By Michael Dodd
The hope at the dawn of the year 2000, the careful optimism that humanity could leave its bloodiest century behind was dashed on September 11th 2001. Since then this new century has been characterised by fear, and the country directly targeted by terrorist actions that day has felt this fear acutely. As demonstrated in the first part of the series, the American horror film has been consistent in its interpretation, exploitation and examination of the fears of American society. But is it possible that the modern terror which has gripped America has stunted this cinematic trait? Has the post-9/11 United States left the American horror movie behind?
It is important to consider why the events of that day resonated so profoundly not just in the United States but all over the world. The horrifying fact is that 9/11 was a horror movie, a real life horror movie, and that is exactly how the attackers wanted it. For the vast majority of us the experience of that day was one of being glued to the television screen, shocked, disbelieving and ultimately frightened, but unable to tear ourselves away from what was happening before our eyes.
Every facet of the attack was designed to symbolise American utilities being turned against America. Their own planes crashed into their own buildings, and on a deeper level a grotesque artistry. The 9/11 attackers committed an atrocity which had its blueprint in Hollywood. The huge explosions, the destruction, the devastation, it all echoed works like The Towering Inferno and Independence Day. The setting for the most widely seen of the terrorist acts that day? The city which had for years been a default location for on screen cataclysm: New York.
In the immediate aftermath there was a realisation too awful to comprehend: American film had played a part in the barbarity. It had laid out the choreography for the attackers to make the most momentous on-screen impact that they could.
“The movies set the pattern, and these people have copied the movies… Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that… unless they’d seen it in a movie… How dare we continue to show this kind of mass destruction in movies?… I just believe we created this atmosphere and taught them how to do it”. – American director Robert Altman, 2002.
Like America itself, the cinema of the United States was traumatised.
A little over a month after September 11th a horror remake was released in cinemas. Thirteen Ghosts, starring Tony Shalhoub and Shannon Elizabeth, reinterpreted the 1960 William Castle picture of the same name. Critics were uniformly unimpressed with the film but it did score great box office returns. It seemed that in the wake of the attacks, the movie-going public still sought a scare despite the complex cinematic layers of the collective trauma which the country had suffered. American horror still had an audience, but the genre needed to take baby steps.
Remakes are not unique to post-9/11 Hollywood and this is especially true of the horror genre, but the differences between the conveyor belt of re-imagination from the last decade and the remakes of old are quite pronounced. The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Fly (1958) were popular fright-fests which played on the Cold War anxieties of the day. When both films were remade in the 1980s the Cold War was still ongoing, so the layered meanings behind the stories were still relevant. What made these re-interpretations so striking was their use of at times obscenely gory special effects unavailable to the filmmakers behind the originals (and which would have fallen foul of the Hays Code even if they had been). With the plot still relevant to the audience watching it, and new filmmaking options available to enhance the story and the scares, these can be clearly defined as good remakes. It’s the same story but a completely different film.
Now take into consideration the 2006 version of The Omen. Matching the 1976 original in plotline, with almost scene for scene similarity, the only enhancement came with the addition of a few jump-scare scenes, the purpose of which was to give the audience a quick shock. The uneasy tension of the original nowhere to be found, any symbolism relating to rebellious youth that might have resonated three decades earlier lost on the modern audience; this is a bad remake. Releases like this are what fuelled the popular notion among movie-goers that the genre was running low on ideas and merely milking the old successes.
A rapid-fire succession of remakes started to make their way into theatres. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2005), The Amityville Horror (2006), Friday the 13th (2009), and so on, and so on. The monsters of old which had frightened the American cinematic audience in days gone by were now being entrusted to provide safe scares. The kind of experience that would have the movie-goer jumping out of their seat but which didn’t delve too deeply into the collective post-9/11 psyche. Not all of these films were carbon copies, but even remakes which made an effort to tell the story of the original in a different way — like the 2010 version of A Nightmare on Elm Street — cannot be considered true to the American horror lineage with regard to exploring the contemporary mood.
There was also another side to the post-9/11 horror remake trend. The prevailing atmosphere of tense traumatisation not only affected a shift towards retreads of old scares but also the tone and content of these re-imaginings.
Rob Zombie’s 2007 version of Halloween retold one of the all time classic American horror movie stories and in doing so altered so much of what made the original so timeless. Art critic Walter Benjamin argued that throughout history works of art have had an aura that is exemplified by their being distant from the viewer. If one were to take this concept at its most basic level, that distance between the subject and the viewer creates aura, then Michael Myers is a monster grounded in artistic tradition. In John Carpenter’s 1978 original Halloween no explanation is given for the young Myers’ murderous nature or his apparent indestructibility. He is simply a fatal force identifiably human in form, but one which the audience cannot empathise with. This inability to empathise or comprehend the Michael Myers character made him distant, gave him an aura, and that was a huge part of his appeal.
In 2007 Michael Myers is the product of a broken home, an insecure child who designs masks to hide what he feels is his own ugliness. His murderous rage is not an out of the blue occurrence but a result of several factors laid bare on screen. There is no distance here, the character displays commonalities with which members of the audience can identify. There is no aura to him like there was in the original, and this is a result of the post-9/11 psyche. We must remember that for a great many Americans the 9/11 terrorist attacks seemed to come out of nowhere. A destructive blast that shattered life as we know it for reasons unclear. After September 11th it was no longer acceptable that evil could just happen, there needed to be an explanation, and the post-9/11 Michael Myers is the embodiment of America seeking answers. The movie-going public got their safe scare from yesteryear fully infused with post-9/11 sensibilities. You may well have jumped out of your seat at one point, you may even have felt sick to your stomach with tense fear, but when the film was over you could sleep at night. The rollercoaster had come to a stop and the terror had not been overwhelming.
American horror in the first part of the twenty-first century was not just characterised by remakes though. There were successful originals; hell, the Saw franchise was the most profitable horror series in history. Post-9/11 trauma may have been a root cause of the safe scares provided by the remake trend, but it would be a mistake to think that the fears of the modern age have not seen the same kind of examination and exploitation as in the past. So how has American horror cinema explored the American psyche after 9/11?
In the final part of this series we will answer this question by looking at horror trends which have enjoyed success parallel to that of the remake phenomenon. Click here for part one.
Michael Dodd is a film critic for the magazine.