There is this thing about great art where if you are just looking at it you can appreciate it for what it is, but if you pay close attention to it you will see a whole lot more. Any great genre film is good entertainment for what it is, but it is also about something other than what it is about. A zombie flick isn’t just about zombies. A serial killer is not just a sociopath. A bug is rarely merely a bug.
Of course, this attribute can be found in many of the films looked at in any given year of my Horrorfest. This year’s festival opener, “The Host”, is a great example of it. You can watch it as a creature feature about a giant salamander on the rampage in the sewers of Seoul, Korea. It’s exciting, quirky and fun. But if you look deeper into the subtext you could find what might be intended as critique on South Korean and American foreign policy.
There are three films I looked at recently that are not quite so subtle in their underlying agendas, but just as effective.
“28 Days Later” was a summer sleeper zombie flick from a couple of years back that went a good way to redefine the sub-genre of zombie horror, basing the zombies on a more plausible “rage” virus infecting people through their bloodstreams like a super-virus instead of just having zombies rise from the dead. The rage zombies were faster, more violent, and quite frightening.
This summer kicked off with the allocated sequel “28 Weeks Later”, which sees a London in the weeks after the rage virus has been contained as like some sort of war refugee zone. The American military has been brought in to facilitate the repopulation of London, contain and find a possible cure for the virus, and keep the peace among the traumatized British survivors.
The first film in the series also took a shot at the military sticking its nose into arenas for which it is not equipped, but the sequel is much less subtle about where its underlying themes are targeted. The London citizens who have been confined to high rise living in a very small section of the city are treated as if they are livestock and behave like scared sheep. Not just scared of what has become of them, but just as sheepish toward their caretakers.
The soldiers on the other hand are bored. Taking aim at people in their homes and chattering on about the people’s private practices, which are easily observed with the soldier’s high tech gear, just to keep from going crazy. Can highly trained specialists be expected to effectively execute orders for a task that falls outside of their field of expertise? Is a second outbreak of the virus inevitable in an environment that allows for no flexibility in the detailing of responsibility? It certainly is inevitable in a sequel where audiences are there for the blood.
Again near the beginning of the summer blockbuster season, William Friedkin unveiled his bleak psychologically driven personal horror adaptation of the Tracy Letts play “Bug”. While the stage structure of the story might lead some to say this isn’t a horror film, but a psychological drama, I would say the opening shot, which shows a dead man lying on the ground with blood all over him in a room made up of aluminum foil, suggests otherwise.
Ashley Judd stars in one of her wonderful independent performances, as opposed to her mainstream thrillers which tend to be less than. Judd plays a woman whose own fears are personal until she meets a man (Michael Shannon) to whom she develops a needful connection. Not only does he make his paranoia hers, but their fear begins to feed off each other until everything logically leads to the conspiracy that drives them to that dead man’s strange fate.
Their fear and paranoia is a reflection of the state of fear that drives our society with its school shooters, terrorism and wars against such things. While these two characters’ psychological downward spiral is fascinating enough in its own right, I wondered why the writer had added the element of the abusive ex-husband played by Harry Connick Jr. into the mix. Why couldn’t he just have been a concerned relative? Then it occurred to me that he was 1) a genuine fear for Judd and 2) did represent someone who was truly concerned for her. He really does love her, despite the fact that he hits her, that makes the threat of him more real than any of the paranoid delusions the couple comes up with, and yet still the contrived fear is more powerful than the real threat of the ex-husband.
Are we more concerned about false threats? Which is more dangerous, the threat of terrorism which is thrown in our faces on an hour by hour schedule by presidential contenders and the media alike, or the downward spiral of our economy? What would become of the war if our stock market crashed? While sometimes it may seem our liberties are being restrained in certain areas of our lives, perhaps it really is for our own good? And perhaps it is not some dark conspiracy that makes us seem trapped. Is it a conspiracy of our own making, or did someone else plant the seed of doubt?
“Bug” is a film that raises nothing but questions, and its only answer is that fear and paranoia beget fear and paranoia.
Earlier this year I reviewed Rob Zombie’s remake of the John Carpenter horror classic “Halloween” with much disappointment. During last year’s Horrorfest I looked at Zombie’s first foray into feature length horror “House of 1,000 Corpses.” “House” is more satisfying than his remake of “Halloween”, but still is uneven and meandering. His follow-up to that film is Zombie’s crowning achievement so far, the wonderfully rich and intelligent sequel to “House” which continued the story of the serial killing family of that film that in the second becomes known as “The Devil’s Rejects”.
I had been hearing praises of “The Devil’s Rejects” ever since its release in 2005, but I never imagined what a skillfully executed film it is. It almost doesn’t even qualify as a horror film in its own right. It plays a little like a modern western throughout most of its running time, one that happens to feature outlaw protagonists that are serial killers instead of bank robbers. But then in its final act it veers back into horror territory as the serial killing family has the tables turned on it by a vigilante cop who makes them his victims.
It is truly fascinating how it is even possible that Zombie can show his audience such reprehensible characters and then get that same audience to fall in behind those characters and root for them and even feel their terror as they are persecuted in the very same horrific style in which they have tortured and killed so many.
But what it the point of all this really? Well, I think for the most part it is primarily an entertainment, but there is something very basic Zombie seems to be saying about family and the way it is the core of our natures. Nurture is nature, rather than nurture versus nature. These serial killers bicker and banter back and forth with each other just like any family. They spark rage in each other that, considering their darkest nature, might lead you to think they would all kill each other; but that consideration never seems to enter their minds. Perhaps that is also because the crimes they commit against other people are not informed by emotions of rage so much as by some evil that is not connected to human emotion.
Whatever the inner workings of these killers, “The Devil’s Rejects” is a wonderful example of horror/gore entertainment with an underlying current of depth that makes for great cinema.