Film: A Step Away From Splatter

'Sixth Sense' and 'Blair Witch' take movie horror in an adult direction

Aug 26, 1999 at 2:06 pm
Psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and eight-year-old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) face unexplainable danger in The Sixth Sense.

I've never witnessed a real-life murder, but I've seen plenty on TV. I've also never been one to string up Hollywood as the scapegoat for violence in America, but when you see enough people arbitrarily and cartoonishly slaughtered onscreen, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that those are flesh-and-blood human beings being gunned down on the wrap-around screen.

It's no secret that the moviegoing public has grown weary of splatter. Few are impressed anymore by images of skull fragments decorating the bathroom wall. Not to say that excessive gore doesn't sometimes have a place. Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch were great films, and they revolutionized how violence is depicted in mainstream film. As a result, the style was subject to imitation, and in the hands of lesser talents, blood for the sake of blood quickly became tiresome. But there have been a few filmmakers this summer who proved that cinematic death can still be unsettling.

Spike Lee took a cue from Fritz Lang's M to illustrate a mass murderer's paranoid effect on the city he hunts in Summer of Sam. Lee made the most out of the sound of the gunshot, the shattering of the glass and the expressions of terror on the victims.

But the one genre that's supposed to be devoted to death, or the anticipation of death, has wallowed in frivolity for the past 20 years. John Carpenter's Halloween, which took horror away from scientific laboratories and gothic mansions and brought it to the suburbs, gave way to the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises. While some people assign a degree of respectability to the original films, it wasn't long before Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger became parodies of themselves. Teen-agers went to these movies for a laugh, not for a scare. It was a trend that some cultural historians found disturbing. What exactly is so funny about watching people get hacked to pieces?

The trashy slasher films went belly-up for awhile. But then Scream came along, promising to revitalize the genre with cleverness, intelligent characters and, most of all, a commitment not to take itself seriously. It was successful because it reveled in clichés rather than trying to avoid them. Scream may have wanted to bring horror back, but it didn't want to play anything straight.

Nothing produced in the wake of Scream has risen above the mind-numbingly dull. Its own sequel was mediocre. The I Still Know What You Did films are just as exploitative as the 1980s trash. There may not have been any nudity, but it was hard to ignore the camera's slow crawl over Jennifer Love Hewitt's bikini-clad body. But most of all, like its 1980s counterparts, it treated its victims as cattle. As one critic recently noted, "It's hard to feel anything for characters who've shown so little evidence of living."

In fact, the oddest thing about the monster created by Scream author Kevin Williamson is his directorial debut, Teaching Mrs. Tingle. The film is noteworthy for its absence of death. It seems Williamson might have come full circle. From reveling in blood to avoiding it altogether. This can be attributed to post-Columbine hysteria. The violence in Scream 3, slated for this Christmas, is already being trimmed down as a response to the April shootings. Perhaps the title wasn't the only thing changed in Mrs. Tingle. The summer of 1999 has film scholars rejoicing in the new wave of adult horror films, which are, they claim, for and about adults. Well, just because a horror film has adults in it doesn't make it an adult film. Proof lies within Jan De Bont's meaningless and baffling Haunting remake. But there are a few horror films this summer that treat death as serious business. They carry the one element that can make a horror film great: humanism.

Let's just start with the one everyone is blabbering about. Even a great film can be murdered by hype, so we'll see if The Blair Witch Project winds up with the respect it deserves in the long run. I guarantee there's a legion of moviegoers who are railing against this film for no other reason than because it's so popular.

But let's be honest. The Blair Witch does a masterful job of toying with your imagination. That's what horror needs to do. Your imagination is the greatest source of fear. It's your imagination that claims you're hearing noises in the dark of your bedroom. It's your imagination that catches a glimpse of a face in the window. It's your imagination that hears a murderous voice calling your name. And it's your imagination that speculates on the nebulous monster in the Blair Witch Project. Disappointment in the film has been linked to the ending. I myself felt a pang when the closing credits rolled. What was out there?

But if I were asked, I wouldn't know how to make the picture better. In thinking about the nature of the creature, the mind whirls at the limitless possibilities that nothing placed onscreen could've delivered.

But the most significant part of the Blair Witch phenomenon is that it's a painful reminder of studio wastefulness. Eighty million dollars went to remake The Haunting, a cheap thrill that nobody will remember in the morning.

A week later, Bruce Willis made a fine career choice in steering away from action fluff to do The Sixth Sense. Although more of a supernatural drama than a horror picture, The Sixth Sense has plenty of spooks, both literally and figuratively. It's about a child psychiatrist who's obsessed with a past patient he failed to help. He gets a chance at redemption with a small boy named Cole. And we're not talking about playfully malicious ghosts. This boy can see the restless dead. Not a new idea, exactly. And many of the tricks are familiar, including the young man who enthusiastically invites a friend to play with his dad's gun and then turns around to reveal a large hole in the back of his head.

Much of the power in The Sixth Sense is atmospheric. There's an oppressive thundercloud hanging over the picture, and the result is a feeling of impending dread in the pit of the stomach. If I were Cole's father, and I had to face that stricken expression every day, I would throw myself on the mercy of the court.

The film's theme is a familiar one: the reluctance to let go of life in the face of death, and what happens if you have unfinished business in the material world. It's easy to see why artists are attracted to this theme. Can anyone fathom the injustice of losing your life, just when great things are about to happen to you? We may be aware that death can claim us at any time, by freak accident, a sudden illness or a whiny stock trader in Atlanta, but nobody believes it will happen to us. If we did, we'd probably live in a state of constant terror. We all think we're going to die old in our beds. Death would never be so inconsiderate as to come calling in the prime of life.

More horror films are on the way. It'll be interesting to see whether they contain the same storytelling maturity. The success of Blair Witch was a given, but it's doubtful many studios will imitate its "guerrilla" style. (But you can bet a generation of indie boys and girls are gearing up their own cinema verité.) However, the surprise success of The Sixth Sense might be considered a positive sign for those nervous filmmakers and celebrities involved in upcoming projects.

The future for movie horror appears revitalized. The Astronaut's Wife is about — what a shock — an astronaut who goes into space, has a surreal experience and comes back a changed man. Borrowing a premise similar to The Sixth Sense, Kevin Bacon is tormented by a ghost in Stir of Echoes. The spirit wishes to grab his attention in order to uncover a guilty secret.

Director Rupert Wainright claims his new thriller Stigmata, about a woman who allegedly bleeds the wounds of Christ, takes religion entirely seriously. One can see echoes of The Exorcist. If Stigmata hopes to have the same effect as the 1973 classic, it has its work cut out for it. Blair Witch already has people vomiting in theaters, a phenomenon not seen since Linda Blair's putrescent face graced movie screens.

One can't help but wonder whether the existence of Stigmata is a sign of Christianity taking revenge on an increasingly secular world. In any religious horror film, the line between sincerity and pretentiousness tends to be very thin. The same goes for Lost Souls, a film that features the Antichrist going for a stroll with only Winona Ryder standing between us and annihilation. It seems that Hollywood snuck in some millennial horror after all, although it's possible it's just a cheap plucking of raw nerves.

Fans of horror films might be inspired by the words of Joel Silver, a major Hollywood producer. He referred to The Blair Witch Project as a work of genius. He praised the film for emphasizing freshness over production largesse, referring to it as an example of "what makes our business great."

Okay, Mr. Suit. If that's true, perhaps you'd care to explain why your recent projects (The Matrix, The Haunting) are completely effects-driven. I dare you to make a horror film where the script is the strongest component. Based on your track record, I doubt it's something you're willing to do. ©