Monday, October 28, 2013

Movies I Love: Hatchet

by Patrick Bromley
I've made no secret of my fandom for director Adam Green, and this is the movie that started it all.

Few horror movies in the last 10 years have been as polarizing as Adam Green's Hatchet (unless you count Hostel or The House of the Devil or Rob Zombie's Halloween remake...come to think of it, has there been a horror movie this decade we can all agree on?). Yes, it quickly developed a fervent following -- fans who declared themselves members of the "Hatchet Army" and wore t-shirts proudly labeling them as such. The movie has plenty of supporters (even ones with loud voices, like Brian Collins of A Horror Movie a Day and Badass Digest, who has called it one of his favorite movies of all time). So why is that in my own dealings with horror fans, I'm generally looked down upon for liking Hatchet as much as I do?

Perhaps it's because of the film's marketing campaign, which declared it a return to "Old School American Horror" in an age of remakes and imitation J-horror, setting expectations sky high and touting the movie as a masterpiece before it was ever released. Or maybe it's the way the movie infuses comedy with the horror, leaving viewers to wonder how much they're meant to take seriously and how much is just a goof. Plus, when you start adding jokes to anything it tends to split reactions even more. Such is the subjectivity of humor.
But the humor in Hatchet is very much part of the point. For as much as it is a throwback to the slasher movies of the 1980s that inspired it, Hatchet is also parodying those movies. Its plot is simple: a group of people take a New Orleans swamp tour and end up terrorized by the deformed backwoods monster Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder), The difference with this movie and a lot of other films that attempt a similar feat is that this one isn't referential -- the characters aren't constantly reminding us that "this is what characters do in horror movies!" and breaking the spell. You could probably watch Hatchet and just take it as a straight horror film. You might not think that movie's signature shot -- the buckets of blood being flung onto trees -- is there to be funny, even though it is. That's ok. The movie still works. Once you dig a little deeper and realize what Green is up to, though, it becomes even better.

Take, for example, the film's nudity. Of course there are topless girls; any slasher fan knows that at some point, pretty girls will take off their shirts. Green knows it, but he's come up with a motivation for those moments that is plot driven: an amateur Girls Gone Wild-type producer, played by Joel Murray, and his two female "stars" are among the group on the swamp tour, so every once in a while he'll point his video camera at them and they bare their breasts. Think about that -- at the same time that he's offering up an "explanation" for the nudity, Green is critiquing the exploitative and arbitrary nature of these nude scenes. The "actresses" get topless because their "director" tells them to. In this way, Murray's character is a stand-in for every horror movie director who ever called "action" on a nude scene.
Green also makes a joke out of the genre's reliance on single locations and the propensity of slasher victims to remain in one place by having his characters literally walk around in circles. Again, this is often pointed to by Hatchet's critics to as a reason for disliking the film -- it's just a bunch of dumb people dicking around a swamp. And they're right. It is. That's not an accident. Is it really a commentary on slasher movie conventions? Or is it just Green paying tribute to those conventions by making a movie that slavishly adheres to them? It's both, but Green is too smart a filmmaker not to know that by making a movie so much like several of the most familiar genre entries, he's making a statement about them in the process. This is to say nothing of the practical (budgetary) reasons for keeping the case small and a single, simple location (by "simple" I mean it's a general idea -- swamp -- as there is nothing actually simple about shooting in a swamp).

I take issue with the "dumb characters," criticism, though, as Hatchet's characters are certainly as well developed -- if not more so -- than practically any slasher this side of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Joel David Moore makes for an unusually sympathetic lead: he's not the conventional horror hero, with the long face and gawkishness of what would typically be the second or third-tier "geek" character. That he's smarting from a recent heartbreak only endears him to us more. Deon Richmond goes a little bit broad as his best friend, but comes across as very loyal and sweet (there's commentary there about the role of African Americans in horror, too, but Green is wise not to get too political with it).

Tamara Feldman's Marybeth is frightened and vulnerable, and it's an iteration of the character I like more every time I watch the movie. She would eventually be replaced by Danielle Harris in the sequels; Harris is great, but she's playing Sarah Conner in T2 -- the one who has already seen some shit. Feldman is playing Sarah Conner 1.0, and she's very good in the part. Much as I like Danielle Harris, it makes me sad that Feldman did not continue with the role. If nothing else, it's neat to watch the way that Hatchet plays games with the traditional "final girl" role and reveals its endgame very slowly.

Everyone's great, though. Patrika Darbo and Richard Riehle are like sweet grandparents that you really hope won't die horribly (they do). Joel Murray, Joleigh Fioravanti and Mercedes McNab all play the type of shallow, shitty people you expect to see in a slasher movie, but they do it with such excellent comic timing that they elevate the joke. They don't wink at the camera (one of the things I like about Hatchet is that it doesn't wink), but they still know exactly the parts they are playing and exactly the movie they're in. And while the stunt-cast genre stars like Robert Englund, Tony Todd and John Carl Buechler don't have much to do (a fact that would be rectified for two of them in the sequel), their very presence lends the film an implicit seal of approval -- we get to watch as the torch is passed. Hatchet doesn't just coast on these "greatest hits of horror" elements. It works overtime to justify them.
And then there is Kane Hodder as killer hillbilly Victor Crowley. The Man Who Was Jason (yes, this is the movie that unites Jason, Freddy and Candyman) plays his second iconic horror villain and manages to outdo even the most recognizable slasher of all time. While he'll never be as famous or beloved as Jason, Hodder makes Victor Crowley a more interesting -- and, yes, scary -- monster. Like a lot of Hatchet, Victor Crowley arrives pre-sold as a new classic, but, like Hatchet, actually earns that status. Victor Crowley is a lot like the slashers of the past while still feeling new and different. He's got a great, tragic backstory. His entire existence is a tragedy, really, but going into why would require spoiling developments that aren't revealed until the sequels. Suffice it to say that unlike a lot of other famous slashers, Victor Crowley isn't really in control of what he does. He's like a wild, wounded animal, lashing out because he's instinctively driven. Hodder plays him that way, too; whereas his Jason Voorhees was a shark, his Victor Crowley is in constant berserk mode. He's a series of shudders and howls -- a monster completely out of control. It's a great, scary, physical performance.

There's a scene in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (still my favorite in the series) that remains the scariest in that long-running franchise: a character is attacked by Jason and while, being hacked up, screams "He's killing me!" It is real and it is awful, made even more awful by the fact that death in the Friday films rarely has any real consequence. Characters are usually killed before they know what's even happening -- or, worst case scenario, have just enough time to bug their eyes and almost scream before they are dispatched. Yet here is a character who understands exactly what is happening to him as it happens. He doesn't even scream for help, either, because he knows that he is sacrificing himself to save someone else. It's maybe the only moment out of all 10 horror films in the franchise that actually manages to be horrifying.

On more than one occasion in the movie, Green pays tribute to that scene in Friday IV by making the characters aware of their own deaths. It happens right in the first scene, which Joshua Leonard (he of Blair Witch fame) is essentially disemboweled while screaming "It hurts!" The cartoonishness of the gore effect is funny; the reaction is not. What are we to make of a scene like that? I have to assume Green is a fan of Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, a movie that's brilliant at mixing wacky comedy with brutal, punishing violence. The sequence creates in us a total disconnect between wanting to laugh and feeling truly awful for the guy, reminding us of the unpleasantness of death within the framework of a genre that typically allows us to laugh off death as just an effects display.
The second such moment is even more difficult to take, seeing as it recalls not the most horrifying moment from the fourth Friday the 13th movie but from Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. In a movie filled with horrible violence and graphic atrocities, the scene in Private Ryan that I can never watch again (and a big part of the reason I don't return to that film) is when Adam Goldberg's Pvt. Mellish begs for his life as a German soldier pushes a bayonet into him. It's still the hardest death scene I've ever watched, and while the similar moment in Hatchet -- Parry Shen begs for Victory Crowley to "wait, wait, wait" before a shovel takes his head off -- doesn't carry the same weight, it's still awful in a way that few horror movies have the courage to be. There is what Tom Holland would call HUMANITY in that moment, and it's way more difficult to watch a real human being be murdered than most of the one-dimensional douchebags who typically serve as slasher fodder. Humanity makes a difference.

But these examples make the movie sound brutal or punishing, and it isn't. It's actually a ton of fun in the way that we remember our favorite '80s slashers as being. It has a great, now-iconic monster. It has funny dialogue. It has nudity. Best of all, it sports some of the best, most inventive practical gore effects of the last 20-25 years. Whether or not we like to admit it, one of the reasons we fans love slasher movies is for their over-the-top kill scenes, a fact that Green clearly understands all too well. Not every kill in Hatchet is a home run, but that's by design -- otherwise, how would we distinguish the real set piece kills? When those come along, boy do they ever. There's one kill in particular that's one of the very best (if not THE best) kills I've ever seen in a horror film, and Green pulls it off like a magic trick, using a camera movement and a cleverly hidden cut to make it work. Even if the rest of Hatchet sucked, the movie would have become legend for that scene. You know the one I mean. A second one featuring a gas-powered belt sander comes pretty close.

My love of Hatchet snuck up on me. I thought it was fun, then I started to really like it and now I love it. It's not a movie I save only for Scary Movie Month, but one I watch year-round. It seems relatively simplistic at first. On my initial viewing, I found it to be little more than a reasonably entertaining throwback to the kinds of horror movies I've always liked. It's only been on repeat viewings that I've begun to unpack the film's sophistication. The repeat viewings are the key -- not because they make the movie better (they do), but because I want to keep watching the movie at all. This is a horror movie I feel like returning to more than most. I like spending time with the characters, even knowing that they are doomed. I like the mix of humor and genuinely unsettling horror. Mostly, though, I like the sense of the fun that Green is clearly having with his first real at-bat as a director. He loves horror movies, and Hatchet loves being a horror movie. It never shies away from genre conventions, instead embracing them and sending them up. It's a movie that affectionately goofs on the type of film it celebrates being.

Green would go on to make movies that were tighter and more slick, but the rough edges are part of what I love about Hatchet. It recalls early Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi in its infectious enthusiasm and joy in being a horror movie -- spraying this much blood has rarely been this much fun. But the film has more on its mind than being a geek show, and doesn't get enough credit for its intelligence. Yes, it brought back practical effects. Yes, it pays tribute to '70s and '80s horror. But it also says something about what scares us and why we love these movies in the first place. It's a movie with a lot of brains, even if they're splattered all over the trees.


7 comments:

  1. I was lucky enough to see this in the theater -- it was a pretty limited release -- with my girlfriend at the time.

    I have seen a quite a few horror movies with quite a few ladies (guess I AM lucky at that), but this was the viewing we all hope for: the flick played her like a violin...if it was one that screamed in your face the whole time. I looked over a couple of times and I swear she was seconds away from bursting into tears (she didn't, but I still think it was close). She tried to break every bone in my hand for the last forty minutes of the movie. Occasionally she jumped out of her seat so violently I was sure she'd end up in my lap. Loving the movie so much ALMOST seemed like an afterthought...

    At the end of this wonderful experience, as the lights came up and we stood to leave, she put the cherry on top by turning to me and saying this, which I will never, ever forget: "I almost threw up twice...I can't wait to see it again."

    Thanks, Adam F'n Green for not just a classic horror flick (I couldn't praise it better or with more authority than you did, Patrick, so I won't even try), but my single greatest FUN scary movie experience in a theater!*

    *Best SCARY horror movie experience: the 2000 rerelease of The Exorcist. Full of twenty-somethings that were openly mocking it in the early going (almost completely due to the dated 70's-ness of it all) to a theater FULL of absolutely terrorized individuals who were so silent you could have literally heard a pin drop...except for the screams. And gasps. And "Oh my God NO" -- perfect.

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    1. Awesome story. That great line -- "I almost threw up twice...I can't wait to see it again" is one of the succinct descriptions of why we love horror movies I've ever read. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. I find it interesting when Doug Shapiro is revealed to be a fake. That suddenly makes him a creep. When before he was what, an artist? The distinction for them is that they were making a film, whereas when it is just some slimeball and it is for his personal collection, that is just 'sick', even though technically that is for the same purpose right? I talked about this in my review of Calendar Girls, the women make a distinction between 'nude' and ‘naked’. They are photographed by an artist so they are nude, whereas porn shows naked girls. Could Green be saying that despite directors giving the impression that they are showing women 'nude', basically it is the same, the result is still the women are being objectified. (He is making a point that those who label the film art still use nudity in the same way). I agree that this is a clever way of commenting on the genre and also using all the same tropes. I find that scene where Marcus is holding the flashlight and they ask him to check the bush very funny but again commenting on the way African Americans are used in horror. But then a moment later the film is quite horrifying with the violence, proving what you said, you kind of get a bit of everything in this film. And that is quite an ending! I can definitely see myself re-watching this!

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    1. Love the point you make about the distinction between Shapiro being legit and a creep; regardless of his bona fides, he's a guy filming topless girls. So is it the endgame that determines what is art and what is exploitation? It adds another layer to the movie. Awesome.

      You should check out the sequels, too; they suffer from diminishing returns, but each one picks up the very second the previous one ends, which is a neat approach.

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    2. Thank you, I think that question is one that launches a thousand, great way to provoke a discussion. I think you're right, it might well be the end product and also the way in which it is shot. I think for instance the reason for it in Hachet makes it art as it is commentary. I will definitely check out the sequels I like the sound of that approach.

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  3. Great article Patrick. Thanks to you I've become a big Adam Green fan in the past few months and though I enjoyed Hatchet back when it first came out, I think it benefits greatly from being familiar with Green and where he's coming from. Most importantly I think, it's much clearer that he isn't making fun OF the genre tropes, he's making fun WITH the genre tropes, and like the fantastic You're Next reminded us this summer, a graphic and unsettling horror experience can still be a lot of fun. Those are the kinds of horror movies I can actually LOVE and Hatchet is one of the best.

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