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Reel Dread

By Desmond Reddick
23 July 2007 — We've all seen it before: a group of high school friends on a post-graduation last hurrah embark on a road trip into the wilderness. After some marijuana is passed around and beer guzzled down (indulged by all except the reluctant, mentally scarred virgin, of course), the car gets a flat and the camera cuts to a nail belt being dragged across the road. Everyone is okay but nobody seems to know how to change a tire, so they wind up wandering through the middle of nowhere as they are picked off one by one by cannibalistic rednecks. Sound familiar?

Along with the haunted mansion and summer camp, the road trip is one of horror cinema's most used tropes, and they have served as plot devices for the majority of American horror films since the 1950s. And even though the haunted mansion and summer camp are hardly used nowadays, the road trip remains a favorite of horror cinema. Why is that? Let's take a look...0

First of all, we have to distinguish between the two types of road trips: the party trip and the family vacation. Of course there are variations on each theme, but let's separate our topics of analysis into these two broad categories. Once we define these categories we will be able to dive in and explore how they are used.

The most prolific in use is the friendly camping / party trip. It is another way to get hot young teenagers together to smoke dope, drink and skinny-dip before being impaled whilst copulating. There's nothing new here as far as slasher fare goes, but we can look a little deeper into what this trip means. The vacation with friends is a bit of a rite of passage. It is an assertion of independence in a way. These teenagers are on what is likely their first vacation without parental supervision, ensuring that they will be overdoing it as far as the debauchery goes. In this scenario, you are almost guaranteed to find four stock characters: the party guy (probably driving the car), his slutty girlfriend (smoking a cigarette the first time we see her), the party guy's friend who likes to party but is really kind of sensitive (likely to become romantically involved with our last cliché), the damaged virgin girl. Chances are "damaged virgin girl" has lost her parents recently and she "needs to come out of her shell," or so her slutty friend says.

The above characters represent various strata of teenage society who all, in one way or another, need to assert their independence in a rite of passage. This is seen in a mass of films too multitudinous to list but most recently in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre original and remakes, Wolf Creek, Wrong Turn and many others. Furthermore, the plot device is stretched to include a single gender in The Descent.

This scenario can represent some of the pitfalls teenagers face on their way to adulthood. They are beset by monsters, cannibals, a werewolf, a sexually depraved slasher, etc. and their vacation is more than ruined. Their very future is in peril and only those who make the right decisions make it out alive. I went through this in my earlier discussion on sex and the slasher so I won't dive into it here, but it certainly rings true.

The more interesting scenario, and more relatable for that matter, is the family trip. Let's face it, how many times have you been on a sex and drug-filled road trip with your friends versus a trip with your parents you never thought would end? Which inspires more fear? Personally, I cringe at the very thought of my father explaining for the countless time why peaches are better than nectarines while I bake in the sun focusing through my window like an ant under a magnifying glass.

This scenario too has four stock characters you are almost guaranteed to see: overbearing / boring father, doting / mindless mother, responsible older sister who misses her boyfriend and is disgusted by her younger brother who is either young and snotty with some form of handheld video game system or a teenager who smokes pot and listens to heavy metal in his headphones.

Dead End is a criminally underrated independent horror film that depicts this scenario very well. It is very reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode in its tone but uses these stock characters to a very good end. And you get to see Amber Smith naked! Furthering the stereotypical situation, The Hills Have Eyes has the very same premise but adds a second sister and extended family in the form of a husband and baby. This adds the character interaction between a man, clearly dreading being stuck with his in-laws, and the overbearing father of the women he's banging. As a married man I can appreciate the husband character who is treated as a secondary masculine character on vacation and appreciated it in this film whereas I would more often identify somewhere in between the pot-smoking heavy metal kid and the mature sister. The film also takes it one step further in another matter: it serves not as a plate of victims for the monstrous cannibals, but as a declaration of war between the two clans.

This scenario is probably derived from a relatively recent "breakdown of the family unit," as somebody more conservative than I am might put it. The family is threatened by outside depravity and must do its best to survive. But in the end, those who make it out alive are members of a completely different and fractured family.

Like The Descent twisted the previous trope by changing the sexes of those involved, Severance is a horror comedy in the vein of Shaun of the Dead that changes the family around. In Severance, the family unit involved is composed of members of an office who are on a team-building exercise gone awry. They fit into this and not the teenager scenario because, regardless of one character's debauchery, none of them want to be there except the boss.

We all relate to being stuck somewhere at the behest of someone we cannot disobey — whether it be parents or a boss — and being absolutely mortified by it. Add in the danger of being tortured to death, and in some cases eaten, and it is only made worse.

As I finish this week's column I am on my way home from a road trip of my own. If you don't get to read this until the police recover my laptop in a few months time you can just assume the cannibalistic rednecks got to me! See you next week... I hope.

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Dread Media 882

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