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Reel Horror (Or, Why Isn’t Bigelow As Big As Tarantino?)

Back in 1978 I saw the original Dawn of the Dead. At the time it was considered the epitome of horror and a great social satire. (Flash Fact: It was also unrated, but here in AZ. they ran commercials for it in prime time kiddie afternoon viewing. We were bound and determined to spawn a generation of horror & SF freaks.)

The next night I saw Apocalypse Now at the Cine Capri. (Our largest screen at the time.) I thought I had been misled, for this was surely the real face of horror. Social satire aside, you could totally divorce yourself from the over the top gory antics of Dawn of the Dead. Apocalypse Now had it’s share of outlandishness as well, but you were drawn in with the basis that the war was real. Man vs. man over some ideology was something you couldn’t escape, while zombies were…well, a metaphor at best.

Skip to the present. I saw The Final Destination 3D the other day. While it was OK matinee fare for a horror fan and 3D junkie, it wasn’t likely to scar my psyche. (On the other hand I saw a UK PSA on the dangers of texting while driving that just about had me in tears because an infant and toddler were involved in the carnage. Parenting changes you.)

I followed that today with The Hurt Locker. (Yeah, I know. I’m late to the show with this.) But again, I’m torn by what is categorized as horror and what really struck me as such. The Final Destination makes light of turning the everyday world into a death trap for its characters. Meanwhile, the world of Hurt Locker really is a death trap and the protagonists walk into its jaws to diffuse it for their fellows.

Horror seems to have become a rather toothless Grand Guignol. A more mature rollercoaster ride. (For increasingly younger ages with the films skirting PG-13 as much as possible.) There is no staying power. Ten minutes after the film the best you can conjure from it is an entertaining Rube Goldberg mechanism wired to terminate a character. Horror catches a lot of crap still, but beyond torture porn, it’s just cotton candy for the Hot Topic crowd. (Some more lame vampire shit? Sure, here you go.)

The Hurt Locker scares and gives you a lot to think about. More politically aware people have been dealing with the abstacts for some time, but this puts a face to things. That’s what real horror does. Consequently, it’s what real war does as well, so don’t confuse this with the good-time-snappy-dialogue of Inglorious Basterds. There’s no cartoon Nazis here.

It’s all the more interesting to see how the director’s are viewed here. Kathryn Bigelow has steeped herself in men-centric genres the majority of her career. She has an alternate take on action, male interaction and film dynamics. Tarantino, by turn, is more akin to a rap artist that samples frequently, throws in some of his own lyrics overtop and call it original. (Is that good or bad? Depends on your viewpoint. I’ve seen examples of both in rap and QT.) I guess Bigelow suffers because she doesn’t have a motormouth or feels she has to be her own hyperbolic PR agent. What’s readily apparent is that she has a very workman-like approach to projects that bring to mind other under-appreciated directors of yore like Don Siegel. It’s also interesting in that while Tarantino not-so-subtly proclaims Basterds as his masterpiece that title really should go to Bigelow and Hurt Locker.

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