It's getting closer to Halloween, and that means scary movies. Of course, I love scary movies and I watch them all year long, but I watch them with a purpose in October. Most critics don't bother with scary movies, or pre-judge them, and that has led to the recent rash of horror films being withheld from the press. It goes without saying, also, that the studios know they're making bad movies by playing it safe with their remakes and sequels, rather than rolling the dice on a new idea. Most of the current horror movies have this in common: they're remakes or sequels, they were withheld from the press, and they flopped.
Hmm. I wonder if this is a pattern that ought to be avoided in the future?
Despite being directed by Neil LaBute -- a filmmaker whose entire reputation was established by critics who singled out his great debut In the Company of Men (1997) -- The Wicker Man remake (233 screens) was withheld from those same critics, and it has officially flopped, returning only $23 million on a $40 million budget.
The new Pulse (39 screens) is yet another example. The Weinsteins also own the rights for Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2001 original, which they sat on for years before releasing last fall. I loved it, and thought it was one of the spookiest things I've seen in years, but I didn't quite realize until recently, that most people didn't quite "get" it. This, however, would explain why the cleaned-up American version doesn't really appeal to anyone.
Does Monster House (331 screens) count as a horror film? I didn't see it, but it looks from the trailer that it was a combination of slick computer animation, some dumb jokes and a few horror elements. If I'd known in advance, however, that Kathleen Turner was the voice of the evil house, I would have lined up for the press screening.
Directed by Stuart Gordon, the flawed, fascinating Edmond (1 screen) kind of counts as a horror film, I guess. Gordon made the classic Re-Animator and other genre films, and it's about a guy who snaps and starts killing people. But, with a script by David Mamet, it was too arty for gorehounds and too gory for arthouse folk.
The Ordeal (a.k.a. Calvaire), from France, is also currently playing on 1 screen, but -- true to its title -- it's more of an unpleasant experience than an actual chiller.
More than enough has been written about Snakes on a Plane (116 screens). (I wonder, if someone did a word count, would the sheer number of words equal that which has been used to write about Citizen Kane?) I love it, but several things went wrong. 1) New Line refused to screen the film for the press. 2) New Line mis-marketed it, adding hype upon hype. 3) New Line overestimated the "internet" audience, thinking that millions would line up to see the film, when it was really only thousands.
Which leads us to the year's one happy exception, The Descent (89 screens). Reportedly made for approximately $6.5 million -- and based on (gasp) an original idea! -- it has amassed over $26 million in the United States alone (not even counting its boffo European run). With the astonishing, complete darkness of its cave setting, this is the year's scariest flick.
Or is it? There have been other types of horror films that have chilled my very soul, films with names like Jesus Camp (44 screens), An Inconvenient Truth (86 screens), The U.S. vs. John Lennon (58 screens), This Film Is Not Yet Rated (15 screens) and Who Killed the Electric Car? (13 screens).
Their subjects encompass: 1) brainwashing kids to become members of the religious right who will vote against abortion and ban Harry Potter, 2) covering up the dire threat of global warming, 3) monitoring the activities and threatening the lifestyle of rock stars who speak freely, 4) controlling the content of our films and creating pro-military propaganda films, and 5) suppressing anything having to do with environmental care in favor of big oil corporations.
According to these films, the bad guys have control of everything, and there's little we can do about it except make documentaries. Watching these films forges an illusion that the truth -- at last -- will be free and that the world will finally understand. And maybe somebody will do something about it. But the question arises: who sees these films except those who are already primed to hear their messages? The ones who really need to see these films probably won't bother.
One of the late-night talk show hosts made a joke about President Bush screening Ice Age: The Meltdown as his global warming picture of choice, rather than Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. That's pretty funny, but it's also very, very scary.