I have written before about the way that we, as a culture, turn objects of horror into those of humor as a means of conquering our fears, which was clearly what this crowd was doing. Even so, it was deeply disturbing, like watching the movie along with the rapists, drawing an explicit culpability connection between spectator and on-screen miscreant.
For decades, horror movies have drawn a parallel between their audiences and their villains—at least since Norman Bates watched Marion Crane undress through a peephole—positing the viewer as the ultimate peeper, pervert, perpetrator. (Recently, for example, The Last Exorcism allows a possessed girl to grab a camcorder, and the film’s point of view, and beat to death a cat with it; watching it feels like dreaming about headbutting a house pet.) But it seems only recently—now that even torture porn has become blasé—that so many horror directors have explicitly held that audience accountable, suggesting that not only are they on a par with the transgressors, but that they also deserve whatever punishment comes along with it.
It’s most striking in the I Spit on Your Grave remake, in which one member of the movie’s rapist-quartet of villains has a bad videotaping habit: he secretly records the heroine in her underwear, before capturing the film’s excruciatingly long rape sequence for posterity. (Just like the director!) His proclivity serves to accuse the audience of complicity in the abuse of this poor girl—he, like the titillated viewer, gets off on mediated watching.
The subsequent vengeances the victim metes out to her attackers are tailor-fit to their crimes: the lead rapist is castrated; the sodomist, sodomized with a shotgun. “I know you like to watch, dontcha?” our avenging heroine asks the videographer. “You sick fuck.” She sets his camera down, points it at him, and turns the LCD monitor to face him—it’s so he can watch as she slathers his eyes in fish guts, attracting hungry crows who peck out his eyes and then, presumably, his brain—they blind him before they kill him. According to the movie’s retributive logic, if your crime is looking, you should be stripped of your ability to see.
It’s an obvious rebuke to a morbid audience aroused by sexual assault and ultraviolence, as obvious as the reproach in Devil. That Shyamalan production doesn’t punish its audience for blood- or rape-lust, as the movie is more old-fashioned, with its Agatha Christie-like set-up. But it does believe that every single person in the theater is a sinner in desperate need of redemption. As a detective and security guard watch, on CCTV, the inhabitants of a stalled elevator picked off one-by-one when the lights flicker off, the guard (a hysterical Latino) explains that it’s the handiwork of the devil himself. To boot: “He never does this in secret. There’s a reason we’re the audience,” he says, suggesting not only that he and the detective are morally impure, but that every seat-filler in the house is as with sin as the rogue’s gallery of thieves and killers on the lift. How can the screenwriters be so sure? Well, they’ve all come to see a horror movie, haven’t they?
If Devil’s reproach seems sanctimonious, Piranha 3D’s is gleeful. Set during Lake Victoria’s spring break, the film’s first half plays like a Girls Gone Wild video: “When I say ‘tit,’ you say ‘eez’—tit!” “Eez!” “Tit!” “Eez!” There’re enough butts and boobs to make Russ Meyer excited. But then director Alexandre Aja turns the tables: scores of swimsuited revelers are torn to pieces and eaten by schools of the title’s unleashed prehistoric fish—it’s a stunning set-piece of sex-punishing violence. And, if you came to Piranha hoping to see that violence augmented with 3D, Aja first uses the technology to make a stream of vomit seem like it’s coming right into your eyes; later, he uses it so that it feels like Jerry O’Connell’s chomped-off cock, burped up by a piranha, is floating into your face. Obviously, Aja hates you and thinks you're disgusting.
And maybe he’s not too far off. As I sat in that Spit on Your Grave screening, I imagined some just comeuppance in which the gigglers had their own penises flung into their faces. Of course, I wouldn’t actually want to do that. I’d just want to watch.