A remake of Last House on the Left was released last weekend. It is the latest in a long line of slasher remakes including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher, Prom Night and last month's Friday the 13th. All of these movies retain the basic plots of their sources. But gone is the endearing rawness—sometimes edgy (Texas Chainsaw…_), sometimes campy (Friday the 13th)—that made them cult classics. In its place is a numbing big studio gloss even miniscule budgets can afford these days. These facsimiles also shy away from the nihilism that made the originals shocking. Leatherhead's killing sprees in the updated TCM stem from being called a retard. One of the teen victims in Last House redux springs miraculously back to life at the end.
No matter how watered down these remakes are, Hollywood churns them out because for all the red onscreen, they bring out the green. With the family friendly exception of Pixar movies, horror might be Hollywood's most consistently bankable genre. Budgets are razor-thin; the intended audiences indifferent to the critical lashings most slasher movies (deservedly) receive. The foolproof equation breeds laziness. Not all horror movies scrape the bottom of the barrel and continue to burrow through the floor beneath it. But the worthwhile entries are poorly and tirelessly imitated to within an inch of the genre's life.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween ushered in the teen slasher genre in the '70s. Both are classics, the former for its bleached, cinema-verite photography, gallows humor and Vietnam allegories and the latter for its elegantly composed shots, restrained pacing and chillingly effective score. (Neither shows much blood.) But the bargain basement knockoffs (Prom Night, The Hills have Eyes, Friday the 13th, the so-bad-it's-almost-good Sleepaway Camp) and infernal sequels that followed made horror movies a laughing stock for all but the schlock-happiest Fangoria subscriber.
With the exception of 1984's original A Nightmare on Elm Street (featuring Freddy Krueger before he became a disfigured, utensil-handed Borscht Belt comic) mainstream horror did not regain respectability until Scream in 1996. That Wes Craven smash deftly mixed comedy and horror with a winking self-awareness of genre conventions. A slasher revival followed, but the post-modern irony shtick got old fast. Scream exposed, though hardly subverted, all the rules. By mimicking Scream, its sequels and too-clever-by-half imitators (the largely forgotten I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend series) became just as formulaic as the hackwork their predecessor mocked.
Torture porn, critically maligned as it is, at least introduced a fresh slasher milieu. The rusty, industrial ascetic of the Saw and Hostel movies compliment their anonymous brutality. The victims are harshly unsympathetic, their sad fates even more transparent than in previous horror films. Sex always equals death in a slasher movie, but torture porn's methodical killings are more tactilely retributive than usual. Hostel's louts pay for hedonistic romps through depressed Eastern European backwaters with exacting amputations, their limbs and organs to be sold on the black market. The junkies whose halfway house becomes a deathtrap obstacle course in Saw II choose between instant death and a dip in a tub of hypodermic needles. And therein lies the problem with joyless, self-important torture porn: in punishing its victims for having fun, it doesn't let the audience have any.
Horror is in a rut. Queasy, embarassed nostalgia aside, there is little worthwhile about the recent rush of slasher remakes. The best horror movies are the unheralded ones. They introduce new villains and mythologies, fresh techniques (The Blair Witch Project's Dramamine-requiring handheld camera) and surprises (the zombies of 28 Days Later who run rather than hobble). Slasher fans are genuflecting at the altar of genre icons for now. But like Michael Meyers lurking in the shadows, there's got to be a new face of horror waiting to deliver audiences from the current spate of lazy retreads and into a fresh form of evil.