Pulp Fiction dropped like a bomb in 1994. This hugely successful pop culture phenomenon sent shock waves throughout Hollywood. Its narrative structure was fresh, and the characters delightfully idiosyncratic. The film utterly unique, yet instantly familiar. Skilled cinephiles could spot the many homages to classic films, and Quentin Tarantino became an instant success. While he has arguably already directed a horror film in ‘Death Proof‘, many horror fans have clamored for something from the iconic director that is more… nasty. Although he hasn’t had much direct interaction with our genre, I am here to argue that Tarantino’s influence is most definitely present, whether you know it or not.
Two years after the colossal success of Pulp Fiction, an unknown screenwriter named Kevin Williamson would team with legendary director Wes Craven to produce one of the most influential modern horror films of our time, ‘Scream‘. It’s obvious that ‘Scream‘ owes a monumental debt to the slashers of the eighties, but instead of ignoring the unspoken “rules” of the teen death stalker flick, ‘Scream‘ embraced them. It took familiar elements (sex=death) and made them seem new again. Eighties slashers are the first distinct influence in the genetic formula that is ‘Scream‘, but I would argue there is another element that many fans may have missed: Tarantino. Not only did he make it cool to be a movie geek, but he also showed how easy it is to pay tribute to your favorite movies while adding your own spin on things.
One of the best surprises I had the pleasure of experiencing was “discovering” Rob Schmidt’s delightfully demented hillbilly horror flick, ‘Wrong Turn’ back in 2003. The film flew under many people’s radar at first, being delivered in the dog days of summer, amid blockbusters like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean‘ and ‘The Matrix Reloaded‘. When I sat down in that theater, unsure of what to expect, I received a huge surprise. ‘Wrong Turn‘ was instantly familiar, yet refreshingly different. Schmidt had created a wonderful tribute to Tobe Hooper’s beloved masterpiece ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘, but at the same time the film felt new and “updated”. Ultimately, the film was so successful that it has produced five sequels and shows no signs of slowing down.
You might ask, “What does Tarantino have to do with ‘Wrong Turn‘?” Could it be that Tarantino’s influence is what helped this little horror gem secure a wide theatrical release? After the success of films like ‘Scream‘, ‘Pulp Fiction‘, and ‘Jackie Brown‘, I’d wager that producers were probably scrambling to find the next big resurgence. They would find it the very next year in 2004 from a fledgling director from Australia named James Wan. What else are the ‘SAW‘ series and its central prodigy, Jigsaw, but twisted stepchildren of immortal cannibal Hannibal Lecter? ‘The Silence of the Lambs‘ lit the world on fire in 1991, and popularized one of the world’s most enduring maniacs. More than a decade later, ‘SAW‘ arrived with a similar scenario of incompetent cops racing (and failing quite frequently) to capture Tobin Bell’s erudite lunatic. Although the first film may not feature John Kramer as prominently as the sequels do, the verbal détente between Jigsaw and Eric Matthews in ‘SAW II‘ is more than a little reminiscent of the psychological warfare that took place between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in ‘Lambs‘.
Flash forward a few years to 2009, and a little film called ‘House of the Devil‘ was getting rave reviews for its authentic atmosphere, and seventies-style sensibilities. Starring Jocelin Donahue (an actress appearing to be plucked out of the seventies herself), and featuring props and sets that seemed to be dripping with age, Ti West’s breakthrough captured the imagination of baby boomers that grew up on the Satanic Panic thrillers of the day. Seeming hard to believe today, there was a time when parents and religious groups across the nation were terrified of rock music and demon cults. Anyone who has seen films like ‘Race With The Devil‘ and ‘The Dunwich Horror‘ could fully appreciate the skill with which West was able to recreate this tense atmosphere.
The horror homage trend continues today with filmmakers like Rob Zombie and Eli Roth faithfully recreating terrors that we remember from eras long gone by. I’m not ready to say that these films all exist because of Quentin Tarantino, but his unabashed enthusiasm for the genres of his youth is apparent. Furthermore, his willingness to share these experiences has influenced a generation of filmmakers, and Hollywood will never be the same again.