July 27, 2007

Hills have eyes II

The Hills have Eyes II is not a particularly good or interesting film. But it is interesting because it raises a question worth considering- which is the place of horror and shocking images (the film involves an incredibly brutal rape scene) on screen. Obviously nothing that follows should be taken as an argument to restrict freedom of speech- freedom of speech is a key value and that means the freedom to shout fuck across the road or to make a film in which nothing but blood, guts and intestines are viewed. But there is speech people should be free to utter that still isn't useful- incorrect statements should be avoided but allowed, racist rhetoric more often than not should be allowed even though it is truly reprehensible etc etc. Where do horror films fit into that scheme- is it good to see rape and violence on screen- and if it is then when is it good to see those things on screen or put them there.

I would argue that it is good to see horrible images on screen- they make a point. A large part of foreign policy is dealing with war and peace. Images such as those in the Vietnam films in America make you see for the first time what war is, how it looks to kill someone. Images like those in Schindler's List or the Last King of Scotland make you realise the price sometimes of not intervening, not doing things. Our understanding of politics arises as Adam Smith argued long ago out of our sympathies- the key point here being that sympathy can be created on a cinematic canvass- film can explore atrocity and so explain atrocity. Instead of six million Jews dying I can see a choking young boy falling down in the gassy baths of Dachau, instead of the idea of the soldiers at Agincourt going to their deaths, I can see them tense and nervous contemplating the French Army. Within the celluloid D I can see and appreciate with my own eyes the feeling and consequently can when I come to make policy, come to decide on war and peace reevaluate my own conclusions.

But horror in cinema can do more. Take for example the Bergman film Cries and Whispers which features a woman slicing up her own vagina at one point- again the film shows that for a reason- Bergman wants us to appreciate something about that woman, about her sexuality. Again for example when a director like Scorsese shows you Joe Pesci's body riddled with bullets, Pesci himself coughing up blood as he is buried alive in sand- he wants you to appreciate something about Pesci's character and the path he has chosen through life. He wants you to see that the violence that we have seen that character explore earlier in the film rebounds upon him- he wants you to empathise because he wants you to understand. In the hands of a master director like Bergman or Scorsese the vision of cruelty can be enlightening, it can awake within us ideas and sentiments we barely knew we had.

Horror therefore has to have a purpose- what upset me about the Hills have Eyes II was that the horror didn't seem to have a purpose. I didn't feel and don't feel I emerged understanding more about the world having gone into see it. What horror is at its best is searing- it is painful to watch a person being seriously hurt even if you know it isn't reality- but it can help you understand something. Its more than painful though because it awakes within you the possibility- the possibility that that can happen, the world has opened slightly and revealed something horrific. If that revelation is accompanied by a sensitive film maker- you see that those actions produce horrific consequences- or that the person administering them like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver is a psychopath- but if not then your mind is brutalised by the experience.

In the Hills have Eyes II that's exactly what I felt brutalised. I felt like I had been opened to rape and murder- but that I had received no enlightenment despite that opening. Having seen the film I felt like I needed to wash- and I needed to forget the film immediatly. In that case the searing pain of horror had not opened my eyes to a new reality or reality as it existed but as I had not seen it, rather it made me want to open my eyes to avoid the images left in my brain by the film. Ultimately it was a pointless and gratuitous film and a dirty experience- using horror means you have to be better than the norm- making a bad horror film is ultimately worse than making a bad romantic comedy. The latter is boring, the former is positively harmful.


Political Umpire said...

Well, the purpose of horror is horror - that is to say, escapism by shocking the viewer. Social conditioning and other considerations render rape scenes more shocking than, say, murder by cannibalistic mutant redneck radioactive zombie hillbillies or whatever the villans are in the film you discuss. More generally sexual violence is usually more shocking than other forms, though the latter might be on a much greater scale (the rape scene in Witness, for example, is probably more disturbing than the helicopter assualt in Apocalypse Now, even though the latter involves the deaths of dozens of innocents whereas there is only one victim in the former).

Absent that distinction - the particular unsavoury nature of sexual violence - then you would have to argue that there is no point to _any_ horror film, save for the incidental messages in the likes of Dawn of the Dead which makes the odd poing about American consumerism but which is hardly the point of the film.

The mother of all woodland-adventures-gone-wrong films is, of course, 1972's Deliverance, still absolutely horrifying (though not within the horror genre as such) 35 years later. In a way its rape scene (much more integral to the story than the one you describe) is the more shocking still because it is male-on-male (though I won't go into why or whether it should be more shocking, just making an observation based on the infamy of the film and the recent poll which rated the two hillbillies involved as the most evil screen villians ever).

The scene has been edited for US television. Burt Reynolds said that that makes the film look like "four guys going camping"; in other words the film is devoid of its crucial impact without the scene.

Of course Deliverance is a very different beast from HHE, though I think the latter series heavily rips it off, because Deliverance forces one to think and rethink the actions of the central characters. In an ordinary action/horror, they would simply be prompted to seek a violent solution; in Deliverance they are compelled to do so but at no point do any of them become heroes as a result. Their actions are at best the least-worst options and sometimes not even that.

I guess the point is that horror films don't need to resort to showing rape (unless audiences are so innured to violence generally that the films won't work otherwise) and that, if they do, it has to have some justification other than as a horror-inducing device.

Not sure I've said anything worthwhile. Will have to think about the issues some more.