The young woman running through the woods, pursued by a madman with a chainsaw. A group of co-eds camping by the lake where a spectre hunts and butchers humans for vengeance or sport. The endless stream of urban legends-made-real that deliver gore and death en masse. Nosferatu bent menacingly over his prey. The eerie howl of a werewolf across the darkened moor. All are iconic images of the "horror" film, all carry the promise for startles and screams from the audience, and ultimately all deliver momentary frights that fade as soon as the house lights rise.
But add an obsessed stalker with a pet-killing bent, a cool murderer with the aplomb to plan a demise over weeks or months, or a hair-raising plot involving abuse of the legal system, and you have the perfect recipe for unease that lasts long after the ending credits roll. At heart, "horror" staples and monstrous creatures have ceased to elicit a lasting and visceral response, while ordinary men and women and pedestrian crimes can utterly dismay.
Part of this evolution can be traced to the eroticization of traditional monsters. Vampires are perhaps the most obvious example of the once horrific turned Byronic and enticing, but werewolves, demons, and even zombies have received the romantic make-over treatment.
Where once the thought of a blood-drinking immortal might strike terror into the heart, or the image of a grotesque man-beast howling at the moon might cause an audience to cower and cover their eyes, we now have exotic long-lived gentlemen and creatures of shape-shifting compulsion.
The entire culture of "traditional" horror imagery and revulsion has given way to the mind-set that these mythic savages are victims of circumstance, to be pitied and reformed but not feared.
In the opposite light, the masked chop-and-dice human (or once-human) who hunts indiscriminately in his or her chosen patch of land seeking death for death's sake has become so one-dimensional that it cannot be viewed as more than a live-action cartoon. Much like an amusement park roller coaster with its expected climbs, sharp drops and evenly spaced inversions, the "slasher" film has become a by-the-numbers study in animated excess. We gasp at the gross-out factor and shriek when the boogeyman jumps out from an unexpected corner, but go to any horror movie of this ilk and be prepared for as many outbursts of laughter as synchronized screams.
So what is left to truly terrify? To keep you awake or fill your dreams with nightmarish unease? In this world of corporate espionage, regretfully still under-managed mental illness and devaluation of the human life in favor of financial gain, the answer is as clear as it is varied.
Of the films I have seen this past year, the most shocking and frightening have not been sci-fi or horror. Instead, it's films like "Side Effects" with its twisted look into motivation and calculating forethought that give me pause. It's cold-blooded plots like "The Whistleblower" that send a chill up my spine.
Perhaps in the end the film industry is just reinforcing what we've always known but hate to face; humanity is monstrous enough for any situation, and the terror of commonplace cruelty far outweighs anything the FX lab can dream up.
So in the end, because I don't like to be scared all that much, I'll stick with vampires, werewolves and zombies as my monsters of choice; they may be messier, but they let me sleep easier at night!
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