6 'Dumb' Horror Movies (That Aren't)
Sadly, when it comes to horror flicks, the deepest message the audience usually takes away is "Try not to get stabbed by monsters" or "Don't be a black guy or a sexy woman." And that's a shame, because peel back their bloody surface, and even some of the most famously "uncomplicated" horror films have surprisingly deep meanings. Such as how ...
The Famous "Sex=Death" Trope Is There For A Reason
Anyone who has sex in a slasher flick is gonna end up being penetrated by another type of pointy object sooner rather than later. We all know this. But what's up with the whole "If you have sex in a horror movie, you die" thing? After the free-loving '60s and '70s, why did every '80s movie suddenly insist that getting laid was some shameful act that would get you killed? What happened th-
People in power in the '80s treated AIDS as a moral crusade instead of a health crisis. This crusade was often anti-queer and unquestionably anti-sex. They preached that AIDS would kill your children if you didn't teach them that sex was a dangerous act that should only be performed when strictly necessary. Horror movies took this a bit literally ...
As hysteria spread worldwide, slashers leaned more and more into the lesson. 38 characters have sex on screen in the Friday The 13th franchise, and all of them get murdered -- even the ones who practice safe sex in the later installments. Because the moral panic was never truly about safety, but punishing people for having fun.
Hellraiser Is A Metaphor For Drug Addiction
Hellraiser tells the story of Frank, a man who summons Cenobites (demons dressed like a Finnish metal band) to pleasure him sexually through extreme sadomasochism. Who hasn't been there, right? But this somehow backfires, and the Cenobites trap Frank, though he does escape and try to take over his brother Larry's life (also, his skin).
Hellraiser hellraises a lot of questions. Why would anyone want to use something that brings infinite pain? How is this infinite pain also infinite pleasure? Does Pinhead sleep sitting up? Most of these answers can be found if you stop looking at Hellraiser as a horror movie and instead watch it as a metaphor for drug addiction. Let's start with the satanic Rubik's Cube Frank uses to summon the Cenobites, the Lament Configuration.
Frank buys the box from a shady dealer -- the same kind of person you would buy a fake Charizard holographic card from. Or, you know, drugs. Because the Lament Configuration is an addictive drug. Frank uses the box knowing his soul will belong to the Cenobites. He needs the pleasure. Later, when Frank's niece Kristy throws the box out a window, Frank loses his mind. This is the same box that's doomed him to an eternity of torture, but he still needs it. He's going to use it a little bit, you see, just to take the edge off ...
The brothers are two sides of the same person. Boring ol' Larry represents sobriety, while pervy Uncle Frank represents addiction. Julia, Larry's wife, is a classic enabler, only instead of bringing Frank drugs, she brings him dudes to kill so he can become "himself" again. Eventually, Frank kills Larry and starts wearing his skin, which is the moment when addiction has taken full control of his life. Frank's demons (the Cenobites) finally catch up to him and tear him to pieces. The addiction has won.
The same thing then happens to Kristy, but she's able to fight off the demons she inherited from her father and pull her life back together (until the next movie, anyway). As for all the weird sex stuff? Sometimes people enjoy weird skinless sex. Don't make a thing out of it.
Hostel Is About America Embracing Torture After 9/11
Hostel follows the only party-obsessed 20-somethings to ever get bored in Amsterdam. The trio decide to head off to a remote Eastern European village where there's no cell reception, because clearly all the fun is there. The village ends up being a front, attracting tourists so they can be sold to members of the Elite Hunting Club, which is like a book club, if you replace books with people and reading with torture.
The movie was a hit and helped popularize the "torture porn" subgenre, maybe because it provided some fun escapism from the grisly stuff we were seeing on the news back then ... like all the actual torture. The earliest news reports on the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were published in 2003. Photos of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse were leaked to the media and broadcast on major networks, ruining family dinners everywhere. Hostel came out in 2005 and took those same scenes to the big screen. If anything, they were toned down.
In fact, we were so used to torture scenes that some people took far more offense at the movie's inaccurate representation of Slovakia. The characters speak Czech instead of Slovak, and have names straight out of Cold-War-era Bond films. But according to Hostel creator Eli Roth, this was intentional. He picked Slovakia because "Americans do not even know that this country exists," and the way it's depicted is meant to "show Americans' ignorance of the world around them."
Roth admits that the movie was a product of its time -- a time when fear of another terrorist attack made America dial up the xenophobia, seeing foreigners as sinister caricatures secretly out to get us. Hostel reflected those fears and combined them with Americans' newfound lust for torture. Anyway, this is getting dark, so here's a photo of Roth resting on Zach Braff's face:
Last House On The Left Was A Vietnam Allegory
Wes Craven's first movie, Last House On The Left, starts with the graphic rape and murder of two teenage girls, and just gets more gruesome from there. The parents of one of the girls get revenge on the killers not by heroically capturing them and calling the cops, but by brutally murdering them back. The movie shows us that violence is a horrible thing even when perpetrated by the "good guys" ... and it's no coincidence that it came out smack dab in the middle of the Vietnam War.
'Nam was called the first truly televised war, because for the first time, Americans could see the real cost of war right in their living rooms. It wasn't pretty. Craven, a humanities professor, had serious problem with the way violence was portrayed in movies of the time (cowboys comically keeling over after being shot once, etc.) versus the horrible Vietnam footage on the news. So he quit his job and set about fixing that.
Craven shot Last House On The Left in a realistic (perhaps too realistic) documentary style, reminiscent of the footage coming from Vietnam. Instead of dealing with extreme violence in offscreen implications or covering it up with "POW!" visual effects, he forced the audience to witness rape and murder with no cutaways. Craven wanted the audience to understand that if you were disgusted by the fake violence in Last House On The Left, then you should be outraged by the real violence of the Vietnam War.
We're not sure if that plan worked, considering he went on to make like 30 more violent movies, some of them rather wacky. But it's the thought that counts.
The Slumber Party Massacre Is A Feminist Text
The Slumber Party Massacre is about a group of teenage girls who decide to have a sleepover on the same night an escaped mass murderer, armed with a drill, decides to take up mass murdering again. Gratuitous nudity and even more gratuitous murder ensue. It's exactly as sleazy as you're imagining.
And yet the movie was written by author and activist Rita Mae Brown and directed by Amy Holden Jones, who had worked with Scorsese and turned down Spielberg to do this movie. Turns out Brown wrote The Slumber Party Massacre as a parody of slasher flicks, but the studio told Jones to shoot it straight. Still, some feminist themes managed to slip through. For one thing, the girls may be eye candy, but they have real personalities and motivations more complex than "I sure hope Billy invites me to the dance."
As the story progresses, the girls bond with each other and pull together to take on their oppressor. Also, in a master stroke of subtle symbolism, the killer's long drill is often framed dangling between his legs. The finale sees the killer corner Trish, telling her "You know you want it" while thrusting his throbbing drill forward, only for Valerie to chop it (and his hand) off with a machete.
This lets the girls kill him, defeating the symbolic patriarchy. It's a triumphant ending for our heroines, if you disregard all their dead friends.
The People Under The Stairs Is About Modern Conservatism
The People Under The Stairs is another Wes Craven movie, this one about a couple of evil slumlords called "Mommy and Daddy" (they're really brother and sister), who kidnap children and keep them locked in the basement, starving them until they're forced into cannibalism. The villains' methods are clearly insane, but their plan is all too familiar. They want to tear down an apartment building where poor people live and replace it with upscale condos for "clean people." Daddy also drops the N-word, in case the "clean people" line wasn't obvious enough.
The movie was largely dismissed as being wacky and far-fetched ... but it was supposed to be an over-the-top send-up of the time's conservative values. Sadly, it ended up predictive. Daddy uses inherited wealth to get into real estate, doesn't like renting to black people, turns overtly racist, keeps children in cages, and there is an implication of incest. Hmmm. Why does that sound so familiar?
Craven saw this form of conservatism rising back in 1991, so he made a horror movie about it. What we once thought was a "cartoonish parody" of conservatism is now strikingly close to reality. As critic Alex Pappademas put it: "Everything that happens in this movie could happen next month and it would be a one-day cable-news story that Fox would probably not cover." That's not fair. They'd cover it. They'd first deny it was true, then try to excuse it, before finally justifying it as perfectly normal. That's the playbook.
You can follow Jon Kaulay on Twitter. He will gladly tweet with you about trashy horror movies or more sophisticated pop culture like professional wrestling.
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