Here’s a complaint. I do like a good horror movie. I think that it can tell me something about human nature by putting its characters into a difficult or even impossible situation of life and death. Many stories do that, sure, but a horror movie takes the direct route to our subconscious and starts digging. It seems to know exactly where to dig, and how deep. What happens to the characters on screen seems to refer to us personally.
I have to admit that the last decade or so of horror movies has set me at odds. I’ve seen Hostel and Saw, and those are just slasher porn. That’s something I don’t mind seeing once in a blue moon, but I really prefer characters I can care about, because it makes that movie just that much scarier and memorable, while stuff like the Saw series, Hostel and many others are, well, disposable horror. They can be watched and then forgotten. There are two horror movies that have stuck with me because they are abysmally bad not because they are such bad horror movies, but because they try to be more than just horror movies and become ruthless and sometimes careless about their characters, and even reveal some latent racism.
The first one is a British flick called Eden Lake. It is a disgusting film, steeped in sexism, racism and overall misanthropy. The fact that it tries to sneak out of its responsibility makes it also a cowardly film. Here’s the first half of the plot from Eden Lake in a nutshell. (And don’t get me started on spoilers – here’s a movie you really shouldn’t see.) There’s that couple, Steve and Jenny, who plan on spending a few quiet intimate days on the shore of Eden Lake, in the midst of a large forest in Buckinghamshire, England. Steve plans to propose to Jenny. On the way to the lake, they stop at a roadside inn, where there are parents who verbally abuse their kids and then stare Steve and Jenny down when they look at them in frowning disbelief. They get out of there and camp at the lake shore. It would be a great love getaway for them, if it weren’t for those kids with their boombox and their dog. It’s almost a sideline when those kids hassle another kid who is in the woods collecting insects. They spit, gloat, shout, smoke, drink beer and feel provoked when Steve tries to tell them to keep it down a little. The kids trail off, but slash a tire of Steve’s car. Now Steve is provoked, while Jenny tells him to let it go, change the tyre and leave. Back in the village, they come across the home of the leader of the kids’ gang, Brett, and Steve jumps to the occasion to confront Brett, but finds himself in an empty home, with Brett’s dad coming home from work or a beer run. Dad isn’t pleased that his offspring has punched a fist-sized hole in his front door, and wants to shout at him some. At that point, it struck me that maybe dad has been doing time: beer, tattoos, mean attitude, cruel towards children, especially his own son, who is busy imitating his old man’s behaviour. The movie doesn’t tell, and that is all the psychological depth or motivation you are going to get from this flick. Steve escapes over the roof of the house. Back at the lake the next morning, the couple realize that a bag with their car keys has been stolen. They have to walk back, but come across the kids, and Steve inadvertently kills their dog. Escape scenes follow in which Jenny and Steve have to hide from the knife-toting gang. Eventually, they get their car back, but crash it, which leads to a sequence where Steve is taken captive and tied to a tree stump with barbed wire. So far, it’s vintage horror, but there is that moment where Brett makes every member torture Steve. That violent moment is where my problem with the movie starts, and for two reasons. First, each member of the gang is egged on by Brett, but Brett seems very reluctant to torture Steve himself. And yet, Brett succeeds in making them do it. Later in the movie, there are numerous moments where any of the kids could have quit and run away. They don’t. Some of them are picked off and killed, some just disappear from the film without explanation. Brett is the charismatic leader who makes his gang do his bidding, but is a coward himself. That is an odd character build-up at best. Eden Lake shows a lot of graphic violence, but at the same time apologises for it by showing most of the kids being bullied into it against their will, while the bully himself is of two minds about his own orders. Once I subscribe to the violence in a movie, I don’t expect the movie to chicken out and apologise for it. If it does, the violence becomes gratuitous, the very thing it pretended to avoid. Eden Lake has no idea what its stance on juvenile gang violence is, but is all about exactly that. I don’t want to be confronted with torture and slice’n’dice scenes and then be told that, sorry, that is just the way it is with pissed-off idle teenagers today. Eden Lake would be well-advised to not fake any character motivation at all than to shrug its shoulders about the violence it shows.
The second problem is an ethnic one. The only character who seems eager to cut Steve’s face is the kid with African-American background, and he does not have any lines at all. Doesn’t it make you angry that the guy with the most inclination for violence is black? There is one other kid with a minority background, and that’s the bug kid with Indian background that the gang harassed earlier on. His name is Adam, and he is bullied into luring Jenny into a trap. He succeeds, and Brett says thank you by pulling a car tire over his head and setting him on fire. While one non-white kid is a mute slasher, the other non-white kid is a helpless nerd who is used as bait and then set on fire. Oh, and did I mention that there is a girl in the gang who apparently serves two purposes, namely that she can complain that Steve is staring at her boobs and later film all the violence with Brett’s cell phone?
Steve dies at some point, which leads to Jenny running, hiding or clutching the defensive weapon of opportunity to her copious cleavage. The camera makes a point of showing off her blood-soaked, gunk-stained cleavage in her bra-less summer dress. Now I know that the maiden lost in the woods is one of the oldest set pieces of horror stories, and I don’t have a problem with the female form, but the movie accentuates Jenny’s breasts from every possible angle so that I felt like a voyeur, a situation I don’t feel comfortable with. Jenny’s breasts are hardly the point of the last half hour of the movie, but while she has to slash her way back to safety, it sends a sexist message: have a look at Jenny disembowelling some juvenile delinquents in self-defense, but do not miss out on her capacious cleavage. And learn this: Jenny’s psychological dilemma seems to be that, as a teacher, she likes kids, but now must overcome her fondness by slashing some miseducated specimens.
If you think this review is full of spoilers, bear with me. Jenny finally finds her way back to the village and tries to get help from some people at a garden party who turn out to be the parents of some of the kids – and the very parents who verbally abused their kids at the roadside inn. The point here must be that in this village, there is not one single good person. Brett is also at the party, as if it was the evening of another day out with the gang. He is the one who tells everybody in the room what Jenny must have done: She is responsible for the death of some of the kids whose parents are at that party. And let’s not forget the dog, who apparently was one of a set of two bloodhounds. Do the parents question Brett how he knows who Jenny is? No, they start threatening Jenny and want to make her pay for killing their kids. They make clear that no-one will call the police, and one older guy, I think it’s Brett’s father, forces Jenny into the bathroom for a shower. The implications are obvious: we are going to give you a bath because once you are clean, we will abuse and rape you for what you have done to our offspring. (Note that the women seem to, if not to partake, then at least to greenlight, the gang rape the men in the room are about to commit.) The movie doesn’t show us any such scene, but cuts to Brett who is standing alone in front of a mirror, looking first at himself and then at his cell phone. Oh my god, is that remorse? No, of course not: he erases all the snuff files on his cell phone. The implications are also clear here: Brett erases all the traces of knowing Jenny and might, in all likelihood, join in the abuse. Here, the film fades to black, and the credits roll. For the last time, the movie chickens out of its own violent implications.
I have nothing against extreme violence in horror movies, or any other kind of movie, for that matter. Only here, in Eden Lake the unclear stance on violence sabotages the whole story, and it clearly weakens the characters who are off-the-shelf to begin with. Eden Lake has to suffer questions about its latent racism and sexism because it inserts these issues, but pretends it is not about any of them at all.
Some movies approach human nature by carefully describing and sometimes questioning all those things that may make us human. Horror movies zoom right in by undermining any certain answers to what makes us tick by taking away some aspect of a person: common sense, health, empathy, and twists that lead to something uncanny. Done the right way, that’s the source of a horror movie’s scariness. At a very basic level, Eden Lake left me stranded because I didn’t know what to make of the characters. There is precious little to go on to start with; if a movie undermines everything that it has set up, it cannot be taken seriously. If it also makes an issue out of questions of race and gender without somehow consciously taking position on them, it goes beyond lazy filmmaking and introduces questions about race and gender it feels it does not have to answer. There is no humanity in this movie: every single character either kills or is killed, sometimes both. That would be the key ingredient of film noir, but Eden Lake doesn’t seem to know that, either. There is a thin line between horror and disgust, and sadly, Eden Lake really only gets the second one right.
Shuttle is an American production, but with two British actors starring as baddies. It raises similar questions as Eden Lake: It’s about a group of young travellers who catch the red eye back from Thailand or somewhere. There is no bus and no underground, it’s raining, the airport is just too drab, and the next shuttle will be in a few hours. Help turns up: there is a private shuttle offering them a ride home for less money. The teens eventually accept. Big mistake. They get picked off one by one, only to find that the driver of the shuttle has to let the two girls survive, make them bleach their hair blond and stand in white high heels and white underwear in an empty subterranean garage, where an anonymous guy comes and has a look and decides which one of the girls is to his liking. The movie does not tell us who this man is but, once again, can he be anyone else but some perverted creep with a fetish for the very bright end of the colour spectrum? The audience is left with implications as to how that man will make use of the surviving girl; Shuttle, like Eden Lake, stops short of being consequent and veers away from the thing at the bottom of the rabbit hole. That’s cowardice. The last plot twist is that the driver takes some kind of twisted pity on the girl and, instead of delivering her into the serfdom of some fetishist, puts her in a box with food and kitty litter and has her delivered to Asia in an overseas ship container. She might get to live.
The end of Shuttle seems to suggest one of two things. The first one seems to be the driver’s perverted pity of deciding the girl’s fate by locking her up and hauling her halfway around the world after a torturous journey that will take weeks if not months and might very well kill her. The second implication is a more personal one, and I don’t have solid evidence that the movie really wants to purport this message, but it seemed to me that Shuttle, with its very last shot, tries to comment on human trafficking. See, the Western world seems to import a lot of Asian women for prostitution, which is so wrong, so why not have a Western girl shipped the other way around?
There are curious familiarities between the two movies. The driver from Shuttle is played by Tony Curran, who has starred in a movie called Red Road. Its director, Andrea Arnold, has directed another movie called Fish Tank, starring Michael Fassbender, who plays Steve in Eden Lake. Fish Tank is a good movie, and I can recommend it as a social drama, but there is also Red Road, which can be taken to be a very good horror flick, but it is certainly more than that. See it if you can.