NEW YORK – Today's horror movies are more likely to be dripping with blood than irony, with films like "Wolf Creek," the "Saw" series and this week's "Hostel" representing a return to their grisly, low-budget '70s roots.
While the "Scream" trilogy grossed hundreds of millions of dollars in the late 1990s with characters who winked at the camera in playful mockery of the genre's conventions, horror flicks like "Hostel," Eli Roth's follow-up to his gory 2003 debut "Cabin Fever," will show you a character whose eye is dangling from its socket after a long afternoon of torture.
"Self-referential, ironic humor ran its course," said Roth, a 33-year-old writer-director who grew up loving the graphic slasher movies of the 1970s and '80s and also cites Asian cinema as an influence.
"Kevin Williamson did it brilliantly," he said, referring to the writer of the original "Scream." "At the same time `Scream' was huge, `Dawson's Creek' was the most popular show. ... People got tired of that. That was the gimmick. Even Kevin Williamson got tired of that.
"I think scary movies are back," Roth added. "People clearly don't want to see a horror movie to laugh."
Lions Gate Films apparently thinks so, too, having released several of the really grisly horror movies that have come out in the past few years: Rob Zombie's "House of 1,000 Corpses" and its sequel, "The Devil's Rejects," about a family of redneck serial killers; "Saw" and "Saw II," about a kidnapper who torments his victims with elaborate mind games; the French "High Tension," about two young women who are terrorized in the woods; and now "Hostel," which follows a trio of twentysomething guys on a European vacation that begins as an orgy of sex and drugs and descends into brutal, bloody sadism.
Lions Gate President Tom Ortenberg says this particular kind of horror movie is alluring because "it's got touches of realism that audiences today can relate to.
"We're never going to outspend the competition in the marketing or production of a movie. Were not going to blow people away with the latest million-dollar special effects. We're never going to do that better than the studios," Ortenberg said. "What we can do as well or better than the studios, perhaps in retro fashion, is a realistic, gut-level, visceral horror movie that doesn't rely on special effects, and audiences are responding to that."
While they're not exactly critical favorites — the first "Saw" received only 45 percent positive reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes Web site, with "Saw II" earning just 35 percent positive reviews — these movies can be enormously profitable. "Saw" had a $1 million budget and grossed $55 million-plus; the sequel cost $4 million and grossed nearly $87 million.
"Our economic model is much different than the studios," Ortenberg said. "When a Rob Zombie movie like `The Devil's Rejects' grosses $17 million, or Eli Roth's first movie grosses $20 million, that's very successful for us."
Meanwhile, the Weinstein Co. is in theaters with the low-budget "Wolf Creek," about a madman who targets tourists in the Australian outback. Harvey and Bob Weinstein released the star-studded "Scream" trilogy and several other horror movies under the Dimension Films branch of their former company, Miramax.
Bob Weinstein, who ran Dimension, bought "Wolf Creek" for $3.5 million a month before it screened at last year's Sundance Film Festival because "it was very hard-edge, very real," he said. The company released it on Christmas Day amid the family films and Oscar contenders.
"There were a lot of comedies out in the marketplace, a lot of prestige movies for older audiences. We thought this was for younger audiences," Weinstein said. "We felt there would be an opening in the marketplace that wanted to see something like this at this particular time."
Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations, believes this kind of graphic fare is making a comeback because "when people want to be scared, they really want to be scared." "With video games and all the entertainment options, it really takes a lot to impress audiences today," Dergarabedian said. "The level of violence and gore cannot be too intense for a lot of people. Horror fans in particular are very keen on seeing the most intense, violent images they can.
"Some might say it's a reflection on society, how desensitized we've become to violence," he added. "I still believe people know the difference. It's a vicarious thrill. I look at it more as entertainment: You can have that fear but in a safe environment."
The trend toward old-school terror has spread to television with Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series, in which veteran directors including Tobe Hooper, John Landis, Dario Argento and Takashi Miike have created one-hour original programs.
Joe Dante's contribution, titled "Homecoming," takes traditional zombie movie imagery and turns it into an indictment of the war in Iraq: Soldiers return from the dead not to eat people's brains but to vote the president out of office who sent them into battle.
Dante, a Roger Corman protege whose films include "The Howling" and a segment of "Twilight Zone: The Movie," pointed out that zombie films have always had underlying social statements, from 1950s West Indian movies about race and class to George A. Romero's 1968 classic "Night of the Living Dead," with its subtext about the Vietnam War.
"It didn't seem to me like much of a stretch to use that template for a political story," he said. "The great thing about the `Masters of Horror' series is that it was an opportunity that already existed — in lieu of money or time I was given creative freedom, so I was able to sneak in a political story into this series that I probably never would have gotten made."
As for the renaissance of grisly horror, Dante said: "Everything goes in cycles."
"After about 15 years, there's a whole new group of people who haven't seen this kind of material. In the world we live in, we like to push the envelope, so today's gory horror movies are gorier than the last generation's gory horror movies. There is a limit to what you can do to horror, and frankly I thought we reached it in the mid-'80s, but apparently not."
And more are on the horizon — specifically, remakes of the classic movies that provided the inspiration for this new wave in the first place. "When a Stranger Calls" is scheduled for release in February, with "The Hills Have Eyes" (from "High Tension" writer-director Alexandre Aja) following in March.
In October, expect a "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" prequel — there's already been a remake of the iconic film, which grossed $80 million in 2003 — as well as "Saw 3." Autumn also brings "Grind House" from Weinstein, in which horror aficionados Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino join forces to co-direct. John Jarratt, the serial killer from "Wolf Creek," is the star.
"Everyone has a fascination with death," said Roth. "Violence is cinematic. It looks great on film. It's a great release watching the bad guy get it — seeing someone get brutally maimed in a movie, your worst nightmare, you see it and scream about it and it feels great."