PARIS — Since the origins of the movie industry, fear has always been linked to the capacity to show. It has largely remained the fuel of a genre that has preserved part of its popular origins.
But the release of several movies in theaters this summer confirms the success of a type of cinema that strives not only to make the audience jump, but also speaks to a deeper contemporary anxiety.
Though horror movies tend to attract young audiences searching for a Saturday night thrill, they are also a formidable indicator of certain world conditions. In the horror genre, fiction always has a theoretical dimension.
The success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999 started the trend of “found footage” movies, filmed in such a way as to make the audience believe it was made from an amateur camera that was later recovered.
After 2001, the technique became a veritable cliche. Although it seemed inspired by a disaster film, 9/11 made reality look more terrifying than fiction. Movies such as Diary of the Dead (2007), Cloverfield (2008) or the Paranormal Activity series thus injected an impression of reality in otherwise pretty conventional stories featuring giant monsters, zombies or ghosts. One of the latest examples of this trend was Barry Levinson’s convincing film The Bay.
And yet, it looks as if something new has made its way to the screen over the last few years, with an increasing number of movies about disaster and apocalypse. But the end of the world as represented in several contemporary productions should not be seen as a millenarian threat but rather as the disappearance of a social bond that was damaged by the general workings of the economy.
Losing control and returning to a pre-civilization state, to a time when law didn’t govern human relations, has become a recurring pattern of cinematographic fright. Deprived of all protection from their governments, humanity goes back to fighting for their lives. In this representation of sometimes teenage and often exaggerated nihilism, man is once again a wolf.
The fight for survival consequently allows for the expression of an individual egoism left to its own devices. The Last Days, from the Spanish brothers Alex and David Pastor, depicts a humanity that has fallen prey to a virus, preventing people from being in the open air. Humans are forced to live like rats, in buildings or underground, in sewers or in Metro tunnels, fighting for their food.
More clearly still, James De Monaco’s The Purge invents a near future in which all crime goes unpunished during one night, in order to allow society to purge itself from its latent violence. As a result, the tiniest neighbor conflict results in murder, as if by nature.
But the fantasy of these extravagant tales hides a more tangible dread, that of dispossession, as if these nighmarish scenarios were born from the crisis of a globalized economy.
It is significant that the heroes’ behavior in these stories are determined by their social status. In The Last Days, the main character is about to be fired. In Scott Charles Stewart’s Dark Skies, the father is unemployed before he is persecuted by aliens and, more importantly, rejected by the people in his neighborhood. As for The Purge, the hero is a manager who is obsessed by his economic figures.
Nowadays, the fear of being dispossessed of one’s property takes the shape of a sub-genre that Americans call “home invasion,” wherein strangers try to get into the house of the protagonists. This is what happens in The Purge, as well as in Adam Wingard's You’re Next, and in the excellent but rough Kidnapped (2010), from Spanish director Miguel Ángel Vivas.
The pure logic of terror (the audience fears for the characters with whom they identify) is disturbed by a class animosity, which casually slides toward savagery. The main character in The Purge, a conformist head of family, immediately comes across as an unlikeable man, and only the ethical indignation of his children offers the possibility for redemption. The killers in You're Next, who assassinate even their fathers and mothers, are mostly driven by greed. They end up up against people who are more violent and more skilled in the art of killing. Beyond its black humor, the movie can seen as a violent condemnation of the middle class.
Despite appearing to be built on an imaginary threat, fear takes root in a dread that comes from reality itself. But there is a truly sadean view behind the jitters of the Homo economicus who sees his life escaping under the effects of an unrestricted free market. The cruelty of horror cinema now resides in depicting the consequences of unlimited desire in a modern world — and what the End of History might promise.
Thus, inciting contemporary fright involves revealing what happens when people pursue their deepest desires, which sometimes means the demise of others.
Movies such as the terrifying Cure and the equally frightening Pulse, both from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, speak of nothing else, as do other films. For instance, the brilliant Hostel (2005) from Eli Roth, the lesser known Turistas (2006) directed by John Stockwell, or the very successful Saw series are a few examples of “torture porn.” In this type of film, man is often no more than a predator and finds a bigger predator than himself, You're Next being yet another example.