AaRgh! Horror is still alive

Saturday, 30 March 2013 - 10:31am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
As a remake of The Evil Dead prepares to creep into a cinema near you, Robbie Collin looks at the ever-changing face of the genre that refuses to die.

Over the past 12 months, 57 new horror films have been released in British cinemas, which means you could watch one a week and still have five left over for the bank holiday weekend.

Most were variations on well-worn themes: the kind of ghost stories, slasher flicks and creature features we have all been enjoying, or perhaps avoiding, since childhood. But one of the best, The Cabin in the Woods, suggested an ingenious reason for the genre's dogged adherence to the same old formulas. In Drew Goddard's film, the terrorised teens are in fact necessary blood sacrifices, selected and culled by a government agency in order to appease the slumbering Elder Gods and thereby stave off the apocalypse.

Back when arts degrees weren't given out for any old nonsense, I spent a semester studying the philosophy of horror films, and once you strip out all the sacrificial doo-dah, the thinking behind The Cabin in the Woods strikes me as entirely sensible. Watching a great horror film is like participating in a kind of rite, in which we can enjoy feeling unnerved, shocked and revolted without having to worry that the thing that is unnerving, shocking and revolting us might actually chop us into pieces with a chainsaw.

What sets great horror cinema apart is that the game we enter into with it, the temporary period of play-madness, can long outlast the experience of watching the film itself. The first time we shower after watching Psycho (1960), the chances are low that a crazed transvestite will burst into the bathroom and stab us to death, but we get a ghoulish kick from entertaining the possibility that one might.

In his brilliant essay The Mummy's Pool, the film historian Bruce Kawin describes horror films as "exorcistic or transcendent pagan rituals for supposedly post-pagan cultures". That is precisely what happens in The Cabin in the Woods, and it sounds like fun to me.

The Cabin in the Woods pulled the curtain right back, which was a joy, and also a problem. After having watched it, and seen through the tricks, you wonder if you will ever again be moved by a woods-set, cabin-based supernatural massacre. Even so, they keep on coming. The latest brings things full circle: it is a remake of the grandfather of all cabin-in-the-woods films, Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1981).

Raimi's original film, about a quintet of hapless students who are tormented by demons in a tumbledown chalet, was horror on a shoestring: the cameras were rented, the rigs home-built, and the demon guts mixed from catering-sized tins of corn chowder and Coffee-mate. Tastemakers of the day were divided. Barry Norman was famously unimpressed, but the horror writer Kim Newman praised the film's subversive attitude towards genre traits that were already looking a bit clapped out in 1981. That mischievous spirit, along with their frequent flashes of white-hot lunacy, are why Raimi's Evil Dead films are still so well-loved today.

The new Evil Dead is directed by a Uruguayan filmmaker called Fede Alvarez, and has been made with a $15 million budget under the auspices of Ghost House Pictures, Raimi's own production company. It is a highly polished piece of work, touched up with computer graphics, and I doubt a tin of corn chowder was seen anywhere on set outside of the catering van.

Studios have been enthusiastically grave-robbing the 1980s American horror boom for many years, and the sorry likes of Halloween (2007), Friday the 13th (2009) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) have been the result. Mercifully, Evil Dead is a lot better than these: not least because it looks outside Hollywood for inspiration, and knots together a whole range of disparate horror traditions from around the world into a single cadaverous plait. If The Cabin in the Woods sounded the death knell for the all-American scary movie, then Evil Dead might just be its even-more-fearsome reincarnation: the first truly global horror film.

That's a harder trick to pull off than it might seem, because what we find instinctively scary depends largely on where and when we grew up. Early European horror films retold the same legends that had been terrifying the continent for centuries. But when the Iron Curtain descended, horror was snuffed out on the eastern side: as the expert on Russian cinema Josephine Woll pointed out in Exorcising the Devil, the heebie-jeebies were strictly incompatible with Soviet doctrine, and the genre simply vanished.

But it flourished in Britain after the Second World War, with Hammer Films sprinkling the fertiliser. The studio adopted the monsters that had found a Hollywood home at Universal in the 1930s - The Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein's monster - and these Gothic franchises were followed by an explosion in ghost stories and folklore, generously seasoned with sex.

Meanwhile, in America, the scariest thing that could happen was to be deserted by either God or the rule of law. Don't forget it was The Exorcist (1973), not Jaws (1975) or Star Wars (1977), that was the first true American summer blockbuster - and that the explosion in tales of zombie hordes and crazed serial killers followed hot on the heels of both a national crime epidemic and the civil rights movement.

Go further afield and you will find very different films, grounded in very different neuroses. Modern Japanese horror, known as J-horror to Western fans, is melancholic and bound up in ideas of alienation and long-stewed revenge: Ring (1998) and Audition (1999) are two blood-curdling examples. Then there is the really cutting-edge stuff from France and Spain, like Switchblade Romance (2003), REC (2007) and Martyrs (2008). New European horror is deadly serious, socially conscious and often ultra-violent.

Alvarez's Evil Dead remake borrows heavily from those last three horror trends - Seventies American, millennial Japanese and 21st-century European - and genre fanatics will no doubt enjoy spotting the nods, both deliberate and unconscious. (Now that Hollywood makes much of its money overseas, horreur sans frontieres has an obvious financial appeal, too.)

And yet there are some intensely spooky territories that remain as-yet uncharted. The films of the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul have such a complex relationship with the supernatural that gods and demons flow through his work in a way that simply doesn't jive with the Western horror template. In Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), an old man is joined at dinner by the ghost of his wife and a strange, hairy creature who turns out to be his son, who has been made monstrous by an assignation in the jungle with an amorous "monkey ghost".

The scene is played for laughs, but it also has a profound eeriness unlike anything else I've seen in contemporary cinema - yet. Perhaps when The Evil Dead is re-remade, monkey ghosts will also be lurking in those woods, and we will hear them snuffling softly as they encircle the cabin, their red eyes glowing like lamps in the dark.

Evil Dead is released in Britain on April 18

 


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