Sunday, June 08, 2008

One thing we have George W. Bush to thank for...

While watching a matinee performance of The Strangers today, one thing that kept going through my mind was how art might change when Obama becomes President. I mean, who knows, the world might still end in 2 years, at the rate it's going now, but I suspect that with such a drastic change in leadership and ideology, the whole culture will shift in one day.

It's pretty common knowledge that pervasive fear, uncertainty, unrest, and anxiety in society make for the best art, generally, and that in times like these, the darkness of people's souls is reflected on screen. Even if the films being created have no bearing, overtly, on reality or politics, they're still reflective of people's anxieties and moods. Remember the Clinton years? How fucking happy and prosperous and hopeful everyone was?

And remember how fucking boring all the movies were? Especially the horror genre. It became self-reflexive, jokey, funny, meaningless. And most decidedly not scary. Who knew that when Scream debuted in 1996, that it would effectively kill an entire genre of film for almost a decade? It's not Scream's fault. The original is actually a pretty great film; I've seen it numerous times. And you can't tell me that the first 10 minutes didn't totally scare the shit out of you. Drew Barrymore, alone in a house at night, being tormented by a psycho in a silly mask: dude, that shit was fucking scary. And then she ate it. The biggest star in the film got eviscerated and (literally) hung out to dry in the first 10 minutes. You knew Craven wasn't pulling any punches with this one.

But while watching The Strangers today, I thought less of Them, which everyone claims it to be a total rip-off of, and a lot more of that first scene in Scream. Which, it seems to me, it shares a lot more in common with.

I enjoyed the hell out of The Strangers, but it's by no means a perfect film. It's predictable, it lost me in a couple of places, due to its slightly meandering nature and the complete implausibility of the protagonists' behavior (I mean, seriously, why didn't they get in the car and leave immediately when it was clear someone was in the house....?), and the abruptness of its ending. It felt less like the killers got bored than the director got bored. The whole "inspired by true events" coupled with FBI statistics at the beginning is just fucking stupid, and the director, in the couple of interviews I've read, seems like kind of a douche. It's bleak. Even too bleak for me, possibly. The best horror films, in my opinion, at least offer a sliver of catharsis, in one way or another. But nope, not The Strangers.

All of which isn't to say that it's not a fucking terrifying film, because it is. Director Bertino has a gift for sound and timing, and hopefully he's not a one-trick pony. But contrary to what some people believe, I think this is a golden age of horror and thrillers. Just in the last couple of years alone, I think some of the best horror films in decades have come out: Hostel (both 1 and 2), The Descent, Cloverfield, 28 Weeks Later. And I'm sure I probably forgot one or two.

War, terrorism, a completely bloodthirsty, bat-shit crazy president, religious fundamentalism trying to run our lives, economic depression, environmental catastrophe. As much as I hate to say it, these are the makings of great horror. I don't know why I love horror films so much. Perhaps The Strangers is brilliant. Perhaps, like Funny Games, except without the sneering condescension, it's telling us that we can't have it both ways: we can't delight in the suffering and terror of our protagonists and get to have some catharsis at the end, too. That's just not fair, and in some ways, it's not moral. We made our decision to pay 8 bucks to watch these poor bastards die, and die is what they will do. It was our choice. We made it happen, now we must live with the weight of our decisions.

But why do we enjoy the process so much, then get so bummed when it ends the only way it could, and how we knew all along it would? And then leave the theater depressed? But...sort of...invigorated....

Maybe it makes us feel alive. Maybe it makes us appreciate that our mountain of school loan debt that keeps us awake at night is nothing compared to having our house invaded by masked psychos that make us watch while our lovers are slowly killed.

Who knows? But if Obama actually manages to make good on any of his promises, I'm going to miss these heady days of horror.

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