Monday, December 14, 2009

Horror Business Part Two: The Viet Nam Aesthetic

The early 1970s were a fertile ground for horror films in America. 1974 in particular was a real watershed year; not only did we get Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (my nomination for the title of “first American slasher movie,” predating John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years), but audiences were also treated to what might still be the scariest movie of all time: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Loosely inspired by Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein – the same case that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s PsychoThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre still holds up because it feels so real. Featuring no-name actors, shot out in the middle of nowhere; you really feel like you could be watching someone’s last moments. The film features almost no onscreen bloodshed, but it was so effective that even the trailer was alleged to cause theater walkouts.

Texas Chainsaw wasn’t the first gritty, exploitative horror movie of the 1970s, though. It came hot on the heels of Wes Craven’s instantly infamous low-budget shocker, 1972’s Last House on the Left. Craven based his directorial debut on The Virgin Spring, a film by renowned Swedish director Ingmar Bergman – which was itself adapted from a medieval folk ballad, in what might be the most convoluted horror movie family tree of all time. The story of two parents avenging the rape and murder of their daughters by a roving pack of maniacs was, for its time, unprecedented in its graphic depiction of violence. Wes Craven has explained numerous times the role the Viet Nam War played in his conception of the movie:
“It […] was the era of Vietnam. And not to put too fine a point on it, I very much was influenced—and I think the whole country was kind of in a state of shock—for the first time seeing the horror and cruelty of war. Recently shot 16mm footage was coming back and appearing on television immediately, so there was little censorship of what you saw, and it was just appalling.” (1)
Craven’s film featured the infamous advertising tagline, “To avoid fainting, keep repeating – it's only a movie.” The unsettling implication being that you couldn’t do the same with news footage of American soldiers being killed.

From this point forwards, Viet Nam pervaded the horror films of the 1970s and early ‘80s. Tom Savini, the famous make-up artist who crafted the gore effects for Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, and Maniac (among many others) got his start as a combat photographer in Viet Nam – leading to the extremely disquieting possibility that some of the painstakingly crafted corpses in those films are based on real corpses Savini encountered on duty. The ‘Living Dead’ of George Romero’s zombie movies can be seen as a metaphor for damaged troops returning home (although the Living Dead can be used as metaphors for basically anything – we’ll get into that later). And the deranged hitchhiker who kick-starts the action in Texas Chainsaw – in addition to bringing up fears of economic instability with his discussion of being laid off from the slaughterhouse – does have something of a brain-damaged veteran vibe to him (this implication would be made explicit in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part Two, where the hitchhiker was replaced with ‘Chop-Top,’ a literal brain-damaged Viet Nam vet with a metal plate in his head). Beyond the specific allusions, though, the emerging Viet Nam aesthetic meant not just more violence, but more of a personal and emotional toll to go along with that violence.

As horror moved further into the 1980s, the nasty subgenre of exploitation horror was gradually replaced by the equally exploitative, but overall more sanitized, slasher film. Sometime in the early years of the 2000s, though, some nasty, cruel, brutish and short horror movies started to sneak back in under the radar. Just as 1974 is arguably the most pivotal year in ‘70s horror, 2003 was the start of a new wave of 21st century horror. In the space of one year, horror fans got the deliriously gory French import High Tension, Eli Roth’s body-horror debut Cabin Fever, and Rob Zombie’s over-the-top serial killer flick House of 1000 Corpses. With their de-glamorized violence, desaturated color palates, and low-budgets, all three of these films evidenced a clear 1970s aesthetic influence. House of 1000 Corpses in particular is set in Texas in 1974, the same year the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released – and it shamelessly lifts so much from that movie’s plot and style that it could practically be considered a remake (even going so far as to cast the great Bill Mosely - the aforementioned 'Chop Top' from TCM 2 - as one of the lead villains; the sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, took a more original approach, and was consequently one of the best horror films of the decade). Just as in the 1970s, these films were clearly the start of a new trend. Later that year, there was the gruesome hillbilly slasher Wrong Turn, and in October, a pretty crappy remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The trend wouldn’t stop there, though, and where it led was even more culturally disturbing.

The double whammy of James Wan’s suspense-thriller Saw and Eli Roth’s extremely violent sophomore effort Hostel brought graphic scenes of torture to the forefront. These films attracted significant controversy - which, judging by Hostel’s provocative advertising campaign, was exactly what they intended - but they also raked in cash. Saw was made on a budget of just over one million dollars, yet it raked in over 100 million in combined theater and DVD dollars. And, like any low-budget horror flick worth its weight, it was followed by a string of increasingly terrible sequels (not that the original was particularly good in the first place, but the series rapidly descended from wild improbability into outright lunacy). Now, any movie with a plot designed to support a string of painful torture scenes has an intrinsically limited audience; the fact that the films are terrible either lessens or increases their chances of success depending on your opinion of the average theater-goer. So why did these films take off so incredibly?

For me, it once again comes back to the culture that produced them. Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, one of the first of this new-wave of exploitation horror, came out on April 11th of 2003, less than 30 days after the US invaded Iraq. The movie, of course, had been in production long before that – in fact, it was all but completed three years prior, but was delayed due to fights with the MPAA ratings board over its graphic violence. The delay in its release ended up with the result that it came out just as public consciousness of a new war was reaching its fever pitch. If you want to take this line of thought even further, you can look at the specific wave of the so-called “torture porn” subgenre. Saw, the first of this particular trend, was widely released in October of 2004. Torture, too, was fresh in the American mindset: the news of the prisoner abuses in Abu Ghraib broke in late April of that same year. The post-Iraq American consciousness, much like the post-Viet Nam American consciousness, was in exactly the right place and time to foster a new, disturbing trend in horror.

It seemed as though 2007 would’ve been the perfect time for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to unleash their ambitious Grindhouse project on the bloodthirsty public. Grindhouse was a double-feature, 3-hour long homage to the sleazy, violent horror movies that Rodriguez, Tarantino, and many of the new decade’s horror filmmakers grew up watching. Robert Rodriguez’ half, Planet Terror, even featured one of the most knowing winks to the ‘70s style of exploitation film I’ve yet encountered: late in the film, Bruce Willis’ character reveals that his platoon was dosed with some kind of biological chemical shortly after they killed Osama Bin Laden on a mission in Afghanistan – were the film made in the ‘70s, you could easily see those details substituted for Agent Orange, Ho Chi Minh, and Viet Nam. A mix of zombie flick and slasher movie featuring guest trailers directed by guys like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie, overflowing with gore and stylish camerawork, it seemed that Grindhouse could do no wrong.

Until the box office returns came back, that is. Grindhouse had an 11.5 million dollar opening weekend, not even making back a quarter of its 53 million dollar budget. Two months later, Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part II would similarly bomb at the box office, with an opening weekend of 8.2 million, compared to the 19 million dollar opening weekend of the first installment – a number that Hostel: Part II would fail to gross in its entire theatrical run. The bubble, it seemed, had burst for the new wave of exploitation.

What it comes down to, in my opinion, is market saturation. If you flood the market with something to capitalize on a new trend, people will inevitably get sick of it. This is especially true with regards to the horror film, and specifically a subgenre of horror that relies so heavily on shock. If you see enough rote, by-the-numbers movies with people getting horribly mutilated, you almost immediately start to lose the key factor that made such films interesting in the first place: the element of danger. If you’re the first to come up with this violent new idea of gritty, downbeat torture flicks, you might seem like a provocative, edgy auteur. If you’re the fifteenth, though, you just seem like a businessman out for a quick buck. Which might be scary, but not in the way you intended.

Not that the trend is over-and-done-with. Last year saw a remake of Last House on the Left, and the Saw movies continue to get churned out on an annual basis. But to me, it seems clear that the exploitative torture genre is going through exactly what it subjects its characters to: a slow death.

Coming Up Next: An analysis of the decade in slasher films, and the dark mirror they hold up to the U.S. Economy - No, really - in Slashing the Budget.

(1 - Sourced from Wes Craven interview at,24869/)
(Poster images obtained via

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