It's only a movie

There's an interesting dialogue about a horror film posted by Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert on his Web site. He recently reviewed a low budget NC-17-rated horror film called Chaos (2005), a brutal murder/rape film in the vein of Wes Craven's Last House on the Left (1972) that thrives on unapologetic nihilism and violence without moral context or other connecting tissue that would raise it above the level of bold, unadulterated exploitation. (The film's intentional link to Last House is clear; Chaos's working title, according to the IMDb, was The House in the Middle of Nowhere, and its poster recycles Last House's marketing tagline of "It's only a movie ... it's only a movie ...")

Ebert gave Chaos a rare zero-star review, calling it:
"... ugly, nihilistic, and cruel -- a film I regret having seen. I urge you to avoid it. Don't make the mistake of thinking it's 'only' a horror film, or a slasher film. It is an exercise in heartless cruelty and it ends with careless brutality. The movie denies not only the value of life, but the possibility of hope."
Chaos's producer and director responded to Ebert's review in a full page Sun-Times letter that reportedly cost $14,000 to place -- not an insignificant amount of cash for a film with such sparse distribution -- to pat themselves on the back for not sanitizing and moralizing the film's violence like the media and PG-13-rated horror films:
"Natalie Holloway. Kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq shown on the Internet. Wives blasting jail guards with shotguns to free their husbands. The confessions of the BTK killer. These are events of the last few months. How else should filmmakers address this 'ugly, nihilistic and cruel' reality -- other than with scenes that are 'ugly, nihilistic and cruel,' to use the words you used to describe Chaos."
Ebert published a full page response himself, which is duplicated on his Web site along with the original letter from the Chaos filmmakers. It's an interesting response that looks at his personal expectations for horror films and implies a certain (artistic?) responsibility for filmmakers to provide viewers with more context than strictly just an "evil reigns and will triumph" message. (Ebert notes that he gave Last House on the Left a four-star review because it was "a way of dealing with tragedy, human loss, and human nature.") Most interesting is Ebert's final paragraph:
"Animals do not know they are going to die, and require no way to deal with that implacable fact. Humans, who know we will die, have been given the consolations of art, myth, hope, science, religion, philosophy, and even denial, even movies, to help us reconcile with that final fact. What I object to most of all in Chaos is not the sadism, the brutality, the torture, the nihilism, but the absence of any alternative to them. If the world has indeed become as evil as you think, then we need the redemptive power of artists, poets, philosophers and theologians more than ever.

Your answer, that the world is evil and therefore it is your responsibility to reflect it, is no answer at all, but a surrender."
Those are heavy words, and heavy responsibilities, for filmmakers that I'm not sure I entirely agree with but find thought-provoking in that they make me consider my own relationship with, and love for, horror films. Yes, I love them and always have, but my relationship with them has definitely become more complicated over the years.

Whereas I rabidly soaked up every gory '80s slasher film I could as a teenager, I've grown to despise horror that's pure exploitation or an exercise in violence fetishism, a fine (and extremely subjective) line in many horror films. Unlike Roger Ebert, I hated Last House on the Left for its absurd extremism and exploitive violence. I also hated French filmmaker Gaspar Noé's Irréversible (2002), a cynical rape/revenge film that caustically (and falsely) comments on love and human nature while showcasing an exploitive real-time rape sequence that betrays its artistic pretext with a stylized camera zoom into the victim's face after the camera remained distant and mostly immobile for the entire sequence.

But I adore French filmmaker Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day (2001), a bloody, graphic film with unclear motives on the surface that personally resonated with me as an emotional representation of the pain of infidelity and loss. And the brutally violent and shockingly realistic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) is one of my all-time favorite films for its skilled implication of the viewer's bloodlust and a twisted moral universe that's righteously turned on its head by the end of the film.

By Ebert's logic, all four films should have at least a base level of redeeming value, but I reject two for similar reasons that he rejects Chaos. Which goes to show you that one man's Chaos is another man's Last House on the Left.

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