Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Look That Kills

The trailer for George Romero's latest - and still-untitled - zombie opus is up now and judging from this brief look emphasizing its western-style action, this looks like a lot of fun. Of course, as many an internet talkbacker will point out, it also looks extremely cheap. What's funny to me about this perception isn't that it's wrong - because, honestly, it's obviously a pretty impoverished production - but that it's low budget is considered a negative for so many fans.

While I wish that studios would write people like Romero a blank check for any project they wanted to take on, I find it interesting that genre fans today are so adverse to 'B' movies. I first noticed this attitude when John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars came out in 2001. As soon as the first trailer appeared, the complaints flooded the internet that it looked like some "B" movie. That reaction was an eye-opener for me - I realized that there's a generation (or two) of fans who have been raised to believe that sci-fi, horror, and fantasy are the province of big budget entertainment. This is the T2 generation, the Jurassic Park generation, the Matrix generation. They believe that their monster movies, their zombie films, their space epics should be state-of-the-art productions. If these movies look cheap, if they're not up to par with current technology, then they're not real movies.

I don't believe that every young fan feels this way, but I do believe it's an attitude that exists with the under-25 set in a way it doesn't with Gen-X fans. My generation was the last to be introduced to genre films as B-movies first and then see the big studios gradually make that kind of material their own (well before I saw Star Wars and Superman on the big screen, I saw the likes of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, The People That Time Forgot, and Empire of the Ants and well into the '80s, it was still common to see B-movies on the big screen along with A-titles).

It used to be a letdown when a big studio would try their hand at horror because more often than not, it would be a bland effort like Ghost Story or The Awakening. Low budget films, on the other hand, had personality. It didn't matter about how slick the film was or what the effects looked like. If a film looked cheap, well, that was usually a good thing. Night of the Living Dead looked cheap - that was how the best horror films ought to look.

But these days, unless they're made with hand-held shaky-cam, modern genre films can't get away with a rudimentary look. They have to be Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Zack Synder's Dawn of the Dead. It used to be the exception - usually an unwelcome exception at that - when a horror film looked too consciously art-directed. Films like Tony Scott's The Hunger, Michael Mann's The Keep, Paul Schrader's Cat People and even Kubrick's The Shining were accused of spending too much time on their stylized looks at the expense of producing any scares. They kept horror at arm's length in a way that low budget films didn't (Ridley Scott's Alien was the rare film to be able to have it both ways - be gorgeous to look at but still be terrifying). But now those films are more in line with the direction that horror films have taken.

Maybe it was just inevitable as technology advanced and audiences became more sophisticated. It also might have something to do with the cost of entertainment. Paying $5 a carload to see a dawn till dawn triple feature at the drive-in is a lot different than paying $10-$12 dollars for a single ticket to see a single movie. Expectations change - people want more bang for their buck. And when they pour hundreds of dollars or more into the latest home entertainment systems, they don't want to be paying that kind of money to watch movies that don't take full advantage of the latest technology. Even if a movie is bad, at least it should look and sound spectacular.

So where does that leave a movie like Romero's latest? This chintzy looking zombie movie? In a better world, it'd be greeted without scorn but in 2009, it can't help but look like an also-ran (I have to wonder if Romero deliberately went with a western angle for this film just to acknowledge how out of step and out of fashion his approach has become). Unfairly or not, a movie from one of the legends of the genre is not even competition for whatever latest teen-oritentated remakes will be screening at multi-plexes this year. To make it as a horror movie today, you have to bring your A-game.

You've got to have a look that kills.


kindertrauma said...

Too true. Used to be if a movie was cheap and gritty it gave you even more of an impression that you were on dangerous ground and that anything could happen. Now I often hear people complain that something looks like a "home movie". I wonder if the availability of technology like cell phones and digital movie cameras has made this knee-jerk impression even worse!? (and yes, I am shaking a cane as I write this!)-UNK

CRwM said...

This is an interesting idea. Is there a generational basis against small pictures?

I don't think modern genre fans have lost their respect for B-movies. What they can't stand is insincere pseudo-B movies that excuse visual and technical incompetence by claiming that is somehow harkens back to the "purity" of indie filmmakers of a previous era.

The state of film technology is now such that you can shoot on a shoestring and not have your film look like crap. Hard Candy, for example, was shot for less than one million bucks and it looks all-pro: It's got great lighting, amazing saturated colors, clean set-ups, and a pro-gloss that movies with much larger budgets struggle to emulate. It might have other problems (with the script and whatnot), but it looks great and was made for a relative pittance.

By contrast, Romero burned through ten million bucks for Diary of the Dead. Where the hell did all that money go? The thing looks horrible. Cheesy effects, bad CGI, uninventive set-ups, no real commitment to the first-person conceit – the thing was stylistically inert compared to the even smaller budget Night, which used managed to work around its microscopic budget and make its black and white camera seem classic.

Bitchin' that something was shot cheaply makes no sense, but that's not what people are bitching about. Many of last year's biggest horror films were shot on fairly small budgets: The Strangers, Quarantine, Saw V, and Let the Right One In were all modestly budgeted films compared to the money a studio will drop on something like I Am Legend. There's plenty of love for small pictures.

What people are bitchin' about is that " . . . of the Dead" LOOKS cheap, and that's a completely different complaint. Horror fans don't demand that everything look like the Matrix, but there's no reason to swallow bad filmmaking in the name of nostalgia or out of pity for George Romero.

Jeff Allard said...

Great points, CRwM. You're right about small films being able to look super-slick. And frankly, I'm shocked to learn that Diary of the Dead cost $10 million dollars - that doesn't even seem possible!

However, I do question the disdain among fans today for films that 'look cheap'. That disdain might be valid in some regard - as you say, there's examples of low budget films that look stunning so there's no excuse for shoddy filmmaking. I guess my thought is that until recent years, genre fans never gave much care when a horror film looked cheap and now they definitely do. Perhaps it's because fans - and audiences in general - are much more film savvy and demanding than generations of the past were. I'm not sure. But there isn't much patience anymore with films - whether they be big or small - that aren't up to what's deemed to be current standards. There's a hostility towards cheap looking films that I find curious as someone who grew up usually regarding that quality as a virtue. Or at the very least, it was never an impediment towards enjoying a movie.

As for Romero's latest, with the exception of Creepshow (and maybe Martin, with its b&w flashbacks), Romero has never been caught up in the look of his films. Does his latest really look any cheaper than his segment of Two Evil Eyes, for instance? I don't think so. I think his new film's look is just reflective of someone who doesn't see the style of his film as his top concern. It's not a bid for nostalgia so much as it's his natural instincts as a filmmaker. The guy's in his 60's - he hasn't changed, the world has changed around him. And that makes his work out of step with even his low budget competition - now comprised of younger filmmakers with much different sensibilities of how movies ought to look.

Timmy Crabcakes said...

I still find myself having a vague distrust of horror films that look too slick... that look like loads of money was dumped into them... where the people are pretty and everyone drives new cars.
Somehow that's like a stamp of community acceptance...
Like, how could the thing possibly be a transgressive bit of shock theater if people were willing to throw that kind of money at it... surely it's had all the life sucked out of it... sanitized and secured.

Not that low-budget automatically = good in my eyes...
I think what fans are able to read is sincerity... we can tell if the people making the movie really want it to be scary vs. they're going through the motions to pad out their resume and collect a paycheck.