V for Vendetta - and American horror's current lack of culture shock

I may be a bit late to the party on this one, but Time.Com has two pieces posted on V FOR VENDETTA: "Can a Popcorn Move also be Political? This One Can," a review by Richard Corliss; and "The Madman in the Mask," a behind-the-scenes article by Lev Grossman.

Both articles deal with the film's edgy subject matter, in which the title character title character is an anti-hero who is at the very least a violent insurgent and possibly a terrorist (depending on how you want to define the terms). In the "Madman" article, actress Natalie Portman philosophizes on the topic:

She points out, quite correctly, that the question of what is and is not a legitimate use of violence has never been more vexed and that hyper-charged labels like "terrorist" aren't helping much to clarify matters. "I think the most important thing is that people will go home and fight about it," she says. "We all realize that at a certain point, violence might be the only means of effectively combating injustice, but it's always going to be subjective - what injustice is great enough to provoke you to harm someone else?"

In his review, Richard Corliss calls the film audacious for not shying away from the September 11 parallels and observes:

These days, with many millions around the world seeing every evil in Bush and Cheney, a film like VENDETTA is, at least, timely. And if the villains are the big guys [i.e., a futuristic, fascist government], the hero can be a terrorist - or should we call V an insurgent?"

I myself have not seen V FOR VENDATTA yet, so I cannot speak to whether the film (directed by James Teague, from a screenplay by the Wachowski Brothers, based on the graphic novel written by Allan Moore) succeeds with its gambit. But I am sure that the film deserves recognition for having the nerve to tap into an unpleasant undertow in the current Zeitgeist.

As a popular art, movies are a perfect medium for tackling this kind of subject matter, taking concerns that suffuse the culture and playing them out on the screen with big melodramatic flourishes. Whether or not the experience is enlightening, it can be wonderfully cathartic and liberating -- breaking down barriers and opening up topics for discussion.

All of which brings me to the second point in this post: current horror films - at least American horror films - lack this sort of culture shock. They fail - or don't even try - to achieve what V FOR VENDETTA strives to do: use their genre elements as a mirror to reflect fears alive in our culture at this point in time.

Instead, we are trapped in an era of retrograde horror. Filmmakers mine the past for old ideas. Sometimes. the films simply mimic exploitation flicks of the past (e.g., THE DEVIL'S REJECTS). More often, they are outright remakes: THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, HOUSE OF WAX, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES.

Generally, these films are the equivalent of campfire stories: they work on the most superficial, irrelevant level, as a sort of acid test endured by viewers to prove their courage. Many of the films play at being uninhibited, all-out terror-fests, but they do not have the courage of their convictions; genuine horror is not the point, so much as shock and disgust. There is little in any of them that strikes a deeper nerve in the viewer or provokes a response any more profound than "Yuck!"

For this reason, the hardcore horror film is becoming even more of a cult item than ever, doomed by its own lack of relevancy to anyone who's not obsessed with proving his imperviousness to the sight of severed fingers, snapped spines, and mangled flesh.

My point is not the tired old one about excessive violence in horror films. Rather, my point is that, too often, the violence is presented as an uninhibited attempt to terrifying the audience, when in fact it is seldom more than an empty pretense, a sort of ugly facade that obscures a film's cowardly inability to tackle something genuinely disturbing.

We can illustrate this by looking back at a horror blockbuster from a past era: 1976's THE OMEN. There is no doubt that this film gets much of its visceral kick from a string of gory deaths (including a severed head that spins through the air in slow-motion), but is that enough to explain how the film became a hit with mainstream audiences? The real reason THE OMEN went over so well was that it reflected a fear that was everywhere felt but seldom discussed: the looming end of the world. At the time, with the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. locked in a nuclear standoff that seemed ready to erupt into total global annihilation at any moment, the idea that the Anti-Christ was at work bringing about Armageddon was an apt metaphor that could resonate with viewers, whether or not they believed it literally.

We live in a radically different world today. As much as the Bush-Cheney administration has sought to replace the outdated threat of communism with the recent threat of terrorism, the parallel simply will not work.

The Cold War seemed like an all-or-nothing scenario. The world was threatened with destruction, but that very threat offered some ray of hope: namely, that self-preservation would prevent both sides from pushing the button. There was little chance of a "limited" nuclear exchange, because the fear was that this would ignite a wider conflict that would explode into a full-scale world war with disastrous results for both sides.

Today, we do not stand on the brink of extinction. Much as they might like to, terrorists cannot hope to destroy us; the most they can do is terrorize us with violence and the threat of violence. They may be able to strike unexpectedly, but we can go to sleep knowing that our way of life will not end overnight.

Ironically, this sense of long-term security leads to a different kind of fear. With the threat of extinction no longer poised over our heads, we can no longer rely on a sense of self-preservation to restrain our enemies. Armageddon may not be in the offing, but that merely leaves the door open for continual low-level conflict, punctuated by seemingly random acts of terrorism. Today, our concern is not that the world could go up in a nuclear holocaust - but probably won't, because both sides would like to continue to exist - it is that there is no concern for self-preservation that would prevent a terrorist from detonating a nuclear bomb in a major city.

This is the fear that is generally missing from the horror genre at present. Remakes like HOUSE OF WAX, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and THE HILLS HAVE EYES exploit the fear of running afoul of crazies in isolated locations, but his hoary cliché is as dated as meeting a vampire in Castle Transylvania. With cell phones, steel radial tires, and fuel-efficient engines, the fear of running out of gas and/or getting a flat tire and not being able to call for help, is seriously diminished. Yes, the script for HILLS HAVE EYES can account for those new-fangled cell phones (the unhappy campers are in a no=service area), but that's only enough to suspend disbelief for the running time; it's not the sort of thing that will give you nightmares after the movie is over.

Unlike many recent horror films, THE GRUDGE effectively taps into the zeitgeist.
Unlike many recent horror films, THE GRUDGE effectively taps into the zeitgeist.

Ironically, the recent wave of Asian horror films (and, to a lesser extent, their American remakes) does a much better job of tapping into the post-9/11 mindset. Although these films (with their reliance on ghosts and hauntings) are in some ways even more old-fashioned than the "isolated crazies" sub-genre discussed above, they feel more contemporary and relevant because they locate the horror in the everyday world that most of us inhabit. In other words, you don't have to wander far from home to encounter horror; it's right next door to you - or maybe even in your own home, lurking unseen but ready to strike unexpectedly and without warning. When you stop and think about it, the victims of THE GRUDGE have done nothing more than walk into the wrong building at the wrong time, and for that they pay with their lives, attacked by a malevolent force that strikes without reason, acting out of an irrational sense of hatred. The parallel to the massacre at the Twin Towers in New York may not be exact; however, it is worth noting that the GRUDGE's ghostly Kayako is herself a victim with a legitimate grievance (she was murdered by her husband) - who lashes out at victims completely innocent of the crime against her.

That the parallel may have been unintentional is irrelevant. What is important is that viewers, whether consciously or subconsciously, can relate to the on-screen horror in a way that is not possible with retrograde efforts like HOUSE OF WAX or THE HILLS HAVE EYES. We live in a world where it seems that violence can strike at the heart of our daily lives, without warning or reason. We live with this fear, and yet we manage to suppress it in order to go on living as normally as possible. When a film allows us to explore that species of fear on the big screen, the effect is both frightening and gratifying - a chance to face our nightmares instead of running from them. The horror genre is often regarded as an ignoble one, but I believe that, in an instance like this, it can serve a relatively noble purpose. They can't change the reality of our lives, but they can help us deal with that reality by letting us experience it at a safe remove, in the guise of fiction. Taking on this kind of challenge is what the genre is all about. Killing off a bunch of interchangeable victims in the outback, on the other hand, is nothing but a sideshow freak attraction - good for a handful of screams, but if you listen closely, you notice that there is no resonance after the echo fades.