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Carpenter, Industry Heavies Slay 'Em

Does Hollywood have horror directors by the balls?

By John Lichman

What better way was there to begin The Kid Slays in the Picture -- the Tribeca Talks panel on the state of movie violence and censorship -- than to compare and contrast John Carpenter’s Halloween to the current films Hostel and Saw? In a montage re-edit of Halloween’s opening sequence, it’s funny to see everything sped up in double-time not only to have young Michael Myers’ murder have no gore, but quickly cut to a scene in Hostel where Jay Hernandez has his fingers taken off via chainsaw (and show the fingers coming off) before switching to a screaming girl whose eye is hanging out of her burnt face.

It seems like horror has certainly taken a change for the sadistic, but is it too much? That was the point brought up repeatedly by Common Sense Media founder James Steyer to Peter Block, president of acquisitions at Lionsgate, and Carpenter himself, who seemed to be quietly enjoying this panel far more than anyone else on stage.

But before that, the opening remarks of moderator David D’Arcy approached the subject head on. “We’re going to talk about whether there is a new kind of film," he said. "Some people say the films have become more violent, more mean spirited. A lot of people think it’s pretty much the same thing but a new audience watching that. Also we’ll talk about whether that new audience, which is always a young audience, is an audience that needs to be protected. I should tell you we’re talking about violence, torture -- the new generation of horror films is called ‘torture porn.’”

D’Arcy went on to reference Taxi to the Dark Side and Nobel Son, documentary and narrative premieres (respectively) at Tribeca, to represent real horror and who should regulate such decisions in a new media landscape, a good portion of which is dominated by video games.

“There’s nothing really brand-new about any of this stuff,” Carpenter said, when asked whether there is a new, emerging trend. “When I was a kid, there was a big uproar about foreign films, like Swedish films and Italian neorealism films. I remember being a little kid sitting on the stairs of my grandparents house and they showed some scenes from it ... and the guy was telling us how terrified it was supposed to be. Because he told me, I was scared -- not because of what I saw.”

To Carpenter, the decline of Hollywood's old production code led to the '70s and '80s -- the “most extreme stuff,” which was the exact same as what you could see today, just lower budget and hokier. In fact, the panel swung from there into the media ethical debate of how much is too much to show kids. Block and Steyer went for a few rounds, touching on every topic from too-real video games to advertising and its effect on the youth.

“I think the audience, especially the horror audience, is really a sophisticated audience,” Block said. “When you’re looking at a film, it’s not always a ‘Can you top this?’ mentality. You see many films that go over the line. And I never know where the line is. Like pornography, you know it when you see it -- I just don’t see it as much. But the truth of the matter is, for us and the Saw series, if you look at what happened, we didn’t do a color-by-numbers remake each and every time. We tried to take the characters to a new place -- sure, we made sure there were traps and there were interesting amounts of bloodletting.”

Toward the end of the panel, Carpenter added that some of the films' appeal may be political as well. “We live in a fearsome world," he said. "It’s pretty frightening -- involving not just the war, but there’s been enormous changes in communication and the internet and television. All of this stuff is a brave new world to me and causes a lot of anxiety. And a lot of people who are struggling to maintain certain -- for lack of a better word -- standards and values are always frightened, too, in the beginning, and then [it] becomes assimilated in the culture.

"Writers and directors sort of get the vibe of what’s happening in the culture," he continued, "and they begin to apply these ideas and these feelings into fictional film. They’re fake. There are people having a great time here -- a lot of blood, a lot of rubber, they’re stabbing people. It’s not real. But that’ll go away when the culture changes, and that sometimes takes a while.”

Posted at April 27, 2007 4:54 PM

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