Horror is not dead — at least not yet. It's true that "Grindhouse," "Hostel Part II," and "The Invasion" didn't live up to their massive hype, but Rob Zombie's "Halloween" remake did land the top spot at the box office last weekend. Still, the genre has had to fight for its survival of late by undergoing several metamorphoses: For a while, self-reflexive meta-horrors such as Wes Craven's "New Nightmare" and the "Scream" trilogy were all the rage. When those ran out of conventions and clichés to chew on, atmospheric creep shows such as "The Sixth Sense" and J-horror remakes like "The Ring" took their place. But their tame Hollywood horror quickly gave way to an extreme reactionary shift to "torture porn" ("Saw" and "Hostel"). Finally, the genre has come full circle with the recent homage to good ol' B movies.
With deliberately cheap effects and bad acting — in a nod to those forgettable 1980s rip offs of the "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th" franchises — writer/director Adam Green's "Hatchet" follows this latest trend. Nowadays, most distributors tightly guard their horror releases to prevent bad word of mouth, but "Hatchet" is apparently not afraid of critics. Since becoming a hit at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, this indie release has drummed up some healthy buzz via a grassroots Internet campaign.
Sullen Ben (Joel David Moore) is trying to get over a recent breakup, and he's in no mood to party hardy with his pals amid the Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans. Accompanied by Marcus (Deon Richmond), the obligatory black horror movie sidekick, Ben signs up for some absurd "haunted swamp tour" led by a black-caped Asian tour guide (Parry Shen) with a phony Cajun accent. Along for the ride are an aggressively friendly middle-aged Midwestern couple (Patrika Darbo and Richard Riehle), a Joe Francis-like amateur softcore videographer (Joel Murray), two witless aspiring actresses (Mercedes McNab and Joleigh Fioreavanti), and Marybeth (Tamara Feldman), an aloof woman who is "not here to make friends." Before long, a boat accident leaves the group stranded, giving Marybeth enough time to relate the local legend of Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder), a deformed maniac with a literal axe to grind.
Teenagers are likely to get the most out of the film. Never mind that its distributor spent two months appealing MPAA's original NC-17 rating before finally getting the multiplex-friendly R; nothing from the film's deleted scenes is remotely as vile as that mutant rape in the R-rated "The Hills Have Eyes 2." "Hatchet" is actually more funny than scary, and its sense of humor is strictly of the juvenile variety. If you've never witnessed bare breasts or blood spraying from severed limbs, you are in for quite a ride.
The over-the-top and unbelievably low-tech gore recalls early Peter Jackson (namely "Bad Taste" and "Dead Alive") but ultimately pales in comparison. "Hatchet" won't faze hardcore horror devotees who have been desensitized through the years. Instead, they'll probably have more fun spotting cameo appearances from horror hall-of-famers such as Mr. Hodder, Robert Englund, and Tony Todd.
Although it gleefully basks in red syrup and prosthetics, the film doesn't scare up any real fright. Its set pieces are too brisk, and it boasts an obnoxious TV movie-of-the-week score by Andy Garfield. With no aspiration to become the next master of suspense, Mr. Green doesn't allow any downtime for viewers to work the chill up their spines and the queasy feeling into their stomachs. Perhaps the biggest problem here is with his screenplay, which doesn't invest in its characters enough to get viewers to fear for their lives.
Like the movies it affectionately tries to imitate, "Hatchet" isn't clever or memorable enough to be a cult favorite. But, like any good horror flick, it is a pleasant diversion with a rowdy crowd at a midnight showing.