Horror movies don't win Oscars or respect--"The Silence of the Lambs" being the exception that proves the rule--but their bad-seed status has given them a freedom denied to more respectable genres. If the social drama is our superego, then the horror movie is our id, our wild, unruly inner adolescent. Sometimes it spews vile unspeakable rot and sometimes it utters uncomfortable truths that the grown-ups aren't allowed to say.
Case in point: the angriest, most head-on mass-media artistic attack on the Iraq war came last year in the form of a deliberately shlocky TV horror film called "Homecoming," shown as part of Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series. Directed by Joe Dante, who's best known for "Gremlins," it was a zombie movie in which dead American soldiers come back to life. Their mission? To vote the administration that sent them to their graves out of office. And one of the more pointed anatomies of the post-9/11 divide between the haves and have-nots in America came last year with George Romero's "Land of the Dead," yet another zombie metaphor for our times.
These are the horror movies that self-consciously act out our societal traumas in lurid allegories. More often the rumblings are from more primal regions of the unconscious, or, depending on your point of view, from more crassly exploitative producers. Right now we are enduring a spate of supersadism on screen, a squirm-inducing upping of the shock factor, which has been escalating for almost 30 years, at least since the green bile of "The Exorcist" proved how much profit could be milked from gross-out spectacles. That's always been one way for the horror movie to go: the shock-and-awe approach, which, in the hands of a hack, is just a cattle-prod to the nerves, but in the hands of a Hitchcock ("Psycho") or a De Palma ("Carrie") or a David Cronenberg ("The Fly") can transform cheap thrills into blood-spattered poetry. Can we really be surprised, at a time when huge segments of the shockproof public are inured to the concept of real-life torture, that our horrormeisters are working overtime to test the limits of our sang-froid? Are we simply getting the horror movies we deserve? Is this mere commerce, or karma?
There's another route the horror movie can take, which bypasses blood and guts. It's the tradition epitomized by Val Lewton's shadowy 1942 "Cat People," which operates on the assumption that what you don't see is more scary than what you do. What could be more terrifying than the unseen? If this seems quaint in the torture-chamber era of "Saw" or "Hostel," consider that two of the biggest horror hits of recent times--"The Blair Witch Project" and "The Sixth Sense"--had not a severed body part between them. The most terrifying--and memorable--movies, from "Freaks" to "Repulsion" to "Halloween" to the ghostly jolts in the best of the new Japanese horror movies, leave room for the imagination to fester. They know that the biggest shudders lurk in the haunted houses of our own uneasy minds.