April 12, 2013

Evil Dead re-make, torture porn, and lack of empathy

There's no way I'm going to see another terrible re-make of an old horror movie, AKA random people you can't care about get tortured.

But it's worth taking a brief look at the characterization, trailer, and poster to appreciate how different horror movies have become since the '90s. You used to be able to relate to the victims, and their troubles gave a little stimulation to the empathy lobe of your brain. Now you don't relate to them, so you only feel like a voyeur, as though they were examples of some other species.

The original isn't that great, though it's at least watchable. The set-up is pretty simple -- a small group of fun-loving college students head off to a cabin in the woods for a wild weekend, stumble upon a book that unleashes some kind of demonic possession spirit, and have to work as a team against it, with the normal ones having to turn against their unfortunately possessed friends.

The key here is that the characters are portrayed in a likable fashion before they come under attack. Otherwise, who cares what happens to them, no matter how gory? You can learn about people getting tortured all over the world if you want, but unless you already perceive them as part of your in-group, you don't respond emotionally.

Young people must be shown to be driven by an impulse toward socializing and making friends, dating and mating, and rambunctiousness. That tells us that they're normal and healthy adolescents, that they're wholesome. Youngsters who are asocial, sexless, and boring tell us that they're defective in some way, so a normal audience can't relate to them as easily, plus we feel like it's not so great of a loss if they perish.

That doesn't mean that in the good old days, it was only the popular crowd who were the targets of the killer's attacks and our empathy. That was back when there were a lot more "troubled teenagers," and social misfits often showed up in slasher flicks during the '80s, most notably in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which is set in a hospital for troubled teens. Even though they're misfits, they're shown to have a basic interest in forming relationships, though going about it somewhat ineptly, and turning to desperate measures in frustration. Still, that gives us the impression that their drive toward socializing and courtship are normal and intact.

Fast-forward to 2013, where the Evil Dead re-make is set up by a 20-something girl who's retreating to the woods as part of a de-tox effort, with her friends tagging along for support. Well, we've already left normal-and-healthy behind, so it'll have to rely on the troubled teen trope to make us care.

Yet when was the last time you heard anyone described as a troubled teenager? They're too risk-averse to get into much trouble these days, so this character is not an instantly recognizable type -- like, "Oh, she's one of those troubled teenagers..." She's just some random chick with an opiate addiction. If they'd shown her struggling under the pressure of getting into a good school, and turning to Adderall and alcohol, it might have been somewhat believable. But an opiate addiction in the 21st century? Um, random.

Without a believable set-up, we cannot buy into the more fantastic events that follow. But energetic co-eds set off for a wild weekend, high school camp counselors pair off to get it on in the woods -- that's believable.

How else can we distinguish believable from unbelievable characters? Let's turn to the trailers and have a look at the characters' facial expressions. Here is a very gory trailer for the re-make, and here is the original. In the re-make, when the possessed girl warns her friend, she has her eyes wide open, eyebrows reaching up to her hairline, and mouth agape. It couldn't look more exaggerated and fake. It's like some 4 year-old child self-consciously struggling to make a shocked face when they're not truly shocked, but egocentrically trying to manipulate another child or their parent into believing they are. She comes off like the boy who cried "wolf."

Note to half-children -- you can't show a shocked expression for more than a moment, after that your body (including your face) launches into action to deal with the threat. In the original movie, it never occurred to the actors to plaster a shocked look on their faces throughout their performances. Rather, when the girl is getting raped out in the woods, she's pressing her eyes shut and making a crying/disgusted expression with her mouth. It looks like she's truly in pain, and because she's convinced us earlier that she's a normal healthy person, we feel bad when we see it.

Sadly, the kabuki masks in the re-make are part of a much broader trend over the past 20 years toward self-aware exaggeration in facial expressions, a topic I brought up here and elaborated on a bit more here. It prevents us from sympathizing with the person.

Aside from the trailer, what about the movie poster that's supposed to hook the audience's attention? Here are the original and re-make:


We can't even see the girl's face in the re-make, because her back is turned to us and her head is turned down. Without being able to see it, we know that her eyes are downcast as well, like she's trying to hide it from us. Well, OK then, you dorky awkward wallflower -- don't expect us to give a shit about you when you get demonically possessed and mutilated by your own friends. A self-conscious "don't look at me" pose is just as emotionally distancing as the overly exaggerated kabuki mask.

The poster for the original shows a girl whose mouth isn't agape like on so many horror posters these days. Her lips are open and pulled downward, and her rows of teeth are fairly close together, while her eyelids are squinting and inner eyebrows pinched upward, all creating a clear crying expression. The hand reaching out is something you won't see these days either, since people are so creeped out and/or embarrassed by asking others for help. Or the other hand scratching the earth to resist being dragged down. It shows a normal and healthy will to stay alive, whatever it takes.

Now all you see in horror posters (or the movies themselves) are disconnected individuals, either resigning themselves with a "don't look at me" face, or shrieking out in futility. Again we see their defective will to stay alive in the face of death. Not stoic either, just collapsing in on themselves. But you have to understand that for people in the Millennial era, atomization feels less creepy than reaching out, and self-collapse doesn't risk open failure like making an effort does.

Will our culture ever pull its way out of this swamp of sadistic voyeurism and fatalism? Well, sure: it did before, after the previous nadir during the mid-century, shown most nakedly in the widespread horror / crime comic books of the time. See here and here for a reminder. Horror movies of the mid-century weren't any better at stimulating our empathy, even if they were less gory than comic books. The characters are bland, unlikable, unbelievable, or fake, so again, who cares what nasty things happen to them?

Starting in the '60s with Psycho, and then Rosemary's Baby and Night of the Living Dead, we could connect with the characters for a change. That would continue toward a peak in the late '70s and '80s -- Halloween, Alien, The Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Child's Play, Twin Peaks. Some of those have better character development and acting than the others, but they all convince us that we're watching normal and healthy people like us -- or troubled young people who we could have turned out like, if we hadn't been so fortunate. Not some out-of-the-blue intrusion, some fluke that is of no larger or lasting significance to us.

The key driver behind these social-cultural changes is the trend in the crime rate. When the world's getting more dangerous, we're better at portraying that convincingly on screen, and better at empathizing in the theater. Rising crime is a force that affects us all, and binds us together as we try to help each other through dangerous times. Before the '60s-'80s crime wave, there was the 1900 - early '30s crime wave, and sure enough that was another era of well-made horror movies.

Falling crime makes us feel safer and less in need of others' support, as well as putting the threat of predatory death so far off into the land of make-believe that we can't portray it or resonate with it very well.

17 comments:

  1. I'd like to see a post on horror movies in the past versus the present. I find ones in the past much more frightening than ones now. I always have heard it ascribed to that mysterious "production values" term. I've actually tried to google why the older ones are scarier a few times. I mean, who doesn't find the original "Halloween" more frightening than Rob Zombie's remake? Another good example is A&E's "In Search Of" series. It was first aired from 1976 to 1982. Then came a reboot in the 2000s. The original was creepier and much more interesting than the remake.

    The original "Evil Dead" poster is much more frightening than the new one. Although being pretty into horror movies, I can't say I've seen the original.

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  2. Anonymous3:48 PM

    Young people must be shown to be driven by an impulse toward socializing and making friends, dating and mating, and rambunctiousness. That tells us that they're normal and healthy adolescents, that they're wholesome. Youngsters who are asocial, sexless, and boring tell us that they're defective in some way

    I'm not sure that every generation or culture would feel the same way about extremely high socializing and high sociosexuality teens. Post 90s folk might find the folk you find wholesome to be weird and alien and not really feel much empathy towards them, compared to people who are more orderly, quiet and polite.

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  3. Quartermain5:00 PM

    One of the reasons I boycott Hollywood. I get the feeling than some or even many of the folks who make the movies are psychos.

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  4. "Post 90s folk might find the folk you find wholesome to be weird and alien and not really feel much empathy towards them, compared to people who are more orderly, quiet and polite."

    From what I've gleaned by talking to Millennials, I think they're aware that young people used to be normal back in their parents' time, and that their generation or the kids just younger than them are weird.

    So they might have trouble identifying with the teens in an '80s slasher flick on a similarity basis, but not on an empathize-with-normals basis. All Millennials I've heard talk about horror movies say they like the ones from the '60s, '70s, and '80s better than newer ones.

    And not to get too sidetracked, but they're not orderly, quiet, and polite. Those traits have to be put to a test, which those in a cocooning generation rarely experience.

    You can't tell who's orderly unless there's an opportunity to behave in a disorderly way. Who's quiet when they can get away with being loud. And who's polite when they're in a position to be rude.

    By rarely or never actually interacting with others in real life, they don't have their character ever put to a test, and so they never fail that test -- they don't pass it either.

    We're more concerned with not failing than with acing a test, so we mistake the Millennials' lack of failure as a positive signal that they're orderly, quiet, and polite.

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  5. "I always have heard it ascribed to that mysterious "production values" term."

    That's so weird, the chick working at Blockbuster tonight used that exact term when we were talking about older vs. newer horror movies.

    I'd have to ask, but it sounds like more than CGI -- they already know that term, so they'd use that if it were the sole culprit. Maybe like trying to create an overall atmosphere rather than excel at gross-out effects?

    Music is another huge difference. No matter what domain it appears in, music is always better from the '60s-'80s than '90s and after -- commercial jingles, pop songs, movie soundtracks, video games, whatever.

    Dull music in a rom-com may not make that much of a difference in itself, but when a horror movie has dull music it kills the atmosphere. Horror movies are supposed to feel more visceral, and good music, especially with a good beat and unsettling repeated motifs are crucial.

    They sound so simple, too, but no less effective -- the Jaws theme, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, just about every decent horror movie from back then had a good primitive beat underneath the soundtrack.

    "Although being pretty into horror movies, I can't say I've seen the original."

    Yeah you're not really missing much. It's watchable, but you could do a lot better.

    I think the most overlooked engaging horror movie is Wes Craven's New Nightmare, hailing from as late as 1994.

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  6. Anonymous12:55 AM

    All Millennials I've heard talk about horror movies say they like the ones from the '60s, '70s, and '80s better than newer ones.

    Good to know even they're not into torture porn type stuff (if more fond than previous generations - I guess they still make up more of the audience than Gen Y and older).

    And not to get too sidetracked, but they're not orderly, quiet, and polite. Those traits have to be put to a test, which those in a cocooning generation rarely experience.

    Well, is it the case that aren't disorderly, loud or rude because they avoid opportunities to display those characteristics.

    It would be pretty ridiculous to say "Millenials aren't less rambunctious, because they don't seek out social situations where they could display their character. They don't fail that test but they don't pass it either."

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  7. OK I'll give them "quiet." "Orderly" more in an asocial, OCD kind of way, not in the sense of "trying to maintain order" in a social situation.

    But definitely not polite, that has to be tested in a social context, and Millennials are the rudest, socially clueless, nearly autistic people you'll ever meet.

    It's not even like the Gen X / Gen Y trend of the '90s to know that you were acting like a coarse idiot, but that you just didn't give a fuck. (Yeah, you're so extreme...) With Millennials, they're barely even aware that their social skills are so defective.

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  8. Anonymous6:24 AM

    Social scientists are often wrong because they have little real experience with what they are studying(in this case, the lives of modern young people), and base their perceptions on statistics. They see that Gen Xers wracked up lots of sexual partners and did a lot drugs, and assume these experiences were emotionally hardening. Millenials, on the other hand, have lower numbers for those activities, so they have been falsely ascribed as tender-hearted.







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  9. Anonymous8:35 AM

    do you think the crime rate will begin to rise soon?

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  10. "Social scientists are often wrong because they have little real experience with what they are studying(in this case, the lives of modern young people), and base their perceptions on statistics."

    Ha, then anyone interested in social science would know all of these stats and be talking about how asocial, sexless, and boring the Millennials are.

    Rather, they keep banging on about an "epidemic" of oral sex, sexting, meth, hyper-social online lives, vulnerability to sex predators, etc.

    It's people with plenty of real-life experience who will agree to how stunted the Millennials are. It's palpable, impossible to ignore. The stats only confirm what they'd already felt.

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  11. "do you think the crime rate will begin to rise soon?"

    My guess is late this decade / early next decade.

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  12. Anonymous11:06 AM

    Millennials are the rudest, socially clueless, nearly autistic people you'll ever meet.

    lol. possibly true. Not sure they tend to say anything hugely insulting, just throwing it out there (quiet, monitoring their behavior). but maybe don't know how to react when confronted with social attention or pressure they feel is stifling.

    "Get off me" brusqueness or brittleness, more than "in your face, being obnoxious" or "I'm going to keep babbling at you even though you don't have any social energy reserved for this encounter" (more Gen X-ish?)?

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  13. Anonymous3:30 PM

    ""I'm going to keep babbling at you even though you don't have any social energy reserved for this encounter" (more Gen X-ish?)?"

    Early wave Baby Boomers (1945-1955).

    Late wave Boomers (1955-1965) are more socially attuned.

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  14. Ha that is weird about the Blockbuster gal. It probably is more than CGI - which I don't dig at all. The primal music also plays a role like you mentioned. And for the most part, music definitely was better before the mid-90s. Thanks for the New Nightmare recommendation. I've only seen the original so far. And it's actually one of the relatively few dvds I own. I remember reading your thoughts on Heather Langenkamp's voice in another post. It really still is cute.

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  15. I think that commentary was for the laserdisc release around 1994, so she was only about 30. There's a two-disc DVD by Infinifilm that has a new commentary and lots of interviews, and she still sounds cute. Amanda Weiss, the girl who plays Tina, still sounds like a Valley Girl type.

    Other things about Boomers and X-ers may have changed for the worse over the past 20 years, but their voice patterns became set in stone in the good old days. After about 15 or so, your pronunciation stops changing, and it's hard to willfully change it.

    Everyday speech patterns may be the best example of living fossils from another era.

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  16. Anonymous12:38 PM

    "You can learn about people getting tortured all over the world if you want, but unless you already perceive them as part of your in-group, you don't respond emotionally"

    I'm not so sure about this, as its based on evolutionary psychology, which is wrong about a lot of things.

    Shy, timid, or sexless characters aren't necessarily unsympathetic. Most people will sympathize with them, as long as they are kind and decent. In fact, in some of the Friday the 13th movies and in the original Halloween, it was always the virginal girl who survived till the end. Some film critics have argued that slasher films were a criticism of teenage sex (I disagree with this, but its off-topic).

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  17. I saw the remake and thought it was really good. I'm also a fan of the original, which I first saw in 1984 when I was 14.

    I think the detox angle was mainly intended to explain why the kids would be motivated to stay at the cabin and why they would initially be skeptical of the girl's weird stories. It's a plot device tailored to anticipate a more sophisticated horror audience's bullshit reflex. The movie is full of these, and some of them -- like when they try to burn the Necronomicon in the second act -- are pretty sly.

    And opiate addiction isn't implausible. Oxy is a big deal in my neck of the woods, and I know several heroin addicts in their 20s and 30s (one of whom died from an overdose last year). LSD, which was everywhere when I was a kid, is now almost impossible to find, but opiates are pretty common.

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