Messing with your mind

Psychological thrillers gain a toehold in movie theaters as Hollywood tones down the gore (a bit) with larger PG-13 audiences in mind.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

A raft of current films are trying to get under your skin rather than make you jump out of it. They're part of a boomlet in psychological thrillers - movies that opt for creepy situations over outright gore.

The reasons for this increase in thrillers are difficult to pin down, but one may be that Hollywood - which has churned out bloody R-rated slasher movies for years - may finally have seen a saturation of the genre. The industry also wants to expand its roster of PG-13 films to draw the widest possible audience, including preteens and teens who are supposedly barred from seeing R-rated films.

Ratcheting down the violence is no guarantee, however, that a film billed as a "psychological thriller" offers meaningful insight into human behavior.

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Nonetheless, audiences are turning out for these toned-down suspense movies. The film "White Noise" is a good example. Despite lukewarm reviews, it has fared well at the box office, earning almost $60 million in its first three weeks.

What's newsworthy about the popular success of "White Noise" is that it's a specific kind of thriller - not a spectacle of blood and gore in the "Exorcist" or "Omen" mold, but a psychological story that deals in creepy moods rather than explicit violence. The hero thinks his dead wife is trying to communicate with him electronically, and the movie's chills come mostly from static-filled audiotapes and video images.

That film isn't alone in trying a subtler route to storytelling. Thrillers like "Darkness" and "The Village," action yarns like "National Treasure" and "House of Flying Daggers," and stories of disturbed minds like "The Woodsman" and "Enduring Love" all downplay the mayhem.

Hollywood is also interested in remaking Asian hits, which tend to be elliptical and allusive. The recent American versions of "The Ring" and "The Grudge" fit this category; both have PG-13 ratings.

The surfeit of explicitly violent pictures may make even marginally subtler approaches feel new.

"One does notice less gore [today] than in the cinematic abattoirs where teenagers were routinely shredded into pulp," says Gene Seymour, chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, referring to pictures like the "Friday the 13th" series. He believes the relative restraint - and huge success - of "The Sixth Sense" in 1999 made an impression on Hollywood.

Its influence "may have more to do with market changes than maturity, though," Mr. Seymour continues. "Even blood lust has its saturation point, right? So it seems natural that once the [movie moguls] found you can scare billions of ticket buyers with implied terror ... movies would start catering to that."

"Still," he adds, "if films like 'The Grudge' are paradigms for this, I seriously doubt it represents a widening of the genre's brain so much as just another way of pushing the same old buttons. The single promise it holds is a deepening respect for mystery and inference. I'm not ready to call it a major renovation."

If a tendency toward subtler thrillers does take hold, it will come as a relief to movie watchers upset by the vast amounts of violence Hollywood has unleashed.

On the downside, however, the label "psychological thriller" doesn't automatically mean there's clever psychology woven into the plot. While the film industry may be downplaying in-your-face gore, it hasn't necessarily made a new commitment to intelligent thinking about what scares us and why.

"The psychological themes of the recent cinema strike me as rather thin, or undecipherable, or sophomoric," says Christopher Sharrett, professor of communication at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

"In fact," Dr. Sharrett says, "many of them are encased in some sort of cosmic gobbledygook. David Fincher's movie 'Seven' might be a good example. Some films, such as 'Saw,' could stand several rewrites before we could even speak of psychological themes."

Sharrett feels Hollywood is still influenced by "The Silence of the Lambs," which arrived almost 15 years ago and spawned a brood of serial-killer and demented-demon thrillers that refuses to die out.

"The Silence of the Lambs" marks a turning point in audience enthusiasm for bloody shocks, but the history of thrillers predates Hannibal Lecter's cannibalistic career.

Explicit violence was heavily censored in cinema's early decades. But in the 1950s, big film-industry changes (partly caused by competition from television) started a breakdown in Hollywood's censorship system. This led some filmmakers to test the limits of screen savagery. Results ranged from "The Wild Bunch" and "Straw Dogs," both directed by "Bloody Sam" Peckinpah, to unnerving horror films like "Night of the Living Dead" and "Last House on the Left."

Alfred Hitchcock made his own contribution with "Psycho" in 1960, featuring a shower-murder scene that still leaves moviegoers shuddering. Interestingly, though, Hitchcock believed in a narrative arc of decreasing violence: If you scare the audience out of its shoes with one shocking scene, he felt, you only have to remind them of it to jolt them again later on.

Subsequent movies in the so-called slasher mode, such as the "Halloween" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" series, had less restraint. A little farther down the road, items like "Scream" and "Scary Movie" offered self- conscious critiques of their own genre, with characters using their knowledge of horror-film clichés to survive horror-film situations.

Such parodies helped pave the path to today's psychological trend, visible in big releases like "Hide and Seek" as well as smaller, smarter items like "The Machinist" and "Fear X."

Some films try to have it both ways, as "Hide and Seek" does - spinning a low-key yarn of psychological mystery but adding occasional blood-spilling for die-hard horror fans. While its R rating will exclude younger moviegoers, it also lets shocker buffs know they'll see aggressive gore.

This week brings "Boogeyman," a PG-13 thriller that's apparently so bad it isn't being previewed for the press. Studios certainly haven't abandoned R-rated fare, though, as shown by last week's "Alone in the Dark" and such coming releases as "Constantine" and the "Amityville Horror" remake. "The Ring 2" isn't rated yet.

All of which adds up to a suspense story in its own right. Have thrillers taken a real turn, or are they passing through a phase? Stay tuned.

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