A Year That Trembled

From the grindhouse to the art-house, movies in 2003 made us shake with sadness and fear

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Back in January of 2003, New Line Cinema released Final Destination 2, a horror movie in which the antagonist was the unseen hand of death itself. All of the main characters knew their time was up, but they didn't know how, or when, so they existed in a constant state of fear, never knowing from which angle death might suddenly claim them.

Real life has felt a bit like that for a while now. If that vaguely worded terror alert that switches us to Code Orange doesn't make you paranoid, there's always the possibility of suffocation via government-approved plastic sheeting and duct tape.

"In times of terror, people want to be scared," says Eli Roth, writer-director of the horror hit Cabin Fever. "I think the success of both [Cabin Fever and House of 1,000 Corpses] is a reflection that people definitely want to be scared in a safe environment. After 9/11, people felt like they could die any minute, so there was a lot of panic sex going on. Horror movies give that same rush."

But the rise in horror movies this year -- Wrong Turn, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, May, Gothika, Freddy vs. Jason and Jeepers Creepers 2, to name a few others -- hasn't been the only manifestation of this fear. Consider also the sci-fi blockbusters -- both Matrix sequels and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines envision an imminent future in which freedom-loving humans are driven to the brink of extinction by cold-hearted robots, and none of these films promises much hope of victory. The best The Matrix Revolutions could offer us is an uneasy truce, while T3 gleefully wiped out civilization in a climactic global nuclear war. Additionally, Revolutions was one of three significant films this year (along with May and Once Upon a Time in Mexico) to feature the gouging out of its lead's eyes...as a good thing.

Angela Bettis, who arguably got the whole eye thing started as the eponymous lead in May, sees a possible correlation with events at large. "Who wants to see?" she asks, rhetorically. "I saw, for example, some footage of the Twin Towers falling, and I saw people jumping out of the building and falling and hitting things, and bouncing off like a ball, and my initial reaction is, 'Open your eyes wider, take as much of it in as you can,' because you have this gross gratification that you need filled, but then after a while of that, the reaction is, 'Just close your eyes, don't look.' I turn off the news every day. The second I start hearing something about the Iraqi war, I'm just like, fuck it, turn off the TV. It's the same thing: closing your eyes, gouging out your eyes...we don't wanna fucking look at it, man, it's too much in our face."

Some react with horror, others with sadness. Among this year's biggest potential Oscar contenders are 21 Grams, Mystic River and House of Sand and Fog, all tragic dramas that begin with something horrible happening to one of the main characters, then pile on tragedy after tragedy until every character has been broken by film's end. Vadim Perelman, director of House of Sand and Fog, says he was in the middle of adapting the Andre Dubus III novel into screenplay form when the tragedies of 9/11 occurred. While he states that his film, despite prominently highlighting the conflicts of an Iranian-American family, is not a direct reaction to the events of that day, he does note that, "the last time you had all these gritty, tragic films was the '70s, which directly followed the Vietnam War. This isn't a reaction to the Iraq War -- which isn't really a war -- but to having somebody reach into our house and punch us on the nose."

When it comes to the moviegoing public's appetite for tragedy these days, Perelman quotes French author Leon Bloy: "Man has places in his heart that he does not know exist and into them enters suffering so that he may find existence -- as man." He cites his own in-laws as "the perfect barometer" for the general public: "They don't care about film, but they see every movie that comes out." When they recently came to visit, he sent them to press screenings of 21 Grams and Mystic River. Though they were "exhausted" by the endless tragedy, their final assessment was, "We want more, we feel more alive."

"The most important thing is that the audience walks away with a strong reaction," says Paul Hough, director of the brutal wrestling documentary The Backyard, "whether it be anger, sorrow, inspiration or just a sense of being entertained...even the people who walked out tended to walk out loudly -- they wanted everyone to know they were leaving because [my] film had a very particular impact on their senses." Hough's documentary could loosely qualify as both horror and tragedy, depicting as it does teenage WWE wannabes engaging in brutal hardcore wrestling matches that utilize such props as barbed wire, light bulbs and fire.

But Hough doesn't see a direct connection to world events. "I think that the audience responds to a well-told story no matter what the time or trend." The son of English horror director John Hough, Paul hopes to become "the king of horror," citing the Japanese high school massacre movie Battle Royale as the project he'd most like to remake, though he hastens to add, "I am deathly afraid of blood in real life."

Rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie, whose House of 1,000 Corpses had languished on the shelf since Universal balked at the gore factor before September 2001, sees a real-world connection from a strictly business point of view. "Pre-9/11, dealing with my movie was a problem [for the studios], but post-9/11, it wasn't. When things are horrible in life, people aren't so hard on the movies." But he doesn't think horror films help people deal with real fears. "People don't really deal with it. I've never really understood the whole thing about wanting to be scared." This from a man whose music and film career have been geared toward frightening the audience? "I never really find [horror movies] scary. From an early age, I just identified with them."

Lions Gate Films president Tom Ortenberg, who finally did pick up Zombie's film for distribution and is bankrolling the forthcoming sequel, sees things in much simpler terms: "House of 1,000 Corpses and Cabin Fever were the kinds of films we could market effectively without overspending." Declining to speculate on any larger trends that might be influencing the public, Ortenberg cites the profit margins of the original Jeepers Creepers and the horror-spoof Scary Movie, simply noting, "Success breeds imitation." And having had some success this year, sure enough, he promises that "we're definitely in the horror game to stay."

So can we expect more terrors and tragedies on the big screen in the years ahead? Bettis, who among other things is also working on a trilogy of indie films about end-of-the-world fears entitled Lovindapocalypse, says that judging by the endless torrent of morbid scripts she's been offered lately, it seems likely. "It's really interesting to be reading stuff that's coming out right now from artists because it is kind of dark, that's the best way I know how to describe it. Like, it may be funny, but it's not light, it's deranged; everybody's trying to out-derange each other....These are the voices of this time that we're living in, of this country and what's happening to us right now, and the reaction to it is really stressful and unpleasant in a lot of ways. It's not like a chill time when people are writing about bunny rabbits and flowers."

Well, we did get Looney Tunes: Back in Action this year. But the less said about that, the better.

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