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The Horror! The Horror!

This weekend sees the release of the only two original (i.e. not a sequel, prequel or spin-off) major releases this May. For the kids – both young and old – we have the newest Pixar film, which is steadily becoming one of the highlights of the movie year. The other film – while firmly awaited by horror aficionados – has snuck up on the rest of us, generating great buzz from preview screenings. Drag Me To Hell is apparently the best horror film in quite some time, and one I am now hotly anticipating, but it got me thinking – whatever happened to the horror genre?

Bruce Campbell just isn't trying any more

Bruce Campbell just isn't trying any more

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s book on the subject, he suggests a hierarchy of fear:

  • terror is the finest emotion in the genre – it’s also the most consistent; it’s the element that has the audience on the edge of their seat before you’ve even shone them anything
  • horror is the actual sight or experience of an event that shocks or disturbs an audience
  • gore is the cheapest of these elements; King advises (and admits in the case of his own works) that it can be used, but should only be invoked sparingly, as it is inherently exploitative

It just seems that these days, studios seem intent on serving us gore with the occasional does of horror. Where’s the terror?

Don’t get me wrong, we still get a really good one, from time-to-time. Part of the reason that I enjoyed The Mist so much is because it was so rare to find a genuinely old-school horror. Everything these days seems to be part of the ‘slasher’ sub genre, involving copious amount promiscuous teenagers and aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator. The reasons for producing these films is easy to understand: they cost so little that it’s nigh impossible not to make a profit. These aren’t horror films, these are the cinematic equivalent of knock-off Levi jeans: they may look enough like the real deal fool you for a moment, but they’ll just end up rubbing you the wrong way.

That’s not to rain on every slasher movie – some are quite enjoyable. John Carpenter’s Halloween is fantastic. The sequels are less so. The first two movies in the Scream trilogy were genre-savvy before it became an irritating crutch that studios leaned on. You could even make the case that The Shining is a particularly well-crafted slasher movie. The targets just happen to be Jack Torrence’s wife and child. The problem is that a slasher movie (in and of itself) isn’t a horror film – it’s just a thriller. It takes a certain art to elevate it.

Take The Shining, an example above. Despite all the supernature goings on (blood in lifts, ghost twins, phantom bartenders, scary old ladies), what’s scariest is that this is a man going after his own family with an axe. This is the many who should be protecting them. Similarly, the true horror of The Mist isn’t those creatures in the mist, but the capacity of the people in the store. There’s an element of horror in The Silence of the Lambs (many film critics believe it to be the first horror film to win Best Picture), even though there’s nothing paranormal about it.

Sam Raimi, whose hobbies include making movies and generating work for Bruce Campbell (see above)

Sam Raimi, whose hobbies include making movies and generating work for Bruce Campbell (see above)

That’s not to imply that this sort of psychological terror is in anyway a superior form of horror. Nor that films that use cheap gore (properly, I must qualify) are inferior by definition. Ridley Scott’s Alien is the crowning example of superior body horror. Nothing about the film – from the architecture to the design of the creature – is understated. Everyone (even those who haven’t seen the film) know what happens to John Hurt. Still, it remains a terrifying experience. Sure, you could cynically observe that the sequels ramped up the gore and toned down the terror, but I don’t believe the two facts are related.

Indeed, I’m a big fan of monster movies. Well, relatively old monster movies. Zombies – those erstwhile dwellers of the uncanny valley – mortify me. Romero’s horror films don’t skimp on the gore (at least when they can afford it), but they don’t really suffer from it. The same applies to Danny Boyle’s far more modern 28 Days Later and it’s only slightly-weaker sequel. Maybe it’s because these movies tend to focus as much on those trying to survive as they do on those trying to eat them. Maybe it’s the darkness in the human soul itself that terrifies us.

On the other hand, it is possible for completely shallow horror to work well if handled correctly – take The Evil Dead series, for example. In those sort of scenarios, the energy and fun is contagious, allowing the audience to ignore the ridiculousness of it all. It’s a lot harder to do in a mass-produced soulless studio offerings.

Ever had one of those mornings?

Ever had one of those mornings?

I don’t know, really. I do know that I really want a break from those stupid Hollywood slasher films. I will admit that I have seen one or two Far Eastern horror films – Audition, The Host and Ringu – and that they scared the pants off me. I was barely able to sleep, honestly. It was like those summer nights years ago when granddad would let me stay up late to watch a VHS of a John Carpenter film. I would strongly recommend those movies to anyone looking for a good thrill. The American remake of Ringu just doesn’t match up.

Thinking about it, I think I may have figured out what the difference is between Hollywood then and Hollywood now. It’s not particularly deep and insightful, nor can I demonstrate it with any skill, but I think that horror suffers mainly from a lack of talent these days, at least in America. Any of the movies I have cited above – and many I didn’t like Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or Richard Donner’s The Omen – came from uniquely talented filmmakers. The scene today is populated with wannabe hacks and former music video directors.

As such, it really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that Drag Me To Hell is getting so strong a critical reaction. Sam Raimi is a maestro who has proven his ability both independently and in the mainstream returning to the genre he began in. I’d let him drag me to hell anytime.


Drag Me To Hell is a new horror film from Sam Raimi (Spiderman, The Evil Dead), starring Alison Lohman (Beowolf, Matchstick Men) and Justin Long (Live Free and Die Hard, Zach and Miri Make a Porno). It is released worldwide on 29th May 2009.

4 Responses

  1. Very well put Darren.

    If everyone acknowledges (horror) movies aren’t as good as they once were then why does this remain so? Perhaps there’s no motivation to make a good one.

    ‘they cost so little that it’s nigh impossible not to make a profit’.

    Remake, translate and feed the paying masses. We’re not going to suddenly switch to rom-coms.

  2. Yep.

    I do think that the callibre of director and writer working on a horror also has some impact.

    I’m generalising here, but it seems that most of the modern slasher film directors seem to step up from having directed a few music videos. Which might explain why we’re left with such a ridiculously stylish but ultimately empty and soulless films. Used to be the genre was full of autuers (okay, maybe not all there of their own choosing, but even that much resentment can’t mask true talent).

    On the other hand, Ridley Scott had little experience taking Alien, but there’s at least one exception to every generalisation.

  3. […] repackage, so why am I almost excited at this prospect? Well, because at least these horrors are better than the simple straightforward slashers that Hollywood’s been churning out by the buck…. Sure, I’d be more excited about a slate of originally chillers from established directors, […]

  4. […] reasons like that we get really bad horror films or nothing but remakes of concepts that already worked or nothing but remakes of really bad horror […]

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