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February 14, 2006


"Horror films ... fundamentally appeal to us as unsettling reminders to be wary, to be cynical and, most of all, to be afraid."

I sort of wonder why they don't have the affect of making us feel less afraid. I mean if you watch the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it's not like you spend all day appreciating of how fortunate you are.

I guess that's why the victims in such gory movies (from Shawn of the Dead to A Nightmare on Elm Street) are so unexceptional; the viewer has to be able to relate to them. We have all been teenagers and we all, by definition, share common ground with an everyman.

Equally violent films like Reservoir Dogs, Desperado and Braveheart don't elicit the same reaction. Few of us have anything in common with bank robbers, Mexican thugs and Scottish clansmen.

The only exception for this is Passion of the Christ and I guess that proves the rule -- if you enjoyed the film, it's precisely because you feel a connection with Jesus and his suffering; skeptics such as myself don't much value a random guy from 2000 years ago who went around claiming he was the son of God.

In terms of actually watching horror films, I think that the more one sees, the more one experiences some desensitization to violence. But I also think that most standard-issue, clichéd Hollywood horror films try to have it both ways – they want to scare us with visions of baddies terrorizing teens, but they also conversely want to make us feel safe and secure by having the lone hero (usually a mildly attractive, sexually inactive girl) triumph in the end. In this way, they do try to make us feel less afraid (of the dark, of serial killers, etc) by telling us that no matter how bad it gets, industrious and chaste people will still find a way to survive.

Furthermore, I agree that victims in horror movies are usually unexceptional so we can project ourselves into their situation; I also think this is why most of the genre’s characters are stereotypes. Easy identification – hey, I’m the nerd! Or the jock! Or the goth girl! – helps us more easily immerse ourselves in the action. And as you said, this is also the case with The Passion, where the whole idea is to directly relate to the suffering of Christ.

The same isn’t exactly true of nasty non-horror genre films, where it’s often more about getting some sort of kick from watching larger-than-life characters do crazy stuff. Though something like Reservoir Dogs’ ear-splicing scene works in much the same way as dumb slasher films like the Nightmare on Elm St. sequels, where in both cases we’re supposed to get most of our enjoyment from watching the sadist carry out his dirty deeds.

Well, regarding horror films, I think one of the key elements in make a good one that truly shocks the viewer is to draw a relationship, even if it's only on a basic human level, with the victims. In order to be scared and for the film to maintain some level of humanity, we have to be in the same place as the victims even as we watch from a detached, "safe" perspective (case in point: Wolf Creek) Something like, say, "The Devil's Rejects" isn't quite in this category because it also makes light of the horror conventions it uses - I very much liked the film, and wouldn't have seen it had Nick not included it in his top ten of the year. But as regards more straight-faced horror films, I find it appalling when we are supposed to be entertained by death and destruction without any sympathy for the victims. War of the Worlds was a nice counterexample to Independence Day, for my money, in that it retained that human connection.

But as regards The Passion of the Christ, I don't think it matters one bit if you relate to the Jesus character or not. I am a declared "fallen" Christian - those teachings from my childhood just don't hold up anymore - but I still have a profound respect for the historical figure of Jesus. I abhorred the film, and know many Christians of faith who did as well. I'm probably stealing some language in saying this, but Jesus doesn't exist in that movie as a character to be sympathized with, but one on through which to beat the living hell out of the audience.

Glad to hear you dug The Devil’s Rejects, Robert. It makes me feel all warm and tingly inside knowing that I’ve helped lure another cinephile to Zombie’s unsung exploitation flick.

As for the Passion – I certainly was incapable of relating to its Jesus (both because I’m not Christian, and because his main function was as a human piñata), but I suspect that many of the film’s fans did adore the film precisely because they could relate to, and empathize with, his sacrifice. But as I said, I'm not really in a position to surmise how others reacted to the film.

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