Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Book Review: It Lives Again! Horror Movies in the New Millenium (yeah, I read!)

We’re an incestuous bunch, we of the horror community. If we don’t know our heroes personally, we’ve hobnobbed with those that do and through them “met” Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers vicariously. Our love of the genre pushes us forward and nearly all of us are driven to create in some way, be it in the form of podcast, short film, feature, website—whatever. It’s been observed before that few other fanboy genres encourage originality. Where many hardcore science fiction, fantasy or anime fans (for example, not limited to or devoid of exceptions) are content to re-create their favorite characters, right down to the thread count on their Legolas costume, in the horror community, you’re practically dared to make your own monster. Yes, the icons abound in every costume contest, but so do the personal nightmares dredged up from individual imagination. This can be attributed to a more easy-going or nurturing nature amongst the fright set, but it may have more to do with the fact that, unlike physics-bound science fiction, or monomythical structures of fantasy, horror has very few rules. It can be gory or bloodless, supernatural or hyper-real. Horror comes from fear and fear is personal. When the mainstream deigns to pat horror on the head, generally around Halloween, the question is inevitably asked: “What scares you?” Not “what scares everybody?” but you. And everyone has a different answer.

While the horror industry continues to celebrate two decades of renewal that can be traced back, perhaps inaccurately perhaps not, to Kevin Williamson’s and Wes Craven’s tongue-in-cheek self-referential Scream that broke box office boundaries and managed to elevate the genre from the “second-to-porn” attitude basement, the genre never died or rested, no matter how often the critics pronounced the time of death. The trends in horror continually evolve, reflecting the attitudes of its audience, and Hollywood constantly scrambled to cash in on the new types of fear. But what is scary today might not be scary tomorrow, but might be scary again in a year or so. Like humor and the weather, horror is unpredictable.

What these two aspects of the genre have to do with each other is this: horror makes its fans strive towards contribution, we all start as fans before (hopefully) evolving into professionals, and when one of “us” makes it good, underneath the teeth-grinding jealousy is the satisfaction that he or she did it for all of us. Their legitimacy adds a little more legitimacy to the community as a whole. That maybe horror fans aren’t just black-t-shirt-wearing freaks plotting to gun down their classmates, but might understand something that the non-horror folks don’t. Because we look under the beds and closets hoping to find something awful in there, if only to have a new story to tell.

Which brings me to the astonishingly terrific coffee table book, It Lives Again! Horror Movies in the New Millenium written by Axelle Carolyn. The handsome hardbound from Telos Publishing is filled to overflowing with gorgeous stills and promotional from hundreds of scary movies, It Lives Again! is one of those must-have books for students of any type of film, horror or otherwise. Between the pictures are perfectly-chosen words that, taken as a whole, provides a year-by-year breakdown of the horror movies produced and released (or not, in some cases) in the first ten years of the ‘aughts, beginning in 2000 and coming to rest in mid-2009, seemingly just minutes before the book’s publication. (Nit-pickers keep your nits to yourselves regarding the start and finish of a decade, okay? We’re not listening on New Year’s Eve, we’re not listening now.)

What Carolyn does with the book is what makes it special. This isn’t one of those “greatest hits” fistfight books or even a simple chronological listing. The author examines the movies released during a given year and contextualizes them, analyzing the geo-sociopolitical climate of the given year in an effort to discover the source of our trends in fear, given what’s exploding around us.

To say the ‘aughts were a tumultuous time is to exercise historical nearsightedness—we’re not out of the woods yet and the decade isn’t over—and to say that cultural anxiety has nothing to do with entertainment isn’t just a specious argument, it’s downright ludicrous and false. Carolyn connects the dots between early ‘00s political unrest and the tamer horror of the time through the 2001 hysteria and post-9/11 paranoia, psychological agony and despair. She traces the rise and fall of the so-called “torture porn” subgenre (even uncovering the very genesis of the lazy shorthand appellation) through the ethical dilemmas our government was forcing upon all of us with their justification of “enhanced interrogation” tactics and the Western world’s juggernaut xenophobia. She takes a hard look at the newfound love for zombies and how that creature became the all-purpose fear-mongering metaphor, the undead standing in for rampant capitalism, unstoppable hordes of political opposition, and even a generation’s self-loathing. While viewing the surface silliness of kayro blood and latex limbs, Carolyn attempts to give our floating anxiety and love for the genre a solid piece of ground to stand on. In a sense, It Lives Again! attempts to psychoanalyze international populations via their entertainment, to explain why anti-social gore gave way to J-Horror, which  was the “in thing” for a while before falling out of favor with the public and then, maybe inevitably, drained of all blood and substance for the Twilight crowd.

But It Lives Again! never becomes a stodgy master’s thesis, thanks to Carolyn’s straightforward, non-judgmental style. Part of this style is due to her being an exceptional writer and some of it is due to her being “one of us”. Carolyn herself was once a fan of both “horreur” and the “fantastique”, growing up in Belgium before joining the ranks of “pro” journalist through Fangoria and other publications. Her fervor for the genre led her to small roles in movies like Brian Yuzna’s Beneath Still Waters and larger roles in Neil Marshall’s Doomsday (which in turn led to a marriage with the latter director) and Centurion. So she’s well-versed not only with the movies, but the artists who created them, peppering the description and criticism with personal interviews conducted with the principals.

With this unique inside look, we get to understand how Eli Roth feels about the “torture porn” label and how Mick Garris feels about the self-cannibalizing Hollywood system. This intimacy gives a unique pigment to her critiques of the movies as well. As close as she might be with a particular artist, she won’t soft-peddle if a certain movie fails to live up to its promise and her disappointment is palpable just as it’s, often, shared. And just because both Marshall and Garris contribute introductions, don’t think for a second she lets either of them off the hook if she feels they’ve turned in less than their best efforts. Which is not to say that this is a gonzo narrative either, Carolyn keeps herself out of the storytelling, keeping her critiques for the mechanics, both technical and physical. It Lives Again! is both scholarly and accessible, but it’s also a terrific representation of the not-dead-but-definitely-wounded idea of “journalistic integrity”.

If criticism can be hurled it’s that the independents are woefully misrepresented. Only a few titles are given a passing mention and the divisive Murder-Set-Pieces is the only one discussed with any sort of depth. On the other hand, the book is focusing on the mainstream productions—and the “sidestream” of direct-to-DVD—and the effects on / reactions to the filmgoing world. To take every offering from Camp Motion Pictures, Media Blasters, MTI, Heretic, Subversive, SRS and so on would not only be impractical for a project like this, but would result in a gorgeous, hardbound book affordable to only the six richest kings in the world and transportable only by dirigible.  

But, if you consider yourself part of the “horror community”, you may already know Carolyn through Myspace or Facebook or have met her in person at this festival or that. That should be more than enough reason to scrounge through the couch cushions for the scratch to buy a copy. If you only know of her, rest assured, she remains one of us. Maybe she’s walking down more red carpets now than most of us ever will, but she’s still sitting in the theater with the same gleeful anticipation we all feel as the lights go down. 

And if you're the sort of horror community guy that I am, it should suffice in the promise that you'll delight in the awful frustration with self and society when coming across a title that you've never heard of, is not available in this country short of the gray market, and only adds to your overwhelming to-watch list. 

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