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June 14, 2007

Horror Story

It's Only a Movie series sketches connections from '70s icons to the genre forces of today

Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of the defining '70s horror films screening in the It's Only a Movie series at Museum of the Moving Image
(Photo: Dark Sky Films)

Almost 30 years ago, in the acrid fog of post-Vietnam disillusionment, an American cinema bowing under a flurry of jabs like Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now took a body blow from John Carpenter. The 30-year-old director followed his overlooked grindhouse picture Assault on Precinct 13 with another low-budget indie, this time a slasher film called Halloween. Already enjoying a reappraisal in Europe, where both audiences and critics greeted Precinct 13 with acclaim, Carpenter was warming up in the States. Something was happening -- not much, but something.

"I remember reading Tom Allen in The Voice when that film came out," said David Schwartz, chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image. "It wasn't taken that seriously at the time, but he was one of the critics who said, 'This might be sort of a B-movie, but it's really strong. This is an important filmmaker and this is an interesting movie.' I think Halloween was one of the first to get that kind of attention."

Not long afterward, alongside contemporaries like George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and David Cronenberg, that attention heated to the flashpoint of influence. (Financial success wasn't far off, either; Halloween's eventual institutionalization through video and sequels helped make it the most successful American independent film ever.) But as pointed out in the museum's new series It's Only a Movie: Horror Films From the 1970s and Today (opening Saturday in Astoria), the social and political anxieties those filmmakers evoked were perhaps their last qualities to reach the mainstream. After the garden-variety splatter of the 1980s and the cloying, Scream-addled revisionism of the 1990s, directors including Rob Zombie, Alexandre Aja and Eli Roth -- all featured filmmakers in the Moving Image series -- have embraced the potent legacy of their predecessors while pushing the genre to increasingly harrowing new extremes.

"It's tempting to write horror films off as schlock or kitsch, and that's just not how I see them," said Livia Bloom, the museum's assistant curator and programming force behind the series. "Of course it always depends on the individual film, but for me they can mean much more than that. The genre works in very complicated ways, and the films can be pretty fearless. As compared to other traditional Hollywood genres, horror is uniquely positioned to look seriously at themes of life and death. It's not surprising to me -- or sick -- that viewers would challenge themselves by witnessing representations of death, or that they would want think about mortality at all."

Inspired in part by the wildly divergent reactions Zombie's The Devil's Rejects provoked among her friends and colleagues, Bloom considered the encyclopedic genre knowledge often attributed to Zombie and his fellow "Splat Pack"-ers. Additionally, Craven had just handpicked Aja to remake his thinly veiled pollution and family critique The Hills Have Eyes. In discussing his 2006 masterpiece The Host, Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho frequently alluded to the influence of director Larry Cohen (who will attend a June 30 screening of his enduring 1974 classic It's Alive). Joe Dante's Homecoming, featuring Iraq War dead returning as zombies to vote George Bush from office, tapped the premise of Bob Clark's Vietnam-era satire Deathdream.

Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead (Photo: Universal)

Yet it wasn't just the thematic continuity -- gender violence, xenophobia, paranoia, religion, consumerism and more -- or the films' intense vibrancy that piqued her interest. It was the way the filmmakers played with ambiguity, exploring essential issues while crafting character, narrative and suspense. It was perhaps the most direct echo of '70s horror: that the films could be whatever you wanted them to be. "To some degree, there's an explicit view," she said. "But with a lot of others, it's more of a feeling. You have films that reflect a lot of these tensions -- both empowering and punishing. It's not just one way, or an obvious manifesto. I think that that carries on now."

That possibility -- the potential for intellectual inquiry in the blood and gristle -- makes the series unique in New York, where repertory series at the Museum of Modern Art, Film Forum, BAM and elsewhere have long emphasized horror's industrial heritage over its conceptual and emotional forebears. In fact, as Fangoria Magazine editor Tony Timpone told The Reeler, the Moving Image program showcases exceptions to the rules that guide safe, studio-driven horror of the present day.

"The majority of the filmmakers today don't want their films to have a message," Timpone said. "They'd rather keep it simplistic and just go for the thrills and the chills, which is unfortunate. But then you'll have something like The Descent, which is one of the best horror films of the last 10 years -- just a nasty little no-holds-barred horror movie. Perhaps there are some feminist issues in there that aren't too overt, but it's mostly just a great scare ride."

The current prevalence of remakes, sequels and homages presented an unusual challenge to Bloom, who chose Zack Snyder's re-do of Dawn of the Dead over Romero's 1978 original (itself one of the great sequels of any genre) and included Craven's original Hills as opposed to Aja's remake, which Timpone was not alone in acknowledging as superior to the original. Saw II, 28 Weeks Later and the "domestic horror" (in Bloom's terms) of Final Destination 3 made the cut as well. Among other selections in the six-week series are rarely screened runs of Romero's Martin and Dario Argento's The Bird With the Crystal Plumage; a contagion-themed pairing of Cronenberg's classic Rabid and William Friedkin's latest, Bug; obvious picks like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Wolf Creek with not-so-obvious picks like Ichi the Killer and A Clockwork Orange; a 35mm screening of John Landis' legendary Michael Jackson video Thriller; and a multimedia performance of Lance Weiler's 2006 indie sensation Head Trauma, complete with audience participation and live DJ's.

This weekend, New York critics Nathan Lee and Joshua Rothkopf will join Bloom and authors Maitland McDonagh (Filmmaking on the Fringe) and Adam Lowenstein (Shocking Representations) for a panel discussion about the trajectory of horror cinema from the margins to the mainstream. Expect some discussion of independent film's role in the horror ecology -- another of the genre's most consistent themes dating back to Carpenter, Romero and beyond. "In a funny way, a lot of these filmmakers were very smart," Schwartz said. "Just like Hollywood auteurs of the '40s and '50s were working in genre, they found a commercial genre where they could make interesting movies -- before the independent film movement. They didn't really have that option at the time."

It's Only a Movie: Horror Films From the 1970s and Today runs June 16 - July 23 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. Visit the museum's Web site for complete program and ticket information.



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Comments (1)

Pardon my skepticism, but how was Aja's copy-and-paste remake better in his opinion?

It was the same movie but not as fresh and with a considerably increased amount of gore.

Even the minor changes Aja made were just pointless. It was painful to watch and frankly I'm kind of glad I chased it with the Harvey Corman "Fantastic Four" movie because boy oh boy was I ever disappointed with Aja after that one.

"Switchblade Romance" wasn't original but it was fun and kept me interested. I hold him accountable for just picking up "Hills" and just adding a scene or two and calling it his own.

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