My plan had been too produce enough reviews to last all of October for Halloween, but between real life work needing more attention, and watching a number of non-horror related films, my headspace has been in another place altogether. I still have been enjoying plenty of horror films as of late, and there are three films that I feel I have something to say about, but I honestly feel I need to get my head elsewhere before tackling those reviews.
However, I don’t want to turn my back on horror films just yet, as there is one topic I feel compelled to write about for sure: the state of the modern horror film. It is almost needless to say, but the last decade has been abysmal for the horror genre, thanks to the endless remakes, sequels, and just plain watered-down fare that has been offered to audiences. Yes, a number of at ambitious, interesting and/or legitimately great films were produced between 2000 and 2009, but more often than not these films were buried with small theatrical releases, or simply sent straight to video where they were unlikely to find a wider audience outside of the horror hard-core. Meanwhile, mainstream junk such as the infamous Saw series, which began in 2004 and seems likely to run until doomsday, has been sucking up theatre screens and production funds from more deserving projects.
While the obvious reason for the down spiral of horror films is the eternal quest to maximize box office revenues, less direct reasons have also been offered, from the all too real horror of September 11th, 2001 reducing the power of the horror film to scare an already terrified audience, to cultural shifts in which the monster has become seen as something to be rehabilitated rather than feared. Certainly, both of these arguments have merit, the latter being evidenced by the existence of the God awful Twilight Saga. More dubious arguments have been made for a desensitised audience, though the unsettling (and outright disgusting) premises of A Serbian Film and The Human Centipede do make it hard to dismiss such claims entirely.
If we were to stop here, the immediate future of the horror film would look fairly bleak, with fans trapped between middling fair and films that are little more than journeys into human degradation with little (or no) artistic merit. Frankly, I find either option too bleak for my tastes. While there is little doubt that current trends will likely continue for some time yet, I feel that there is hope on the horizon for our beloved genre, especially if we (both audience members and filmmakers) can galvanize our support behind certain trends and projects currently on the move.
One of horror’s main obstacles of the past few years has been that the genre has been too cheap to produce whilst also being too expensive. While that statement may sound like a contradiction, it really is not. Horror films have always been rather cheap to make, which has allowed a gluttony of horror films to be produced and flood the direct to video selves at your local video stores and big chain retailers. For every Paranormal Activity, there are several gimmicky slasher films that only exist to reinforce the idea that horror is a low aiming, money grabbing genre. One of the most disheartening things I witnessed this Halloween season were just how many recent straight to video slasher films dominated the Halloween bins. While vampires and zombies may be over exposed at the moment, the twisted-serial-killer-with-a-theme monster has gone well beyond being tired. Such films need to cease being supported at both the production and at consumer ends of the spectrum, and higher aiming efforts supported.
Meanwhile, high budget Hollywood productions are tossing way too much money at making the same low budget films into large, glossy productions, a sheen that harms a film more often than it helps. While the low budget equivalents may be purely exploitative and tacky, their low budgets can also often allow for a rough and tumble energy that the big budget films lack. Large CGI spectacles rarely ever scare, and when your casts look like a group of models with perfectly made up hair, many of us cease to believe in the horror universe being attempted. For example, last I checked high school students tend to look like rather awkward kids (which is exactly what they are), not 28 year old underwear models.
Speaking of teenagers, here is another little thing we might want to collectively consider: teenagers are rarely that interesting. Yes, I know most the audience these days is twenty and under, but frankly adults are far more interesting to follow because they have a little something called life experience. Just look at the more successful horror films of the past few years: Paranormal Activity focused on a young couple, while The Last Exorcism dealt with a middle aged man with a family. Both films focus on adults with compelling histories, with adult concerns, concerns which are all the more open for transformation into horror stories. On a more practical level, adult characters simply allow for more experienced actors to take center stage, rather than placing the weight of an entire film on the shoulders of an early twenty-something who is still developing a sense of their craft. Yes, great young actors exist, but be honest, when your cast of characters is mostly made up of teenage characters, it is unlikely that the entire cast is going to be made up of top notch, or even merely adequate, actors.
Lastly, and this one is for Hollywood executives in particular, do not be afraid of the large scale horror film. While I may have earlier called for lowering the spending on low aiming slasher films, there are plenty of horror films in need of a real budget and A-level talent, talent which is ready and waiting to work on such films. Right now, myself and many other horror geeks have our hopes set on Guillermo Del Toro’s adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, a film that might just be the most ambitious horror film of the past twenty years. Del Toro has been fighting almost single-handedly to raise the bar for horror films, and a project such as this holds the possibility of opening up a whole new era of horror filmmaking if it hits. But it is going to require a level of support that are usually granted to big budget superhero films and other blockbusters.
And it will be up to us as horror fans to make sure that such a risk is justified. If we do not get out and support this kind of ambition, then we can kiss away a bright future for this genre. We need to be smart in what we choose to support, just as we ask studios to be smart with where we spend their money. I believe that we can do, and I hope that you join me in this effort.