The Death of Horror

By way of Dread Central I’ve stumbled upon an article in the Newark Film Examiner by Mark Jones about seven reasons why the horror genre is dying.  While Mr. Jones offers some very good reasons, I feel like the article has a few details wrong, and who better to discuss this than someone with a grotesquely inflated sense of self-importance like me?  So here are Mr. Jones’s points in quotes, with my responses after.

7) Over Saturation
It would seem “quantity over quality” has become the horror adage. Each week more and more poorly produced, straight-to-video horror films hit the shelves and each week, the genre becomes a little more diluted. Horror is becoming the new porn, where anyone with a video camera and willing participants can shoot a film and get distribution. This lackadaisical approach to filmmaking turns a genre with little respect into a complete joke.

This.  This this this this this.  Is.  Exactly right.

But only in a certain sense!  For example, how many Saw films are we up to now?  How many more Halloweens will go by with another shoddily constructed offering in theaters?  I don’t know, because Saw stopped being relevant after the first installment.  It’s a cash cow, now, and an easy buck for the studios.  This same sequel-madness is what felled the great Slashers of the 80s, my friends — even Michael Myers in his resplendent glory was toast once magical druids were on the scene.

I think this problem can be neatly contained in an exploration of a horror subgenre, namely, the zombie movie.  Jones points out that any starry-eyed wannabe film student feels like he can (or should) make a horror movie because it is the “easy” way to go.  Doubly so if it’s a zombie movie.  This is a staggeringly wrong assumption on both counts.  Horror is not (or should not) be the easy course of action, and a zombie movie should be considerably more complicated than most filmmakers (prospective or professional) seem to think they are.  Fear, despite being an arguably primitive emotion, is much more meaningful than we like to think it is.  The overarching problem, I think, is that the audience for a horror piece seems to refuse to have standards.  People will focus on one aspect of the thing: gore, the variety and ingenuity of kills, the makeup effects on a zombie.  If these things are good, then suddenly it doesn’t matter what the story is, what it is about, what it teaches us.  Who cares about that stuff when there’s enough blood and guts that the filmmakers must have raided the meat section at a Super Wal-Mart?

Let’s talk about zombie movies.  Romero has run the standard zombie invasions make us question who the monsters really are rigmarole in the ground and perfected it.  It’s pointless, I think, for any zombie story to take this exact same tack again because even Romero himself has seemingly devolved into self-parody.  Do not get me wrong; this is certainly an important part of the zombie formula, but it’s getting tired.  It needs to be expanded, played with, questioned.  It will take effort to reinvent this type of plot, to move beyond it, and to make the zombie genre exciting again.  But unfortunately, if people are not retreading Romero’s ground (which they rarely seem to do with any finesse), they’re instead making purely stylistic movies based on how “cool” or disgusting something would be — the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, for instance.  But because, in the stylistic or technical sense, all you need for a zombie movie is a working video camera, some friends, and some makeup, it appears to be the easy way to get something done, so all your independently produced DTV zombie movies are the DotD remake without the pleasing editing or absolutely stunning Johnny Cash opening sequence.

So the genre stagnates only because we allow it, only because we do not, for whatever reason, hold horror up to the rigorous rubric of quality we apply to other genres.

6) Big Budgets
It might appear shortsighted to say a bigger budget would have a negative effect on a film. The more money spent, the better the film will be, right? Not always. What made many of the older films so scary is how real they seemed, looking more like documentaries than feature films. Also, no one in the films looked like actors. Leatherface’s family in the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” looked like they were pulled from a local insane asylum, not a casting call. All in all, the films were so genuine that they scared audiences for days after leaving the theater. Today, horror films are so stylized and clean it would be like getting scared by a car commercial.

Debatable, I say.  While I agree that realism is a plus, low budgets are not always indicative of quality because a lower budget, as I pointed out in the zombie-movie syndrome, often forces a storyteller or filmmaker to follow the stylistic or technical approach to horror and neglect the deeper meanings and implications of the narrative.  The original TCM was somewhat boring, I would say, and I absolutely despise the first Evil Dead movie.  Now admittedly, in both of those examples the lower budgets and technical emphasis resulted in some pretty stunning special effects (mostly in the case of The Evil Dead), what’s the point if the narrative fails to engage me?  I suppose it’s preferable to the next insidious beast…

5) Computer Graphics
Has the price of corn syrup and red food coloring skyrocketed? Recent horror films have become so dependent on computer graphics that they look more like cartoons than live action movies. Think of how much better “I Am Legend” would have been if the monsters chasing Will Smith around dilapidated New York City weren’t those silly looking animated abominations. The thing with CG is it can be beneficial, but when it’s overused, the films tend to be less scary and more stupid.

Yes, I hate CGI.  Do you hate CGI?  You should, especially in horror films.  CGI almost unavoidably breaks my suspension of disbelief because it looks so unreal.  I cannot feel threatened by something that is obviously added in post hoc; it would be like being scared of a Photoshop filter, for crying out loud.  It really doesnt even have to be a CG monster; I would say that Let the Right One In is probably the best horror film of the last five years, yet it has one particularly heinous scene with CG cats that pulled me entirely out of the film.  Now this is something of a problem, of course, because I suspect that the scene would have been impossible (or illegal) to achieve with real cats, and may have even looked ridiculous with puppets or animatronics.  So I maintain that CG should always be a last resort — the recent film Splinter, while not as good as LtROI, is a fantastic example of the wonders we can do with makeup and puppets, with only minor help from computers.  (Still, there’s a cringe-worthy shot or two near the end, but like the heinous cat scene, it’s over quickly.)

4) PG-13 Ratings
Nothing makes horror fans gripe and groan more than seeing a PG-13 rating on a horror film. What this rating guarantees the audience is that there will be little language, no nudity, and toned down violence, while guaranteeing the producers of the film a better box office turnout.  The PG-13 rating plays to the teeny bopper crowd, who will scream in terror at every single cheap scare inserted throughout. It also robs potentially good films of any kind of legitimacy with unrealistic dialogue, little suspense, and moderate violence. Not to say violence in moderation isn’t sometimes a good thing, which brings us to…

Again, debatable.  You may ask me to think of a good PG-13 horror film and I would be at a loss, but I think if I did research I might find one. (EDIT – a friend of mine was kind enough to point out that the US remake of The Ring, which I hold as an example of cross-cultural-remake-done-right later in this essay, is also rated PG-13.  So hooray for that.) Horror is not — or should not — be proportional to the amount of tits and blood you can show.  In fact, in my personal philosophy, a horror story is especially successful when it manages to terrify you without these things.  The original 1963 version of The Haunting is a good example here; of course it was made before there was a ratings system for films, but it has no gore, no nudity, and little swearing, but I would say it is the best haunted house film yet made.  If there is anything in this movie that would warrant for it a higher rating than PG-13, especially in 1963,  it is probably the rather distinct currents of lesbianism the film (and its source material, Shirley Jackson’s immaculate novel) exude.

3) Torture and Rape
Many of today’s horror filmmakers are confusing what’s disgusting with what’s scary. In a genre where less can be more, over the top, bizarre violence has become a crutch. From the “Hostel” films to “Saw” one through one million, it’s obvious that these filmmakers are trying to get scares by repulsing their audience. What they need to realize is making someone vomit is far different than actually scaring them. Along with torture, rape scenes have become a way for filmmakers to push the envelope. Yes, some older horror films did contain both these aspects, but today it seems every horror film has a scene with someone tied to a chair getting god-knows-what shoved god-knows-where, while somewhere else a poor unsuspecting girl is about to be deflowered by some maniac. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself, is this really entertaining?

No real disagreement here.  The sooner we move beyond torture porn the better.  This ties in with my own opinions on horror, letting a lot go unspoken so your audience can fill in the blanks with whatever makes them the most uneasy.  But it’s also a matter of meaning I brought up back when talking about zombie movies; torture porn is porn because it lacks any merit beyond gore, pain, and suffering.  There is no lesson being learned, there is no reason for this pain!  Again we have a stylistic or technical emphasis over the narrative; torture porn is about what looks cool, with no greater message being coherently formed or stated.

A particularly strange strain of torture porn, I will briefly argue, is the Ju-On series, which is being consistently remade and sequelized in the states as The Grudge.  The characters encounter an evil female ghost who has at best a tangential connection to their lives; they remain mostly ignorant of this malevolence until they are too late, and then they are spirited away or whatever the hell it is the creaky throated ghost bitch does with them.  The series is significant because it does not fall into the bloody mess (heh heh) of other torture porn: there is little blood, really, and the gore is usually restrained enough.  Yet it still operates in the same way: characters, who are  pretty much completely innocent of the reason for the ghost’s vengeance, are murdered one by one and — this is the kicker — there is no way to stop it or save yourself.  Tell me, why in the hell would anyone want to watch this, because I don’t understand it.  What is the thrill in watching an unstoppable monster be literally unstoppable as it kills random people for no goddamn reason?

Compare the “classic” torture porn plot: some unstoppable and seemingly omnisicent antagonist (a collective of heartless, rich foreigners or something) for no evident reason other than perhaps their own evilness-for-evil’s-sake slowly murders a group of basically innocent protagonists who lack any possible form of recourse.  In the end one or two may escape, but there’s always the stinger ending where MAYBE THEY DIDN’T or, more likely, they get killed off in the first five minutes of the sequel.  This sort of thing could be a ripe criticism for the disconnect between upper classes and lower classes, let’s say, but you only have to watch one of the movies to see it’s not.  It’s about how badass people being hit by trains looks.

2) First Person Point of View
Why is it that every time someone runs in a film there are sequences of nauseating hand-held camerawork? Can the viewer not understand what the person on the screen is doing without seeing it through their eyes? If that’s not bad enough, there are the films in which the characters themselves are shooting the movie. Ever since “The Blair Witch Project” filmmakers have been making first person horror films and every time the characters use the same sparse reasoning of “I’m filming this because it’ll be important,” to justify their actions. Even horror legend George A. Romero took part in these shenanigans in his last film “Diary of the Dead.” There is nothing more unbelievable than a group of twenty-something idiots who think filming giant aliens or zombies or invisible witches is more important than their own safety.

I sort of agree here.  The shaky first-person-cam of Cloverfield of Blair Witch is annoying as hell.  Who cares about seeing a movie?  I’d rather watch blurs of movement while people scream at each other incoherently!  But the Blair Witch film, in particular, is interesting as a cultural artifact; if you will recall, many people were confused as to the movie’s veracity.  Was it really long-lost footage?  This is rather silly, of course, because it is about fucking witches and spirits and anyone with two brain cells should be able to tell you it’s fake as all get out, but the fact that the movie was shot realistically, with an every day video camera, somehow managed to blur the lines between reality and fantasy.  I am reminded of the Victorians and their delight at staging pictures of fairies and ghosts for photographs; among the populace there was a sizable portion of people who simply did not believe you could fake a photograph because a photo reproduced exactly what it saw — what was ostensibly “reality.”  Anything in a photograph simply had to be real.

A small aside, while we’re still on the subject of cinéma vérité: the Spanish film [REC] was well received among horror circles, touted as being frightening, got an American remake called Quarantine, and there is a sequel to both on the way.  I will tell you now, contrary to popular reports, this movie is terrible.  It has plot holes galore, has no cohesive horror-aesthetic sense, I could really go on and on.  But I will stop for now and bring it up again when I’m through with this list.  Speaking of which…

1) Remakes
It’s nothing new for filmmakers to rehash old ideas and characters, but the horror genre has become notorious for it. At this moment, there are over 60 horror films slated to be remade. Granted some of them are just talk, but it’s a staggering number even if only half of them come to fruition.

Yes.  This really needs no explanation.  How are remakes a good idea?  What is up with the current studio fascination regarding “reboots” for classic horror franchises?  Do we really need an Elm Street remake, no matter how dated the original is?  Just because this worked for Batman doesn’t mean it will work forever, guys.

I’ve already mentioned [REC] and how it got an American remake, and so I will take this moment to talk about importing horror.  Up until recently, most horror media were imported from Japan and other Asian countries — original movies, Americanized remakes, etc.  I like being able to take part in a sort of international culture of horror just as much as the next guy, you understand, but as per my comments above I don’t really like remakes.  It worked well for The Ring, and that’s pretty much it.

So as long as we’re importing the original films, then we’re good, right?  No, we’re not, because the original movies can be just as shitty as anything we crank out in America.  The amount of Japanese/Korean horror that has been imported is far too large and diverse to point fingers at every little thing, really, but I will say the original Dark Water is a good horror story while One Missed Call is not.  However, in the wake of Pan’s Labyrinth the American horror scene seems to have gravitated to the other big ocean and set its sights on Spain.  This is not a mistake in and of itself; after all, Guillermo del Toro is a wonderful filmmaker, a man after my own heart, and Pan’s Labyrinth is a great film.

But perhaps because of the astounding quality of Pan’s Labyrinth as both a piece of horror and a piece of cinema (genre does not exclude art, it turns out!) there is a marked tendency to call any Spanish horror film the next big thing.  The Orphanage, for example, was very highly regarded even by critics despite having plot holes you could drive a bus through.  Certainly it deals with Important Issues in the same way Pan’s Labyrinth did, but it’s wholly more clumsy and nonsensical.  It was a passable film, but not deserving of the praise it received.

[REC] is the flip side of the coin, a movie with little worth that (like The Orphanage) was undeservedly praised.  It is — again! — style over substance, sound and fury signifying nothing, and so on.  The plot holes in this baby are wide enough that we could slip a 747 through.  It’s torture porn, except the first-person perspective means you never have any clue what sort of torture is going on (unless it’s torture of you, the viewer, heh heh heh).  It is scary, but only in the way that a jack-in-the-box is scary to a child who has never seen one before.  You jump when the monster pops out, but beyond that there is no emotional engagement.

I feel I should draw this ramble to a close.  It’s something of a mess.

Horror is a crappy genre.

This is true.  It has been a crappy genre for a long time, because so much of it is bottom of the barrel, derivative and desperate scrapes at the feet of better works.  So much of it is style in place of substance, disgust in place of true horror.  This is the fault of fans like me and you, because we refuse to challenge this genre we love so very much.  We refuse to ask it to do great things, simply so we can watch it do cool things.  When the genre gives us something good — something that is art, or approximates it, or strains the conventions in even a wonderful little way — we stand back and let the sequels come, the remakes, the reimaginings, the next-big-things.  We refuse to think about what horror as an emotion means for us as a species, what it communicates.  We horror fans are content to sit here and simply amuse ourselves to death.

That’s pretty spooky, isn’t it.

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