In America, it’s become a tradition now to groan every few months, “Why the (insert choice expletive here) is there another Final Destination/Saw movie?” Similarly, people will regularly ask something along the lines of “Why is there another Law & Order/CSI spin-off?” To make matters worse, if the outcropping of sequels and spin-offs weren’t enough, there’s always the groan that accompanies the news of a Final Destination or Saw or Law and Order or CSI knock-off. In my life, I’ve met very few people who love torture films like Saw, and yet the movies come out like clockwork. Why then do the TV and movie studios keep putting them out? I can come up with one rather stark answer: because death is profitable.
Think of the TV schedule of basic channels: church programs air in the morning, special interest stories are relagated more to the morning news than the big nightly news programs, romantic soap operas are on during the day, syndicated comedic sitcoms play in the late afternoon, and at night, in prime time, it’s crime dramas. It’s only in late-night, when so many people are asleep, that comedy comes on again. Oftentimes the biggest news items are saved for primetime as well, but why?
Advertisers actually pay more to have their ads played during shows about people dying. Market research has proven that people respond more to ads during dark shows or programs than they do to ads playing in comedies. The idea is, by watching shows where people are killed, subconsciously we get the idea that we could be killed at any time. Thinking, on a level we might not even be aware of, that we could die, we respond to ads. Circumspection and thrift fly out the window when we think we could be murdered at any time. What better time then to air an ad about a new SUV with special safety features, or rejuvenating facial lotion, or new diet food?
In this sense then, the new torture films and other subgroups of the horror genre aren’t the counter-cultural forces some people take them to be. They’re as commercial as anything else. If you look at some of the gruesome films out there like the Saw or Hostel franchises, you’ll notice that these aren’t cheap films. These are movies where all of the actors look like models and, more often than not, dress like models. Even weirder entries in the genre like The Hills Have Eyes 2, where the villains are these inbred-mutated hicks, have young stars with clear complexions (and some are actual models!). These movies don’t take approaches like Thieves Like Us where the characters really look like they’re plucked from anonymity. Instead we have rock stars like Henry Rollins in these movies, or rock stars like Rob Zombie behind the camera, then have models and musicans and sometimes even heiresses and fashion icons in leading roles (like Paris Hilton in House of Wax). I’ll bet advertisers are paying a lot of money to have their shirts or sunglasses worn by the characters who get brutally killed onscreen. I’ll bet also it’s money well-spent for the advertisers. If the product placement within the actual films weren’t enough, there’s also money to be made from showing these movies on cable television. When are these edited/censored versions of the films shown on TV? More often than not, during prime-time, set to compete with Law & Order and things of that ilk as well as the big nightly news programs.
The Final Destination franchise represents this marketing ploy at its most perverse (there’s a new one coming out soon–groan). With torture films like Saw and Hostel, or serial killer films like Scream or Black Christmas, at the very least, the smart viewer can say “oh well at least there’s no serial killers in this area,” and by thinking that, they short circuit the advertising that’s aimed at them. Final Destination doesn’t give you that option. There’s no human killer in these films. Suddenly it’s not “a killer’s going to get me,” and instead its “the bathtub’s going to kill me,” or some other such ubiquitous appliance. The series is full of people being killed by common household appliances, and these people are, more often than not, actors and actresses resembling models. Also, the Final Destination series isn’t as gory as some of the other horror films, so it’s aired on TV pretty frequently.
There’s something very disturbing going on here. To illustrate my point, look at Japan. In their history, they have the misfortune of having ingrained in their psyche that they could die at any point. Many events have imparted the people of Japan with these idea. Even before the recent horrific earthquake, there was the sirin gas attack of the subway, an earlier earthquake, the bombing of Tokyo, the Atomic-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and similar events stretching back. That’s why you’ll see in any picture of Tokyo the city is full of advertising. America has experienced tragedy, but not to the extent that, somewhere in the back of our minds, most of us think we could die almost at random at any time. It seems though that many of our so-called artists and entertainers are trying to plant that idea in our heads. Prime-time simulates disasters and tragedies when there are none.
As I said before, the attitude of “this won’t happen to me” short-circuits advertising profiting from death, but more and more shows and movies are taking the Final Destination model, and sooner or later it’ll be much harder to believe in a tomorrow. So what other short-circuit method is there? Religion. Don’t write me off as condescending or moralizing–I’m going somewhere with this. Prime-time tells us we’re going to die, so we need to enjoy life to the fullest every single day by eating healthy, looking pretty, driving nice cars, taking cruises, meeting people through dating sites, seeing new movies, buying blu-ray players and so on. With religion though, all of this seems like so much fluff. What does random death add up to in the face of the immortality of the soul? What more, why do products matter when we’re given the notion that you can’t take it with you? This is my theory as to why God or gods aren’t mentioned in movies (or if they are, it’s in an obligatory or token fashion).
So the conservatives then accuse Hollywood of having a “liberal agenda,” but in reality, the “liberal agenda” is the same as the conservative’s: to make money. Bipartisanship can only begin when both sides admit they love money.
Please don’t misread me when I point out the ploys of secularity in cinema: this doesn’t mean I side with the religious right. The religious right take the Final Destination model and apply it to the news. Worse, they turn religion into just a different aspect of capitalism itself, rather than allowing it a separate plane. For instance, after the news of President Obama’s new economics plan, one republican stated that the debt ceiling was a “Satanic sugar-coated sandwich” or some such inanity. Then, if you turn on just about any Fox news program, wait a few minutes and they’ll be talking about some murderer or another, thus relating to you the message that you can die soon. When they speak of religion, it’s more of a way to condemn people rather than remind the viewer of their soul’s immortality. They’ve turned religion into commerce and death into cash: just like so many others (like the makers of Final Destination too).
I think this is one of the reasons why I love comedy as a genre, and why I wish people didn’t think so little of it. Comedy, in laughter, offers us a respite from the thought of death. It doesn’t bombard us with corpses. A well made tragedy can be beautiful, but I generally find disagreeable any TV show or movie or book that necessitates a person die for it to have a subject at all. Of course, by no means do I hope the genres of horror, action, film-noir, or western disappear, I only hope that the creative minds behind it will focus on life instead of lucre. The same goes for the news.
P.S. I don’t intend to write very many serious posts like this, so you can expect my writing to revert to its usual blithe punning and quibbling mode soon.
I’ve written a book of fiction called The Madness of Art: Short Stories. It’s available on Amazon and on the Barnes and Noble website. Please don’t impulsively buy it out of fear. If anything, purchase it so that you may read part of it now and parts of it way in the future.