So, of course, here we are after I finished watching Red State earlier this week, and rather than getting into the nitty-gritty of whether it was a good horror movie or not so good, I find myself needing to back up and reconsider what exactly a horror movie is supposed to be, anyway.
My understanding going in was that Red State was a horror film; indeed, if you Wikipedia it you can see it’s duly labeled as such right at the outset of the article. The disconnect, I think, lies in the fact that horror movies are notoriously (and arguably deliberately) formulaic, and Red State is anything but. It zigs and zags in wildly different directions at least three or four times, and normally that’s the hallmark of a film which, even if the quality is questionable, is at least interesting and thought-provoking. But it might actually be self-defeating when unexpected shifts like that come up against hardcore horror expectations. Maybe, maybe not.
One of the things I really like about horror flicks (and, to a certain extent, horror novels) is that they operate by the same rules on multiple levels. I’ve talked about the guiding principle of chaos before, at least in the plot-driven narrative sense. Horror movies are about a world turned upside down. There aren’t supposed to be dead rising from their graves to eat your flesh or suck your blood or drive you insane, and yet it’s happening. Even in a more “realistic” serial killer slasher movie, it’s still a story based on things happening which are not supposed to happen, in terms of the idea we all cling to that we are going to live peaceful lives and die in our sleep at a very ripe old age. So, a movie about vampire hunters really isn’t a horror movie, it’s an action movie, because the protagonists accept 9and expect) the existence of vampires. By the same token, a thriller about cops hunting a serial killer isn’t a horror movie because they knew the risks when they took the job and blah blah blah.
But at a more meta level, horror movies embrace chaos because they upend what we, the audience, expect from movies. We’re accustomed to triumphant heroes and happy endings, and horror movies give us neither. A horror movie doesn’t tear you up by exploiting your fear that werewolves really exist, it exploits your fear that the main character you’ve gotten attached to in act one is going to get eviscerated in act two. That fictional main character isn’t any more or less real than werewolves, really, but somehow that doesn’t matter.
So, as I mentioned, Red State is extremely chaotic as a piece of storytelling, and in that sense it exemplifies the way that horror movies should mess with the audience’s heads. And it does play with some of the classic tropes of horror, as well, at least in the early going. I can understand how the “horror movie” label wound up sticking. But at the very least, it’s an incomplete assessment.
I’ve made it this far in without mentioning that Red State is the latest movie written and directed by Kevin Smith. Kevin Smith is very much my homeboy and he seems like a guy who is more or less on my wavelength. I root for him to succeed and I want to be his biggest fan, but … man. Long, long readers of this here blog might remember back when I teased the possibility of starting a series of posts about falling out of love, in the sense of marked cooling of my fandom for various artists and creators (as opposed to falling out of romantic love with my wife, which I reiterate is as far from possible as I can imagine something being). I think it’s safe to say Kevin Smith would rate a falling-out-of-love examination, but it’s always been an on-and-off thing with him and me. I thought Clerks was amazing the first time I saw it, and then Mallrats was a huge letdown for being as glossy and vapid and fake as Clerks was grungy and resonant and real. Then Chasing Amy became one of my all-time favorite movies, and probably always will be. Dogma was … good, I guess? Kind of got lost in its own overblown controversy, but taken for what it is, it definitely has its moments. It should be better, just given the ridiculously stellar cast alone, but it’s watchable. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was a mulligan, as far as I’m concerned. Jersey Girl is better than its reputation, but that’s faint praise. And Clerks 2 was the point at which I knew a Kevin Smith movie debut was no longer an event that demanded rearranging my schedule. To this day I have never seen Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
But! Red State, based on what little I gleaned before watching it for myself, seemed like Kevin Smith was still willing to try new things, to challenge himself to grow as a filmmaker, and like I said, I root for the guy. As a fan of horror and a fan of Smith, I gave it a shot.
I’m not sorry I did, because it’s not a bad movie at all. John Goodman is exceptional as a weary veteran ATF agent, Keenan, and Michael Parks is hypnotic like a snake as an end-times obsessed pastor, Cooper. And I give the movie full credit for being totally unpredictable. But I do think it overreaches itself a bit. Spoilers follow! It starts out with most bog-standard of horror movie clichés: horny teenagers. When three boys respond to an online personal ad from a lonely older lady offering to satisfy them all at once, they end up out in the trailer park late at night, with the punishment for their transgressions against conservative values waiting in the wings. The older lady drugs the boys and they wake up captives in a cult compound populated by Abin Cooper’s fundamentalist Christian brood. The Coopers have apparently been doing the Lord’s work by luring deviants, perverts and sodomites into their clutches and murdering them at the altar while Abin sermonizes. The boys would be the next victims except that on their way to the trap they sideswiped a parked car, and the local deputy is investigating the incident and tracks their car to the compound. While the Coopers dispatch the deputy, there’s just enough time for two of the boys to escape their bonds. One of the boys finds that the separatist Coopers have a massive arsenal of automatic weapons, because of course they do. So now we have ourselves a premise! The boys are trapped in the compound and outnumbered, but at least they can arm themselves and fight back.
But things swerve when one boy is immediately shot to death by one of the Coopers, although in his death throes he shoots and kills his murderer. Then with one boy still trussed up and one faking his death to buy time for another escape attempt, the ATF and the local sheriff show up, under the pretext that a lot of the weapons the Coopers have amassed have been illegally modified. The boy on the loose makes a break for it and is shot and killed by the trigger-happy sheriff, forcing the ATF’s hand. The feds announce their presence, the Coopers open fire on the feds, and a Waco-style bloodbath ensues.
Swerving yet again, the attention shifts to Cheyenne, Abin’s twenty-something granddaughter, seemingly the only one who realizes that the feds will kill everyone in the compound and possibly burn it to the ground, notwithstanding the fact that many of Abin’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren are kids if not babies. Cheyenne gets the closest thing to a character arc in the whole narrative as she goes from innocent believer to desperate rebel. She frees the last remaining would-be sacrificial victim (notice I haven’t bothered to give them names) and tries to convince him to help her, but he’s understandably pissed and unwilling to do Cheyenne any favors. She wins him over by killing her own mother when mom discovers them talking and attacks the boy. Cheyenne and the boy make it outside to the feds, and get gunned down in cold blood because killing everyone in the compound was in fact directive one of the orders from ATF headquarters.
So after that dead-end (ha ha) digression, the firefight across the compound continues until things swerve again with the sudden, supernatural sounding of a trumpet blast so loud it shakes the ground and knocks the ATF agents to their knees. Abin and his surviving brood start celebrating because the trumpet announces the imminent arrival of the Four Horsemen, Revelation, the Rapture and all that good stuff. They lay down their weapons and head outside so Abin can taunt the feds with his salvation and their damnation. But one more swerve takes us to a debriefing where Keenan is explaining his version of events to a couple of bureaucratic superiors. Turns out all the Coopers were subdued after Keenan lost his temper and headbutted Abin, and they are all going to be held indefinitely without trial as domestic terrorists. Also turns out the angelic trumpet blast was actually just an MP3 played through a re-purposed fire house siren by some kids who live on a collective pot-growing farm next to the Coopers; they thought it would be hilarious to mess with the fundies’ heads, and the fortuitous timing was entirely coincidental. Uh huh.
So it all kind of goes off the rails there at the end, as if Smith got tired of thinking of how to stage action and frame shots and violates rule number one: he tells rather than shows, with Keenan and his superiors trading long monologues (which are kind of Kevin Smith’s bread and butter) about the righteousness of the Patriot Act and the violent nature of Man and so on and so on. Before that, though, it’s a bizarre parade of bogeymen. Like I said, at the outset it’s the old reliable of teen sex, where if you dare to engage in it in horror-movie-land you will probably get murdered some kind of awful. Then the fundies become the real bogeymen, with their sanctimonious self-regard and unwavering belief in a bloodthirsty Old testament godhead. But then the government is the real bogeyman, with suits in offices giving good men direct orders to slaughter men, women and children, and the men in the field willingly following those orders, and the suits laughing callously about it all after the fact. The interchangeable teenage boys, tellingly, each die at the hands of a different faction: one killed by a Cooper, one by the dimwit local sheriff, and one by a hard-ass ATF agent. Even if the film hadn’t devolved into three guys sitting in a room giving voice to Smith’s personal rantings about intolerance and injustice, it’s pretty heavy-handed throughout: can’t trust religion, can’t trust the local authorities, can’t trust Uncle Sam (and certainly can’t trust teenage boys to make responsible life decisions).
Is the idea of a cruel universe where those can’t’s are immutable facts horrifying? Most def. But that doesn’t change the fact that Red State starts out superficially resembling a horror movie but winds up as a thudding screed. (Is it a coincidence that the pastor's family name is Cooper, as in the profession of barrel-makers? Because it seems like the whole purpose of the movie is to shoot fish in a barrel, I'm just sayin'.) Kevin Smith is really good at observing the little goofy trivial things that make up the life of the common (white, fairly geeky, probably raised Catholic) man, and really struggles when he tries to make deep philosophical statements. Maybe I should just go and watch Zack and Miri Make a Porno after all.