Friday, 26 July 2013

Are Horror Movies As Good As They Used To Be?

The Evil Dead - 1981
The Horror, The Horror. (An Introduction) 
After recently watching and hugely enjoying the 2013 Horror Movie Mama (Staring Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and while I found it genuinely suspenseful and creepy with some greats scares thrown in it dawned on me that I have not genuinely found a Horror Film "Scary" in a very long time.
Then a strange thought struck me the last scene from a movie that truly sent chills down my bones and left me feeling shaken was in fact from a from a film rated with a 12 certificate - Lumpy (Andy Serkis)'s demise in the Bug Pit from the 2005 remake of King Kong (Those damn worms still creep me out and i'm not even bothered by insects) but since I would class this more as disturbing (And It Is!) than scary I cannot remember the last time a film has genuinely scared me.

Now this may simply be a change in me since as a child I would often be terrified by movies that even so much as hinted at being scary with my overactive imagination devising far worse scenes than I could ever see on screen (Seriously I still remember the first time that I watched The Mummy on VHS and even before the expedition set off in search of Hamunaptra I was already hiding behind the sofa out of fear of every single sarcophagus) but as I got older my imagination was reined in and I began to actively seek out scares growing to love films like The Evil Dead, Alien and The Thing to name but a few.
But over the years the genre has begun to suffer with these types of movies seemingly being less well received by critics every year leading me to wonder if its not just me who may have changed of the general audience or even the genre itself.

There is no denying that the style in which Horror is portrayed is constantly changing as it moves from the glory days of the Silent Slashers, The Paranormal Visitations and Possessions, to the impact more modern styles of Horror Story-Selling such as Meta-Movies that explore the Horror Movies own conventions, the 3D Film Craze, Hand-Held Camera Docu-Horrors and 'Gore-fest Movies' (Classified as Torture-Porn by Critics) have had on the genre.
This all proceeded to raise the question:
Are Horror Movies As Good As They Used To Be?

Back to Basics. (A History of Horror)
Now to best answer this question it is necessary to explore the history of this genre.

The Horror of Dracula - 1958
The earliest traces of the horror genre in film can be found back in the 1920's in which several silent short films featured elements of the supernatural, although Le Manoir du Diable (The Haunted Castle) a Three minute long French Film by Georges Méliès is credited by many as being both the first horror film and the first vampire film, while Japan also explored horror early on, Hollywood dramas would later to go on to use Horror Themes in films such as The Phantom of the Opera, Wax Works, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

As Cinema progressed so did the Horror Genre with the 1930's seeing Universal Pictures release a series of Gothic movies that would send some of today's biggest movie icons including Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein into the limelight.
The 50's and 60's Horror slowly moved away from its Gothic structures creating films like Night of the Living Dead, The Haunting and Rosemary's Baby and probably the most famous of all Alfred Hitchcock's work with films like Psycho and The Birds.

The Shining - 1980 
But it is upon the 70's and 80's that we reach the foundations of the horror films that we know today with the genre moving from B (Low Budget Commercial Pictures) to more financially backed A-Movies that satirized modern society resulting in the release of films like George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead that mocked consumer culture, the Devil taking up the mantle as villain in films like the Omen and The Exorcist. Werewolf and Vampire movies once again came into their strength with the release of An American Werewolf in London, Fright Night and The Lost Boys.
While Wes Craven released his cannibal slasher The Hills Have Eyes which he would later follow with the definitive horror movie A Nightmare on Elm Street, Steven King's Novel Carrie was adapted into a movie along with his hotel-horror novel The Shining that would go on to be considered a classic.

Alien and The Thing proceeded to create the schematic for many great Science Fiction Horrors that would follow
But while the big budget movies reigned supreme Horror's B-Movies made a strong return as well with interdependent movies such as The Evil Dead and Poltergeist.
But the true contribution to the horror genre was the production of the most noted slasher films ever, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, John Carpenter's Halloween, Friday the 13th (All of which followed the rule: If your killer wears a mask, he's scary) Films that would go on to become major franchises that would shape the future of the horror genre.

The 90's are most notable for the influx (Yeah I just used the word 'Influx' in my article: truly I have made it) of sequels most of which were poorly received by fans and critics alike largely due to the excessive number of Slasher movies that were released  following the styles sudden success. 
The 90's also saw the birth of the Meta-Self Referential Horror Movies including Wes Craven's New Nightmare, Candyman and Scream that tried to explore new possibility of the genre through acknowledging the conventions of previous movies (such as the Rules in Scream exploring what it takes to survive a horror movie)

Today Of The Dead. (Modern Horror)
"Welcome to Fright Night. For Real". - Fright Night (2011)

Outside of remakes the horror movies mid 2000 onward slowly became focused on two main horror categories gore based torture-porn films such as Saw, The Collector and Hostel; And found-footage and handheld movies like the Paranormal Activity Series, Apollo 18, Diary of the Dead, REC and The Last Exorcism 

As audience have grown to expect more from film the level of just what can be shown of screen continues to grow resulting in films pushing violence and gore to the limits producing films like the Saw Series that expertise solely in being as visually grotesque as possible but at the loss of key elements like character development.  

While the rise in popularity of Found Footage Films could be attributed to the fact that before film audiences were overexposed by the massive number of these types of films that would be eventually released the found footage style was able to create a unique sense of believability new to Horror films, as film like the Blair Witch Project were able to create the impression that the footage could be real and have actually been discovered, The style also limits what the viewing public's awareness to what it happening on screen as the audience is only ever able to see what the camera (And character behind the camera) sees allowing the character and viewer to be surprised at the same time.
Despite being used almost exclusively by the Horror Genre the effectiveness of Found Footage Film was ultimately lost as more and more films adopted this style due to its ability to produce effective scares at low cost.

Thanks to films such as 28 Days Later, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead and  TV shows such as The Walking Dead Zombie Films have flourished over recent years and have seem to become so popular they may now their own sub-genre outside of horror films, while The Twilight Saga succeeded in staking the future of Vampire Horror in its tracks producing films such as 'Daybreakers' where the vampires took on the role of the protagonists and it seems that only recently this trend has begun to subside with films like the 2010 remake of Fright Night and Let Me In which see's the blood-suckers finally return to their original role.

- Oh and for the last time: 3D in Horror Films Is..Not...Scary!

Evil Reborn. (Sequels, Prequels and Remakes)
 "I'm coming apart! Oh, mother of God, I'm coming apart!" - The Amityville Horror (1979)

Horror Movies produce more sequels than any other film genre 
Seriously I cant get a Serenity or Dredd sequel but there have been: 
  • 7 Saw movies.
  • 7 Original A Nightmare on Elm Street films a cross-over and a remake. 
  • 8 Original Halloween films and a remake...That Got A Sequel. 
  • 10 Friday the 13th films with a crossover and a remake (and a future remake planned)
  • 6 Child's Play films (with Curse of Chucky out in October).
  • 5 Paranormal Activity films (with the Fifth installment being released next year)
  • 5 Wrong Turn films (This saddens me greatly)
The problem the genre encounters is that the quality of each movies seems to drop further an further the longer the series goes on. 
This is because Horror's strength comes from originality and the more focus is given to each movies world the less original the scares seem to be and so the movies is forced to try harder to gauge a reaction from audiences, 
A perfect example is the Paranormal Activity films with the  paranormal occurrences from the first film starting out very small (the sound of footsteps and key's dropping on the floor) before building and building as the film progresses allowing the suspense to build along with it allowing the major moments (such as Katie being dragged out of the room by an unseen force) to cause the greatest reaction from the audience, the second installment leaps for the big scares early on (Such as all the cupboards opening and trowing out their contents) and instead has to rely heavily from jump-scares (From a damn Automatic Pool-Cleaner) and the same major scares used during the first installment for the rest of the movie.
Even the films that were once considered the champions of the Western Horror Genre like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Child's Play are struggling to find their feet but only from poor sequels but one remake after another.
In fact the sheer number of horror films that have been remade or re-imagined in recent years is utterly staggering:
  • Carrie
  • The Hills Have Eyes. 
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
  • Dawn of the Dead.
  • The Amityville Horror.
  • The Evil Dead.
  • The Wolfman.
  • Halloween.
  • Friday the 13th.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street.
  • Maniac.
  • The Last House on the Left.
  • The Omen.
  • When a Stranger Calls.
  • The Wickerman.
  • The Hitcher.
  • I Spit On Your Grave.
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers. 
  • Prom Night. 
  • Psycho.
  • Fright Night.
  • One Missed Call.
  • The Crazies. 
  • Dark Water.
  • House of Wax.
  • The Fog.
  • My Bloody Valentine. 
To name but a few and while foreigner language Horror Movies like Let The Right One In, The Devils Backbone, La Horde, Shutter and REC seem to continue to be well received by critics and audiences alike the current lack of creativity in the Film Industry is preying upon these movies for English language remakes such as Quarantine which is simply a shot for shot retelling of REC and Let Me In a US remake of  Let The Right One In  films like The Grudge, The Ring and Pulse are all creations of this policy to recycle foreign movies into more audience approachable versions....
and they say creativity is dead.
A Nightmare On Elm Street - 1984
The Men Whom Fight The Darkness. (Characters of Horror)
 "A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality".- Alien (1979)

It should come as no surprise that main characters in horror films need to be compelling, or else why should the audience care when bad things happen to them? it is a vital part of the films mechanics that we should want them to escape or survive.
This important notion is lost upon the Saw franchise which after introducing some complex characters in the first two installments seems to lose its way come the third and instead begins focusing on death traps than the victims attempting to survive them, In fact the audience is encouraged to root for the characters death in order to witness the gruesome demise the complex death trap creates but this more gore based approach to the films creates a cycle of death the films are unable to recover from as with characters being introduced solely for the purpose of dying in the traps preventing the audience the time to become emotionally attached to them before their subsequent demise (even characters that survived previous installments return only to be killed off).
And yet horror movies have given cinema some of its most memorable characters such as Ashley Williams (Bruce Campbell), Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), R.J. Macready (Kurt Russel), Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) characters whom the audience can (if not always related to) care about and this is where another recent problem with the genre occurs, all the before mentioned characters are from films before 1985 in fact there are very few horror characters in the past ten years warrant mentioning at all. this is due to the films shifting their focus from the films protagonists to the villains as characters like Jason Voorhes, Chucky and Michael Myers became more popular.

IT'S ALIVE! (Defining Moments in Horror) 
"They're Coming to Get You ,Barbara!" - Night of the Living Dead. (1968)

The horror genre has provided audiences with many powerful cinematic moments over the years, ranging from the first time the girl crawls out of the television in The Ring, Robert Carlyle's desperate flight from the farmhouse as he is pursued by an ever increasing number of sprinting infected in 28 Weeks Later, The Flock of Birds growing in the playground in Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece The Birds, To Jack Nicholson pounding on the door with an axe in The Shining each of these moments are as powerful or cinematic as any other genre and it is important that they are viewed as such.

The Birds - 1963
All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy. (All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy)
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy". - All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. 
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and No play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. 
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. 
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. 
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. 
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Jack........

Wait...uh sorry, back to the article. 

Laugh In The Face of Death. (Horror Comedy)
"It doesn't matter what happened. What matters is what looks like what happened and what looks like what purdy nasty!" - Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. (2011)

A surprising growth in horror interest recently comes from Horror Comedies that  rather than spoofing horror movies like films such as Dracula: Dead and Loving It and The Scary Movie series follow the conventions and plot styling of scary movies but with the scenes playing out comically prime examples of this are Shaun of the Dead and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, 
Shaun of the Dead at its core is approached as a standard Zombie Movie but gains laughs from the characters attitudes and responses to the situation they find themselves in, while Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil instead plays upon a reversal of the conventions of a Hillbilly Slasher movie with college kids attempting to kill two innocent hillbillies the wrongly believe are out to murder them. 
The one thing that HC's have been able to achieve over standard Horrors in recent is to make their characters memorable - Shaun, Ed, Tucker, Dale and Bill Pardy are all lovable characters that you genuinely hope make it out of their (albeit comedy) struggles alive, so why is it that and humored version can accomplish this when the 'pure' versions no longer can?   
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The Terrifying Conclusion (The Answer)
"A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape. condemned to repeat itself, time and time again.” - Mama (2013)

But in truth the largest change to the Genre in past year has been the pacing; Whereas previous films looked to build tension gradually through a combination of atmosphere and the films score the approach to Horror eventually became predictable as horror-movies became more and more similar new techniques such as Jump-Scares and False-Scares were developed and employed in order to catch viewers off guard by subverting the audiences expectations, whilst this originally worked these techniques became popular with film makers and were used up to a point where audiences came to anticipate them as well, and since has since failed to develop an  new tools to catch film-goers unaware the genre has failed to progress much in recent years.

So are Horror Films as good as they used to be? 

But are any films? Why do audiences now jump at the prospect of seeing legendary action stars like Arnie or Stallone star in action flicks like The Expendables, The Last Stand and Bullet To The Head if not in hopes of recapturing the glory days of action cinema? 
Not that action films (or more to the point Horror Films) released these days are bad (Skyfall was incredible!) but cinema changes with trends and it is only natural that we should occasionally miss what we once so thoroughly enjoyed (cheesy or not) and today's horror audience requires more than just the faceless killer they once found so terrifying becoming more demanding as their expectations rise, You cannot scare an audience with the same tricks that you could get away with mere years ago (Jump-Scares are now just annoying) but this is a good thing as fear is by far one of the most difficult emotional responses to generate from an audience which is why its so rewarding when done well. 
So while there is still hope for the genre it depends upon its ability to try new things and remain original, As the more you know about something the less you fear it. 


  1. Really really interesting. I'm an avid Alien fan and it's interesting to see how quickly the sequels give up the scares; there's little more to reveal, and the whole premise of that first film is the unknowable just round the corner, even though it's not a blood-lust creature - it's like reading Dracula, albeit in space. Later films recycle the alien franchise as action thriller and (space) tragedy, before doing exactly what you pointed out and going for the dark humour/ self-conscious stylisation angle. It's not parrallel to but it's very similar to your analysis about horror genre as a whole; not something I'd ever thought about before. I wonder whether other horror franchises follow a similar arc?

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it! Very interesting...