- TV commentator in John Carpenter's THEY LIVE
Whatever happened to violent movies? Just a few years ago, politicians and religious scolds and armchair sociologists like Michael Medved were bemoaning a cinematic apocalypse, a new horrible trend in movies that invited the viewer to identify with violent protagonists and turned murder into a joke. And now?
Back a few years ago, the movies under fire were usually action flicks á la Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Seagal -- nihilistic shooting galleries in which the "heroes" picked off as many cardboard villains as possible. Let me stop for a moment and say I'm no doomsaying Medvedite who draws a causal link between screen violence and real-life violence. I'm just saying that after a while, those movies got really boring. They were the action-flick equivalents of the OMEN movies, in which the only interest was the variety of bizarre deaths the filmmakers could concoct.
Lately, though, there's been no particular outcry about movie violence. The last controversial violent film was NATURAL BORN KILLERS way back in 1994. After that, how many have there been? There have certainly been films that contain violence -- the SCREAM movies, for instance. But the main thing that scares pundits is when a violent movie invites the viewer to enjoy the violence, and that's not true of the SCREAM films, which clearly invite you to identify with Neve Campbell, not the killers. (Read Carol J. Clover's MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAINSAWS for a marvelous feminist defense of slasher movies.) THE BUTCHER BOY has a few moments of wrenching brutality, but it's certainly not glorified.
I was about to say that America finally got sick of stupid violence, but then I remembered that THE BIG HIT opened at #1 a couple weeks ago. I think it's the exception rather than the rule now. It filled a stupid-violence void, the way Jerry Springer filled the daytime-sleaze void after all the other talk shows cleaned up their acts.
More interesting to me is the way American tastes have shifted from the routine Sly/Arnie/Bruce thriller to the megabudget apocalypse flick. (Willis, no dummy, stars in one this July -- ARMAGEDDON.) CGI has changed the industry in more ways than one: Audiences are bored with the old bang-bang, the cars blowing up, the shoot-outs. They want the big bang, the simultaneous orgasm of millions of people going up in blood-red flames. Somehow this is considered less offensive than Arnie strolling around shooting cops in the kneecaps -- I didn't hear a fucking peep from Michael Medved about the morality of blowing up New York, Los Angeles, and Washington in ID4. I mean, you wanna talk body count? 2.5 billion crispy critters make the entire FRIDAY THE 13th series put together look tame. I've coined a name for these movies: apocaflicks.
Millennial uncertainty? Jaded seen-it-all moviegoers? The callousness of the age? Too soon to say. I'm no alarmist, but I do wonder what's going to be left for Hollywood to dazzle us with in a few years. Robert Bloch once said, "What's going to come out of those people who think NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD isn't enough?" Well...what's going to come out of those people who think the mass destruction of half the planet in ID4 isn't enough? I have a hunch that these megadeath movies will run their course and fade away, just as the Sly/Arnie bang-bangs began to do in 1994 when NATURAL BORN KILLERS positioned itself as the end-all-be-all of violent movies and PULP FICTION gave people a taste (however short-lived) for real scripts, real dialogue, and real characters.
It'll happen again, but probably not for another few years. The next Tarantino is out there somewhere, watching DEEP IMPACT and going "This fuckin' bites. I'm gonna show them how it's done." Maybe he or she is reading this right now.