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Hollywood terror is now pale, tasteless


There's very little I don't like about Denzel Washington. But last week, when I emerged from seeing his latest thriller, Training Day, I felt bruised.

Washington plays a rotten-to-the-core policeman whose lack of morals and brutality are exceeded only by his ability to rationalize them. As his character tells a rookie narcotics detective, played by Ethan Hawke: "You have to decide if you're a sheep or a wolf; if you want to go to the grave or if you want to go home."

The movie, with its high-powered stars and shoot-'em-up plot, was undoubtedly designed to be a blockbuster adventure film, not out-and-out scary. But Washington's depiction of a rogue cop is, in a sense, too good. He embodies a truly terrifying kind of wickedness, the sort found in a person who is supposed to be a trustworthy protector, but who at heart is chillingly bad.

The plot unfolds in just one day: Between breakfast and nightfall, cops humiliate other cops, shoot bad guys, extort money, betray informants, friends and colleagues, and set up each other to be murdered.

Real life is far too unsettling right now for me to find escape in scary, violent films. Watching Training Day, I closed my eyes during the violent parts and felt increasingly uneasy about being in the theater. The experience made me wonder about how other films -- particularly those that were meant to terrify -- would play during these anxiety-ridden times.

Until recent weeks, I enjoyed being frightened by what was on screen. Scary movies give us a harmless way of exploring our own guiltiest secrets -- our deepest fears, most reprehensible impulses, seething desires for revenge -- all in the privacy of a darkened theater. No matter how great the suspense, how frightening the situation, on some level we know that the movie will end and that we will leave the theater unharmed.

After all, with movies, the worst side effect is a nightmare. There's even something relaxing about getting frightened by a film; there's a giddy sense of release when the monster finally meets his end or the killer gets caught. How different it seems now that real life has become truly terrifying.

"People love to see movies about disasters or about things that frighten them," says Marc Lapadula, a visiting professor who teaches screenwriting at Johns Hopkins University and Yale University. "But the movies are fantasies or they are supposed to be. We want to see things that we'd never want to see in real life."

He adds: "What these films do -- and why they are successful in making people feel a little less anxiety-ridden -- is that they open us up to the darker side of life. Maybe when fantasy articulates our fears we can better deal with them, but when reality supercedes fantasy, the irony is that these films no longer offer that kind of relief."

Reality is more frightening

It's no fun trying to guess whodunit at the movies when in real life we're praying that the authorities soon discover who's behind the anthrax scare. Since Sept. 11, we've been confronted with persons evil enough to kill thousands of people, innocents with whom they had no personal connection. There still are terrorists in our midst, authorities say: people who attended colleges and professional schools and rented apartments -- just like everyone else. Mundane activities -- opening mail, flying on an airplane -- have become potential vehicles for death.

A lot has been written about movies reflecting the fears of their eras. I remember the first time I saw the 1954 horror film Them! In it, radiation from secret atomic tests causes ordinary ants to mutate into 20-foot-long monsters. Scientist Harold Medford, played by Edmund Gwenn, spends the entire movie searching for the queen ant so that he and others can destroy her before she mates and gives birth to enough baby ants to overrun the world.

I watched that movie on TV and even though I was just a child, I knew what it was about: fears about the atomic bomb. How could I not? In a scene heavy with foreboding, Gwenn's character watches as monster-sized hatchling ants scratch their way out of proportionately enormous eggs.

"When man entered the atomic age, he opened a door to a new world," he intones. "What we'll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict."

I slept well that night, untroubled by the atomic age, but my relationship with the black ants in my back yard was irrevocably altered.

It is hard to imagine ever enjoying a plot involving the World Trade Center, but the opportunity will probably occur. The average time between an event and its Hollywood debut is about a year, experts say. "What's scary is -- as horrible as it is -- is that there is money to be made," Lapadula says. "Will Hollywood want to make a movie of this? Absolutely. When they think the time is right. But I think it will be a long while until they can write about this."

I spent a night last week rewatching a few movies to see if their effects on me had changed. The 1971 science-fiction classic Andromeda Strain was terrifying the first time, but upon second viewing it hit eerily close to home.

The movie, directed by Michael Wise and based on a novel by Michael Crichton, is about a group of scientists rushing to stop the spread of a deadly new virus brought back to earth from outer space by a NASA satellite.

Virus in the air

The airborne virus kills animals and humans nearly instantly, and as the movie begins, scientists are exploring a small Southwestern town that has been wiped out by the disease.

The scenes, in which men wearing biological warfare suits walk through the horribly silent and motionless town past the bodies of those stricken with the alien virus, to me felt too real to watch. The shots too closely resemble contemporary photographs taken as government workers sort through tainted mail in Washington and Trenton, N.J. I found myself wincing and thinking, "Who would make this movie? This is in appallingly bad taste." But the movie, of course, is three decades old.

I also watched Rosemary's Baby, the 1968 film starring Mia Farrow. She plays a young newlywed who gradually becomes aware that her husband and neighbors are cohorts of the devil and who, despite all her attempts to resist, winds up bearing the devil's child.

A lot of the creepiness of the film, directed by Roman Polanski, is offset by its outdated feel, but its horror lies in Farrow's slow realization that evil lurks in the familiar faces around her. The overly friendly, elderly couple next door? Don't trust them. Your handsome TV-actor husband? Don't count on him either.

I had planned to watch Them! next, but even though it didn't really scare me the first time, I decided against it. Instead, I rented something completely different: Billy Elliot.

Set during the 1984 coal miner's strike in northeast England, the film tells the story of a young boy who wants above all else to be a dancer. Though it's clear that his father and his older brother, both miners, expect him to follow in their footsteps, the title character, played by Jamie Bell, hangs on to his dream. You can probably guess the plot: Billy's determination to be a dancer finally wins over his father, who allows him to audition for a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. What saves the movie from mediocrity is that Bell not only can dance, but also acts wonderfully.

As I sat hunched forward, muscles tensed, hoping desperately that the young boy would perform beautifully at his audition, earn his scholarship and a chance for fame, I realized: This is about all the make-believe stress I can handle right now. Real life holds quite enough already.

Portfolio, a column of observations and opinions on art and culture by Sun arts writer Holly Selby, appears every other week in Arts & Society.

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