The Good, the Bad, and the Worse: Hollywood Struggles to Make Them Scream

This article originally appeared in Seven Magazine on February 21, 2007.

Horror films are a tricky business. No two people can claim to have exactly the same deviant needs. I remember waiting for months to see Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, at my mother’s constant needling, and then yawning when the demon finally appeared, a furry, backlit gremlin rising out of the night sky.

But I had been raised on an unbelievable fare of gore and decapitations, and so was a tough customer. A year later, at the age of four, I was ejected from a theatre for booing, and then throwing a tantrum, when Wes Craven’s pitiful Shocker failed to live up to my expectations.

They say horror has gotten nastier lately, that there has been some sea change towards an unrepentant sadism that wasn’t there before. I don’t believe it, though I am sometimes puzzled by today’s degenerate youth, many of whom claim to have yawned their way through Tobe Hooper’s 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film that not only scared the hell out of me, but which I blame for much of my antisocial behaviour.

These last few weeks horror fans have had a treat. The K-Cineplex, notorious den of Nicosia’s pimply, gelled, Nokia-tapping jeunesse, has brought three Hollywood horror films to its screens.

Screamseekers will be baffled by Takashi Shimizu’s latest contribution to the genre, The Grudge 2. Rumours that residents of Pasadena, California, where part of the film is set, could smell this stinker from Tokyo are probably not exaggerated.

Though I was happy to find the theatre empty of Nokias, I was sorry that the Cineplex doesn’t provide pillows. Shimizu’s mother-and-son tandem of pale blue Manga demons, despite their habit of popping up in the oddest places — photo-developing trays, the hoods of sweaters, bathtubs, etc. — soon have a narcotic effect. Sarah Michelle Gellar, reprising her role as one of the cursed, hurling herself off a Tokyo hospital roof is enough of a boost to get one through to the midpoint, but beyond that it’s doze country.

Neither Shimizu, nor Stephen Susco, who rewrote the original Japanese script, seems to have given much thought to the plot. Here’s the best I could do. There is a house in Tokyo. It is haunted. People who enter it — there are many of them for some reason — are infected by a curse, viz. the pale blue demons, who follow them around for a while before killing them. That said, the mother demon is fairly eerie with her non-stop retching noises and jerking zombie gait. The baby is more of a mystery. All you see is his pale blue baby demon feet.

Aubrey Davis (Amber Tambly), our heroine, weeps as much as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote. Eddie Chen, as the dogged Tokyo reporter tracking the case, rubs his face and puffs when he is at a loss, which is often. The only passable performance comes from a shaggy, chain-smoking Japanese actor who appears in the credits mysteriously as “the folklore guy.”

The Return is probably not a horror per se, but Sarah Michelle Gellar is horrible enough as Joanna Mills, a mousy, frightfully anaemic-looking sales representative on her way to La Salle Texas to close a major deal. Recurring nightmares and unpleasant voices soon distract her from her work.

Gellar looks uncomfortable and worried throughout. Unfortunately, she has subscribed to the Harrison Ford school of method acting, since perfected by Nic Cage, the School of the One Worried Face. She’s mastered a few other faces — the Disoriented Face, the In-Over-Your-Head Face, etc. — but spends most of her time peeking into mirrors only to find her own harrowed reflection there.

Sometimes she sees other things, viz. not her own face. When this happens, there’s a shock cut and an annoying noise like a constipated air siren. Or, if there is no mirror about and she is overcome by worry, she will poke herself with a sharp object. If she pokes herself in one place, a phone booth, say, she’ll wake up in another, slumped over next to a toilet.

What’s causing all this odd behaviour isn’t immediately obvious, though we’re given tantalizing clues that something malevolent is afoot. The ghostly, whispering stalker, for one, who appears whenever Gellar tele­graphs his appearance with the Worried Face.

Perhaps the stalker is Terry Stahl, the town pariah and mystery man, played by a beefy, ferret-eyed Peter O’Brien. Perhaps not. Who cares? Nothing romantic develops between Mills and Stahl beyond some stilted dialogue. Gellar is too worried to offer herself, O’Brien too mysterious to accept. If you aren’t snoozing by the end, the story is neatly wrapped up in a package of inter­secting fates that would make Alejandro González Iñáritu blush.

In all fairness to Ms. Gellar, director Asif Kapadia has done his part, too, taking a theoretically promising premise and torturing it into a feature so boring the howling 13-year-olds eventually put down their phones and began to squint at the screen in desperation.

Sam Shepherd wanders in for a scene or two, a nice touch, and there are some well-done interiors, the hotel in La Salle especially. Patsy Cline’s Sweet Dreams, which pops on whenever Gellar is about to put on a worried face, was my favourite part of the movie.

Now for the horror.

Whoever yawned at the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre would have a tough time slipping into a doze at the prequel, A New Beginning, an ultra-grotesque cannibal’s feast. I nearly vomited. The couple next to me did vomit, simultane­ously, and passed out. There were only a few others in attendance and not a single beeping cell phone.

Horror aficionados are by now well versed in the Texas Chainsaw mythology and a family of bible-thumping cannibals with lamp­shades made from human flesh is no shock. The dusty, hillbilly gas station, the human chilli, and the demented Texans who populate this nightmare are all old friends. This addition to the franchise, directed by Jonathan Liebesman, who remade the original in 2003, is just as revolting as the others, if not more so.

Viewers who can sit through the hallmark dismemberments will also appreciate Liebesman’s dramatic touches and the character motivation he brings to their much-adored psychopaths. They will finally see the inside of the slaughter­house that loomed so ominously in the background of the original, for example. They will see Leatherface chopping meat there, Leather­face losing his job and borrowing his first chainsaw, Leatherface trying on his first face, etc.

Cannibalism, a leitmotif in all the Chainsaws, is brought to the forefront here; it isn’t just a pastime, but a métier, a code and badge of honour — with the odd campy touch thrown in like when Mama Hewitt picks up and examines a stray finger as if it’s a crouton escaped from a salad bowl.

Then there is the Hewitt farmhouse, a horror in itself. Most of the action takes place inside its dimly lit, creaking, moth-eaten rooms. I can’t adequately convey the anxiety of being trapped inside that house for two hours as a spectator, and pitied our heroes who didn’t have a chance in hell of escaping.

The Hewitts work well together, all of them deranged, but complementary in their dementias — Mama Hewitt singing lullabies as she wipes down the foreheads of her victims prior to stewing them, raving Uncle Charlie (played superbly by R. Lee Ermey), who has appointed himself Sheriff and Head Cannibal of the Open Plains, loony, whiskery Uncle Monty, recently legless, dribbling his soup at the dinner table, etc. Though it is Andrew Bryniarsky as Leatherface who steals the show.

Leatherface is a difficult part to manage. How to don a mask and not look too much the dandy? When to use the chainsaw, when the meat cleaver? When to lope mutely, when to grunt, when to squeal? Bryniarsky deports himself expertly. A lumbering, top-heavy man, he can shuffle like Nijinsky when required to tote a carcass, his movements sharp and assured. We never see his actual face, an excellent decision, and when he finally puts his first flesh mask on, a close-up shows us only a set of morose, piggish, lowset eyes.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, maybe I am no judge of quality cinema, but I loved this movie, and crawled out of the theatre a shaken man. Nathan Lane of the New York Times whined, asking how many chainsaw massacres could take place in one state.

The answer is obviously many. I would like to see at least five more, all in the same house. To those others who pooh-poohed the film on the grounds that an evisceration by chainsaw is entertaining the first time around, but by the fourth or fifth just cliché, I say that eviscerations and flayings will remain a novelty forever for the average moviegoer, and a perpetual source of entertainment.