Spooky-normal activity

YEAR IN FILM: Seen Saw -- horror rode the remake-go-round in 2009
Jigsaw -- again?

YEAR IN FILM This year was scary enough — what with the collapsing economy, rising unemployment rate, a summer of celebrity deaths, and new lows reached by reality TV programming — that going to see a horror movie became a kind of respite from the constant feed of depressing shit plastered across news crawls, posted to blogs, and bolded in headlines. Who wouldn't take the escapist thrills of the Saw VI's elaborate, Rube Goldbergian endgames over the quick, "painless" death meted out by a pink slip? Then again, Paranormal Activity reminded us that the scariest thing these days is to be a homeowner.

Hollywood, no doubt, was counting its pennies as much as the movie-going public: hence the slew of classic horror franchise remakes, resurrections, and continuations. In addition to Saw VI, the body count included The Final Destination (a.k.a. Final Destination: Death Trip 3D), the umpteenth return of Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, Rob Zombie's H2: Halloween 2, and remakes of violent classics such as The Last House on the Left, My Bloody Valentine 3D, and The Stepfather.

I admire the bald-faced cynicism of these releases, especially with canonical titles like Last House and Friday the 13th. It's a post-Scream series world, after all. The big studios know that fresh-faced, hormonal PYTs still want to see glossy versions of themselves get butchered by roving psychopaths and Freudian straw men in masks, but with a hat tip to the fact that most audiences have seen it all before.

Films that attempted to twist the received formulas and court the same demographic of Jigsaw and Mike Meyers devotees fared with mixed results. Jennifer's Body, which should have been the supernatural follow-up to 2004's Mean Girls, couldn't find the right balance between funny and scary due to the ill-fit of Megan Fox's blandness and Diablo Cody's overly-precious zingers. Drag Me to Hell, Sam Raimi's PG-13 tour de force, on the other hand, offered a master class in how to elicit the perfect uneasy mix of chills and laughs with nary a disemboweling (I would include the raucous Zombieland in the same camp).

And then there is Ti West's little indie that could, The House of the Devil, which meticulously recreates the aesthetic of the cheap video nasties of the early 1980s. The film's spot-on production design and anticlimatic resolution shouldn't detract from West's considerable talents as a conductor of suspense. But it's interesting how House returns us to the decade that spawned the very slashers that Hollywood continues to remake, and one that started out, as we are now, in a bleak recession. Timeliness aside, House offers an object lesson in how to do something new with something familiar — a lesson Hollywood would do well to study in 2010.

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