Horror films get back to basics in four new arrivals on DVD.
Do you like your fingers? How about your neck? Like porn, horror movies are determined to remind us that we're just bodies-fragile and impermanent, disassembled as easily as Legos.
Psycho created the story: Someone immersed in her own life stumbles across the wrong guy at the wrong time. And The Twilight Zone still embodies the larger formula: A world on the other side of our own, ready to reach up and grab us (see also: the last shot of Carrie).
Japanese horror movies often take this theme literally, with netherworlds of spooks and spirits that run in and out of our lives, while Western horror movies stick closer to the real world and load up on bloody gore. This approach can be even scarier, as we're forced to see how much evil, danger and violence lurks right around the corner in our everyday lives.
In these four new horror DVDs, an eye hangs from its socket, then gets sliced as casually as thread; bloody severed digits are hacked off fast and smooth as fat on veal; a mute feral spirit gorges on blood; a quick knife in the spine makes someone a head on a stick; and torture makes a callow frat boy spurt geysers of vomit.
But it's not just about slashing bodies. It's about reminding us of the surprising-ness of life, the oddness of nature and sex and skin and blood, the unexpected turns things can take when you're just taking a vacation or walking down the street.
"What the hell is the purpose of this sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty?" asked Roger Ebert in giving this Australian gorefest zero stars when it opened in theaters last December. So you may be surprised by how mild it is, and how little of it is actually violent.
The film follows the true story of two young women and one young man who travel to Wolf Creek crater in the Australian outback. Most of the movie shows them hanging around, drinking, flirting and kissing-until they cross the path of Mick Taylor, an outback boogieman with a twinkle in his eye and evil on his mind.
Director Greg McLean is strong on creating a believable atmosphere-in his DVD commentary he cites Stephen King's maxim: "Without believability, there is no fear." Everything that happens in the movie could happen to real people, yet McLean also roots the action in a spooky sense of the natural world, setting up his villain as a perverted nature man, hairy and wild, in the midst of frequent shots of water, mountains, birds and a starry sky.
The three young people, full of hormones and tied to their cars, are urban invaders, easy prey for the revenge of nature (like the Bodega Bay residents in Hitchcock's The Birds). It's like Psycho but even more like a land-based Open Water, the 2003 movie about two California bubbleheads on vacation who become dinnertime for sharks.
Tight, convincing and effective, Wolf Creek may seem a little dawdling for some horror fans, especially in its scene-setting first half. But it offers a unique
location and a vividly leering villain-a send-up of Crocodile Dundee who's believable and creepy enough to join Freddy Krueger in the horror pantheon. Sequel, anyone? B+
Includes: Commentary track with director and actors, making-of featurette, deleted scene.
You'll Like It If You Like: Realistic horror, nature horror, creative villains, Open Water.
Are today's horror movies really about young people living in the "anxious and uncertain era" of 9/11 and Iraq? That's the argument film critic Chris Kelly made in a recent essay, and if that's the case, Hostel is exhibit No. 1.
It's about three fratty boys-an obnoxious one, a sensitive one and an overage one-who wander to Slovakia because they hear there are willing women there. They find the women, but also a chamber of horrors where bodies are used more, um, creatively than they had in mind.
This story literalizes the idea that horror's about stumbling into another world. The xenophobia feels like the Cold War all over again, even if it also echoes Iraq and the Middle East. A horror movie's usual Terrible Place becomes a whole country, where hot naked chicks lure men to their doom. A little misogynistic? You bet-except the rude boys get what they deserve.