Sunday, 26 October 2008

...But Fear Itself #3: Just Getting Stabbed, I Guess

Watching someone get stabbed is boring. Well, it's fairly boring on the screen, anyway, in real life is a bit more intense. But, wherever you want to stand on the argument that Hollywood is far too violent, and desensitises people to trauma, it certainly does seem to be the case that watching someone pretend to plunge a knife into human flesh no longer creates much of a response.

I've been trying to work out the appeal in horror films in which you don't have to deal with werewolves or underground cannibals or dead chicks stuffed down wells. There are so many brilliantly terrifying gribblies and ghoulies out there that it seems a terrible shame to just hand some bloke a knife and a mask and shove him into the unlit backstreets.

The best idea I can come up with it that it's something about "realism". People seem to have a thing about realism in fiction. I'm not sure I entirely understand it. Actually, it might be fairer to say that the word seems ill-applied by those that use it. I'm not at all sure that people do want their films to be realistic. The real world is pretty boring. Even when the interesting stuff comes down, then as far as I've been able to determine (and I freely confess I'm not a NAVY Seal, or anything) mostly it's just confusion and loud noises and a lot of pointless sitting around waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's going to the toilet X times a day. It's going into the kitchen and realising you've forgotten about why. It's sitting watching TV whilst your other half talks about how difficult work has been because a door got jammed and no-one could fix it.

I don't think people want realism. I think what people want is pseudo-realism. They want a story not shot through with illogical nonsense, and one in which the characters behave in what they consider a plausible manner. When people point at something and say "That's so real!" what they generally mean is "I recognise some of my own situation in this". So what? That isn't finding something real, it's finding something relatable. The two are not the same. [1]

Perhaps, though, in the context of horror, this nebulous idea of "realism" has a genuine purpose. Watching flesh-hungry zombies on the rampage may be fairly freaky at the time, but once we leave the cinema and return to the real world, the fear is mainly forgotten. Watching Wolf Creek or The Strangers, though, both with their "BASED ON REAL EVENTS" legends proudly displayed, and perhaps the unease is harder to shake. These things really do happen, on rare occasion. It doesn't mean that statistically speaking watching a car crash or someone pass away from cancer on screen should scare us more, the fact cannot be denied that there is a strictly positive probability that sooner or later our lives will terminate on the end of some psychotic's big old knife.

I give those two films as examples because they stand out from the pack. A worrying number of slasher films are just a permutation of Halloween or Friday the Thirteenth. An indestructible killer, some pretty teenagers, and a whole bunch of killings. Both Wolf Creek and The Strangers attempt to step back from the formula, not least in the fact that both films have a grand total of three characters who are potential knife-fodder. Without the standard tactic of simply upping the body count to its maximum feasible level, these films instead focus on the psychological and physical toll being stalked by a remorseless murderer must take upon you. Or might take upon you. Like I said, it is not realism that concerns me, but plausibility.

Trouble is, atmosphere and tension are hard, garroting a naked teenager with big tits (she has big tits, she isn't being garroted with them, though I think I may have hit upon the natural step on from torture porn) is easy. Certainly, the former relies on a degree of mystery and uncertainty difficult to carry through into a sequel. The alternative, senseless bloody rampages through suburban LA zip-codes, is far easier to extend for X further movies. Just get yourself a new permutation. Plus, obviously, more blood and/or breasts and/or killings. God knows, you'll need something to drag the punters in, and few things are harder to bring a fresh spin to than "Dude kills a whole mess of people".

When Randy points out in Scream 2 that the horror genre was destroyed by sequels, he knew what he was talking about. Even the Halloweens of this world, which at least started out with some sort of creative worth, had no chance of maintaining that quality as the sequels started rolling off the production line. There just isn't enough there. [2]

I didn't always feel this way. It was Scream and its first sequel that sucked me into horror in the first place. But it didn't take long for my interest in watching people stuck with knives started to fade. For a little while it was possible to keep me interested with going after people with fish-hooks, or putting their dogs in the microwave, but it was clearly becoming a losing battle. I guess my own tastes reflected the slasher genre's problem as a whole, how do you keep upping the stakes to stop people getting jaded? The recent controversy over torture porn is just the latest attempt to answer this question. Where we go to next is an interesting question, but I have little doubt that the next step will take us further still from the "realism" angle which is all the slasher flick has to recommend it over more fantastical horror films in the first place. We're already at the stage of positing secret Eastern European underground torture bunkers, which hardly captures the "it could be you" spirit that these films need to give them weight.

Frankly, I think I'll stick with dead chicks stuffed down wells.

[1] There's also the matter of dialogue to consider. "Realistic dialogue" is a phrase tossed around as something to be strived for in scripts. No-one, crucially, ever attempts it. "Real dialogue" would be filled with ums and ers, pauses for thought, needless repitition, spoonerisms, inaccurate relating of events, people calling each other the wrong name, mispronounciations, and all the rest of the mistakes we make when we talk because we weren't lucky enough to have our words written into a script for us in advance. Bollocks to realistic scripts. I don't want realism. I want, once again, logic and relatability. Aaron Sorkin's scripts are a perfect example. I doubt that anyone in the world ever has spoken like Toby Zeigler, and I don't care in the slightest, because what he says is smart, and it's funny, and it makes perfect sense (even if I don't necessarily agree), and it's relatable. Listening to him as he tries to process his ex-wife telling him that he is just "too sad" for her is heartbreaking.

[2] Even Saw, a clever little film (though arguably less a horror and more a jet-black thriller), packed with atmosphere, had to throw in a whole bunch of pointless grizzly deaths in the sequel, essentially to pass the time until the arrival of the obligatory trick ending.


jamie said...

On the contrary, I would argue that Hostel was very much tapping into the 'it could happen to you' fear; it was aimed at teenagers, in a time when backpacking is a bigger industry than it has ever been - I'm sure that the concept of being preyed upon in such a way as was depicted could easily be understood and empathised with by much of its target market. The film itself is not all that it's cracked up to be, but the truly scary thing I found about it was the concept itself. I'm not saying it's a particularly realistic concept, but no less so than apparently indestructible psychos like Michael Myers and Jason...

SpaceSquid said...

You may well have a point about the backpacking aspect, though there are a number of ways that could be preyed upon in a more atmospheric and "real" manner than Hostel managed.

Comparing it to Myers and Jason isn't really fair, though. Myers wasn't indestructible in Halloween, beyond his disappearance at the end (which, as has been pointed out, could just have meant him crawling into the nearby bushes to bleed to death). Jason isn't even in the first Friday... film beyond a brief dream sequence. The indestructible, supernatural killer aspect is entirely a feature of the sequels, which ties to my original point that the more you stretch out a "realistic" horror idea, or the slasher genre itself, the more craziness you have to add in, until it isn't real at all anymore.