Friday, January 21, 2011
Movies: As far as Mr. Sullivan is concerned, the whole "y'all got bigger penises" thing is all the reparations anybody has got a right to expect.
An unnecessary sequel to an uncelebrated remake of pretty trashy film, 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams marks a step back for a young director who has yet to take any appreciable steps forward.
I have a soft spot for this flick's grandpappy. I'll honestly admit that Two Thousand Maniacs! (Lewis's punctuation, not mine) provides a completely unjust and tawdry revanchist thrill to what little Dixie pride I might have, but that is not the film's chief claim on my nostalgia. Rather, my predominant attitude towards horror as a genre was formed by Lewis's cheapee little splatfest.
First, as a child of the slasher besotted 1980s, horror's dreariest era, I was pleasantly shocked by Herschell Gordon Lewis's general disdain for his supposed protagonists and his blithe willingness to off them mercilessly. Compared to the jump-scare-to-the-kill spasms of slasher flicks, character's in TTM! suffered fates worse than death and then died. Watching, one got the sense that the survivors got out not because they were privileged - like the schematic final girls of slasher cinema - but rather because Lewis's cruelty, like that of cat, is bounded only by his ability to get bored easily. It was as if he'd simply had his fill of blood (or run out of money to buy more red paint), announced the martini shot, let his remaining near-victims go free, and called it a day. Whether this was a genuine insight into the narrative strategies Lewis was trying to employ or not, it left me with an exhilarating, teasing sense of horror cinema as something that was played without a net. To this day, if I can tell in the first reel who makes it to the last reel, I feel played for a sucker through the rest of the flick.
The second, and perhaps weirder legacy, has to do with a single scene in Lewis's original. In the 1964 flick, one of the victims gets placed in a wooden barrel and sealed in. Then long metal nails are driven into the sides of the barrels. Finally, the barrel is rolled down a hill. At the bottom of the hill, the barrel is opened to reveal that the nails have done their fatal work and the victim is a bloody mess. The redneck cannibals go wild! Ever since I saw that scene, I've been obsessed with the idea that there's got to be some way to survive this trap. I haven't fully figured it out yet. I'm convinced that a person desperate enough to survive could, in fact, push against the sides of the barrel and brace themselves throughout the ride. This would send nails into your back, which admitted would suck a billion kind of ways. But I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be fatal. In fact, it may just be what saves you, as being impaled from the start might help you from bouncing around the inside of the barrel. The problem is, as I see it, even if you survive the ride down, you've ended up at the bottom of the hill severely injured and surrounded by a mob of pissed-off ghouls. That's the sticking point: how to get out of the barrel and use the lead you've gained by rolling down the hill to your advantage. I'm still working on that part. Anyway, the important thing is that it started in me an obsession with watching films with an eye towards thinking, "How would I get out of that?" This isn't your standard "victims are stupid" stuff - on the contrary, perhaps my least favorite aspect of slasher cinema is its cynical formula that dooms certain characters from the start, essentially robbing characters of the opportunity to genuinely fight to live - but rather a fascination with what humans could do if facing impossible odds.
The two things are connected, of course: to get the sense that you're able to battle against the odds, one has to get the sense that there are still odds. A cinema without a safety net is the only cinema in which you can feel people are really struggling and the outcome is always in doubt. And that, oddly, is perhaps my criteria for what makes good horror, though I know it's inadequate to solving genre disputes or helping folks bash Twilight: a good horror film pits humans against the most extreme consequence, without the consolation of a predetermined end.
Oh, here I've rambled on and not discussed 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams. Though, honestly, I'm okay with that.