New sado-thrillers defile the legacy of horror films—and cheat audiences

By Matt Zakosek

What’s with the new breed of sado-thrillers? It seems every week there’s a new example of extreme violence at the local cineplex: the Saw films, Hostel (which debuted at number one with $20.1 million at the box office), Wolf Creek, High Tension, Chaos, the Texas Chain Saw Massacre remake, and the Rob Zombie slashers (House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects). And that’s just off the top of my head.

I love horror movies so much it’s, well, scary. I’m writing my B.A. on them. And that’s why I think this latest trend is alarming—because it mistakes sadism for suspense, exploitation for excitement, and fetishistically filmed torture scenes for actual horror.

I’m not going to argue that this stuff desensitizes us to violence, although I think the argument could be made. That would be futile, because—from a marketing standpoint—if sado-thrillers make money, the studios will continue to churn them out, particularly because they’re produced so cheaply. In other words, the only thing less likely than the existence of Saw III is that Roger Ebert will give it a four-star review.

Of the nine films I mentioned above, I’ve only seen two: House of 1000 Corpses and High Tension. Neither was worth my money. If you want to see High Tension (and I don’t know why you would want to punish yourself like that), please skip the next three paragraphs, because I have to reveal something crucial about the plot to explain why this movie was so awful.

High Tension is the story of Marie (Cécile de France) and Alexia (Maïwenn), two French teenagers who head to Alexia’s country home to prepare for finals. That’s all the exposition that’s given, or needed. A bloodthirsty redneck quickly does away with Alexia’s entire family, including her little brother, who’s maybe eight years old. Are we having fun yet?

Marie and Alexia manage to escape, however, due to Marie’s resourcefulness. As the killer approaches the guest room to slice and dice Marie, instead of fleeing—which she knows, instinctively, would be useless—Marie makes the bed, stashes her belongings under it, and wipes out the toothpaste in the bathroom sink. Why does she do this? Because, before Marie moved in, no one had inhabited the guest room for a long, long time. She knows that her best chance of survival is making it look like she was never there.

I loved this clever little scene, because I would have never thought of doing something like that; I probably would have hid in the shower and wet my pants. Unfortunately, the scene is negated by the dopey twist ending of High Tension, which reveals that the redneck killer and Marie are actually the same person. After that, Marie’s awesome survival strategy doesn’t even make sense. (Was she hiding from herself?) I had to endure some of the most disturbing, nauseating sequences ever committed to celluloid for an ending that played like a second-rate Sixth Sense.

Not surprisingly, then, the most offensive element of the new sado-thrillers is their poor storytelling. It doesn’t bode well that High Tension director Alexandre Aja is helming a remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes for March. As Craven once said, “I tried not to make violence romantic or attractive, but ‘real,’ so people would be affected, and speak out against it.” The new sado-thrillers—with their interchangeable characters, tossed-off depravity, and heavy identification with the killer—can’t be bothered.

OK, I know people have been rooting for Freddy in the Nightmare on Elm Street series and Jason in the Friday the 13th series for a long time. The other characters in those films are so bland, it would be crazy to invest much energy in them. But there’s a humanity in those films that’s missing from High Tension and its ilk. Even if we know Freddy and Jason will inevitably rise again, it’s important to vanquish them temporarily. The filmmakers at least pretend to be on the side of good and not evil.

I feel very uncomfortable writing this article, because I don’t advocate censorship in any form. If audiences want to see these films, people like Alexandre Aja should make them. Some of them, like the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, are even twisted works of art.

The most important question here, I suspect, is why we want to watch this junk. Are we really so jaded that we don’t care about the possibility of redemption? A new character takes on the guise of the Jigsaw Killer at the end of every Saw movie, because it doesn’t really matter who’s being killed or doing the killing, as long as, you know, we get to see some gore. The story is strictly secondary, and the sadism becomes the main point. How long before we’re just renting snuff films?

This jadedness is beginning to ooze into more mainstream entertainment. The otherwise cerebral Syriana features a fingernail-pulling torture scene that’s excruciating to watch. Kill Bill—excuse me, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, because Tarantino couldn’t bear to part with even a second of his carnage—is the very definition of arbitrary violence, because Tarantino has said that he could just as easily make a movie where Uma Thurman’s character is the villain.

It’s all make-believe, of course, but the producers of these sado-thrillers take pride in the fact that their films are based on true stories. Wolf Creek, I think, is an especially sick example of this, not only because of its deep undercurrent of misogyny but because it opened on Christmas Day.

“What the hell is the purpose of this sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty?” Roger Ebert asks. I don’t know. I want a filmmaker who can make me cringe because of the psycho who’s lurking behind the closed door (even if that psycho is wearing a hockey mask). Heavily stylized violence is the last refuge of uncreative hacks who “borrow” from world cinema and bastardize it, bringing the rest of us a little closer to the lowest common denominator.