American horror cinema is nimble. Surprisingly so given its dependence on genre formulas and the genre fans' insatiable appetite for re-heated leftovers. Despite the antiquity of many of the genre's most beloved tropes - the specters that haunt modern day-traders and their spiritually besieged girlfriends are fundamentally the same beasties that spooked our preliterate ancestors thousands of years ago - horror cinema is quick to assimilate our latest fears and anxieties. From genuine threats, like nuclear weaponry, to passing fancies, like the 2012 "prophecy," anything that makes us antsy is just waiting for an enterprising low-budget filmmaker to give it the fright flick treatment. The ambulance chaser of our psychic landscape, horror's often the first on the scene of any disaster, ready to help us frame up our latest fears and happy to make a buck or two doing so.
Wars would seem to be an exception to this. During the Second World War, Hollywood kept the homefront eager for slaughter by filling theaters with hundreds of patriotic flicks featuring our fighting men and women in action. Yet surprisingly few horror films made in that period - 1941 to 1945 - overtly mention the war and none are set on the frontlines or featured characters directly involved in fighting. Certainly there were exceptions to this rule: King of the Zombies and Revenge of the Zombies (1941 and 1943) feature Nazi zombie makers, 1942's Black Dragons has surgically altered Japanese saboteurs as the baddies, Dark Waters (1944) includes a torpedoed passenger ship as a backstory plot point, and Return of the Vampire (1944) is set in London and features regular blackouts and bombing raids (and the vamp baddie, in a remarkable example of good taste, poses as a Jewish refugee from Eastern Europe). But none of the era's classics - The Wolf Man, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Uninvited, The Body Snatcher, and Isle of the Dead, not to mention the sub-classic, but still beloved, late entries into Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein franchises - seriously engage with what must have unquestionably been the single greatest source of anxiety for American film-goers.
The same can be said of Vietnam. Though the "crazy vet" character quickly became a stock character (courtesy of Bob Clark's Dead of Night and other films), Vietnam War era horror flicks that are linked with the war in the critical imagination are usually thought of as metaphorical commentaries on the war era or as products of the cultural wreckage the war caused. For example, many cite the grim, relentless tone and naturalistic visual style of Last House on the Left as a product of Vietnam, but its source material is older and the film is not objectively about the conflict. Even after the war, references to the conflict were usually oblique: Piranha and CHUD (1978 and 1984) feature bio-weapons intended for use against Charlie turning against Americans, House and Jacob's Ladder (1986 and 1990) feature 'Nam vets who are literally haunted by their past, and one could make the case that the unidentified sliver of South American jungle in Predator (1987) is really just a stand-in for the jungles of Vietnam. There must be, in the vast spread of horror flicks, some flick that features soldiers in the Vietnam War coming up against monsters and spooks, but to date America has yet produce a horror film set in the Vietnam War that has the equivalent status of R-Point (2004), South Korea's box office hit spookshow about Korean soldiers battling for their lives inside a haunted abandoned Vietnamese hospital.
Perhaps the magnitude of war simply dwarfs he ability of horror filmmaker to contain it meaningfully in tried and true horror frameworks. Compared with the brutal acts of warfare, their own quiver of spookshow tricks just don't measure up. The savagery of, say, My Lai starkly reminds of how silly and harmless most of cherished horror tropes are. More cynically, perhaps the filmmakers know that their monsters and madmen slashers are the stars of the show and putting their commodity in a setting where their killing prowess would suddenly look bush league is bad for protecting brand identity.
Regardless of the reason, American horror cinema, which is otherwise quick to exploit timely preoccupations, has long avoided setting movies in a on-going conflict. It is noteworthy, then, that the War in Afghanistan is the setting of no fewer than three horror films in the past two years. The Iraq War, true to American horror tradition, remains predominantly an influence and allusion. While drama and action filmmakers have had little compunction (and, notably, little success) about tackling the war head-on, horror filmmakers have mostly kept their distance. Where it has been the direct subject of a horror flick - Joe Dante's truly execrable Homecoming - the film has focused on the homefront impact of the war and the machinations of the administration who lied their way into the conflict. But, for some reason, filmmakers have decided that the on-going conflict in Afghanistan is ripe for horror genre exploitation. In 2008, Daniel Myrick, of Blair Witch fame, helmed The Objective, a supernatural thriller involving a squad of soldiers on the hunt for Bin Laden. The next year, Red Sands and Sand Serpents streeted, each featuring U.S. troops battling monstrous threats in the Afghanistan hinterlands.
We'll start this tour of this unique subgenre of modern horror with the Syfy fodder Sand Serpents for no other reason than that happened to be the first flick that came in the mail from Netflix. In what might be one of the strangest business strategies ever, Syfy has apparently decided that it is going to corner the market on "it's a lazy Saturday afternoon and finding the remote would be harder than sitting through this movie" films. Sand Serpents is a slightly above average component of Syfy's vast plan to conquer that crucial 18 through 35 lazy-and-can't-find-remote demographic. Directed by Jeff Renfroe (who apparently knows that his involvement as the editor of Anvil! The Story of Anvil means he need not produce anything else of last quality to secure his place in film history), Sand Serpents follows the misadventures of a small squad of Marines who are sent to recon an unused sapphire mine. To save time, screenwriter Raul Inglis (best known for his cartoon scripts and the narrative interludes in the video game Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects) rolled out his characters from a NPC random encounter generator in the Twilight 2000 rulebook. We've got all the classics here: There's the bespectacled intellectual (the Sassoon), the rough-edged soldier who's in Marines because of a "hometown jam" (the Springsteen), the green recruit leader who must earn the respect of his men (the Tori Montroc), the tough as nails sergeant (the Rock), the racist lughead (the Vig), the guy whose always got a bad feeling about this mission (the Lemchek), and the outsider specialist (the Ripley). There's also some cannon fodder (the Fodder). Despite his apparent comfort with cliché, Inglis forgets to include the loyal native (the Benny Fish), the dude who loses his shit (the Hudson), or the guy from Brooklyn (the Brooklyn). Whether this is because Inglis is tired of these particular types or due to the fickle nature of Twilight 2000 NPC generator, I don't profess to know.
After some efficient backstory setting up their mission parameters, our troops march almost immediately into an ambush. They are overwhelmed by Taliban forces and those that survive the initial attack, about five out of the initial seven, are prepped for videotapped beheadings. This scene gives us a hint of why many filmmakers hesitate to set their monster pics in a live-fire war: Nothing that follows in the movie has quite the tension of watching seven bound and blindfolded soldiers beg for fruitlessly beg for their lives. Ultimately, the soldiers are spared. As it turns out, the ambush above the mine sent tremors deep through the mine structure, awakening massive three, maybe four gigantic sand worms - several stories tall, with a mouth roughly the size of the Holland Tunnel - from their slumber. The sand worms breach the surface with the force of a small earthquake, sending the Taliban soldiers out to see what the heck is up. They are, to say the least, unprepared to deal with the sand serpents and quickly become serpent chow.
Spared the serpent's immediate onslaught, the Marines slip their bonds and regroup. Their movement arouses the ever-peckish titular monstrosities and, after the beasties whittle the number of Marines down slightly, the Marines ponder just how to make it back to base when any movement on their part brings serpentish attention.
The Marines eventually break for a nearby refugee camp. Built on the remains of what appears to be a bombed out brace of block houses, the concrete rubble foundation of the refugee camp serves as a deterrent to serpenty predations. There the team meets Amal and his daughter Asala, two refugees who are willing to to help the Marines if the Marines agree to take them out of the Taliban controlled region. The Marines and the refugees hatch a plan that involves a mad endgame return to the serpent infested mine and call for evac. It's not a utterly crap plan, but you could count the numbers who survive it on a single hand. And not even your single hand, but the hand of a dude who had one of those horrible woodshop accidents they warned you about in high school.
From a strictly horror-fan perspective, Sand Serpents may just squeeze into the the middling territory. With none of the aw-shucks wit and charm of Tremors or raw power of Aliens, its two nearest cinematic predecessors, it comes off as a unoffensive, by the numbers run-and-gun. Relatively speaking, the effects are top notch for a Syfy production. But that's relatively speaking. While this film puts The Snakehead Horror to shame, it's a stain on the shorts of Cloverfield. That said, there is an odd charm in watching the lengths the filmmakers will go to in order to avoid showing the sand serpents. In fact, the film depends on the fact that we most often register their presence solely by the panic reactions of our protags: We've see that the serpents are big enough and fast enough to snatch Blackhawk choppers (or the Syfy-budget equivalents thereof) out of the air, so seeing them on screen in most scenes would just make us wonder why they don't snatch our unlucky heroes up.
As an artifact of the Afghan War era, there are two major points of interest. First, there's the characters of Amal and Asala. During an extend sequence in which the Marines use the mines to escape - apparently the rock the mines cut through to to thick for the meddlesome beasties - the up-to-then trustworthy father and daughter duo have a weird exchange. The father starts to head down a mine and then, after some consideration, changes his mind and directs the Marines down a different shaft. His daughter then intervenes and says that they are headed in the wrong direction. Amal ignores her and maintains his stance. Now, eventually, the Marines pop out of the mines and there are Taliban crawling all over the area. But, before they surface, there's a whole scene in which a sand serpent chases them around the mines, pretty much messing up any chance we'd have to know if the Marines ended up where they were being directed. Was Amal leading them into a trap? Did he start to, change his mind, and then get pressured by his child to carry out the plan? Honestly, I'm a bit hesitant to not put this all down as a product of sloppy writing. To believe that Amal or Asala was leading the Marines into a trap would require we believe that the Taliban plant two people in a refugee camp they had no reason to believe the Marines would go to. They would then assume that the Marine would agree to travel through the mines, though they didn't know about the serpents (which had eaten every last one of the first Taliban squad) which was the only reason the Marines had to travel by mine shaft. Still, the impression you get while watching it is one of potential betrayal, never fully resolved. Where we betrayed? Do we even understand enough to know if we have or haven't been betrayed? While far from the overt racism of Pvt. Jackass, the squads resident spokesman for ethnic hatred, it speaks to a more subtle unease about whether we truly have allies, even when our best interest coincide.
Even more interesting than than the nuanced unease about our Afghan allies is the bizarre final scene of the flick. In the last moment, the remaining two Marines and Asala, the potentially traitorous Afghan girl, lift off in a chopper. Suddenly, a sand serpent rears out of the surface and lunges toward the helicopter. One of the Marines, wearing a confiscated suicide bomber belt of explosives, leaps into the maw of the beast. He detonates, saving the last Marine and the little girl. Watching this, I couldn't help but be reminded of a truly odd essay by Sunny Singh called In Praise of the Delinquent Hero, or How Hollywood Creates Terrorists. It's long been a curiosity among anti-terrorism experts that terrorist seem fascinated by American genre cinema. Terrorists often select their nom de guerres from American action cinema lore. When NYPD anti-terror agents unravelled a plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, they found that they terrorists referred to the famous landmark as "the Godzilla bridge," an allusion to the '98 Emmerich flick (not only do they want us dead, their taste in films is horrific). Indian essayist Singh suggests that the connection runs deeper than average pop fandom. She suggest that genre cinema has given terrorists the mental justification they need in the form of the "delinquent hero." Think a War on Terror update of the Kracauer thesis. This figure, in Singh's words, embodies "distrust of sociopolitical institutions and individuals, the privileging of individual judgment over the status quo, and, finally, the utility of violent force in achieving goals, even if it means going beyond the pale of law." (The complete essay is available in How They See Us, edited by James Atlas - buy indie and remember: more of the dollars spent at your independent retailers are circulated back into the local economy.) Though too wrapped up in the military command structure to truly be delinquent heroes, the film does show our Marines clashing and outsmarting an incompetent and avaricious command structure, ignoring their orders because they decided their is a higher set of values they must follow, and using force to solve their problems. Though I find Singh overreaches in her essay, the irony of the fact that hero Marine becomes a suicide bomber would not be lost on him.
[UPDATE: See Singh's comment below; not only because she calls me out on an embarrassing assumption on my part, but because she directs you, dear readers of all genders, to an online version of the essay mentioned above.]