Sunday, January 6, 2008

PG-13 Horror

I hate PG-13 horror films. And not in a 'oh, that's unfortunate' kind of hate. It's the kind of hate where its existence regularly makes me want to purge populations of the moviegoing public (but then, that would put PG-13 horror right up there with disaster films, killer animal films (the subset of disaster films) and romantic comedies for Men (most Adam Sandler films)).

Might as well just say it now, I'm a child of horror films. I grew up with the 80s classics, and have grown into appreciating horror in all its various forms. I love the psychological horror that is creepy and disturbing. I'm also a gore-fiend. These are not the same thing. It's the difference between Yoko Ono and liking Elvis. Yes, technically they're both rock, in this abstract sort of way. But comparing the two is about as sane as Cthulu.

I love horror in a way that's inherently unhealthy and a little unbalanced. At six or seven I was watching Jason slaughter the teenagers on Camp Crystal Lake. I was sure that Freddy was just one bad dream away. And I was really really terrified of Pennywise one day coming up through my shower drain.

I'm still scared of Tim Curry, I might add, but that's more of a Rocky Horror inspired fear of tall men with weird teeth and loose sexual morals wearing fishnet stockings and big hair. I still love him in Clue.

I saw everything. I saw brilliant works like Dawn of the Dead. I saw competent flicks like Pumpkinhead or Phantasm. And I saw utter crap, things that no sane person should ever see, like Leprechaun 2 or Puppetmaster or the absolutely retarded (or secretly genius) Jack Frost. No, not the one with Michael Keaton. The OTHER one. Oh, and let's not forget Maniac Cop. The Cop so bad he had BODY PARTS in his glove compartment. To this day I'm convinced that that's how all cops really are, when they aren't oppressing people.

My first rated R movie in theatres was Wes Craven's New Nightmare. My mother took me. I would have been 9, seeing as how the movie came out in 1994. I stayed UP all night with USA's UP all night features of horror movies and if you don't know why I keep saying UP all night you obviously missed an icon of early 90s television horror.

Horror movies work for me on myriad levels. Some cool, some hilarious, and some kind of messed up. Horror movies cemented my refusal to ever go into cemetaries alone (or ever at dark), to never split up in unfamiliar places, and to NEVER, EVER glance into reflective surfaces or to ever look into them twice. That's just craziness.

I could get into what horror means to me, but that's outside the scope of this piece. Instead, I want to talk about the recent developments in horror. This one has been creeping up for the last five years or so, and it continues to piss me off now as much as it used to. In fact, the longer it lasts the angrier I get. And this is the PG-13 horror film.

What is a PG-13 horror film? It's a film, usually either a 'creature' film or a remake of an Asian horror film, that is deliberately made PG-13 so that teenagers can go see it. It's become the adolescent date movie of the generation. There's the romantic plot so women can enjoy it, there's some violence so guys enjoy it, and good looking twenty-somethings of both genders take off clothes somewhere (in a decidedly unsexy to anyone PG-13 way) so that both groups can swoon.

This is not a horror film. Yes, it follows all the horror tropes. Usually there are characters of questionable morals. And there is one (or two) people who are pure and those people invariably survive. The deaths are mild and relatively bloodless (aside from the stains on clothing of a stabbing or such). The scares are typically loud noises that make you jump more out of instinctive reaction than a real fear. And at the end, the monster is usually half suit and half crappy CG, but rarely anything frightening.

And I'll tell you right now, crappy CG is a thousand times worse than a crappy rubber suit. At least you can believe that the monster is SUPPOSED to look rubbery. You can't justify the fact that your monster is supposed to look photoshopped.

The worst part of PG-13 horror is that it should have been the continuation of 80s slasher flicks. And in a way, it is. But its been twisted into something nearly unrecognizable from its earlier brethren. The formulas that were implicit in the 80s horror film are suddenly so explicit (I blame Scream for informing the ignorant, who were never horror fans anyway) but still played to with a near-religious fervor. As such, it's as though the plots are put together as formulas by studios. Every horror film needs young actors. Every horror film needs lots of sexual undertones. Anyone aged 30 or above is inherently old and square.

PG-13 horror is used now as a star vehicle. I don't care how many crappy remakes of Asian horror movies 'legitimate' American actresses star in, it doesn't help anybody's credibility. It robs the movie of its questionability by ensuring the lead is going to survive, and the actress has a big black mark on her record by conforming to the fad. I can understand actresses like Sarah Michelle Gellar, who are actresses only in the loosest definition, doing it ... but Jennifer Connelly? Come on! You have an OSCAR! Sure, it was for a crappy film, but still...

Oh yes, Asian remakes. I have a great love of Asian horror. They try very hard with usually terrible budgets to make films that are geniunely scary. They have a great grasp of minimalism and tension and slow build up. They can tend towards either really slow (like the very creepy movies of the 40s and 50s) or they can do gore (effectively, as in Audition). But when America gets it, they invariably rip all the heart and pacing out of it, speed it up and inject it full of jumps and special effects.

CG has killed the horror movie. CG makes the impossible possible, in a 'if you can imagine it, we can make it' kind of way. The problem is, CG creatures aren't what make good horror. You can imagine a complex, towering monstrosity. If I met this thing in a dark alley, I'd crap myself. But show it in a film, and it's inherently not scary. Horror works only on the realm of 'not seeing the monster is scary'. The PG-13 horror film delights in showing off their monster regularly, removing all fright.

But then, fright isn't the point. And neither is gore. A PG-13 horror film is for teens to go to to feel cool. They jump a little, the girls clutch at the guys, and everyone has a good time. This is not what horror is. Not even crappy 80s slasher flicks were like this. They were the exploitation version of this. They would be stupid, sure, but the tension was usually decent, you were going to see plenty of blood, the monsters were only hinted at (because Karo syrup is cheap but suits are expensive) and the guy is probably going to get some good old fashioned T&A. Exploitation for the slightly older, slightly geekier crowd was the real goal of 80s horror.

Now teenagers go see this horror, and think they're seeing something scary. They're not. They aren't even effectively entertaining, because all the fun gory bits have been toned down. I don't require my horror films to be scary (though I love when they are) but I demand they make up for it with good gags, decent special effects, and lots of blood. With PG-13, we get none of these things. Just actresses looking scared against blue screens and heavily filtered monochromatic films. They even got rid of all of the heroes of horror--the killers. There's no such thing as a series killer anymore, aside from maybe the Saw series, which may be the lamest attempt at 'edgy' horror ever.

I don't see PG-13 horror. Which means I miss out on a lot of horror. Thankfully, lately there's been a rallying cry from the true horror fiends and R-rated horror has made a comeback. Great horror films of the past several years include both Hostel films (for entirely different reasons), most of the modern Zombie movies, the overly-graphic remakes of classic horror (The Hills Have Eyes remake and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre one, and most recently the Halloween remake). These films typically don't bother with the pretenses of CG or anything resembling moral message, they're hyper-violent films that rely on classic gags and lots of blood. And they're endlessly entertaining.

But I'd really love to see a new horror paradigm. Perhaps a PG-13 horror movie that's truly scary, if only because it doesn't rely on the old tropes in the strict formula. Something fresh and new. I know it's cool to hate on the Blair Witch Project these days, but I still think it's one of the most effective horror films in the past 20 years. It was viral before viral was 'in', effectively real to a culture weaned on reality TV, and spooky because it didn't bother with following the traditional conventions of horror.

What we need isn't more gore (though it's fun), and we don't need a wider audience (that the PG-13 horror film seems to strive for). Instead, we need to make horror scary again. Perhaps that's why foreign horror is so much more successful. It is, almost without question, inherently scarier than the American counterpart. Without the fear, horror can do nothing but follow the recursive circles of mass-appeal or gore-fests. Neither of which is really the point. It's going to take the remarriage of the two, plus a redefinition of the rules of horror, to provide a truly scary experience.

Until then, I guess I'll settle for lots of Karo syrup and subtitled scares.

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