When 20th Century-Fox released The Last of the Mohicans last October, box-office pundits predicted that the film would find it difficult to earn back the estimated $35 million plus that the studio had poured into the movie. Mohicans had no big-name stars, its director, Michael Mann, had never had a big movie hit (though he did create and produce Miami Vice on television), and period dramas are still, despite the success of Dances with Wolves, a difficult sale to moviegoers.
But by December Mohicans had brought in about $70 million in U.S. ticket sales, and at year's end, the film was still drawing a decent trickle of fans. What happened? Audiences seemed to respond to the film for a number of reasons: The battle scenes were thrilling, the characters generally were well drawn, and, judging from the reactions of a few female critics, women went wild over lead-actor Daniel Day Lewis's long hair and bare chest.
In retrospect, Mohicans obviously contained elements that often help a film achieve commercial success: romance, danger, bare chests. But one element of the movie's success may not be that obvious. The film worked at one level by tapping into our fear of nature. The woods that the film's characters have to travel through are places of great danger, where deadly enemies hide and where death seems to lurk behind every tree.
Despite the best efforts of assorted greens and animal-rights activists to convince us that the world would be a better place if we all lived in harmony with nature, people instinctively understand that nature may not be that interested in living in harmony with us. Filmmakers who grasp this deep fear and tap into it have consistently been well rewarded at the box office.
And no one has understood this fear better than the people who make horror films. If you watch a lot of horror films (and I do), you quickly learn that an enormous number of them start with the move or visit of city people to the country.
The tradition dates back to at least the 1931 version of Dracula (which opens with the London-born Renfield's arrival in Transylvania, a place of dark woods where wolves howl ominously) and continues to this day with low-budget entries such as Pumpkinhead.
One of the most successful horror "films of the last 20 years, Friday the 13th, established a formula that has been rigidly followed in six (so far) sequels and innumerable clones: Teenagers go to summer camp and are picked off, one by one, by a monster lurking in the woods. In fact, the success of these films can stand as a testimonial to the strength of our fear of the woods. They are all almost uniformly bad (genre-critic Joe Bob Briggs refers to them, with good reason, as "Spam in a cabin" movies). The acting is often amateurish, the plotting predictable, the photography muddy. These crude cinematic exercises work only because they tap into a primal fear.
If nature itself is deadly, what about the people who "live in harmony" with it? Are they sturdy yeoman farmers? Peaceful villagers who earn their living from basket weaving and blacksmithing? New Age vegetarian poets?
Not in the horror film. In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, critic Carol J. Clover notes that in horror films such as Hunter's Blood, The Hills Have Eyes, and I Spit on Your Grave, "country people live beyond the reaches of social law. They do not observe the civilized rules of hygiene or personal habit. If city men are either clean-shaven or wear stylish beards or mustaches, country men sport stubble. Likewise teeth; the country is a world beyond dentistry….As with hygiene, so with manners. Country people snort when they breathe, snore when they sleep, talk with mouths full, drool when they eat….Country people, in short, are surly, dirty (their fingernails in particular are ragged and grimy), and slow…." Moreover, I might add, country people are often presented as inbred, with all of the associated mental and physical deficiencies.
Now granted, these portraits of rural folk are exaggerated for shock effect. But they take advantage of the knowledge lurking in the back of our minds that hygiene, manners, and even morals are as much a part of civilization as science and technology. Living a primitive life may mean lacking more than air conditioning and frozen foods.
Women would seem to fare the worst in the state of nature. Mainstream critics such as Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel have long attacked horror movies, particularly low-budget "slasher" films, for their explicit portrayal of violence against women. But what is interesting about this violence is the context in which it takes place. In horror films, rural areas are places in which patriarchy runs amok. This explicitly leads to violence against women, but it also leads to the victimization of men. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example, Mr. Sawyer's grown sons (including the fearsome Leatherface) turn into cowering boys in his presence. Similarly, in The Hills Have Eyes, Papa Jupe treats his hulking and otherwise feral sons like slaves.
This victimization of men is most explicit in Deliverance. By now, the plot of this film is familiar even to those who haven't seen it or read the book on which it is based. Four men from Atlanta decide to take a canoe trip down the "last wild, untamed, unpolluted, unfucked-up river in the South" before it is dammed up. Why is a dam being built? As one of the men, Lewis (played by Burt Reynolds), tells the others, "You push a little more power into Atlanta, a little more air conditioners for your smug little suburb…."
Deliverance was directed by one of the film industry's first and most outspoken greens, John Boorman. Thus, it is interesting that this film presents the wilderness as a savage, dangerous place, not at all the peaceful utopia that some greens extol. Indeed, the first encounter the four city men have with the backwoodsmen is the now-famous one where one of the men plays "Dueling Banjos" with a retarded local boy who is obviously supposed to be the product of inbreeding. But the city men, except for Lewis, are completely oblivious to the dangers that surround them.
"It's true, Lewis, what you said," one of the four says at the campfire during their first night in the woods. "There's something in the woods and water we've lost in the city."
"We didn't lose it; we sold it," says Lewis. Now, the first man means by "it" the bucolic peace of urban daydreams, but Lewis means something else: animal vitality, the savagery that one needs to survive in the woods. And the suspense in this movie is built upon one central question: Can these soft city men find that primitive, savage part of themselves when they have to? Can they survive the inevitable confrontations with the mountainmen, with the river, and with nature herself?
Not surprisingly, considering Boorman's green beliefs, Deliverance sees the four men as in some sense responsible for the horrors that await them. At the beginning of the movie, Lewis says that by building the dam, the city is "raping" the countryside. Later, the country will take revenge for this metaphorical violation when one of the mountainmen rapes one of the city men.
Indeed, the basic theme of Deliverance—man tampers with nature at his own risk—is as old as horror literature itself; it is the theme, for example, of Frankenstein. But in horror, nature is rarely a peaceful being roused to vengeance by man's repeated aggressions. She is violent and easily provoked.
And the woods are never places of love and enchantment; they are dangerous places where monsters dwell. Again, this theme is also an old one. Read any of the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. Something awful always happens when anyone ventures into the woods. To the medieval storytellers who fashioned these tales, the woods were a very real place where wolves and outlaws roamed, and these bards knew something that modern people sometimes forget: Nature can be very cruel. Horror films work because they remind us of that fact.
Charles Oliver is assistant editor of REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies: Oh Horror!".