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.
6 thoughts on “RANT: Engaging Horror Deserves a Comeback (AKA Kill the Jump-Scare)”
Man, I hate when I’m late to a crotchety-old-men-lamenting-the-current-state-of-horror-movies discussion and all the good points have been made. Guess I need to get up earlier. Or stay up later. Anyway, I agree with pretty much everything that’s been said here. I think a too-large budget promotes lazy filmmaking most of the time, so I prefer the low-budget stuff anyway, but it is a shame that there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.
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I often wonder, “Is this it? Have I reached that point where I’m complaining because I’m no longer hip?” Surely adults complained in the mid-’80s that they’d had enough of Jason Voorhees, yet I loved all those movies growing up – so is it like that? Have I crossed THAT threshold, where I’m an adult complaining about movies that the current young crowd loves and will harbor nostalgia for as they older?
But then again, I don’t really think that’s the case. I think something is truly broken with current theatrical horror. And there’s no denying I’m a grumpy old man – but not in this case, I don’t think!
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I force myself to do that same sort of self-reflection all the time, but I do think you’re right in this case. I just can’t see anyone debating whether the second Paranormal Activity is better than the third one thirty years from now. Well, I gotta go; some of those damn neighborhood kids are getting awfully close to my yard and that garden hose isn’t going to spray itself.
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I always find it weird when people try to claim that something isn’t horror. When I was in junior high, the only thing that people considered horror was slasher movies. The term thriller was quite fashionable as a way to market horror to a nonhorror crowd. Unfortunately, most of those were just as formulaic and tired as the slashers (Sleeping With the Enemy, Hand That Rocks the Cradle etc.)
Now it seems like it’s horror fans trying to call out movies for not belonging in the genre. I haven’t seen The Witch, and it doesn’t look like it will play near me. I understand that I’m not really anybody’s prime demographic anymore. I have four kids and a very limited entertainment budget. Still, I like to see a scary movie more than a trendy one. I’m becoming increasingly clueless as to what current trends are. If I didn’t spend my work day with middle school kids, I would have no clue. I was thinking of recent examples of low key horror movies that left me completely satisfied and came up with The Others and The Ninth Gate. Not exactly recent…
I’m not opposed to one type of horror over another. I don’t think I have to choose either Friday the 13th or The Shining as the horror movie of 1980. I love them both. I know which one was a better movie, but I also know it’s not the one that I’ve watched dozens of times (and that’s being conservative).
I see what you mean though. The more teen movies I see these days, the more I realize they’re not for me. When I look at pop horror, the primary goal is always to turn a hefty profit. Cunningham only tried his hand at Friday the 13th after his two Bad News Bears ripoffs failed. The means to that end in the 80s though seemed to be to use 1. horror/gore and 2. nudity/titillation. From the mid 90s on the primary means to a profit involved bigger budgets and 1. Good looking known actors (WB?) 2. horror elements. I just wasn’t into the first part of the equation for the newer movies. I liked the scummier and cheaper movies trying to turn a profit on 2 million or less than I did the glossier stuff.
I’ve heard a few others lament the death of the mid budget movies It’s too bad that we’re not going to get as many filmmakers willing to take chances while having the budget to actually create their vision. Chainsaw 2 is one of my favorite mid-budget movies. I don’t know if something in that class could happen today.
I’ve meandered so much here that I forgot what I initially wanted to say.
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Y’know, it’s funny you said, “I don’t think I have to choose either Friday the 13th or The Shining as the horror movie of 1980”, because I initially started this piece off similarly but scrapped it. I originally began by summing up my first horror movie watching experience with my family as a child, wherein we rented FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES and THE BROOD. I was so young, I had no idea what was going on – so I had to interpret the movies through my family’s reactions: they laughed and scoffed and shrieked (immediately followed by more laughing) at FRIDAY, but they sat in utter rapt silence during THE BROOD.
Upon writing it, I realized I didn’t have much of a point so I tossed it.
Anyway, I agree with your point about the too-pretty casts and glossy stuff of the mid-’90s and on. Horror cinema – but also anything worth while – no longer feels wild and dangerous. Also agree that it’s too bad creative directors will no longer be allowed a mid-level budget to bring their ideas to life, win or lose.
It all comes down to supporting the right kind of horror. Don’t go see all this paranormal carbon copy bullshit, y’know? How hard is that to figure out? It absolutely kills me when someone says “I went to see (generic haunting movie) Part 4, and it was terrible.” No fucking shit, genius! I feel like people have lost their ability to exercise common sense. Good lord. Time for a beer!
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I’m with you on all points. I used to always try to help the cause when I could. Now I hardly go to see any movies in the theater and my entertainment budget is spent on either what my kids like (which is great because they have no clue or concern about what’s good or acclaimed, they only like what makes them laugh – usually fart jokes), or re releases of older movies.
I sort of realize now that physical media is a collectors market and the prices are soaring (especially in Canada). I can’t support them all, but when a company like Arrow, Synapse, or Grindhouse puts out an amazing package I like to offer my support. I just wish I could get them all.
I remember when Hatchet 2 came out, the rally cry was that it was here to save horror and that all horror fans should buy tickets just on principal. I bought it when it came to blu ray just out of curiosity to see another slasher movie, but when it comes right down to it, the movie wasn’t really what I’m looking for. I think Adam Green has great intentions, I just wish I liked his movies more.
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