, for everyone to see. Yes, it's absurd that this woman came out of nowhere to pull a jump-scare out of you, but isn't it absurd all of the coincidences that usually get rid of monsters in our movies? Is the anvil trick really any different than the last-minute escapes from Freddy or Jason just as they are about to kill their final victim? Of course not, though unlike those instances, Raimi's version of the situation could just as easily come from a Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd short. The earlier fight in the parking garage is equally as absurdist and disturbing, with Christine being gummed and drooled on, and cursed for not offering a loan extension to the elderly woman who will soon curse her and doom her soul.

And then there's the sèance toward the end, where the possessed man, after a couple of pretty intense moments, breaks up the situation by dancing a jig while floating above the table with flames rising underneath him. The clear inspiration? Daffy Duck, of course, who often breaks up his own intense arguments with absurdist asides and remarks, or by simply acting, well, daffy. This is Raimi trying to find out how far he can push audience limitations in form, especially since the horrific is rarely the comedic, creating a film that zig-zags back and forth more than slams together to create a single tone, a là SHAUN OF THE DEAD. The closest the horrific comes to being the joke itself is the director's insistence on putting his actors through hell by seeing just how much fluid he can soak them in at any given time. Alison Lohman, as Christine, is doused by bile, vomit, drool, muddy water, and blood by the end of the film, literally representing the trials and tribulations of the traditional horror heroine as disgusting and vile.

And then, we come to JENNIFER'S BODY, easily the most divisive film up for discussion. In reality, it combines a bit of both of Zombie and Raimi's films' ambitions, though I think it's a bit less successful than either of the other two. Anyone who knows me personally is well aware of my strong dislike JUNO - particularly Diablo Cody's hipster-lite, pop-culture-reference laden dialogue. I'm all for writers having distinctive voices and styles that shape their every project, like David Milch (DEADWOOD, NYPD BLUE) or Woody Allen, bu something about Cody's script just rang false, with everyone in the whole damned town sounding like an idealized version of what a sixteen year-old thinks adults talk about and sound like when discussing adult things. It was lame, and inhibited the few positive things I found in the movie.

But here, we have a movie that makes all of that make sense, taking place in high school, featuring a bitch as a main character who eats people (literally), and isn't afraid of the corny side of genre fare. In short, JENNIFER'S BODY is a giant leap forward for Cody stylistically, and as a horror film, it's pretty fun, and the dialogue doesn't get in the way, mainly since we expect high school students to act self-absorbed and speak in ways that don't quite make sense outside of their social strata.

The main leap forward for JENNIFER'S BODY as a horror film, though, is its insistence on toying with genre conventions and following through with them while attempting to make the personalities of the characters the parodic targets. Jennifer and Needy are strong archetypes for the two major personalities in horror: the Final Girl, and the generic victim. By making Jennifer, the victim, turn out to be the monster as well, the loops in regular sexual interpretation are filled in and twisted until their unrecognizable. How can the sexualized sacrifice be the horror that must be stopped and still make sense in masculine/feminine terms? Well, apparantly, by obscuring the sexual impulses of all characters into some sort of amalgamation of bi- and homo-sexual tendencies, where nothing makes sense, and social class doesn't really factor into any of it. Jennifer's choice of morsels stems from nothing more than convenience for her condition, and the demon inside her is likewise not picky about who she kills and consumes. The killing boys motif, it turns out, is out of simple convenience, for who would ever question why a boy would go off by himself with and throw himself in the path of a monster like Jennifer.

Kusama and Cody innovate the generic monster in this way, making the motives and impulses difficult to read, and simultaneously obscuring and highlighting the subtext of horror films in general. Not unlike Zombie or Raimi. I'll likely return to all of these films at some point in the future, but for now, I'll leave it at this thought: Why, when Hollywood is full of bankrupt ideas and ready to funnel out money for the next remake, are these films even getting made? HALLOWEEN 2 seems most obvious, as it is a remake of sorts, though only briefly, but what about DRAG ME TO HELL and JENNIFER'S BODY. These films are the serious works of seriously talented people who somehow pulled one over on the suits who would never greenlight ambitious, complex retoolings of genre fiction were it not for their names and bankability. And obviously, given all three films' low box office receipts, the audience for these ambitious undertakings are not in the mainstream. Could these be marketed toward a more arthouse-prone audience?
After all, the French have a stranglehold on the arthouse right now, producing visceral, gory, ultraviolent horror that seems to be playing well at international film festivals, and gets plenty of recognition for the advances in genre from the likes of Film Comment and academia in general. Until American horror quits being underrated as a genre fit only for numb-skulled idiots who want to watch the latest FINAL DESTINATION film (which there's nothing wrong with, fundamentally, mind you), these films will continue to fall by the wayside, finding their audience on their own terms, and with no help from either the mainstream or the serious cinephile.