- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

Directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez team up today for the horror twofer known as “Grindhouse.”

Expect blood, guts, gratuitous violence and much, much more.

Is it any wonder that the industry’s biggest directors steer clear of the genre?

When was the last time Steven Spielberg directed a horror movie? How about Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, Milos Forman, Clint Eastwood or Spike Lee? Both Mr. Tarantino and Mr. Rodriguez are secure enough to embrace their inner slasher, but they remain the exceptions.

Looking back, esteemed filmmakers such as George Stevens, Elia Kazan and David Lean never went the horror route, either.

That’s a shame because horror movies afford filmmakers a unique way to move audiences, whether it’s out of their seats with fright or into the voting booth with an emboldened sense of right and wrong. Some of the most stinging anti-Bush commentary in recent years has come from Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series and George Romero’s “Land of the Dead” (2005).

Though Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 shocker “The Shining” didn’t satisfy its source novel’s author, Stephen King, it left just about everyone else terrified. Ridley Scott’s “Alien” is as entertaining as it was back in 1980. And Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) remains an unmatched fright. More recently, “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle re-imagined the zombie feature with 2003’s bleak “28 Days Later.”

Let’s not forget that Jonathan Demme won an Oscar for 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” a career high he hasn’t come close to repeating.

Maybe recent movies such as “Turistas,” just released on DVD, have tainted an already suspect genre. “Turistas” offers a beautiful cast, even prettier Brazilian locales — and a sequence in which various organs are removed from one cast member against her will.

Between horror’s recent shift toward torture and the ongoing wave of mindless slasher films, the genre sure could use a publicist.

Scott Glosserman, a Bethesda native who directed and co-wrote the meta-horror film “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon,” isn’t deterred by the genre’s seamier side. He began deconstructing horror movies in film classes and does more of the same in the effective “Mask.”

“We’d dig under the surface, look into all the symbology, the imagery and themes used throughout,” Mr. Glosserman says. “Horror struck me as one of those genres that has a lot more going for it than a lot of the world gives it credit for.”

Take “Frankenstein,” the 1931 classic. Many film analysts claim the film deals with totalitarianism, Mr. Glosserman says.

“When a filmmaker has something to say … oftentimes he or she will look to horror to expound on social commentary,” he says, adding that some critics saw the slasher trend in the 1980s as a comment on consumerism.

Mr. Glosserman says the “Saw” trilogy may be viewed years from now as the way our culture dealt with Islamic terrorism.

“It’s a parallel for all those hopeless feelings we had when we watched the beheadings on CNN,” he says. “That sums up the last five years, torture porn.”

Fangoria magazine editor Tony Timpone says horror is often the first stop for budding directors. Mr. Spielberg wowed television viewers with “Duel,” a telefeature about a man chased by a truck driver whose face we never see, though his feet and one arm appear in two scenes. Francis Ford Coppola directed “Dementia 13” before making film audiences an offer they couldn’t refuse with back-to-back “Godfathers.”

“Horror films are generally a place for the young turks to get their stripes,” Mr. Timpone says.

They often move on to more mainstream fare, leaving the buckets of fake blood behind.

That wasn’t the case during the mid-1990s, when a number of high-profile directors tried to scare us. Neil Jordan (1994’s “Interview With a Vampire”), Stephen Frears (1996’s “Mary Reilly”) and Kenneth Branagh (1994’s “Frankenstein”) classed up the genre, but poor box office for the latter two films drove a stake in the trend.

“In the last decade, we haven’t seen as much of the ‘prestige’ horror film,” Mr. Timpone says.

That could change soon.

Roland Joffe of “The Mission” fame is behind the upcoming thriller “Captivity,” and Frank Darabont, best known for 1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption,” is tackling one of Mr. King’s goriest novels, “The Mist,” later this year.

“There are lots of avenues to explore because horror is still hot right now,” Mr. Timpone says.

Heat doesn’t translate well during awards season, so directors looking to line their mantels also avoid the genre.

You think comedy gets short shrift during the Academy Award ceremony? “Lambs” is the only horror movie ever to have won for best picture.

But for an A-list director running a cold streak, a horror film could reverse a very scary slide.

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