Singularity | Commentary

Saving Horror by Douglas E. Winter

For much of 1998, I told anyone who cared to listen that the best horror movie of the year might prove to be a game for the Sony PlayStation: Resident Evil 2.

Inspired by the zombie films of George A. Romero — and particularly the nihilistic splatterfest Dawn of the Dead (1979) — Resident Evil 2 lit the screen of my television for days, not as a mindless pastime but as a challenging and intoxicating drama. It proceeds from a simple premise that seems lost on the makers of most recent American horror films: It is designed to involve the viewer, to make us participants in its action while presenting a mystery that only we may solve — or “die” trying. It evokes fear and dread with cinematic tropes that range from the subtle shadows of Val Lewton to the shattered skulls of Lucio Fulci. Blood drips, clots, pools, sprays, as a legion of monstrosities relentlessly pursues its prey: us. Although the special effects are typically unleashed for shock value, they are symptomatic of the story of a world steeped in chaos, victimized by scientific treachery and conspiracy — a world where there is no longer any law but the gun.

The intricate graphics of Resident Evil 2 include interludes of computer-animated video, which arguably qualify the game as a movie; but in all honesty, my “best of” nomination was offered as an irony meant to underscore the languid vision of “horror” foisted upon us by Hollywood, television, and, increasingly, book publishers — a rigidly defined and marginal genre of entertainment that is sophomoric and safe, but worth keeping alive for its dollar value.

The meaningful horror films of 1998 can be counted on one hand; none had a Hollywood connection (save the effectively British Gods and Monsters), arising instead as no-budget underground miracles (Pi) or foreign imports (New Zealand’s The Ugly).

The American take on horror remained stuck in the demographic mud of pandering to the expected tastes of mallgoers (who, in the condescending eyes of Hollywood, are truly less than zombies). In the mass-marketing mindset, the best possible products are copies: Since the drones drop dollars to drink the same cola and eat the same popcorn, why not invite them to watch the same movies? Thus the reign of cookie-cutter filmmaking, with the likes of Urban Legend and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (or was it the summer before that?) revisiting for the umpteenth time the tired template of killing off hapless and horny teenagers. Thanks to that paradigm of the cookie-cutting edge, Scream, we have the supposed fillip of a self-consciousness that, like the alternative music soundtracks and TV flavor-of-the-month casts, is meant to suggest that these films are “hip” — when, in fact, they are nothing more than brainless retreads of plots past. The postmodern “nod and a wink” is simply a con, a fey means of passing off the filmmakers’ utter inability to imagine anything new.

Consider, if you will, all that has changed in our culture over the past twenty years — and then consider Halloween: H20, which is imbued with such a jaw-dropping absence of originality that it becomes the shining star of a new genre: a film impersonator. In a triumph of consumerism over creativity, it is a motion picture made for no reason other than to imitate another film (and no one even cared enough to try to do it well). At least the invidious “remake” of Godzilla showcased new visual technologies — if only to prove that millions of dollars in special effects is nothing without a story. Other impersonators proceeded from the dull-witted scheme of shifting locale; thus, Deep Rising (Aliens . . . on a boat!). By the close of the year, we would experience the ultimate film impersonator, and the next best thing to colorization: a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho.

Although 1998 may have marked a low point for the American horror film, it also featured a sly resurrection of the film of the horrific — accomplished by a director who some might find an unlikely savior: Steven Spielberg.

That horror should be embraced — and, indeed, redeemed — by Spielberg is not, however, much of a surprise. His early made-for-television nailbiter Duel (1971) was a Richard Matheson-scripted fable of road war between a somber everyman and a mysterious trucker. His first big-screen triumph, Jaws (1975), was a tale of humanity besieged by implacable terror. Distracted by the sugary nostalgia of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), and his galling genius as a manipulator of emotions, we forget that it was Spielberg who optioned the Stephen King/Peter Straub collaboration The Talisman, and that it was Spielberg whose violent set-piece — in an Indiana Jones film, of all things — forced the MPAA to adopt its PG-13 rating.

That Spielberg would return to the dark side thus seems inevitable; but that he would do so in the guise of a war film was a profound, and risky, step. Saving Private Ryan will be remembered for its indictment of the glorification of war and its wrenching reminder that all we have is owed to generations of the dead, but also because it is — and intentionally — a horror film.

The plot of Saving Private Ryan is by no means original. An entire subgenre of war movies has championed the elite cadre of warriors who are dispatched on a suicidal mission, including the classic The Guns of Navaronne (1961), Merrill’s Marauders (1962), 633 Squadron (1964), and The Dirty Dozen (1967). The use of a military microcosm to personalize anti-war sentiments powered Spielberg’s most obvious inspiration, Cornel Wilde’s remarkable Beach Red (1967), as well as the remake of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), M.A.S.H. (1970), and Apocalypse Now (1979).

What makes Saving Private Ryan transcendent is Spielberg’s decision to depict war literally as hell — to recount an experience whose essential and unremitting emotion is terror. With a level of violence unprecedented for an R-rated film, and a style that is documentary and almost obsessively dehumanizing, Saving Private Ryan takes realism toward its outer limits. It is not meant to offer viewers a sense of being there, in the mire of combat, but to hold them in their seats, forcing them to view an exhibition of atrocities — all in the name of an honor that is both personal and patriotic.

When one emerges, scathed, from Saving Private Ryan, there is a recognition, and an appreciation, of something shockingly mundane and yet so obviously lacking in most movies offered to us in the name of horror: There is . . . a point. The violence, the bloodshed, the terror, the death, has been gathered and used for a worthy purpose — not to sell us popcorn, or to entertain us, to usher a few more of our waking hours into oblivion, but to communicate, to tell us things about ourselves and our heritage.

In their diverse and distinctive ways, Resident Evil 2 and Saving Private Ryan — which have much more in common than meets the eye — provide a stunning critique of the debased horror film of the 1990s. Each engages in a discourse — the dialogue between creator and viewer that is so starkly absent from the retreads and remakes. Each is about the importance of the individual to the social fabric. And each is unflinching in invoking the emotion that is horror.

Copyright © 1999 by Douglas E. Winter and Event Horizon Web Productions, Inc.