Horror is dead.
That is what someone told me one day at a SoHo party in the late nineties and I was left with no recourse but to agree with such an outrageous statement.
To begin, was it truly so scandalous? Was not it the utterance of a drunkard or a neophyte at best? At that stage, it was neither, for everyone knew the truth: Scary movies had already stopped being scary and to a Hollywood producer of the horror breed, well, that was bad. Very.
The genre’s road to ruin could arguably be attributed to one (or many) of several reasons.
There is the re-using of old formulas and tropes that, while entertaining and safe—from a financial perspective—, have worn themselves thin and do little to elicit the required jumps and scares that feed this particular mouth of an already hungry industry.
Or perhaps we, the professionals, have been unsuccessful in the task of finding the contemporary equivalent to Perkins or Karloff or Price. By failing at keeping fueled the gravitational power of these dark stars, our black holes, we have gradually forsaken the medium’s pull and potency, allowing audiences to skim the product while eventually launching free of it. Everyone is drawn to terror; no one is swallowed by its depiction in cinema anymore.
And then there is the fact that audiences have had, for a long time now, access to a host of sources of information whereby myth can easily be debunked. The seduction of the folk tale and the urban legend holds no power over the search engine. What does truth (or what passes as such these days) do to fear? Only what light does to those menacing figures skulking in the thick murk: It outlines, in most cases, men and women, plain and bare, leaving behind only frail and weakened traces of their erstwhile influence.
Now shadows, you might say, are still a force to be reckoned with and your reasoning would be unobjectionable save for the little (and thankfully little-known) fact that is about to make me quite rich. See: No matter how dark the shade, in films it is always another on whom its sooty tendrils alight. You, friend of popcorn, soda, and TV dinners, feel quite confident that your neck will not be the one bitten by the vampire’s fangs by the time the credits roll.
Good thing I have just the means to change that.
Consider the man and the woman presently held between armrests at a private screening. Tie and power suit people, plucked from their cozy mahogany desks and the reassuring, phone-screening skills of their personal assistants. They watch with skepticism the unfolding sequence of a young squirming body chained to a grimy wall in an isolated, nondescript room, nearly as I found him two years ago back in the slums of Rio. The favela, purview of crime lords and miscreants, had become the latest in a chain of obsessions, my topical subject of study in the quest for true horror. After much cajoling, many payoffs, and a series of serendipitous encounters, one guide finally accepted my plea and took me to him.
Now, let us stick to drama for a while. While not required at this point, we can still make use of it if only for nostalgic reasons.
On the flickering canvas, a head is covered with a sack and twin racks of meatless ribs bulge out through a t-shirt one size too small. Caked blood paints dark splotches on the kid’s forehead and around his ankles; his ragged breath comes out as steam through the fibers of the cloth.
What does he do, then? What’s the next shot? Nothing, for he cannot; he is bound so for a reason. And none, the camera is fixed (cinematography, like a proper narrative structure, is a lesser concern). But we do have someone cast in a supporting role.
A masked man walks in, naked black torso all sweat and muscle. He looks briefly at the camera—a mistake under other circumstances but this is not one of those—and nods before quickly turning toward the hooded figure. In a blur, he fetches a butterfly knife from a belt sheath and paints a stroke of crimson on the child’s left arm. The head rises; the sack obstructs and muffles a screaming mouth while the wound cries a stream of dark wine, thick and slow like sap from a tree. And there goes the torturer again, giving no quarter, wasting no time, opening gash after gash on delicate flesh.
Here my audience of two is not impressed; they are well acquainted with gore and the brief popularity of the fake snuff film. They grace me with their patience because of who I am and what I’ve done, but patience is something their kind only offer once and this is it, my bonus round of benevolence. Make it or break it. Both turn a quizzical eye on me and I wave an allaying hand, inviting them to continue.
Soon the knife-wielding brute stops his crosshatch work but not before plunging the blade into the squalid kid’s heart. A vagrant spurt of blood erupts with what little force remains in his slow-beating organ. The masked man unshackles the boy, who slumps to the slick tile floor like a rag doll, and leaves, his bit part over.
Speaking of parts, now comes the sweetest.
The knife, as if pushed by an invisible hand, slides out of the open wound, one millimeter at a time. When the weapon is finally extricated from that scrawny chest, the youth’s body starts a mad dance of contortions, thrashing frantically, limbs twisting and extending in unnatural angles. For a brief spell the boy exits the screen, the only evidence of his convulsive presence being those irregular bangs and thumps that indicate his collision with the walls.
Then, silence, and I am sure I have secured the executives’ attention, even if they don’t know how utterly conventional the proceedings have been so far.
The boy rises directly in front of the camera, removes the sack from his head. Now my colleagues of sorts see fear as I saw it then. Real, unadulterated, undiluted.
When those thin cardboard doors opened to me and the gray, smoke-filtered Rio de Janeiro light made its way in, revealing a severed head next to a headless body, I saw not a dirty runt, but me. I saw my own mouth open in a frozen scream; I saw my three-chinned neck split in half, conduits and veins outlined and glistening like red eyelets. I saw, within the exposed flesh, gristle and assorted tissue reaching out. Impossibly long feelers connected one by one with their torso counterparts, gluing themselves back in. Try that, picture your own head meeting its estranged body once again and you will find yourself as I did, in the grip of true terror.
Or don’t; you know what they say: Coming soon to a theater near you.
Continuing. This is hell for the studio heads, for they too see themselves on screen. The lattice of closing wounds does not rest upon a young man’s skin anymore. No, it is their (and my) body; it is our blood flowing back into it. We, on scratched and dusty film, scream and roll our eyes upward until only the blanks show. Our heart-rending gap goes from wet red to dainty pink, then melds with the surrounding cream-colored skin.
At last it is us no more and the fear abates. We see only a puny, vulnerable 12-year-old cachifo dressed in confusion, staring at the purring face of our celluloid witness.
Cut to: A kid with a sack covering his face stands on a ledge in a dizzying, tall skyscraper. His feet barely fit the width of the ledge and empty air caresses the tip of his toes. Coming from off screen, a hand connects with his back and launches him into the void. Before the body hits the ground (my team has edited an exquisite long shot of him falling in slow motion) I’ve assured the honchos that there is no CGI involved; that they each saw a version of themselves achieved by means that would rather remain unexplained. For effect, I tell them. They give me a few twitchy laughs and we shake clammy hands. Not long after a sickening crunch wafts out of the THX speakers, they are out of the small theater, thankful for having their backs to one more of our horrific takes.
And as I see through light and dust motes my broken bones mending on the white space of the silver screen, not even the shivers and the cold sweat of true fear can take away the luscious, intoxicating smell of money and success.
Long live horror.