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Reel Dread
The Pornography of Torture

By Desmond Reddick
04 June 2007 — Have we become desensitized? Are the authority figures right when they say that horror movies are to blame for seducing the innocent into lives of sin? There are those who would outline a clear descent into the profane in the realm of horror cinema over the past few decades. I am going to argue the opposite: the realm of popular horror cinema has been tamed in recent years.

The media tells us that Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes, The Devil's Rejects and the Saw films have ushered in an era of the grotesque; that it is the next step in the corruption of the innocent. The directors of these films have even been named "The Splat Pack" by the conservative media. But are they really all that bad? These films, violent and exploitative as they may be, are nowhere near the intensity of one of the most respected horror films of all time. The Exorcist depicts a young girl masturbating violently with a crucifix while uttering the phrase, "Your mother sucks cocks in Hell!" Today, that scene would have NC-17 written all over it. Makes a blowtorch to the eye look rather pedestrian, doesn't it?

There has been a recent change in on-screen violence. But the change has been in the sensibilities of the top-billed horror films over the past decade, not a steady decline in morals as FOX News would have you believe. It used to be that Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer were the top-billed. The six-packed boys and tight-shirted girls of the WB were screaming their heads off, fleeing their knife-wielding pursuers in virtually every major horror release in the 1990s. Scooby-Doo endings and tame violence ran rampant in these PG-13 cinematic disasters.

But all of these films were, in essence, neutered remakes of Friday the 13th. Good looking teenagers are murdered in revenge for something they weren't directly involved in by a supernatural killer who, when unmasked, turned out to be a common character in an incredibly illogical leap of storytelling. I for one am glad that these films are fizzling out (they have actually become a bit of a novelty).

The new millennium (and lo, how I hate that terminology) ushered in an interesting new age in horror cinema. The emergence of foreign horror films and the proliferation of independent films shook-up the industry and changed it for the better. The Blair Witch Project, while not the greatest film, took audiences by surprise with its hyper-realistic vision and merciless marketing campaign. It influenced a huge spate of faux documentaries, shot on the cheap, that achieved marginal success. This trend continues today with the brand new film The Poughkeepsie Tapes and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (the latter being not only a great film, but an important one for the genre). The foreign influx of horror cinema, most notably Japanese films, resurrected the notion of absolute terror in popular movies. Ringu and Ju-on — and to some extent their American remakes (The Ring and The Grudge, respectively) — were the films that made it okay to really scare the shit out of audiences in this modern age. I would posit that they got the ball rolling on what we have today.

The current trend of horror films is nothing new. In fact, it harkens back to a similar period in history. At the tail end, and in the period after, the Vietnam War, the realism in horror films came crashing through theatre screens. When one sees children with their burnt skin falling off of their bodies on the news, it is difficult to get any kind of scares when you're watching films about giant monsters and sexy vampires. The Vietnam War spawned exploitation classics like Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even got Tom Savini (a former battlefield photographer) into recreating the horror he'd seen in real life. Similarly, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan has boys from the US, UK and Canada being sent home in boxes, not to mention the huge civilian death toll. The horror of today is grislier. Wolf Creek, the Texas Chainsaw remake and others are reflecting this. But to say that these are somehow responsible for society's current mess is the height of naivetι. When anybody with a computer can type "beheading" into Google and see a soldier having his head removed by a masked man on the other side of the world it's hard to be scared by a frat boy in a ghost mask.

Looking at the films of the 70s — and drawing parallels to a steep descent in authoritative trust — those of today are far tamer by comparison. You have to look deep into the underground to find any film resembling the various Nazisploitation, nunsploitation or rapesploitation films you could see in a mainstream theater in New York 30 years ago.

Horror cinema, like any art, merely reflects the current political climate, and you better believe it's only going to get worse before it gets better. To say that the world of genre film is spiraling out of control — into decadence and sin — is to ignore the past. If anything, sensibilities in the United States have swung vastly to the right and are searching for things — anything — to react against. Of course, artists who feel repressed can do nothing but give the morally righteous something to react against. These modern horror films have become nothing more than an outright, and very public, form of protest.

Like it or not, these films are necessary and will always exist. Your parents, your teachers and your government will always tell you to avoid them. But it's when they aren't available at all that you should be worried.

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