In the ensemble tour de force that is John Luessenhop’s Takers, Idris Elba masterfully says, without a hint of irony, “We’re takers, gents. That’s what we do for a living. We take.” Apparently, along with being a competent actor by day, Elba also moonlights as Captain Obvious by night, but in addition to being heavy with deep, poetic truth, his quote is also indicative of a phenomenon that was hitherto seen as common knowledge.
Which is to say, words should mean what they mean.
Yes, takers take. Drivers drive and writers write; lovers love and teachers teach. Words have meanings, and meanings never change. But sadly, the most glaring contemporary misnomer is one that disheartens the most – scary movies no longer scare.
Secretly, we all know it. Drew Goddard must too.
To try and prove my point, let me ask you a simple question. When was the last time a horror film scared you? Like really, genuinely frightened you. I’m not asking the teenaged filmic philistine who considers Transformers (or Takers) the height of moving picture achievement; I’m asking the hardcore, irreversibly obsessed, cinematic connoisseurs. I’m asking likeminded individuals. I’m asking the ‘Sound on Sight’ reader.
If we are to be honest, the answer should confound. The pretentious among us will bring up horror classics, like Psycho, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Carrie, Jaws, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Or The Exorcist, Nosferatu, Dawn of the Dead, and the Japanese version of The Ring. Or even Rosemary’s Baby, The Night of the Hunter, The Evil Dead and Alien. Pretentious people like to incessantly ramble on about films they’ve seen, and we should never put much stock into what they say. (God, I hate them.)
But I digress.
We should never confuse a film’s intent with its result. Sure, these aforementioned films have been revolutionary in shaping the horror genre, and probably scared the bejesus out of an entire generation, but anyone with an objective retrospective outlook will likely notice the surprisingly antiseptic nature of these classics. We can recognize there contribution and artistic merit, but how many of them still scare you?
To take an in extreme example, in 1895, the Lumière brothers’ 50-second The Train Enters the Station, caused widespread pandemonium, with people literally stampeding out of the theatre. Now, a century on, the 3-minute masterpiece of a train disaster in Super 8 barely gets us to lean forward in our seats. That’s simply the nature of the beast; when you develop a stronger palate, you’re not going to love your mama’s macaroni and cheese as much as you used to.
Looking back at the classics, we come to realize that they’ve aged pretty poorly. They’ve become so ubiquitous that their edge and shock value have begun to wear off. In fact, kids have been dressing up as Freddy Krueger on Halloween for years, while Michael Myers makes everyone think of William Shatner (although that might be a little bit scary for some).
We’ll still hold the classics near and dear to our hearts, but it’s mostly out of respect and nostalgia for a time when scary movies indeed scared us. So when we get bored with the old, we move on to the new; but contemporary horror cinema has been unilaterally pusillanimous.
As bitter critics, we’ve seen every possible set-up, every possible premise, and every possible plot twist ever conceived, envisioned, and acted upon. So much so, that when films try to do something different, we scoff and abjectly declare it as passé.
We laugh when characters decide to run back into the haunted house. We cringe when actors, who are obviously cast for their looks, deliver cheesy, campy dialogue. And yes, we sheepishly smile when they inevitably take of their tops, and we revel in their gratuitous nudity. Or at least, I do.
Horror films, more often than not, unintentionally humour us more than they intentionally scare us.
That’s why, since the late 70’s and early 80’s, horror films have gone through a revisionist epiphany, becoming increasing self-aware of these dying genre conventions, and flipping them for laughs. Films like 1984’s Night of the Comet were fresh and exciting because, although unoriginal, it’s something we’ve never seen before.
As these satirist filmmakers matured, their craft matured with them, and as we neared the end of the 20th century, horror satires became a genre of its own, culminating in the 1996 Meta horror classic, Scream.
Now, it’s come to the point where these films have usurped their source material, with every new, well-intentioned horror film being mocked, scrutinized, and apathetically compared to their spoofs.
At this year’s Canadian Film Festival, I was treated to three horror films. Two of them being satirical; both of which subverts the third. (Check out my reviews of Below Zero and A Little Bit Zombie.)
Inevitably, every new zombie flick will be compared to Shaun of the Dead. Every hillbilly horror film will be compared to Tucker & Dale Vs Evil, and every vampire tale will be compared to Twilight (I see it as satire).
The horror film genre has now become a misnomer – an inaccurate label for scary movies that don’t scare us and for comedies with a darker, gorier edge than most. We’ve come to grips that they don’t scare us anymore, so now, we expect them to be sardonic.
But alas, the spoof genre itself has become tired (here’s looking at you Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer), so it’s not hyperbolic to call Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods the best horror film of recent years, because it is. I submit Rob Simpson’s review as proof.
Although just as tongue in cheek as its predecessors, Cabin does more than just play around with genre clichés. It takes being Meta to a new level by making the viewer question the ethics of watching a horror film, while watching a horror film!
If you haven’t seen it yet, The Cabin in the Woods is about vacationing college kids being used as ritual sacrifices for ‘The Ancients’, who can only be appeased by increasingly depraved, ostentatious acts of inhumanity. Surprisingly, the deaths follow a prerequisite checklist consisting of nudity, gore, and virgins.
We never learn who they are, or why they enjoy human blood sport, but from their vaguely primordial name and their unrelenting lust for blood and suffering, we can only conclude that these are immoral, primitive creatures.
Gee, I wonder whom they’re referring to?
Cabin is a smart, funny, high concept of a thriller, but more importantly, it’s more comprehensive than all other satirical horror flicks combined. Not only does it point out the fact that horror films can be incredibly stupid, it makes us consider the moral implications of deriving enjoyment from the gruesome and macabre suffering of others.
The Cabin in the Woods has categorically burned the bridges with all preceding horror pictures before it, and it seems unlikely that anyone can, or will, make a better film. It’s inevitable that all straightforward horror flicks of the future will be critiqued, probably using Cabin as a basis, and it’s inconceivable that any satire can be more Meta. Plus, Cabin’s underlying message is so thought provoking and true, that making another horror film would feel redundant and objectionable.
I think Goddard has finally done it. He’s created the horror film to end all horror films.
So what do we do when scary movies no longer scare us, and when satirical films have reached its apex?
Lucky for you, I asked Elba, and he said that when takers don’t take, they get a cap popped in their ass, and when dogs no longer dog, they are mercifully put down.
I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying.