So spook me if you can
We might not like to say it out aloud, but there's a horror film fan in all of us who has to know what's behind the creaky door at the end of that dark, creepy corridor
HORROR, HORROR From the classic heart-stoppers to the tongue-in-cheek thrillers to the horrendously funny spin-offs, the horror genre is unique for the way it breaks the rules and strays from the age-old formula
"I just love a good fright flick. And not just the classics. I love every B-grade slice-and-dice, gore fest; the gorier the better." To answer the most obvious question, the person quoted above doesn't spend all his free time polishing his slightly chipped, slightly bloodstained axe in a dark room full of gothic monstrosities. He does admit that every time he watches an Aishwarya Rai dud, he hopes for a zombie to appear out of nowhere and put the wretched woman out of his misery. After her laughable Mistress of Spices though, who can blame him? Aside from that, however, he is a morally upright citizen, a successful media man who hasn't even broken a traffic law in his life. And contrary to what one might think, he's often more the rule than the exception.
A new wave
How else does one explain the fact that Hollywood is suddenly caught in a glut of horror, and quite a successful glut at that? The list of big international hits in 2005, for example, includes a significant package of horror films such as Saw II, The Ring Two and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This year is no different. Slither, which critics call "a groovy gross-out with snorts, scares and sentiment" and "a good old-fashioned gooey, slimy monster movie with a sense of humour" hits the screens this weekend.
A remake of the 1976 classic The Omen follows closely next week.
Closer home, years after the horror genre had been reduced to mere farce thanks to the Ramsay brothers, a number of directors seem to have shaken the dust off the genre and decided to bring it back into the mainstream. Notable examples include Darna Mana Hai and its sequel Darna Zaroori Hai Bhoot, Vaastu Shastra and Kaal.
"What draws people to horror films is the kind of thrill they give," says S.V. Srinivas, a fellow at the Centre for Study of Culture and Society who specialises in popular cinema. The flexibility of readings into the origin of the horror also works to the genre's benefits, he adds. "Horror films are a place where interesting, if forbidden, ideas are explored. Although the evil must be destroyed at the end of the film, that period of two hours or so deals with material that is necessarily socially transgressive."
Read a sampling of other literature that analyses this phenomenon, and you find a host of reasons to explain their success horror films permit greater sexual content and hence are easier to sell; horror films are a form of initiation into the adult world; or even, horror films play out the hetero-normative stereotypes that we have grown up with. The average fan of the grossies, however, is far more pragmatic: "They're just so much fun."
But that is old hat. The horror genre has existed almost since the beginning of cinema, with the first notable release, Le Manior du Diable by Georges Méliès, coming out as early as 1896. And through all these years, it has always provided the thrills and transgressions that have earned it a dedicated albeit fragmented audience.
What is interesting, though, is the recent rise in the popularity of scary films, and scary films of a certain kind. Gone are the decrepit, gothic mansions of the mystical, foggy peaks of Transylvania. The horror film of the new age is gritty and strongly rooted in the here and now. And that, says Srinivas, is what works in its favour.
Horror films, nowadays, are set in everyday life. There is a conception of the urban situation as a horrifying setting. Thus, the average slasher flick doesn't traipse through a lonely wood in the forgotten hinterlands. It takes place in crowded metropolises, college campuses or even in the comfort of our own homes. As a result, says Sourabh Usha Narang, who directed Vaastu Shastra, the most popular films "drive home the point that it can happen to you too. Which is what creates that adrenaline kick you get out of a horror film."
What is also interesting is the inextricable tie that has developed between technology and horror. While the genre has always had a fascination for science gone wrong, of late, this obsession has grown far more specific. Thus, the heroes of Resident Evil battle not only a rogue virus turning dead people into zombies, but also an autonomous computer defence system that wants to play shoot the birdie with anything that moves.
Then there's that classic dedication to the bygone VHS era, The Ring. Here, the evil is linked very specifically to video technology. Sourabh explains: "Any scare works if it applies in a socio-cultural context." Thus, the average multiplex viewer, a child of technology that he is, is far more frightened of his wired world falling apart or of his next-door neighbour exhibiting psychopathic tendencies than of slimy effusions from a swamp in the middle of nowhere.
Admittedly, most horror films lack the normal Hollywood/Bollywood finish that ties all the loose ends together, and delivers audiences a neatly packaged product that requires little effort to consume. However, that is exactly what draws them to the genre. Nirupama Sekhar, an associate producer for Contiloe Films, loves horror primarily because of its deviance from formula. "Newer horror films are such a breath of fresh air. Everything is different about them, from the look to the colours, to the people to the feel of the film itself."
Indeed, new-age horror is perhaps one of the biggest benefactors of globalisation. "There is a really interesting crossover phenomenon taking place in the horror genre," says Srinivas. Most successful films, he points out, originate in South East Asia, and then travel to America. And as is inevitable, they make their way back here, with the American versions inspiring parts of our own horror films, as is visible in the case of Bhoot, which pays homage to the classic Exorcist.
Make no mistake about it, though. Often B-grade films themselves make no attempts to carry such intellectual weight. Which is what attracts many adults "who should know better" to these films. Sanjiv Nair, a film buff who until recently managed the movies portal for a popular e-commerce company, explains: "B-grade gore films have no pretensions and don't aim for sophistication. All that they promise is a lot of gore and sex. They are just incredibly high on entertainment value."
There will always be debates about whether horror films are just an excuse for sex and violence, and if the genre has gone too far beyond the boundaries of good taste, but none of these arguments could ever match the strength of the adrenaline high the latest fright night can deliver. So don't be too proud to admit the truth the next time someone asks you: "Tell me, do you like scary movies?" Just be sure to check if the call is coming from inside the house.
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