I went to see "The Happening" last weekend. I won't give away the plot, other than to say it has an ecological theme.
I didn't think it was as bad as many of the critics claimed (although it still pales in comparison to "Unbreakable"). And it got me thinking about how the best horror movies and thrillers tend to tap in to the national zeitgeist.
In the 1956, we had "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which could be interpreted either as an allegory of Communist infiltration or as a satire of McCarthyite conformism. The 1978 remake, by contrast, took on post-Watergate anti-government sentiment and "Me Decade" self-help pablum. George Romero's "Living Dead" movies addressed racism in the 1960s, consumerism in the 70s, and militarism in the 80s. Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film, "The Shining" looked at the disintegration of the family. And the 1987 thriller "Fatal Attraction" served as a cautionary tale about casual sex in the age of AIDS.
In the 1990s, horror movies turned ironic and self-referential. The Scream trilogy featured victims who seemed entirely aware that they were in a horror movie, and the Blair Witch Project sought to frighten by presenting itself as a documentary.
I think the 2000s have been kind of a slow period for horror movies and creepy thrillers (I'm not really into the super-gory movies, like "Saw" and "Hostel," that have been so popular lately). But I'm starting to detect an emerging movement in scary movies: the eco-thriller.
In 2004 of course we had the Day After Tomorrow, a global-warming themed disaster movie. One of my favorite movies of recent years was the 2006 Korean monster film, "The Host," about a creature that emerges from Seoul's Han River after US military pathologists dump formaldehyde down the drain (which actually happened).
And there are lots more in the pipeline:
• Mel Gibson stars in "The Edge of Darkness." To be released next year, the film is a remake of a 1985 BBC miniseries that revolves around the efforts of a policeman to discover who murdered his environmental activist daughter.
• James Cameron's science fiction film "Avatar" (his first feature film since "Titanic") set to be released in December 2009, is described by the director as "an old-fashioned jungle adventure with an environmental conscience."
• In the remake of "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" the fish-man will be spawned as a result of pharmaceutical dumping in the Amazon.
Of course, in one sense, a scary movie with an environmental theme is nothing new. After all, Godzilla, in the original 1954 film, was a creature from the Cambrian period who was dislodged by American nuclear testing.
That theme – in which nature, after putting up with so much abuse, turns on humankind – seems to be dominant in many films these days. Not all of them are good, but they do seem to be attempting to tap into some kind of collective fear.
Or is it collective guilt?