Viewing today’s horror movies, one factor above all becomes immediately apparent: gore is back.  After far too many years of PG rated abstinence, genre movies have returned to the down ‘n dirty aesthetics of the seventies and eighties.  Recent flicks like HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, CABIN FEVER and the new TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE enthusiastically embrace their R ratings, and their collective success at the box office proves that audiences are definitely ready for the harder stuff after being force-fed wimpy scare fare like 1999’s awful HAUNTING remake.

Horror movies, after all, are designed to invoke fear, unease and, yes, disgust.  Old-time scary movies from FRANKENSTEIN to I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF seem pretty tame nowadays and are even sited by some as the type of “quiet” horror all genre fare should supposedly aspire to.  Yet in their time the above films, inexplicable though it may seem to modern audiences, were considered shocking and transgressive, eliciting the same kinds of reactions you hear from today’s moral watchdogs.  Pat Boone’s classic teen advice book BETWEEN YOU, ME AND THE GATEPOST sternly cautions its readers to “Be careful about what kind of movies you see…if you don’t, you’re gonna get morally and spiritually sick!”  And that was back in 1960!

In short, Hollywood’s attempt at promoting kinder, gentler horror movies like the ‘99 HAUNTING was somewhat oxymoronic (the makers of that film even went so far as to end with their heroine “curing” the eponymous haunted house—oooooooooooo-kay).  CABIN FEVER director Eli Roth proudly announced to anyone who’d listen that his film was officially condemned by the Catholic Church, which I’m certain only increased its box office intake.  The fact is we want our horror movies to make us morally and spiritually sick!  Otherwise why not stay home and rent LASSIE COME HOME?  Frankly, I think I’d rather do just that than sit through THE HAUNTING again!

Thanks are due to companies like Anchor Bay, who’ve had great success in recent years re-releasing uncut DVD versions of splat-happy classics like THE BEYOND and DAY OF THE DEAD, and websites like ain’, who’ve shown that hardcore horror fans are a viable segment of the movie going pubic.  Don’t believe me?  Check out the box office returns of the new genre flicks.

Now for the bad news.  Horror movies may have gotten their balls back, but it seems they’ve lost other components vital enough to make the current genre boom seem more like a bust.  Take Rob Zombie’s HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, a fearlessly gruesome film that doesn’t pander to the wimpier members of its potential audience and stays true to its tough, nihilistic vision throughout.  The problem is, the film sucks in pretty much every other respect.

Then there’s the new TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, whose flaws are thrown into extremely sharp relief by the fact that it’s a remake of an acknowledged classic.  Tobe Hooper’s 1974 TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, keep in mind, achieved its effects through wit and technical expertise as much as splatter.  For that matter, there’s very little gore in the original CHAINSAW (believe it or not, its makers were hoping for a PG rating!); Hooper expertly utilized the power of suggestion, which made the moments of grue seem all the more powerful.  Frankly, without Hooper’s behind-the-camera skill, his film would be little more than a bunch of idiots getting chased around an old house…which, alas, pretty much sums up the new CHAINSAW.

Similar comparisons can be made with THE EXORCIST, THE HILLS HAVE EYES and THE EVIL DEAD, to name a few classics that have proven quite influential on today’s horrors.  All are unflinchingly nasty hard-R rated items, to be sure, but all were made with care and intelligence, things sorely lacking in CABIN FEVER, FREDDY VS. JASON, et al.  DEEP RED’S Chas. Balun has this to say about today’s gorefests: “It’s easy to shock, gag and repulse people…it’s much harder to tell a linear, cogent story that really has some kind of payoff.”  And that’s from the creator of the “Gore Score,” which rates movies solely on their blood/slime quotient–if he’s fed up with the current crop of ultra-gory films, it’s a sure sign that something’s off.

In closing, let’s take a look at another current film, Don Coscarelli’s BUBBA HO-TEP, and an upcoming one, THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING.  Actually, BUBBA HO-TEP isn’t all that “current,” having completed production and played the festival circuit back in early ’02, but it’s just now getting a (limited) theatrical release.  Since this funny, imaginative, outrageous and touching film stands head and shoulders above just about everything else on the scene, it seems downright perplexing that it took so long to find a distributor.  The reasons American movie companies gave BUBBA HO-TEP the collective cold shoulder are numerous I’m sure, but I believe one in particular stands out: there’s no gore in the entire film!  It has style and smarts, certainly, but no gore.  That doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie, but it does make it seem mightily out place amidst today’s crop of horrors.  That’s a good thing in my eyes (novelty is always a plus IMO), but US distributors, unfortunately, tend to view things differently.

Of course, I don’t know for sure why so many distributors passed on BUBBA HO-TEP, but I do know Morgan Creek productions fired director Paul Schrader from THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING after he turned in a finished film “without any of the bloody violence the backers had wanted” (an exact quote).  Schrader, the genius behind TAXI DRIVER, CAT PEOPLE and last year’s AUTO FOCUS, was apparently looking to craft an intellectually charged, psychological horror film (admittedly a dicey proposition when making an EXORCIST follow-up) while the film’s producers simply wanted more gore–whether the film was good or bad didn’t seem to figure into their reasoning.

Thus movies are now made based solely on their bloodletting quotient and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE gets a vast multi-screen release, while BUBBA HO-TEP has to make do with a tiny release on the arthouse circuit after waiting a full year to find a distributor.  Hollywood’s current obsession with gore may be laudable in many respects, but it’s important to remember that a good movie, horror or otherwise, requires a bit more to succeed.