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It’s Not 1973 Anymore — But That’s Okay

Growing old is hard. Especially if you’re a horror movie fan.

Back when I was the proper age for horror movies — that is, an adolescent – I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to live in a time when there were so many really good ones being made.

Then – as previously recounted – somewhere along the way something went wrong. As I left the seventies – and my youth – behind, the landscape started to thin out. Sure, every few years something good or at least pretty good would come along (Poltergeist, opening just a month after my 20th birthday, made me realize that the 80s might hold some promise after all). But by and large, one of the many hurdles of becoming a grown-up was realizing that 1973 was gone forever.

All this came back to me the other week, when I was invited to see the New York premiere of Hostel II. I’d rented the original Hostel at some point, but turned it off before I got to the end. Though I liked the whole idea of a film that starts out as a teen sex romp and then slowly drains of life and color till it ends up as a murk-toned nightmare, there was something about the movie’s aesthetics and tone that put me off. It was all clearly just more of that David FincherFloria-Sigismundi stuff. That hyper-realistic, autopsy-room preoccupation with dead bodies in super-sharp focus that was originally inspired, as far as I could see, by the photographer Joel Peter Witkin. It was all smart and unsettling and even interesting – in a smarty-pants, film-school kind of way. But it was also all disappointingly un-magical. The old flamboyance and theatricality – and mystery — of my seventies horror favorites had been traded in for a vision that was cold, clinical, and not so much scary as simply… nasty.

Hostel II, I figured, was clearly going to be more of the same.

And it WAS more of the same. The nastiness factor had been – predictably – upped another notch, but beyond that, I felt like I was right back in Joel Peter Witkin’s autopsy/torture room. Would there never be any escape from it?

But somewhere in the course of the film, sitting down there in the far-right front row (the only seat left when I made my late entrance), something changed for me. I suddenly realized that the tasteless, manipulative spectacle before me was also… a genuine horror film.

The following day, unable to get the movie out of my mind, I picked up a copy of the first installment on DVD and watched it again. This time I made it all the way through, and — the true mark of horror authenticity — found myself wanting to watch it from the beginning the moment it was finished.

WHY would I want to watch something so awful again and again, getting to know King-of-Swing Oli, Paxton, and Josh better and better, so that as it took on that weird, epic inevitability that multiply-watched horror films always get, I’d be ever more desperate to warn them of what was coming?

If I could answer that, I’d know the secret of what makes a good horror film.

Even one that wasn’t made in 1973.

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