Horror will eat itself

Why do slasher films still scare us stupid?
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The Independent Culture

There's a climactic moment in Joe D'Amato's splendidly outré horror romp Anthropophagous in which the disembowelled cannibal lifts up his spilled intestines and starts chomping upon his own entrails. This image of the monster feeding on his own flesh has become iconic amongst horror fans, not only because (like the punctured head-shot from The Driller Killer) it helped get the video outlawed in the early Eighties, but also because it is the perfect metaphor for the horror genre itself. Since the first screen vampires crawled out of their dusty celluloid coffins, horror films have been devouring and regurgitating their own history. And as every true fan knows, given enough time, horror (like pop) will eat itself.

There's a climactic moment in Joe D'Amato's splendidly outré horror romp Anthropophagous in which the disembowelled cannibal lifts up his spilled intestines and starts chomping upon his own entrails. This image of the monster feeding on his own flesh has become iconic amongst horror fans, not only because (like the punctured head-shot from The Driller Killer) it helped get the video outlawed in the early Eighties, but also because it is the perfect metaphor for the horror genre itself. Since the first screen vampires crawled out of their dusty celluloid coffins, horror films have been devouring and regurgitating their own history. And as every true fan knows, given enough time, horror (like pop) will eat itself.

For evidence of the voraciously cannibalistic nature of horror, you need look no further than the success of Wes Craven's Scream, which feasted heartily upon the moribund remains of the slasher genre in the late Nineties, thereby giving its corpse a new, zombiefied lease of life. A slew of stalk-and-slash sequels, spin-offs and imitations like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend have followed, not to mention a parody, Scary Movie, which seems to be a piss-take of a pastiche. But while there was a gap of around 20 years between Scream and the movies which inspired it, such as John Carpenter's Halloween and Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th, the distance between Scream and Scary Movie seemed more like 20 minutes. In the age of video, DVD and digital communication, not only is horror making a banquet of its own heritage, but the courses are coming at a rate which threatens artistic indigestion.

So how did we get into this latest loop of ever decreasing slasher circles? Although the most recent cycle of post modern slice-and-dicers owes its existence to Scream, it was the earlier Wes Craven's New Nightmare which first demonstrated just how deliciously scary self-referentiality could be. Having created and then disowned the once monstrous Freddy Krueger, who had slashed his way through a series of Nightmare on Elm Street sequels in the Eighties and Nineties, Craven opted to bring his creature back from the grave one more time in a movie in which the makers of the Nightmare films are terrorised by their own creation. It sounded daft but, surprisingly, it worked. Watching people like Craven himself and New Line executive Bob Shaye get harassed by a movie monster who needs more sequels was, against all expectations, both funny and frightening, demonstrating that a slasher movie about slasher movies could be more than just an exercise in academic navel-gazing. It remained only for Craven to get his hands on Kevin Williamson's wittily cine-literate Scream script (originally entitled - guess what? Scary Movie) and the knowing genre joke was transformed into a mainstream teen sensation. There were laughs, there were scares, there were profits to be had. The slasher movie was back with a vengeance.

Of course, the real secret of Scream's success was the fact that its makers understood that, far from being a handicap, the recognition of recycled elements is a crucial part of the enjoyment and appreciation of many horror films. Although Craven and Williamson have been credited with lending an intelligent cutting edge to this dumbest of horror formulae (guy with knife and mask stalks promiscuous teenagers), all Scream actually did was to acknowledge that horror cinema in general, and slasher movies in particular, have always involved the knowing collaboration of the viewer. To high-brow critics, the sight of American kids well versed in slice-and-dice conventions discussing the formulaic nature of their imminent demise was all frightfully clever. To horror fans it was simply a celebration of something we have all known for years - that the best stories are the ones you've heard before.

This self-awareness is an essential ingredient in horror cinema. Produce a chainsaw on screen in a horror movie and the devoted fan will automatically click into a celluloid history dating back to Tobe Hooper's groundbreaking The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and buzzing to the present day via the parodic excesses of Motel Hell, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Bad Taste, The Evil Dead and of course Texas 2, 3 and 4. Produce a wraith-like figure in a bogeyman mask wielding a sharp kitchen implement, and you conjure up the ghosts of Michael Myers from the Halloween movies, or Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th cycle. We know these people, we know their weapons, and we know what they do together. The pleasure is in watching them do it again and again. Or, in the case of Scream, watching ourselves, watching them...

But where did all this merry carnage begin? Many critics trace the origin of the modern slasher movie back to Psycho which, although now considered a work of art, was treated at the time like any other cheap horror outing by the British censors, who took their own scissors to the "sadistic" shower sequence. Certainly, the cross-dressing figure of Norman Bates, the jump-out-of-your-seat surprise-stabbing of private investigator Arbogast, and even the final revelation of the mummified mother have all been imitated in countless slice-and-dicers over the years. But perhaps the most important legacy of Psycho was its mythification of the figure of Ed Gein, the real-life Wisconsin ghoul whose grave-robbing, skin-wearing activities have since inspired a string of slashers from Deranged, to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to The Silence of the Lambs, and who has now become the subject of his very own biopic, Ed Gein (currently in production).

In Gein, America found a personification of the archetypal bogeyman of legend, a quiet nobody whose house was a chamber of horrors decorated by spare body parts and decaying flesh, and whose discovery prefigured the emergence of the so-called "serial killer". Gein was to America what Jack the Ripper was to Britain, and the contrast between those two quasi-mythical figures perhaps explains the difference between the quaintly gothic Hammer movies which poured out of these shores in the Sixties, and the horribly modern screen shockers which erupted in the US at around the same time. Novelist Robert Bloch once told me that he had written Psycho in response to the American paranoia sparked by Gein's arrest, which he described as "the terrifying fear of the boy next door". Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper remembers being told scary stories about Gein as a child which subsequently filtered their way into his film. To this day, Gein remains better known for the fictional screen monsters he inspired than for the sordid details of the crimes he committed.

The persistence of the Gein myth through decades of popular film tells us something about our love of the big-screen bogeyman which transcends specific socio-political climates. Whilst Adam Simon's excellent documentary American Nightmare argues convincingly that a range of violent horror films from Night of the Living Dead to The Last House on the Left expressed outrage at the social problems of America in the late Sixties and early Seventies, what is striking about movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th (and indeed Scream) is that they appear to exist in a political vacuum. These are not movies that vent their makers' anger at the corruption of Nixon, the horrors of Vietnam, or the murder of Martin Luther King. They are movies which deal with far more simple, primal anxieties expressed in nursery rhymes and dark folk-lore, obsessively repeated mantras about the perils of sexual exploration, and the traumas of impending adulthood. These are adolescent fantasies, which give metaphorical shape to amorphous fears, providing us with something to scream at (and ultimately triumph over) in the safety of the cinema.

As Wes Craven has said: "Scary movies don't create fear, they release it." In the case of slasher films, that release may be simple and basic, but it is a release nonetheless. Craven cut his teeth directing the awesomely oppressive The Last House on the Left which was mightily short on therapeutic catharsis, and which he claims made him virtually unemployable in the film business. Years later, Craven would reinvent Last House's horribly realistic anti-hero Krug Stillo as the fantastical dream-demon Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street - a combination of Struwwelpeter and The Long Legged Scissor Man, who launched one of the most popular horror franchises of the Eighties. Sean Cunningham, who produced Last House, went on to direct Friday the 13th and is currently overseeing its allegedly post-modern sequel Jason X. Neither Craven nor Cunningham has any desire to return to the traumatising climes of Last House which was recently (and outrageously) re-banned by the British censors. As both men have learned, there is a profound difference between terrorising an audience and simply scaring them. For the moment, both are content for us merely to scream, and scream again.

Channel 4. Channel 4's Film Fear season continues until Tuesday

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