Why do teen horror flicks captivate audiences?
Being a practicing movie critic involves all sorts of tricky little dances. How do you discuss the success of the story line without giving away the twists? How do you write both for readers who want to know whether a movie’s worth their time and/ or money and readers who want the longer, more aesthetic view? Most crucial of all: How can you write honestly about a film when you just can’t stand the genre?
Teen slasher flicks, for example. I hate the things. Can’t for the life of me understand why some people — a LOT of people — pay their hard earned bucks to watch a bunch of dim adolescents (usually played by 25 year old actors) get gored, garroted, electrocuted, and otherwise graphically maimed by some schmuck in a mask. I know ”Halloween” is a ”classic.” I understand that ”Scream” is clever. I still find them depressingly cruel to watch.
Nevertheless, here I am standing in line Monday night to see ”Urban Legend: Final Cut.” Since the studio, intelligently, didn’t bother to screen the film for critics, and since it hit No. 1 at the box office (in, admittedly, a dreadful week), EW needs need a capsule review fast, so I’m catching it in my neighborhood theater. Yeah, Owen Gleiberman or Lisa Schwarzbaum — Entertainment Weekly’s movie critics — could be doing this, but I got the gig, and don’t think that they’re fans of the genre either.
I try to be a pro about it. I clear my mind. I remind myself that there are, indeed, splatter films I treasure, like the dementedly over the top ”Re-Animator,” the coldly deadpan ”Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” Sam Raimi’s goofball ”Evil Dead” series, even that blueprint for the teen slash mini genre ”The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” I remember that, hey, Alicia Witt wasn’t all THAT bad in the original ”Urban Legend.”
None of this rationalizing does any good: Ten minutes into ”Urban Legend Final Cut” I can tell (A) who’s going to survive, (B) who the killer is, and (C) that we’re at the lazy ass end of the ironic, movie aware horror cycle inaugurated by ”Scream.” ”ULFC” takes place at a film school where all the students make knowing references to Hitchcock and Truffaut. That’s a horselaugh in itself, but it also marks the film as the work of smart people who have intentionally dumbed themselves down in order to pander to the gore crowd. In the end, it comes down to this: Do you want to watch a maniac drag a screaming woman through a window by grabbing the gaping wound in her side, or not?
Well, the guy who brought his kids to the screening — including the 3 year old boy who, to his credit, fell asleep (wish I could have, too) — certainly did. Me? Sorry, but a documentary on the meat packing industry would have been less predictable. Of course, people who like teen slasher flicks probably don’t go to them to be surprised; any deviation from the Rules (the good girl survives, the geeky kid gets offed two-thirds of the way in, the killer is the one person NOT hinted at beforehand) would ruin the fetishistic flow. The reason I like the gore films cited above is because they do things differently — they break the rules — but maybe that’s the bias of a guy who watches films for a living and therefore welcomes a change up on the rare occasion one comes around.
I also know that watching human suffering without any context that gives it greater meaning — as interesting entertainment, let alone art — just ain’t my bag. So help me out here: If you like these things, speak up. Is it because they’re fun to watch with a date, or with a group of friends? (No wonder a critic’s going to miss out on the communal experience; we tend to watch our movies alone.) Is it precisely BECAUSE they require no actual brainwork to sit through? I guess what I want to know (and I should ask myself as well) is this: What’s the pleasure in watching people experiencing pain? Help me figure this out — before ”Urban Legend 3” rolls around.