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It Follows the Rules – Horror Movies and “the Rules”

As with all cinema, horror movies tend to reflect the era in which they were created.

There are any number of obvious examples. The b-movie horrors of the fifties fixated on atomic horrors as an expression of anxiety of the development of the nuclear bomb and fears about science gone mad. The haunted house became a fixture of horror in the seventies owing to economic uncertainty, while the zombie became a reflection of unchecked mindless consumerism. The late eighties gave way to body horror as the AIDS virus became an international crisis. In the nineties, knowing irony seemed to take over.

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Even in the first couple of years of the twenty-first century, the genre came to be dominated by supernatural monsters and found footage. Found footage offered a more grounded and realistic depiction of terror, reflecting the footage of real-life horrors captured on camcorders and mobile telephones for broadcast on the evening news. This dependence on found footage seemed to represent a logical extension of the ironic postmodernism of the nineties, a fear that the real world and the world of the horror were overlapping.

Indeed, it is quite easy to draw parallels between the War on Terror and the horror movies of the early twenty-first century. The found footage style recalls the images of 9/11 captured by citizen journalists and imprinted upon the public consciousness. The emphasis on torture in franchises like Saw and Hostel reflects contemporary political debates about how best to face the future. The renewed emphasis on foreign countries as inherently hostile in horrors like Hostel, The Ruins and Touristas.

Still waters...

Recent horror movies have seen a bit of a shift away from those kinds of themes and stories, although there are still traces to be found; The Shallows is very much an “American tourist in hostile territory” film while The Girl With All the Gifts looks to be a clever twist on the zombie genre that is still going strong following a millennial resurgence. Still, recent years have seen modern horror become increasingly nostalgic and old-fashioned, a trend best demonstrated by the horrors produced by James Wan like The Conjuring.

However, there is something else interesting happening in the background. Perhaps an extension of the same postmodern irony thread threaded through late nineties films like Scream and then evolving into the blurred fiction of found footage, modern horror films seem increasingly fixated on the idea of the “rules.” more and more, it seems like horror films insist upon their monsters conforming to an internal logic that the protagonists and audience can deduce (and exploit) through observation and experimentation.

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Note: This post includes spoilers for It Follows and Lights Out. If you haven’t seen them yet, consider yourself warned.

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My 12 for ’12: The Cabin in the Woods & The Virtues of Constructive Criticism

I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.

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The horror movie has always been a bit of an ugly stepchild when it comes to film genres. It seems, for instance, that horror movies (and directors) have to wait longer to receive recognition for the work that they’ve done. The Shining, for example, earned several Razzy nominations in the year of release, but is now regarded as one of many classics within Kubrick’s oeuvre. There are lots of reasons that the horror genre is easy enough to dismiss or ignore.

You could argue that there’s something so basic about fear that it isn’t considered as much of an artistic accomplishment to scare the audience. There are legitimate arguments to be made about the sexist connotations of various horror films. Perhaps more than any other genre, successes within the horror genre have a tendency to lead to self-cannibalisation – sequels, remakes, knock-offs – that dilute and erode any credibility that the original film had earned. The innovation of Paranormal Activity is harder to recognise after half-a-decade of found-footage imitations. The cleverness of the original Saw becomes harder to distinguish amongst a crowd of “torture porn” wannabes.

All of these are very legitimate criticisms to make about the nature of the genre as a whole, and perhaps they speak to why films within that niche are so easily dismissed. I will aggressively argue that several horror films are among the most important films ever made, but I will also concede that there is (as with everything) a lot of trash out there, and a lot of things we need to talk about. Cabin in the Woods feels like a genuine attempt to have that sort of conversation, and to raise those questions. More than that, though, it comes from a place of obvious affection for the genre and all that it represents. This isn’t a stern lecture about the inherent inferiority of a particular type of film,  but constructive criticism from a bunch of people who care deeply about the genre as a whole.

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Non-Review Review: Paranormal Activity 4

I actually quite liked the opening set-up of Paranormal Activity 4. As far as horror franchises go, the Paranormal Activity series is still much more spry than most other long-running series, and there’s a certain charm to the opening hour of Paranormal Activity 4 that seem almost playful. It feels strange to talk about a movie featuring an ominous demon hunting a small suburban family in these terms, but there’s a surprisingly warm and endearing sense of humour to be found in the first two-thirds of the film. Things definitely come off the rails towards the finalé, as the movie (and the series) become too burdened down with mythology and story – and the last third certainly becomes a little over-crowded and generic, threatening to collapse under its own weight as so many modern horrors do.

While it’s nowhere near as innovative, clever or genuinely frightening as Paranormal Activity, Paranormal Activity 4 measures up reasonably well to the standard set by the sequels, ending up much stronger than Paranormal Activity 2, and about on-par with Paranormal Activity 3.

Something to watch over me…

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Non-Review Review: Sinister

Sinister is a few great ideas, wrapped in a hokey plot and executed in a reasonably efficient manner. To be fair, this latest movie from “the producers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious works best when it adopts a minimalist approach, with director Scott Derrickson and composer Christopher Young providing a suitably overbearing and overwhelming atmosphere. However, the movie runs into problems when it’s forced to play its hand, and when it feels the need to “follow through” on its scares with something more substantial. At that point, the movie becomes a bit clunky, which seems quite a shame – as Derrickson otherwise minimalist approach creates an unsettling canvas to set the story against.

Reel life…

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Non-Review Review: Paranormal Activity 3

Part of me wonders how far you can stretch a particular concept. I’m a big fan of the original Paranormal Activity, and I think it’s fair to argue that it was a massive game-changer for low-budget horror, somehow finding a novel twist on the “found footage” genre. However, there’s only so many times a particular trick will work. Paranormal Activity 3 works a lot better than Paranormal Activity 2 ever did, even if it comes with its own set of problems and its own diminishing returns.

Putting this spectre to bed…

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Chernobyl Causes: At What Point Exploitation?

This week sees the release of The Chernobyl Diaries, a horror film from producer Oren Peli, the filmamker who gave us the superb Paranormal Activity. However, I can’t help wonder if it is a little “too soon”for a horror based around the nuclear disaster that occurred in the Ukraine in 1986. It has been over a quarter of the century since disaster occurred, and yet I’d be lying if there wasn’t a faint sense of exploitation around the film, which sees a bunch of kids (American, naturally) touring the site of the catastrophe and uncovering all manner of unpleasantness. Still, it isn’t the only exploitation horror ever made, and I can’t help but wonder when a subject is or isn’t fair game.

Real-life horror…

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Non-Review Review: Paranormal Activity 2

Paranormal Activity 2 feels like a massive disappointment. While the original film left me tossing and turning in my bed, I can’t help but feel like I’ll have forgotten this by the time I rest my head against the pillow this evening. It almost feels like the on-screen hauntings were conducted by two very different poltergeists (or demons). If the original film was the work of a stone-cold profession with the world record in terror, just flexing his creative muscles, it almost feels like this film was the work of the office intern, clumsily trying to emulate what came before, but never really succeeding.

Watered down?

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