Saturday Night: Horror stalks the stalls

STEVEN SPIELBERG is not a good director in the conventional sense. His characters assume recognisable human attributes only when they are dramatically endangered. He seems unable to represent emotions other than the primitive staples of terror, awe and a sentimental yearning for the nuclear family with its clearly defined relationships.

On the rare occasions when a character drifts towards more complex emotional states, Spielberg seems baffled, and resorts to the crassest manipulation. Inevitably, he uses the same tired old trick: whack up the soundtrack and lean into a monstrous close- up. 'Wow,' exclaims its juvenile subtext, 'this is really intense]'

How often does he do this in Jurassic Park? You work it out. I lost count after about 20 minutes. But all this is so much dino-poop in the long run, because, when he cuts to the chase, Spielberg is peerless.

His genius is for triggering the fight-or-flight response; he has an uncanny knack for isolating and giving form to nameless dread. Subtle emotions expose the limits of his vocabulary, but in the universal language of fear he is fluent and voluble.

Now he speaks of dinosaurs, and not since the earliest days of cinema has primal terror been so eagerly received by so many. Of course, the film's marketing has set new standards in cynicism. But can its success be put down entirely to hype? I think not. Record-breaking audiences have greeted it with a collective sigh of relief, as if grateful for the opportunity to be scared witless by prehistoric reptiles.

This was certainly the case at the late screening last weekend in Leicester Square. Late shows always attract the most unruly and appreciative audiences. While grown-ups, 'serious' film buffs, tourists and dating couples attend the earlier screenings, the midnight slot is the preserve of reprobates, misfits and clubbers, often gang-handed. Like the zombies, vampires and monsters that entertain them, they only come out at night.

Jurassic Park is guaranteed to draw a hard-bitten late-night audience in search of something that goes for the jugular. And the perfect game to play, in such atmospheric surroundings, is Second Guessing.

To play you will need several good friends. Make sure you are sitting in the middle of the group. I, for instance, was seated with Guy and Vivian on my right and Linda and Tony on my left. The trick of it is patience and timing. You must watch carefully and judge the mounting tension. Just when everyone has stiffened, their eyes wide, their jaws open, their breathing fast and shallow, in that instant before claw rips flesh . . . bang] You seize the arm of the person next to you - or better still, on either side - and they jump off their seats with a shriek.

Then - and this is the beauty of it - before they can regain their composure, they turn back to the screen and - bang] - Spielberg lets them have it with both barrels. Oh, what joy]

It occurred to me as we left the cinema that Spielberg is playing exactly the same game, on a much larger scale. Consider the reptilian archetypes, and you see that his epic surely owes as much to the timing of its release as to any marketing strategy.

Rapacious, cold-blooded, savage beasts are pitted against slightly more intelligent and much less aggressive human beings. Through the hubris of mankind, and our arrogant belief in our dominance over nature, these monsters have been given a second crack of the evolutionary whip. If they get the upper hand, we're finished. You don't have to be a deep-dyed millenarian to recognise a peculiarly resonant metaphor; the narrative acts as a lightning rod for the fears and anxieties that will accompany us throughout the last years of this millennium.

Are we ready to leave the horrors of history behind, or will we carry them into the future? Can we confront and control our basest primal instincts? Is our intellect sufficiently developed to power us forward into a new renaissance, or are we doomed to slide irrevocably into a modern version of the Dark Ages?

Then again, maybe it is just entertainment. Perhaps Spielberg is a good director after all, and I'm missing the point. Whatever, the Second Guessing game is always fun. Try it next time you go with friends to see a late-night movie predicated on archetypal dread. Don't worry if you miss Jurassic Park. Before the decade is out, there'll be plenty more where that came from.

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