A conference session called "Panel of the Dead" brings to mind an image of a long table populated by zombies, facing an eager crowd waving shotguns. However, the horror-film panel at SXSW this year was lively and no one tried to eat anyone else's brains, at least not in a literal sense. The big conference room was full and most people stayed in the room even after learning that Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever) was too ill to attend. (He was suffering from a virus, which inspired a lot of "flesh-eating disease" jokes. It was that kind of crowd.)
Panelists included Cinematical's Scott Weinberg, who watches more horror movies in a month than I ever will in my life; Scott Glosserman, who directed Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon; Lauren Moews, a producer on Cabin Fever and the recently announced Cabin Fever 2; Zev Berman, who co-wrote and directed Borderland, a horror movie premiering at SXSW; actor Rider Strong, who had lead roles in Borderland and in Cabin Fever; and Zack Carlson, who programs horror film events at Alamo Drafthouse such as Terror Thursdays. The panel was moderated by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News, who also actively participated in the discussions about the horror genre.
Knowles started the session with a question about what he called "torture porn," the type of horror movie that features people being tortured in horrible ways, instead of being slaughtered quickly with a sledgehammer, axe or chainsaw. Although Saw was mentioned as an example, Weinberg argued that the film's attraction wasn't simply from scenes of torture. "Saw taps into some primal questions. What affected me was that I put myself in those characters' shoes."
Strong said he feels that the media sometimes focuses strictly on the gore in a film and doesn't see the context that Berman mentioned. For example, "Hostel was treated by the critics as gore porn and they missed a lot of the political context that he [Roth] created -- he was commenting on American phobias, on the way we go to foreign countries and take advantage. What Borderland does is similar -- yes, there's torture, yes, there's going to be an entertainment value to that torture, but the film is contextualizing it, creating more meaning."
The session included a screening of the trailer for Glosserman's film Behind the Mask. It looks like a horror movie with a good sense of humor, which is the kind I like, and I was sorry I hadn't seen the movie when it premiered at SXSW last year. (I think I was suffering from my own flesh-eating virus.) Fortunately, the movie has just opened in theaters so I have another chance. Glosserman is currently working on the script for his next film, which he describes as "a convergence of Straw Dogs and The Shining."
Although Roth wasn't there, actress Lauren German showed up to read a note from him and to introduce a two-minute clip from Roth's upcoming film Hostel: Part II, in which she stars.
The Hostel: Part II clip didn't show anything gruesome but still managed to suggest that the kind of horror seen in Hostel would continue in full force. It was a good hint, although I admit I preferred the Roth clip I saw earlier that day: his fake Thanksgiving trailer for Grindhouse (except for that bit with the trampoline).
Moews and Strong talked a little bit about Cabin Fever 2, which will be directed not by Roth but by Ti West, whose film Trigger Man premiered at SXSW. Moews said that Trigger Man has a "dark sensibility" that she hopes will carry over in Cabin Fever 2. Strong will be in the sequel, but wasn't able to reveal exactly how that would work ("Maybe I'm a twin!"), since his character's fate in the first film seemed to make this improbable.
The discussion inevitably turned to remakes, sequels and franchises, which are a big part of Hollywood moviemaking today, especially in the horror genre. As Weinberg noted, a lot of studios are remaking anything horror-related from the 1970s or 1980s in order to draw both old and new crowds. For example, the idea was that Black Christmas would sound scary to younger audiences, but older audiences would be intrigued by the remake of a film they enjoyed earlier. "They're churned out for name recognition, they're inexpensive to make, and by the time they're out on DVD for six months, even if they bombed, they made a profit," Weinberg said.
"Studios seem to be looking for the low-budget kickass film and milking it for all it's worth," Glosserman noted.
The panel also discussed "bad" horror movies, and how they're still often popular because, as Strong said, "We love bad horror films." Carlson pointed out, however, that only certain kinds of bad horror films are fun to watch: "There's good-bad and there's bad-bad. The biggest crime is if a movie's boring."
The audience asked questions about various techniques used in horror films, like slow-motion. The panel agreed that many of the best slow-motion horror scenes aren't even in horror movies, like the fate of Willem Dafoe in Wild at Heart. Moews liked the slow-motion scene where the bucket falls in Carrie; she later noted that the 1976 movie is one of her favorite horror films.
The panel was asked about the recent popularity of zombie films, from the Dawn of the Dead remake to Shaun of the Dead and beyond. This year's SXSW lineup included several zombie movies: American Zombie, Undead or Alive: A Zombedy (look for James Rocchi's review soon) and Fido. Knowles' theory was straightforward: "Because they're badass."
"One of my favorite things about horror movies is that they go in cycles," Weinberg explained. "Everything has a comeback -- monster movies, realistic horror movies, science-fiction horror movies. When one dies out, another one pops up."
The last question for the Panel of the Dead, appropriately enough: "Fast zombies or slow zombies?" Overall, the panel favored slow zombies, with Glosserman recalling the spookiness of that faraway guy in the graveyard at the beginning of the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Sometimes the classics work best.