WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO HORROR FILMS?

Being a hardcore horror fan these days is similar to being Howard Beale from “Network”: you are constantly mad as hell at the current state of affairs, but ultimately feel powerless about what to do about it. Horror buffs today are the cinematic equivalent of prospectors of the old west: forever scavenging through the rubble in the hopes of finding your prize, only to end up with worthless rocks-fools gold. You suffer through one disappointment after another, waiting for that moment when your diligence finally pays off…yet are rarely rewarded for your dedication. The recent “horror” boom has been no exception, as it has not yielded a single truly frightening film from a major or independent studio. During the last 20 years, something has changed, been lost from the genre and rendered it impotent of its main objective-to effectively scare the shit out of the audience. Through analysis and example, I plan to figure out what has happened and suggest how it can be stopped before it’s truly too late.

Horror Is Not Suspense

A pivotal moment in what happened to horror can be traced to 1991 and the release of “Silence of the Lambs.” While undeniably a suspenseful and well-crafted film, this is not a horror movie-it’s a thriller. From this film on, the line between suspense and horror seemed to get blurred as “Silence” was proclaimed as a scary movie. I enjoyed “Silence,” but it wasn’t scary-it was suspenseful. The same goes for “Se7en,” The Sixth Sense, The Others, The Blair Witch Project, The Ring, Final Destination and other releases of the last decade (even a supposed horror film like “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” which was more of a satire than anything else). Thrillers and suspense films unnerve audiences and try to get them on the edge of their seats-horror films shock, assault and terrify. With these distinctions, you realize that there has not been a successful (in the scary sense) horror film released in a long time.

Horror Does Not Equal Stupid

House of the Dead, Jeepers Creepers 2, Freddy Vs Jason, Darkness Falls, Cabin Fever, feardotcom-what do these films have in common? In addition to not being scary, they all seem to have no respect for the intelligence of their audience. Horror has forever had the reputation of being a brain-dead genre for non-discerning filmgoers, but this has more to do with the get rich quick knock-offs and inferior sequels than the genre as a whole. When you have directors, producers and studios whose only goal is to get in, catch a quick payday and get out, you’re likely to get a crappy product. The best horror films are actually quite smart, but tend to keep their intelligence as subtext (The Exorcist as metaphor for puberty, “The Thing” as metaphor for AIDS, “The Body Snatchers” as metaphor for communism, etc). This is why “Dawn of the Dead” is an effective horror film and 28 Days Later is not: “Dawn” is a zombie movie with a subtext of social commentary, 28 Days Later is a social commentary with the subtext of a zombie movie.

Pop Music Is Not Scary

Every time there was a zombie attack in Resident Evil or battle in Freddy vs. Jason, the soundtrack blared with nu-metal. In House of the Dead, bastardized techno was the score used to convey “terror”. Can anyone imagine how effective Halloween would have been if instead of Carpenter’s classic themes, the music had been disco with horror cues? Or if instead of Goblin’s pounding giallo-rock, “Dawn of the Dead” used Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan? Effective use of music and sound is always the earmark of an effective horror feature-can anyone ever forget the terror associated with the “chh, chh, chh, haa, haa, haa” of the original Friday the 13th or Bernard Herrman’s shrieking strings from “Psycho”? This relatively recent development smells more of marketing and attempts at spurring soundtrack sales instead of a creative-based decision. This rule is not absolute (The Exorcist utilized Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells superbly), but unless the music is used effectively within the context of the film, it seems to do more to pull an audience out instead of drawing them in.

Horror Crosses The Line

This is perhaps the biggest problem with today’s horror films: in a P.C. crazed world terrified of “imitability” and where box-office gross is not the bottom line but the only line, few films are willing to go too far. What made movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “Re-Animator,” A Nightmare on Elm Street, the first two “Hellraiser” films and others of that ilk so effective is that the filmmakers made it clear that you were not safe from where they were taking you and what they were going to show you. These were films that were, in effect, attacking their audiences, and the viewers never knew where the next blow was coming because they realized that the usual cinematic rules of restraint were not being utilized. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the Norris/Blairmonster sequence in “The Thing”: when Norris’ stomach suddenly turns into a giant mouth and bites off the doctor’s arms then his head disconnects from his body and skitters across the floor, you realize that this is a film working without a net (or rules). When Palmer says “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding,” he’s speaking for the audience, because we never saw that coming. Modern horror films never cross the line anymore. This is partly because the MPAA has obviously become a more effective censorship tool since the days of classic horror (and unrated films still have difficulty obtaining wide-release, NC17 or no NC17), but I think it has more to do with studios desire for profit: a film that has the potential to scare away potential ticket-buyers equates to lower bottom line in their book. What makes this all the more tragic is that history has proven that hard economic and social times are traditionally when effective horror films do best – times when a good hearty scare is just the relief one needs to take them away from unpleasant reality for a few hours.

What Can Be Done?

So what can a true-blue horror fan do in these troubling times of neutered, stupid horror films? I think the answer lies in what the Star Wars fan community has done: do it yourself. When SW freaks got tired of waiting for Lucas to make more movies (or in some cases, didn’t like what they saw once he did), they started making their own. Some of the best horror films were independent productions from first-timers working with shoestring budgets (and today’s digital technology gives a novice filmmaker much more power and quality than what was available in the past). Mad that there hasn’t been a good slasher movie in years? Get some friends together and go make it. Wonder why a film about the downside of technology hasn’t scared your pants off lately? Get off your butt and make a movie where a computer virus actually kills the computer user. Tired that the fake scare, pause-then real scare cliché has gotten out of control? Make a movie where the scares are unpredictable. Sure, the potential is there for a lot of unsuccessful, amateurish crap to enter the marketplace, but how is that really any different from what the studios are already giving us? As for me, my family’s got this old deserted cabin in the woods. Next spring, I’m going up there with some actors, a few cameras, lots of karo syrup and red food coloring and we’ll see what happens – because I love horror films.

And fans of that genre simply deserve better than what they’re getting.

Mike Robinson is the webmaster of DetroitBumps.Com and hates films that assume he’s stupid. So should you.




Posted on December 3, 2003 in Features by

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