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A Year That Trembled 

From the grindhouse to the art house, movies in 2003 made us shake with sadness and fear.

Excessive gore kept House of 1,000 Corpses - on the shelf prior to 9-11. That changed in 2003.
  • Excessive gore kept House of 1,000 Corpses on the shelf prior to 9-11. That changed in 2003.
Back in January, New Line Cinema released Final Destination 2, a horror movie in which the antagonist was the unseen hand of death itself. All the main characters knew their time was up, but they didn't know how or when, so they existed in a constant state of fear, never knowing from which angle the Grim Reaper might suddenly claim them.

Real life has felt a bit like that for a while now. If that vaguely worded terror alert doesn't make you paranoid, there's always the possibility of suffocation in government-approved plastic sheeting and duct tape.

"In times of terror, people want to be scared," says Eli Roth, writer-director of the horror hit Cabin Fever. "I think the success of [Cabin Fever and House of 1,000 Corpses] is a reflection that people definitely want to be scared in a safe environment. After 9-11, people felt like they could die any minute, so there was a lot of panic sex going on. Horror movies give that same rush."

But the rise in horror movies this year -- Wrong Turn, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, May, Gothika, Freddy vs. Jason, and Jeepers Creepers 2, to name a few -- hasn't been the only sign of this fear. Consider also the sci-fi blockbusters: Both Matrix sequels and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines envision an imminent future in which freedom-loving human beings are driven to the brink of extinction by cold-hearted robots, and none of these films promises much hope of victory. Also, The Matrix Revolutions was one of three significant films this year (along with May and Once Upon a Time in Mexico) to feature the gouging out of its lead character's eyes . . . as a good thing.

Angela Bettis, who arguably got the whole eye thing started as the eponymous lead in May, sees a possible correlation with events at large. "Who wants to see?" she asks rhetorically. "I saw some footage of the twin towers falling, and I saw people jumping out of the building and falling and hitting things and bouncing off like a ball, and my initial reaction is 'Open your eyes wider, take as much of it in as you can,' because you have this gross gratification that you need filled. But then, after a while, the reaction is 'Just close your eyes, don't look.' I turn off the news every day. The second I start hearing something about the Iraqi war, I'm just like, fuck it, turn off the TV. It's the same thing: closing your eyes, gouging out your eyes . . . We don't wanna fucking look at it, man. It's too much in our face."

Some react with horror, others with sadness. Among this year's biggest potential Oscar contenders are 21 Grams, House of Sand and Fog, and Mystic River, all tragic dramas that begin with something horrible happening to one of the main characters and then pile on tragedy after tragedy until, by film's end, every character has been broken. Vadim Perelman, director of House of Sand and Fog, says that he was in the middle of adapting the Andre Dubus III novel into screenplay form when 9-11 happened. While he states that his film, despite prominently highlighting the conflicts of an Arab-American family, is not a direct reaction to the events of that day, he also notes that "the last time you had all these gritty, tragic films was the '70s, which directly followed the Vietnam War. This isn't a reaction to the Iraq war -- which isn't really a war -- but to having somebody reach into our house and punch us on the nose."

Says Paul Hough, director of the brutal wrestling documentary The Backyard, "The most important thing is that the audience walks away with a strong reaction, whether it be anger, sorrow, inspiration, or just a sense of being entertained. Even the people who walked out tended to walk out loudly -- they wanted everyone to know they were leaving because [my] film had a very particular impact on their senses." Hough's documentary could loosely qualify as both horror and tragedy, depicting as it does teenage WWE wannabes engaging in brutal hardcore wrestling matches that incorporate such props as barbed wire, light bulbs, and fire.

But Hough doesn't see a direct connection to world events. "I think that the audience responds to a well-told story, no matter what the time or trend." The son of English horror director John Hough, Paul hopes to become "the king of horror," though he hastens to add, "I am deathly afraid of blood in real life."

Rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie, whose House of 1,000 Corpses had languished on the shelf since Universal balked -- even before September 2001 -- at the gore factor, sees a real-world connection from a strictly business point of view. "Pre-9-11, dealing with my movie was a problem [for the studios], but post 9-11, it wasn't. When things are horrible in life, people aren't so hard on the movies." But he doesn't think horror films help people deal with real fears. "People don't really deal with it. I've never really understood the whole thing about wanting to be scared." This, from a man whose music and film careers have been geared toward frightening the audience? "I never really find [horror movies] scary. From an early age, I just identified with them."

Lions Gate Films President Tom Ortenberg, who finally did pick up Zombie's film for distribution and is bankrolling the forthcoming sequel, sees things in much simpler terms: "House of 1,000 Corpses and Cabin Fever were the kinds of films we could market effectively without overspending." Declining to speculate on any larger trends that might be influencing the public, Ortenberg cites the profit margins of the original Jeepers Creepers and the horror spoof Scary Movie, simply noting, "Success breeds imitation." And having had some success this year, sure enough, he promises, "We're definitely in the horror game to stay."

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