Sunday, 24 May 2009

Why horror matters: celebrating Sam Raimi’s much overdue return to the genre

I think Mark Kermode got it right when he said that the reason why horror films and comedy films never get a mention at the Oscars is because critics generally don’t like films that induce a physical reaction, they prefer films that make you think. In a sense this has been the main issue for both horror and comedy, because in some ways the physical reaction both these genres create is somehow perceived to cheapen the content, to make the genre less important. However, horror movies in particular speak to people on a much deeper level, they remove all pretence of our higher-cognitive status and replace it with pure instinct, which is why the horror genre is so important, and despite what you may think, why horror movies really encapsulate the spirit of the cinema.

As many of you may know Sam Raimi, now most famous for directing the Spider-man trilogy, started his career by creating two of the greatest horror films of the 20th century, the Evil Dead and the Evil Dead 2. The Evil Dead especially is one of the most important films of the 20th century as it was one of the the top movies in UK video nasties list of the 1980s. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this milestone in censorship the video nasties was a list of movies (not all horror) that were considered so vile, so depraved, and so violent that they could corrupt the audience viewing them. This blatant breach of any persons right to view whatever they choose without somebody else deciding for them was spearheaded by a women named Mary Whitehouse, a British christian campaigner who believed she knew better than the rest of the country, and subsequently got 39 out of a list of 74 titles prosecuted under the obscene publications act (you can find the full list here: Happily, since then nearly all the films have been re-released in one form or another, with a total of 37 titles released uncut. What is most relevant, however, is that in response to the banning of the Evil Dead, Sam Raimi has this to say:

It doesn’t matter whether a film like the Evil Dead is cut, what matters is that if you give people permission to decide what you can and can’t see then they will start taking away much more important liberties

This is clearly a man who understands the importance of the horror genre, censorship in whatever shape or form is designed to limited our experiences, to limited and control our feelings and our physical reactions, whereas the horror genre is constantly trying to push the boundaries and do what cinema has always been designed to do, give people that physical thrill that is sometimes so missing in real-life. Now, I don’t want to come across badly, clearly there is a line of taste and decency, but for those of us who want to discover that line for ourselves we shouldn’t be told we can’t by somebody else.

Horror movies are very much a masochistic experience, there is a great adrenaline high from being truly scared or truly disgusted. Those of us who enjoy this experience understand that there are difference facets to horror movies, and that being overly obscene is one thing, but being scared is something else entirely. This is a difference Sam Raimi understands, Evil Dead 1 and 2 were not designed to be scary, they were gore-fests, they revelled in the masochism of gaining enjoyment from the suffering of others, which sounds terrible to admit, but of course we understand it’s all make-up and special effects, real suffering is something else entirely. Raimi also understands the ‘sweet-and-sour’ way in which horror and comedy can be two sides of the same coin, laughing one minute and being horrified the next is a real roller-coaster ride that knocks the intensity up a notch. This man is a very clever film maker.

Alas, some of us thought Sam may never drip blood down our screens again since moving to the Spider-man trilogy, especially as my hopes had been that the inclusion of Venom in part three would give Raimi scope to expand horror into the wrong I was. But horror fans rejoice as the return is upon us with Sam Raimi’s latest offering ‘Drag Me To Hell’. The film is yet to be released here in the UK, but when it is I will definitely be first in line. The horror genre lately has been a little stale, it seems no one is capable of creating a film that isn’t a remake of something else, a trend epitomised by the decision of an american studio to remake the Brazilian movie [REC] less than a year after it has been released (do check out [REC] by the way, it is a fantastic film). What we need is someone who has the CV to pull big bucks from studios, but with the sense to know what to do with it, to create something really original and show the world the true spirit of horror.

The slasher sub-genre has all but dried up, no one makes zombie movies anymore except George Romaro, slow-moving long-haired Japanese girls are getting somewhat tiresome. We need something new, and Raimi is just the man to do it. Hail to the king baby, the man is back, may his return prompt the kick up the backside this genre sorely needs, for without horror we’ve lost that true sense of being alive.

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