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COMMENTARY

And you thought Jason was bad

In the current horror flicks, the victims are seemingly innocent. What does that say about us as a people?

January 01, 2007|Desson Thomson | Washington Post

In horror movies, the rules for victims used to be simple: If you were an oversexed teenager, an obnoxious braggart or a coward, you were toast. The audience knew this and almost relished the inevitable comeuppance.

The killer was some kind of demonic, inhuman presence -- the chain-saw guy, or one of those Freddys, Jasons or Michaels, usually abused as a child or tortured by peers.

But in the latest -- and, we should add, financially successful -- horror flicks, things are crueler, more insidious. In the "Saw" and "Hostel" franchises and last month's "Turistas," the victims are regular folks whose sins are elusive, the equivalent of moral misdemeanors, if anything.

We're left to contemplate the evil of their small infractions -- like being too busy to take on pro bono work, or just plain harboring a grudge. Or maybe backpacking a little too rowdily through Brazil.

What does it say about movie audiences that we're flocking to watch innocent-seeming people be tortured and killed?

In these newer films, the killer is usually some unremarkable guy who has been observing humanity for some time with moral disgust. So he lures individuals into traps, making them prisoners in a gruesome game to save their own lives. Hack through your ankle bone to free yourself from shackles and impending death, or kill your fellow victim to save your own skin.

Perhaps audiences love the false hope, the cruel stakes (sometimes wood or metal) of these deathtrap movies. Perhaps it's schadenfreude or maybe it's the video game aspect, in which you use survival and cunning -- and follow clues -- to stay alive. What disturbs us isn't the outright horror, bad as it is, but the inherent sadism. The morals of these stories? The enemy is us, we're all a little evil, we're all guilty of something. It may be a stretch to say that "Saw" is a cry to the conscience about Abu Ghraib, but perhaps in a time of war these bizarre moral tales strike closer to home.

This is likely just the beginning, as long as studios such as Lionsgate and Fox Atomic (the fledgling division of 20th Century Fox for whom "Turistas" is its first proud product) can lure ticket buyers into their entertainment traps.

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