Between Hatchet and Behind The Mask, 2007 is turning out to be the year of the slasher. Together, they’re a couple of small horror movies that manage to breathe a little life into a very, very tired category of horror. The life was drained out the slasher flick in the 80’s so quickly and the theater friendly soft slashers of the 90’s did little to bring it back to life but these two movies released this year have done more than all of the half hearted reboots over the last ten years combined. Behind The Mask took every opportunity to deconstruct the slasher and label its parts but Hatchet doesn’t really seem to give a shit about any of that. I’m pretty sure that it just wants to gross you out.
I really need to get over my aversion to hype. At first I put up hardened personal defenses to avoid spending money on the big hype pictures that turned out to suck huge but I haven’t been able to tear it down so now I’m getting to the party late on genuinely awesome movies. I missed out on the early word on Oldboy and now it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. Same with Infernal Affairs, not a personal favorite but a great movie that I took far too long to come around to. I started to wear away at my prejudices in time for The King Of Kong and I couldn’t be happier. My spider sense was tingling about Hatchet, though and I almost let this one get by me. Ain’t It Cool News has been plastering their page with ads for it and they’ve established a reputation for themselves as being an organization without scruples. So when Harry Knowles says it’s awesome, my immediate conclusion is that he’s being paid in advertising dollars to let you know how much it rules according to a scale of how much the marketing company is willing to part with for his loyalty.
Thankfully, Hatchet lives up to the hype.
In the Louisiana bayou, two gator rasslin’ rednecks, played by Robert Englund and Blair Witch Project’s Joshua Leonard are out hunting for a huge gator. When younger Cletus pulls the boat over to take a leak, he comes back to find that older Cletus is dead, and he’s not just dead, but he has been torn to pieces. Shortly after horror is established, younger Cletus is attacked by a monstrous man who tosses him around like a rag doll, tears his innards out through his back and then lays a little bifurcation on his ass when his legs are torn from the rest of his body. It should be noted that this movie pours on the gore before the opening credits even roll. I’m always caught off guard by the sheer degree of violence in some of these modern horror flicks. Despite my exposure to some of the world’s most savage offerings, I’m still taken by surprise by the traditionally wimpy American market, even in these post-Saw days. Hatchet delivers the gore in a way that few movies can. It’s as gleeful and excessive as contemporary splatter but there’s a sense of humor to it as if director Adam Green grew up on Troma and Stuart Gordon. For gorehounds looking for movies that take their kill scenes to the extreme, Hatchet will give you what you’re looking for without the mean-spirited vibe of torture porn and especially without the bloated ego and presence of Eli Roth. What you’re about to watch is more like Re-Animator than Hostel.
Green can be seen from the outset trying to establish a personal and recurring style to his slasher movie mayhem. With each rip and tear, the camera cuts to a night-time, slow-mo shot of blood and viscera flying through the air or slamming into nearby flora. I could tell that I was going to be seeing more of this and it reeks of Italian influence. This is the stuff of Argento flying through the Louisiana night. Thankfully, this is the closest thing we get to a horror movie tribute and it’s definitely a strong point. More to come on this point.
Cut to New Orleans.
A group of slasher movie victims is enjoying the vice of the French Quarter during the annual boobs and beer festival, Mardi Gras. One of them, Ben, is your typical reject of a long term relationship gone south trying to get over his fixation on his cheating ex. It would seem that no amount of alcohol and waist-up female nudity can take his mind off the rejection so he bails from his booze addled crew with only his loyal friend Marcus in tow to check out a haunted swamp tour that some college friends raved about. Their first destination is an off-quarter voodoo shop overseen by horror movie fan-favorite Tony Todd. Todd is painted up like a voodoo Houngan and speaks with a cajun accent, telling Ben and Marcus why his haunted tours have been cancelled. What begins as a creepy story, encrusted with mystery and danger turns out to be a long-winded explanation of how easy it is for a business owner to be sued for the slightest misstep. The scene sets the tone for much of the rest of the movie. While it’s wildly violent and nasty, it’s also quite funny and this is the crowning achievement of the entire movie’s attempt at comedy. It’s extremely funny and shows a side of Tony Todd you don’t often see since he’s often cast for his imposing presence and not his comic chops. Also, this is where the horror movie cameos end unless you count Kane Hodder who plays two roles in the movie, one as monstrous killer Victor Crowley and the other as Crowley’s father.
A recent gripe I’ve had with the rebirth of American horror has been the excessive casting and gratuitous use of cameos. I love seeing horror movie superstars turning up in movies today, but this is something that is way out of control. The recent Halloween remake by Rob Zombie packs as many possible cameos into every shot. Look everyone! There’s Clint Howard! Look! It’s Brad Douriff! Hey! There’s Dee Wallace and Sybill Danning! What used to be a fun Where’s Waldo of horror movies has turned into something bothersome and is actually taking away from the experience on the whole. On the other hand, excessive name dropping can really get to me also. I understand that many horror directors today grew up in video store horror sections. These movies are as important to me as they are to them, so I understand that dropping names is like winking at the camera so your viewers know how hip you are. Behind The Mask was as guilty of this as any other contemporary horror movie is, as great as it was. Thankfully, Hatchet steers way clear of this and it wins mega points for not throwing back and directly naming its influences. It should be clear from the plotting and characters that Adam Green is intimiately familiar with the finer points of the slasher subgenre.
Ben and Marcus are redirected to Marie LaVeau’s, a schlocky voodoo store run by a suspiciously Asian looking kid in a cape and top hat. In keeping with the tone of 80’s slasher movies, we’re treated to more gratuitous boob shots as we meet some of the supporting cast/victims-to-be. A Girls Gone Wild style movie director and his two ditzy, frequently topless starlets, a homely midwestern couple and a grouchy local chick that would prefer to be left alone. Rather than litter the movie with horror movie references, Green instead peppers it with a few references to his hometown of Boston. Boston locals will recognize certain references here and there, such as Ben’s Newbury Comics T-shirt (A wicked good time) and a sign on the tour boat that reads “If you were on this boat, you’d be scared by now”.
During the tour, it’s clear that their guide doesn’t know jack about New Orleans or its horrifying local legend about a deformed kid, accidentally killed by his father via hatchet to the face. Thankfully grouchy local chick, Mary Beth does and she has all the info that will eventually scare the hell out of everyone and wind up getting them all killed.
Eventually the boat runs aground and the tourists are forced to climb over some fallen trees to get back to land where they’ll hopefully be able to find help and get back to the city. On the way over, though, midwestern hubby is attacked by a gator and bitten on the leg. Slasher fans and survivalists alike will recognize this blood in the water plot point as indicative of the first to die. Sure enough, it turns out that our cast has wound up merely a hundred feet from the actual home of Victor Crowley, the massive mutant hillbilly killer. Fear and quips take hold as the homely couple advance toward the house only to be ambushed by Crowley who hacks at hubby enough times with a hatchet to hack most of his torso away from the rest of his body. More blood flies through the air in super slow-mo. His wife suffers an even grizzlier fate as Crowley grabs her, mid-scream, by the mouth and tears the top of her head from the bottom of her head. Impessive and gross special effects ensue.
Much of the rest of the runtime is dedicated to a lot of running through the swamp, screaming and victims being torn limb from limb in explicit fashion. For a movie called Hatchet, our main killer, Victor Crowley, spends most of the time tearing people apart with his bare hands or making creative use of whatever is lying around such as shovels and belt sanders.
The marketing for the movie really appeals to me. The poster says, It’s not a remake, it’s not a sequel, and it’s not based on a Japanese one. Old school American horror. I could really pick this one apart, but it holds true, for the most part, nd brings a very welcome reprieve to the horror world. Horror movies fans have been bitching for so long about the remake wave but Hatchet is just one more piece of evidence that they’re looking in the wrong place. Limited theatrical releases, such as this one, make it very difficult for many of us to get out to theaters and actually see them. The real magic happens on DVD for the majority of us horror fans. However, many horror fans are still looking for that one theatrical horror experience that is going to bring it all back, or something. I used to love to go to the movies, but my options for genre entertainment were limited to a shitty theater next to the welfare apartments and the homeless shelter. Where the A/C units were louder than the movies and the projectors were out of focus and housed dim lightbulbs. Despite all this, the theatrical horror experience was still a good one and I can sympathize, but how many of us grew up on all night horror movie marathons thanks to locally owned video stores? People looking to theater chains and Hollywood for excellent horror movies are only going to be let down. You’d think that they’d have learned by now. Even the recent horror hound hero, Rob Zombie, couldn’t resist a remake. If you want to know where the good stuff is really happening, you’re going to have to start looking beneath the surface. Stop reading Entertainment Weekly and start reading Rue Morgue. The independent scene is where the real freedom is. It’s where horror has always flourished and is square one for many of the huge waves in the history of the genre. Stop looking to the mainstream, start looking below the radar and you’ll find movies like Hatchet delivering the goods.
While Hatchet isn’t a remake and it’s not a sequel, I don’t know if I’d classify it as old school either, nor would I revel in that. If there is one thing that horror movies really need to stop doing is celebrating the heyday. The 70’s and 80’s were a great time to be a horror fan, but we really need to start moving forward. The classics will always be there and fans with true dedication to the genre will find them and understand what makes them so special. Their legacy will live on without writers and directors pointing them out. That said, Hatchet spends a lot more time on its victims as characters than most slasher movies from the era it implicates have ever done. In the past, victim/character building has been relegated to illustrating them as broad-stroke characatures. This guy is the stoner, he’ll probably die in some horribly ironic way involving a bong or something. These two characters can’t keep their hands off each other, they’ll die together while having sex. That’s the jock, he’ll probably put up a fight and wind up having a basketball inserted savagely into his rectum. Hatchet doesn’t do this. While the characters are flimy, they have more substance than the old school American horror movie victim has ever had, and there’s something to be said about that. On the other hand, Victor Crowley, the usual focal character of the slasher is only vaguely outlined. If you’re going to make a slasher, you really ought to put more time into establishing your villain if you want to avoid the problems that plagued many of the second tier slashers of the 80’s. In many cases, the victims were paper thin, as explained above, but so was the killer. There’s a reason that Freddy/Jason/Michael were so popular and spawned a ton of sequels. They had more character than the competitors that didn’t make the cut.
Bearing all this in mind, I’m still torn about how I feel about the ending. Adam Green does what every slasher director should and despite the marketing condemnation of sequels, leaves the ending wide open for a decades spanning string of sequels.
Hatchet suffers in some significant spots, such as a killer without any lasting impression and characters that you don’t want to watch die thanks to character building in the script but it also features what is lacking in most contemporary horror. It has a sense of humor and never takes itself particularly serious. We live in dire times and horror has always been a mirror for our social situation but there has also been an escapist quality that it has lacked in modern times. When you’re trying to be bloody and funny at the same time, you’re walking a tight rope. If you fall, there aren’t enough creative gory scenes that can erase the fact that your script isn’t funny and there’s nothing worse than jokes that aren’t funny. Hatchet carries that careful chemistry well. It’s funny when it should be and it’s bloody as you’d like to see. Fans of of movies like Re-Animator and Street Trash will not be let down.
I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for Adam Green in the future.