- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2008

Mainstream American horror is in a moribund state. It’s not quite as dead as a promiscuous teenager at Camp Crystal Lake, but it’s headed in that direction.

It’s reached the point where real fans of the genre have had to look overseas for satisfaction. At the beginning of the decade, Asia was a one-stop shop for underground audiences craving an original thrill; in recent years, Europe has started to catch up. The auteurs in those countries realized something American studios have forgotten: Mood and originality scare, not blood and derivative knockoffs.

Look at American multiplexes in search of original horror and despair. “Saw V” rules the box office; its $30 million opening made the Jigsaw Killer the highest-grossing horror fixture of all time. It’s the longest-running series in the subgenre known as “torture porn,” films more interested in displaying gory violence in fetishistic detail than producing real tension. Along with other examples, including the “Hostel” series and “Turistas,” the “Saw” movies give your gag reflex a good workout but offer little else.

Foreign remakes are another blight on the American scene. Consider “Quarantine,” the first-person movie about a group of people trapped in an apartment building with a horde of zombies. Not only is it derivative of “Cloverfield” and “The Blair Witch Project,” it’s also based on an identical (and, some argue, superior) Spanish horror film.

This is to say nothing of the epidemic of Asian horror remakes that continues to plague us: This year alone has seen high-profile remakes of “The Eye,” “Shutter,” and “One Missed Call.” These, along with “The Ring,” “The Grudge” and any number of other Americanizations clutter the multiplexes, stripping the source materials of their originality in the pursuit of making them safe for mainstream consumption.

Even worse than Hollywood’s predilection for cribbing overseas hits is its abominable rush to raid its own libraries; studios have taken to churning out pointless retreads of every horror film with a mild cult following. Did the world really need another “Prom Night” or “The Hills Have Eyes”? Did we really need Paris Hilton starring in a remake of “House of Wax”?

Even the classics aren’t safe: “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” suffered a re-imagining at the hands of Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, the outfit that’s bringing us a brand-new version of “Friday the 13th” next year (and, if the rumor mill is to be trusted, will be doing the same with “Nightmare on Elm Street”). Rob Zombie resurrected Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis for 2007’s “Halloween.” When will it stop?

To be fair, not all domestic horror is so terrible, but the real gems are few and far between. This year’s “The Strangers” created an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension by combining the latent terrors inherent in isolation and random violence. Mr. Zombie’s previous efforts this decade (“House of 1,000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects”) were surprisingly strong entries in the genre.

For the most part, however, real horror fans have been forced to turn to foreign sources. “The Descent,” a 2005 British import about a nightmarish spelunking trip, did surprisingly brisk business. The Spanish-language “The Orphanage” met a slightly colder reception at the box office but won plaudits from critics and horror fans. Asia (Japan in particular) has long been providing chills for underground American audiences.

These countries do two things well. First, they emphasize characterization and empathy over killing random people about whom no one could possibly care. Take “The Orphanage,” for example: It’s a film about loss, first and foremost, and the scares develop organically from there. Director Juan Antonio Bayona doesn’t go for cheap violence or dismemberment, choosing instead to play up the natural sadness that comes from losing a loved one and combining that drama with the intrigue of a spooky abandoned mansion.

This brings me to the second point: American directors seem to have lost the ability to manipulate mood and setting in pursuit of creating a scary atmosphere. “The Descent” works because it is intensely claustrophobic. As our intrepid team of explorers heads farther into the Earth’s crust, the tunnels grow more and more cramped, the camera’s vision narrows, and the characters’ panic becomes almost palpable. Compare this to a film like “Hostel,” in which the only tension comes from trying to guess what sort of awful thing happens next. There’s little to be scared by; the mood of an audience watching torture porn is that of morbid curiosity, not earned fear.

Magnolia Pictures’ genre imprint, Magnet Films, is helping bring genre films from around the world to the silver screen with its Six Shooter Film Series. Not limited solely to the world of horror, the series brings a sextet of films from countries as diverse as Sweden and Japan (and, it should be noted, the United States) to American audiences.

“It’s just the A-Team of B-films,” says Tom Quinn, a senior vice president at Magnet. “They all fit together, from different parts of the world. … We thought that this is going to be a series of films that in many ways pushes the envelope of what people feel genre films should be.”

First up for the Six Shooter series is the Swedish vampire picture “Let the Right One In,” which opens Nov. 7 at the E Street Cinema. A hit on the festival circuits - and already set to be cannibalized by the Hollywood machine - the movie has been generating buzz on fan-boy Web sites for good reason: It’s a taut thriller with a fresh take on a tired genre. It’s the sort of original picture Hollywood seems bound and determined to ignore, at least in its original form.

“There’s a certain intelligence to” these films, Mr. Quinn says. “That’s what we’re hoping to bring to these genre fans.” Another highlight of the series is “Timecrimes,” a Spanish-language film kicking up quite a storm on the Internet.

What can American studios learn from their overseas counterparts? For starters, filmmakers need to emphasize mood over gore. Fear doesn’t come from severing body parts in innovative and disgusting ways. Fear comes from heightening tension and making the audience unsure of what will happen next.

Most important, however, the studios need to take off the leash and allow for some originality within the genre. Don’t wait for some foreign filmmaker to revolutionize the horror film and steal from him. Don’t just bank on reaping the profits to be had by remaking your entire catalog. Do something innovative. Do something fun.

And for heaven’s sake: Do something frightening.

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