What does it take to scare 21st-century movie audiences?
The directors of the award-winning 'Big Bad Wolves' think they have the formula.
Remember the days of the good old-fashioned slasher flick? During the '70s and '80s, it seemed that the blood and gore spilled out by the "Friday the 13th" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" series, among many others, was enough to satisfy audiences and keep them coming back for more.
But moviegoers these days want their scary movies to frighten them in different ways. They want story. They want more psychological terror and less blood. And they want the most frightening aspects of the film to be rooted in real life, not with teenagers spending time in an abandoned campsite or exploring a creepy, old house. While gory movie series like "Saw" have been successful, the immense success of Oren Peli's found-footage "Paranormal Activity" series shows that the audiences' taste for "torture" films may be waning.
Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado had this in mind when they wrote and directed their acclaimed 2013 film "Big Bad Wolves" (now available to stream on Netflix). The Israeli filmmakers had already gained notice in cinema circles for their more conventional slasher film "Kalavet" (English title: "Rabies"), but knew that going the psychological route was the way to go with their next film.
"I think we had 15 years of torture movies, and I think people are immune to movies that only use gore in order to shock you because it’s becoming plastic, you can’t really be afraid of plastic," Keshales told From The Grapevine. Audiences want to see the terror come from real people in real situations, which mirrors the great dramas that have played the last few years on television.
"If you take 'Breaking Bad,' you see a regular guy who has cancer, and wanted to provide his family with a good future, and he becomes a monster," he said. "Then it’s even frightening because you care for him, you care for his family, and you also care for the victims in his way. You have a more engrossing experience, and you’re more involved with the characters and the psychology of everything in the movie, or in the series, and then you’re afraid because you don’t want anything to happen to those characters."
Most of the horror of "Big Bad Wolves" is steeped in a grindhouse aesthetic that Quentin Tarantino made famous 20 years ago in movies like "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction," where the characters involved are intimidating and the violence is realistic. The "Wolves" plot is straightforward: a schoolteacher (played by Rotem Keinan) is accused of some heinous crimes, but insists he's innocent. The father of one of his alleged victims (Tzahi Grad) takes matters into his own hands when the cop assigned to the case (Lior Ashkenazi) can't pin the teacher down for the crimes. He kidnaps the teacher and keeps him in the basement, performing the same torture on the teacher that he supposedly performed on his victims. Think of a pair of pliers and the accused's toenails, and you get the idea.
A viewer is mostly uneasy throughout the movie, with simple scenes like people going down a dank hallway toward the basement door generating as much anxiety as the torture. "With today’s technology, you can pretty much show everything in CGI or in special effects. You can go to the extreme," Papushado told From The Grapevine. "We thought if we could create a movie that people will relate to the characters, we don’t need to use a lot of gore or a lot of violence to make a very scary film. I think our approach is always insert reality into a horror film in order to make it more interesting."
Like Tarantino's films, there's a sense of humor infused throughout the film, despite the touchy subject matter. "When we put the humor in the movie, we knew that it would be something that will enable the audience to have a very different viewing experience" than in current American movies with similar plots, like the oh-so-serious Jake Gyllenhaal movie "Prisoners," said Keshales. "One film tells you what you’re supposed to be feeling, at every minute of the time, and you know that everything is wrong, and our movie shows the monstrosity inside each of the characters in the movie."
Why is such a depiction of "human monsters" so effective? They're more like the antihero-centric movies of the '60s and '70s; Sam Peckinpah, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter and William Friedkin were all cited by the pair as influences. "I think we’ll definitely aim to do those kinds of films, the films that we grew up on," said Papushado. "Films like we loved from the '70s where there was some kind of ambiguity and cleverness to everything, and you could ask different questions, and everything wasn’t just black and white, everything was gray."
Tarantino enjoyed "Big Bad Wolves" so much, he said it was the best movie of 2013, and Israeli audiences responded; the movie won five Israeli Academy Awards. American studios are betting on filmmakers like Keshales and Papushado to make lower-budget films that tell a story and give more bang for the buck. In fact, Sony signed the pair to do an English-language remake of the 2009 Hong Kong-French film "Vengeance."
Because of this and the presence of other story-focused hit movies like Bong Joon-ho's "Snowpiercer," Keshales is convinced that Hollywood would be best served doing more deals with filmmakers like themselves. "I really think that if Hollywood did those kind of movies, with great directors and talents like Bong Joon-ho, they could produce big amounts of money for the studios. They just have to have faith, again, in the art of storytelling."
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