Scare me not

Movies are supposed to provide an escape from the lackluster travails of everyday life. But what if you’re forced to escape from a movie because what’s on the screen is worse than what you wanted to get away from?

Such was my experience with Scary Movie, the latest and, it is to be hoped, last outing from the Wayans brothers. This film not only tries to finish off the horror film as a viable genre, it takes a stomp on your soul. For every one wry joke — a black teenager so vulgar she inspires the white audience at a screening of Shakespeare in Love (1998) to slash her en masse — there are 20 that plop right into the gutter. In short, Scary Movie is crap, a dog’s breakfast of racy sight gags, trash talking and gleeful shittyness.

Director Wes Craven, he of Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), seemed to have seen the writing on the wall long ago. He bid an intriguing adieu to his series with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), a self-referential ditty in which the killer stalks the film’s cast and crew. But sure enough, along came the Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) franchises. Pitched to an adolescent audience, these films attempt to have it both ways — mocking the genre’s conventions, which the kiddies have learned ad nauseam from video sleepovers, while deploying those same conventions for chills. It’s all fun and games until someone gets a meat hook through their bra. To get the shivers, you have to suspend your disbelief along with your irony.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) is genius precisely because of its ability to keep irony at bay. We never see the killer, leaving us and the so-called “researchers” to let our imaginations run wild, a very rare luxury in a mass mediated culture intent on setting your agenda 24/7/365. Blair Witch has, to borrow from artspeak, a lot of negative space. The film is one long POV shot, articulating the panic and the desperation of the characters as they move closer and closer to abject terror. You are there, in the woods, flipping out.

Advertising, as it does with almost everything, has taken the aesthetic tropes of Blair Witch and quickly rendered them tiresome clichés cast adrift in the fetid waters of the cathode-ray sea. Like it or not, we become jaded to the tricks that seemed so powerful yesterday. Moreover, Blair Witch was an unexpected, albeit welcome, way station in the inevitable slide from Nightmare to Scary Movie.

What makes Scary Movie so depressing is that it takes the worst of the slasher genre and injects it with a puerile tastelessness, the same sort that is all the rage in American youth culture in general. One minute the film mocks the “whiteness” of the slasher genre; the next it indulges the shared coarseness of young America, black or white. There’s something for everyone. But who’s the joke really on? Stereotyped black males and the continued allure of misogyny and self-congratulatory apathy? Or white suburban kids who ache to get their “props,” ache to escape the banality of life they’ve been bequeathed by their parents and the system?

As R.J. Smith noted in a recent New York Times Magazine article, white youth culture has become a fast-moving, stinking amalgamation of the WWF, hip hop, pornography and peevish anti-intellectualism. The kids are fucked and they know it. Scary Movie celebrates their dead end while it packs them a bit tighter against the wall.

If there’s a future in the horror genre, it can be found in The Cell. A young psychologist (Jennifer Lopez), specializing in traumatized children, is called in to pick the mind of a serial killer who has gone into a coma, but not before he has kidnapped his eighth victim and locked her in a water-torture chamber. Our heroine, with the help of a cyber-sexy contraption of wires, black boxes and occult serums straight out of The Matrix (1999), must enter the malevolent kingdom of his unconscious and convince his inner child to cough up the whereabouts of the girl. Along for the ride is a haggard FBI agent (Vince Vaughn), who seems a kindred spirit of the villain, a little boy all messed up by a bad dad.

Here is a film tailor-made for a damaged generation, full of digital effects that, instead of glorifying over-the-top violence, explore the psychic consequences of the mundane domestic sort. Director Tarsem Singh (best remembered for the gratingly precious REM video, “Losing My Religion”) gives us a number of Art History 101 dreamscapes cobbled from the works of Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst, with a heavy dollop of MTV thrown for good measure.

Nonetheless, I’ll take mid-cult over no-cult any day. The plot is nonsense, but no matter — the important thing is the emotional melodramatics of victimhood, romanticized to the extreme. If Oprah anointed films along with books, this one would top her list. Lopez, in the final “inner journey,” rescues the killer from the evil king in an impossibly rococo sequence inside a snow globe while Vaughn races against the clock to turn off the taps. Nurse, I’m ready for my insulin.

Nonetheless, The Cell manages to elicit a tingle or two. And a tingle is far superior to a cringe. When you’re used to feasting or famine, voluptuous psychobabble always trumps bare-bones vulgarity. Here’s hoping the kids figure that out sooner rather than later.

Timothy Dugdale writes about arts and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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