Yesterday, in gathering trailers for my Preview Review, I stumbled upon two that I decided to leave out; but, they seemed so related to one another and, in turn, so indicative of something greater, that I decided to center a Redhead Temper post around them. The two movies in question, which I’ll be talking about solely based on their trailers and plot descriptions, are E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills (trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPMKb2ubuDQ) and Daniel Stamm’s 13 Sins (red band trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbfmUcXqAi4), both set for release within the next two months. Their premises seemed so similar that the scholar in me began to question, as I often do, what in our society might be manifesting in these horror films, and as usual, why and how is horror the vehicle for expressing those certain themes.
First, let me step back and explain the commonalities between the two films, and you’ll soon see what I mean. Cheap Thrills, a dark/horror comedy, stars Pat Healy as Craig– a down-on-his-luck family man, struggling with the loss of his low-wage job and facing a possible eviction as well. He and his friend meet a wealthy couple– David Koechner and Sarah Paxton– who offer them increasingly preposterous amounts of money to commit increasingly horrific acts. 13 Sins, Ron Perlman’s latest gig, is about a salesman who is drowning in debt and about to get married. But, wait for it: he receives a mysterious phone call informing him that he’s on a hidden camera game show where he must execute 13 tasks to receive a multi-million dollar cash prize.
So, the tones may be different: the former is presented as humorous even if in a sick, twisted way, and the latter is a more straightforward horror-thriller. And the specific devices that catapult the meek, male protagonists into a guilt-ridden wealth full of questionable morality and even more questionable safety may also be different. But, what I’d like to argue is that there is an emerging trend of desperation to be found here, and a potential for a kind of “money horror” subgenre to emerge as well.
So, my first question is why, or rather, why now and why in these particular forms? I did a little bit of research, using probably the most futilely specific search terms ever, into other films that might exhibit these same or similar qualities. One that I came up with strictly from memory that I thought worked well is Danny Boyle’s oft-overlooked Shallow Grave, from 1994. This movie, about three flatmates who discover their fourth, new flatmate dead but with a mysterious suitcase full of cash, is disturbing and psychological. It induces the kind of unease that prickles upon your skin and then makes itself at home heavily in the pit of your stomach.
But, it isn’t quite so violent or visceral as these two new films seem to be. Plus, none of the three flatmates are overtly desperate for the money. That is, they don’t really need the cash, but human nature and greed turn them against each other and eliminates all morality anyway. This lack of desperation in place of sheer horribleness inherent in humanity is perhaps what makes the whole film so unsettling; it begs the question of what we would do if we were in their place, but from our safe distance as viewers, we can make moral judgments with a cleaner conscience. Clearly you’d do the right thing… right? Well, you don’t have to worry about it– you’re not in their place, after all.
What I fear about these newer films though is that some viewers might actually be in the same place as these characters: I don’t mean that the hidden camera game show exists or that David Koechner and Sarah Paxton are really going to find you in a bar and pay you to punch the bouncer or cut off a finger. But think about it: our economy is not in great shape, to put it lightly, and I don’t feel like I even need to qualify that with political facts or actual figures. All I need to prove this statement for the intents and purposes of this post is the mere existence of these two films.
Cinema reflects culture, I’m a firm believer in that. These films seem to be taking this trend of working-class fears and plights and turning them into something meaningful that we may look at and reflect upon. Horror has always been the most effective genre in doing so because, again, it is visceral. It is violent. It turns your anxieties into blood splatters and your quiet frustrations into brutal action and your pathos into terror and your everyday existence into high-stakes suspense.
In an academic seminar paper I wrote, I explored the way James Wan’s Saw (2004) and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), as representatives of torture porn, did this for viewers, particularly males, who were subconsciously looking to understand things like Abu Ghraib and 9/11 and the way masculinity had been threatened by these experiences. Isn’t it interesting that the protagonists of Cheap Thrills and 13 Sins are males? Maybe it isn’t just our economy; maybe these films are coming from some kind of perceived male crisis as well? Or, maybe I’m stretching it, but as failed breadwinners and husbands, these characters seem particularly compelled to do vile and vulgar things, including self-mutilation, for a little bit of dough that they can provide for their wives and children with. I think if the characters were females, the emphasis might rather be on sexuality than aggression, so I appreciate the way the Cheap Thrills trailer addresses that by an albeit homophobic drawing-the-line: “no matter how much money is in that box, I’m not sucking his–.” Because that too would surely complicate their masculinity, wouldn’t it: no matter how much money they’re earning to supplement and rebuild it.
So what is a man without morals anyway? Will these films end up having any kind of moral for audiences to learn, even when their characters lose their own morals? Is this would-be subgenre presenting a distorted and dystopian view of what real men, real people in general, might actually consider doing for money in these tough times? I don’t foresee audiences actually stooping to the levels that these characters do. But, if anything, I see these films as remedying the deep desires that may exist, the subconscious understanding that we really do relate to those people on screen. The possible implications of that might be enough to scare us. I haven’t seen Cheap Thrills or 13 Sins yet, but I like to hope they offer a kind of catharsis by showing us the extremes of our own situations and the negative outcomes of going to those extremes. Then again, a part of me hopes that these films might also stand as little rebellions or exaggerated cautionary tales if you will; little nightmarish warnings within a larger system that is flawed, skewed and broken, of what humans are capable of when their darkest moments finally turn them into animals.