I’d be lying if I said this whole piece wasn’t almost entirely inspired by the recent confounding “backlash” over the incredible The Witch. I won’t get too into it – the articles can be found with a simple search – but the general (negative) consensus is that it just wasn’t scary. (There was also some chatter that The Witch – a historically accurate movie about witches, mind you – somehow wasn’t a horror movie, but those arguments are so mind-numblingly stupid that I won’t even acknowledge them.) The only conclusion I can come to is that, in both instances, people were complaining because The Witch was maybe too cerebral for them, too psychological. And if that’s the case, then it’s a sad state of affairs for horror fans.
Anyone who considers themselves a fan of horror movies should be aware by now that, much like our economy, the middle class of theatrical horror movies has been shrinking while the ends of the spectrum grow to disproportionate sizes. It seems like decently budgeted scary movies that are engaging and original can’t catch a break; studios nowadays only seem interested in making either extremely low-budget carbon copy ghost movies aimed at teen audiences – movies that only exist to earn upwards of 100x their budget back – or over-bloated CGI-fests that receive a lukewarm reception at best. Both options are depressingly bleak, and yet it keeps happening.
At one time, intelligent and challenging horror movies were just part of the garden variety you’d find at the cinema. They were commonplace. They weren’t made with a teenager’s interests in mind, they were made for a blanket audience of bright and discerning moviegoers who wanted to escape reality for a few hours, be entertained, and leave the theater talking about what they’d just seen, maybe even for the next few weeks. They were political, they were subversive, they were shocking. I made a handy chart to illustrate my point. Look at the titles; arguably none of these films were made with a teenage audience in mind – and they’re unequivocally some of the greatest horror films ever made.
But teens still had an outlet. Thanks to pioneers like Roger Corman and William Castle, the B-movies of the late-’50s, ’60s, and ’70s – especially those focused on horror and sci-fi – satiated teenagers and less discriminating viewers, but it’s important to remember: B-movies weren’t highly regarded; they were criticized and mainly resigned to the drive-in. They weren’t expected to make money and they weren’t expected to change the face of cinema. They were brainless romps aimed at a teen crowd with a teenage mentality. Occasionally one or two broke the barrier but it wasn’t a common occurrence.
The great thing was: the hoity-toity arthouse stuff and the drive-in exploitative filth happily coexisted for many years, even occasionally crossing paths. But sadly, it didn’t last. By the early-’80s, horror’s primary audience began to shift. More to the point, the audience movie studios wanted to make horror for began to shift.
One could argue that two concurrent trends directly led to a permanent change in not only big screen horror, but also big screen anything in general: the success of John Carpenter’s independent masterpiece Halloween (1978), which begat a surfeit of lesser copycat films (movies that inspired Roger Ebert to coin the term “Dead Teenager Movies“, and the nonspecific but still applicable “Idiot Plot“, and inspired movie companies to franchise the bejesus out of them), and Spielberg birthing the “blockbuster” by producing accessible, family-friendly (not to mention mucho lucrative) sci-fi and horror films. These two occurrences seem to have set the theater-going standard for what is expected (or not expected) from a film today, horror or otherwise.
And here we are, 30+ years later, and guess what? We’re still only churning out a surfeit of lesser copycat films and blockbusters to the theaters. And horror audiences have been reprogrammed – neutered and conditioned – to not just accept it, but enjoy it. How else can you explain why original films like The Babadook and It Follows only made $7M and $20M at box office, respectively, while Ouija, an utterly indistinguishable ghost movie based on a board game that was universally panned by critics and fans alike, made $103M? I’m not kidding: I want a goddamn explanation.
Today, enjoyable creative independent horror/sci-fi/exploitation has mostly been resigned to VOD – which is fine I suppose if it’s making money, even though I’d still love to see it on the big screen. Hell, even if it’s the VOD stuff I don’t like! But when independent, creative, moody, thought-provoking horror does make it up on the big screen – movies like The Witch – we should appreciate it. Actually, we should be on our knees, crying tears of joy, with the realization that all hope is not yet lost. We shouldn’t be arguing about whether it was scary (which it probably was) or its genre accurately ascribed (again, it probably was) – instead we should breath it in like fresh air.
Sorry, it’s been awhile.