January 24-30, 2007

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'Saw III' director Darren Lynn Bousman

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
I saw you: Darren Lynn Bousman, whose 'Saw III' is on DVD this week, wants horror to get down and dirty.

Back to the Grindhouse

Bay Area horror filmmakers are part of a new generation looking to grimy, gory '70s

By Steve Palopoli

THE DEBUT FILM from Bay Area filmmakers the Butcher brothers straddles two worlds. In its story of a family of siblings who seem to be anyone's ideal neighbors, The Hamiltons evokes the slick suburban frat-cool that seeped into American cinemas in the '80s and never went away. But this time, it is only a front—a shiny, happy mirror the family holds up to the world around them so that it won't see what they're really up to: namely, mass murder.

The film—which played last year at Cinequest, then at the AfterDark HorrorFest, and is coming to DVD in March—is anchored by the house that is the center of both their social and antisocial lives. Upstairs is where they play all-American; the basement is where they keep people in cages. And in planning The Hamiltons, the Butcher brothers came up with the ingenious concept of defining their split-level with two distinct decades of moviemaking.

"We found a house," says Phil, one-half of the Butcher duo, "and said, 'What if we created an '80s feel upstairs and a '70s feel downstairs?"

It is the kind of device that might normally be just an exercise in style—glossy up the surfaces above, spackle on the grit underneath. But there's a Jungian depth to this particular juxtaposition. The '80s was a filmmaking era where boy met girl, lost girl and won girl back, and except for the ending of Pretty in Pink, there was a certain cosmic justice—or at least Calvinist sense of predestination—to the endless recycling of formula.

The '70s was an era where boy was likely to chase girl with chain saw. Exploitation cinema had evolved to its most outrageous extremes, and mainstream cinema had devolved to cash in. These were the wild and woolly days of horror movies, when 1972's Last House on the Left and 1974's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, both made for just over $80,000, could make back their budget hundreds of times over depicting some of the most shocking scenes ever projected. The most notorious films of all time, from 42nd street sleaze like Joel M. Reed's Bloodsucking Freaks to art-house sickness like Pasolini's Salo, were hatched out of the Grindhouse Decade.

So the Butcher brothers' idea that the Hamiltons could pursue the American Dream in their John Hughesian house while giving in to their basest instincts in the cellar gave their movie a physiological link to horror cinema's primitive past. It's almost as serendipitous as finding a house with a basement in Northern California.

"Yeah, they don't really have them," says Mitch, the other Butcher brother. "We just lucked out. We knew someone who had a house that was the perfect setting, with, you know, the white picket fence. It was just America. Once we thought of that house, we kind of worked the story around it as well."

"From there it worked itself out," says Phil. "As you start working a story, it starts building itself. You feed it and it becomes its own animal."

Retro Unleashed

The Butcher brothers are not the only ones feeding audience hunger for a return to '70s-style horror. At the recent Fangoria convention in San Jose, signs of its comeback were everywhere. Among the star guests were Sid Haig, who acted in some of the most famous exploitation films of the '70s—Coffy, Foxy Brown, Savage Sisters, The Big Doll House—and who's been enjoying a career renaissance since Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses, the horror film that started this trend with its near re-creation of Tobe Hooper's original Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 2003. That same year came an official remake of TCM that sadly didn't get what was great about the original.

Also a featured guest at the convention was Ken Foree, who starred in another '70s horror favorite, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. In 2004, that film got a remake that proved both that '70s horror films were officially a hot commodity and that they could be remade with intelligence and style.

By the time Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes was remade last year, the emphasis was much more on re-creating the actual look and feel of the era from which the original film sprang. Though it never really comes together as a film, Alexandre Aja's update of Hills is at least a stylish throwback that wears its love for gritty exploitation on its sleeve.

Another milestone was Rob Zombie's flawed but fascinating follow-up to House of 1000 Corpses, 2005's The Devil's Rejects. It again starred Haig—and Foree, along with a number of other recognizable faces from '70s exploitation—in a movie that combined several of shock cinema's subgenres.

The convention also offered a look at what is set to be the most mainstream example of retro exploitation yet: Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse, set to be released in April. Both directors have proven their obsession with classic exploitation at every given opportunity, but this horror film containing two separate features appears to take the retro-exploitation phenomenon to a new level. The trailer even features drive-in staples like bad dubbing and the texture of dirt on the print.

The Saw Factor

Also at the San Jose convention was Darren Lynn Bousman, the director of 2005's Saw II and last year's Saw III, which is being released on DVD this week. Bousman remembers how the first Saw, in 2004, was largely responsible for "bringing back the grit" in the horror genre.

And he has a point, especially since the grittiest thing most people remember from the first film is the disgusting bathroom setting. Like Bob Burns' set design for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 30 years earlier, it cemented the image of the film in the public's mind as extreme.

"You don't want to touch anything [in TCM]," says Bousman. "And I think that's what was capitalized on with the Saw bathroom. You don't want to touch anything in those films. Everything has got a disgusting fungus-laden funk to it, which is what real life is. If you go into my apartment in real life, I don't want to touch anything in my own apartment."

He wanted to capture the same feel—of Saw, not his apartment—in the sequels, as well.

"One thing I love is a film that looks real—nothing looks pretty, there's sweat stains, there's disgusting snot hanging out of their nose. It's realistic," he says. "In real life, it's not going to be Paris Hilton running through a forest getting chased by a madman. It's going to be a character like Obi in Saw II, who's kind of not the best-looking guy. That's the thing—it's not always the beautiful white kids. It's middle-aged people; it's old people. I think that's what the '70s films did. They weren't beautiful people."

One thing the producers have been able to do with the Saw films that was just flat-out beyond anyone in the '70s—even the late Halloween franchise ringmaster Moustapha Akkad—is turn the movie's mythology into a series of films that interlock into a larger puzzle.

"What we were able to do in Saw III was to go back and revisit things from Saw and Saw II that were never answered and expound on them. We have a bunch of things in Saw III we set up for Saw 4—a bunch," says Bousman. "What was in the envelope that Shawnee was reading? What did the key around her neck mean? There's tons of stuff like that. There is a master plan in there. It's exciting to see how far we can take it, how big a world we can build out of this."

As for all the remakes that this retro-horror fetish has spawned, Bousman has turned the ones he's been offered down so far (including Children of the Corn). But he doesn't think they're necessarily bad. He's even bullish on what will be probably the most controversial of all: Rob Zombie's upcoming remake of Halloween.

"Rob Zombie's Halloween, I support that," he says. "Because it's a complete re-envisioning of Halloween. What I've seen of Rob Zombie—House of 1000 Corpses, Devil's Rejects, he's got a strong voice. He's not trying to do a shot by shot remake."

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