Sense of Wonder: Hatchet II & Horror Movie-Going as Tribal Identifier
Back in a review of VAMPIRES SUCK, I noted that we are in the era of movie-going as tribal identifiers. Purchasing a ticket is less a matter less of seeking entertainment than of supporting the group with which you self-identify. The problem manifest in this approach is clear: bad STAR WARS prequels, indifferent HARRY POTTER adaptations, and insipid TWILIGHT films attract huge audiences regardless of their actual quality, because fans feel obligated to prove their loyalty to the franchise – a bit like high school students who show up at the football game to support the home team, no matter how badly they lose.
The horror genre is no stranger to this phenomena, as I was reminded on Tuesday night when I attended the Los Angeles premiere of HATCHET II. This was quite a high-energy event: fans mingled with members of the press and the cast and crew, eagerly awaiting the sequel to HATCHET (2006), which had breathed some welcome life into the moribund slasher formula a while back.
Writer-director Adam Green was understandably giddy with delight. HATCHET had taken a tortuous path to the screen: There was trouble finding backers because it was “not a remake, not a sequel, and not based on a Japanese one” (these words, from a rejection letter, became the poster tagline during the film’s festival run). After the film was made, few distributors were interested. When HATCHET did get released theatrically, there was little or no promotional support, and the film was heavily re-edited to earn an R-rating from the MPAA.
In spite of all these travails, HATCHET somehow found an audience, who dubbed themselves the “Hatchet Army” and supported the film, turning it into a hit on video. Consequently, there mere existence of HATCHET II is a triumph – a vindication of the effort Green put into making the original.
The problem with this kind of success story is that it creates a narrative that overwhelms the film, as those who enjoyed it become emotionally invested in the success of the franchise and want to show their support. Yes, it’s great that the first HATCHET turned a profit. And it’s great that Dark Sky Films has the nerve to release HATCHET II unrated. And it would be really wonderful if this set a precedent, proving that unrated releases are viable, allowing filmmakers to bypass the MPAA so that viewers could see their work uncensored on the movie screen.
But here’s the catch: the film itself has to deliver; we should not have to support it just because we are good tribe members swept up in the triumphant narrative, whose satisfying conclusion demands a huge success for HATCHET II. What if the film, on its own merits, does not deserve success?
I will leave that question for a separate review. My point here is not to criticize HATCHET II; it is to note the extent to which the filmmakers and their supporters are trying to exploit movie-going as a tribal identifier. On Tuesday night, Green exhorted fans in the audience to go and pay to see the movie again on opening weekend, in order to raise the per-screen average and send a message to Hollywood. Uncle Creepy, of Dread Central, introduced the evening by announcing his excitement over helping to promote a film that could change the course of horror filmmaking. Publicists are currently sending out press releases advising me and others to support unrated horror.
The underlying message in all of this is: we’re all part of the tribe, and we want our tribe to win, even if that means turning a blind eye toward the film in question. Green can be given a pass for supporting his baby after all the work he put into it. But what about the fans and the genre press? Is it really their job to push a movie just because it is going out unrated? At this point, is there any way that someone like Uncle Creepy could criticize HATCHET II without being denounced as an apostate? (Come to think of it, can I writer this editorial without being branded as a spoil-sport critic who is not really a horror fan?)
At the premiere, Green noted that the Hatchet Army is not just about HATCHET; its members have supported other films, too, such as DRAG ME TO HELL. Sadly, this is another film that really works only as a tribal identifier – a way for fans of director Sam Raimi’s debut, THE EVIL DEAD (1982), to confirm that they are still part of the tribe, over 25 years later. The release of HATCHET II is being followed, one week later, by the remake of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, which is also going out unrated. Will the Hatchet Army support that as well?
And what about the rest of us? Should we feel obligated to purchase tickets just to prove our bona fides in the horror film fan base? Or would we be better off watching DEVIL instead?
You can guess my answer. Tribalism leads to insular film-making at best and bad film-making at worst. The feedback loop of fans blindly applauding whatever they see is not conducive to the sort of reflection and self-improvement that lead to growth as a filmmaker. What we need is not tribal support for idols or for unrated horror. What we really need is to demand quality horror and to hold our idols to the standards they they have set for themselves with their best work.