All for a Shiver, or a Smile?
Untraceable & The Cottage, Notes on Mutating Trends in Movie Violence
What new wine can be poured into the cracked old bottles of the serial killer movie? Although the subgenre is less than twenty years old (kicking off with Silence of the Lambs and peaking with David Fincher’s Seven), during this period it has quite literally been done to death. Yet public appetite remains unabated, and Hollywood continues to cater to the bloodlust, with one homicide thriller after another (more often than not with a female lead doubling as both dragon-slayer and damsel-in-distress). The latest offering in this tawdry lineage is Untraceable, directed by Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear, Fracture) and starring Diane Lane as FBI agent Jennifer Walsh. Walsh specializes in Internet crimes, and during her cyber-patrol, she stumbles upon a mysterious snuff website. At “Killwithme.com”, murders are being streamed live, with an ingenious twist: victims are rigged to a series of grisly death traps, and the more hits the site gets, the faster they die. Besides this queasy twist, Untraceable is strictly filmmaking-by-numbers; it offers few surprises and only barely scrapes by as an evening’s morbid divertissement. Shot in the metallic, washed-out colors of a cinema commercial, with performances and dialogue only slightly above the level of TV melodrama, there is absolutely no reason (besides financial gain) for the film to have been made. Probably the best that can be said about Untraceable is that it’s not boring, and never actually insults its audience. Instead, it glumly serves up the goods, catering to an increasingly dubious demand for sadistic enactments of murder under the guise of entertainment, which is the very thing the film purports to be denouncing.
There is an inescapable problem with the serial killer flick. Since by now we have pretty much seen it all before, the only way for a new movie to distinguish itself is to come up with sufficiently ingenious and nasty new forms of murder for the audience to thrill to. What this amounts to is that the filmmakers, and hence the audience—wherever their ostensible sympathies may lie—are obliged to identify with the killer and not the victims. In consequence, it’s hard not to think of these films, potentially at least, as providing inspiration for any aspiring serial killers out there; and since this kind of movie can’t help but glamorize the “trade” (that of ingenious and nasty variations upon homicide), if only by giving so much attention to it, presumably more and more rootless, single, white males are going to be drawn towards murder fantasies?
Untraceable appears to be denouncing a world in which people are callous and jaded enough to log on to a website and watch someone being murdered, even knowing that by doing so they are actually ensuring the victim dies (as one character puts it, “We are the murder weapon.”). But the film is intent on having its cake and eating it, and the only possible raison d’être of this kind of movie is to titillate audiences with a sense of horror at the various acts of murder. The effect, over time, may only be to reconcile audiences to their own sadistic impulses: they can feel reassured that this is the way the world is, and since everyone else is doing it, why feel bad about it? What difference does one more visitor to Killwithme.com make, when it takes the combined indifference of millions to actually do the dirty deed? The parcel of moral responsibility continues to get passed.
The black irony of Untraceable is that it caters to the same moral emptiness which it pretends to be exposing. Its premise, and the murders it shows us, are just ingenious and nasty enough to save it from complete redundancy, but the film uses moral horror to spice up and enliven its own tired genre. It provides the audience with a grimly satisfying sense of outrage at how depraved our world has become, a sense of horror laced with uneasy, half-formed awareness of our own complicity. But since the film is only disturbing at a visceral and not an emotional level, since none of the characters are real enough for us to care about their deaths, we can tell ourselves it was all just another bit of (dodgy) Hollywood entertainment. After all, there’s a world of difference between logging onto a website to watch someone being murdered, and paying to see the latest Hollywood serial killer flick. Isn’t there?
The art of the horror comedy is in juxtaposing terror with humor until both are intensified into hysteria. (Examples: American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead 2, Scream.) The Cottage, Paul Andrew Williams’ follow-up to his debut 2006 feature, London to Brighton, is neither funny nor especially frightening, and it sure as hell isn’t art. In fact, it’s not even good trash. Williams has taken the staples of the low-budget slasher movie—small cast, limited locations, minimum plot, lots of gore—and given them a supposedly “post-modernist” spin of grisly absurdity. The story involves the bungled kidnapping of a crime boss’ daughter (Jennifer Ellison) by two brothers (Andy Serkis and Reece Shearsmith), who hide away in a lonely cottage in the forest and run afoul of a seriously disfigured serial killer. The Cottage isn’t Grand Guignol slapstick like Evil Dead 2, or sly genre deconstruction like Scream, and it’s certainly not a harmless spoof like Scary Movie. It’s basically a well-constructed B-movie, complete with (extremely realistic) scenes of brutality and dismemberment which are unaccountably played for laughs. Apparently Williams (who also wrote the script, what there is of it) thinks seeing people writhing in agony is somehow amusing in and of itself. Since he hasn’t provided much by way of jokes, so as far as I can tell the violence is meant to be funny simply because it’s not meant to be taken seriously. And if seeing a big-breasted blonde having her face sliced in half with a shovel is your idea of a smile, by all means go and see The Cottage. London to Brighton was a thoughtful, disturbing work on the repercussions of violence. The Cottage seems to have been made by someone with the sensibilities of Ted Bundy.