Horror, at its heart, is about the war at the base of human existence, the war of evolution and instinct. Evolution tells us we have to keep moving forward because we have no choice, we must move forward to survive but instinct warns us to be wary of moving ahead too quickly because there are perils ahead. A great part of horror, specifically the films, has been about letting our curiosity outreach our rationality. Yet, without that spirit of adventure we lose one of the things that make us special as a race. Ah, but it also has caused a lot of pain and damage as well. But as go humans, so goes horror. Horror seems to always be at a crossroads where its makers waffle between leaping forward with new styles, new types of films, and new ways to tell stories and following the path that was laid out in the past. For some reason it seems like it always has to be one way or the other though, there’s no real balance.
For me, horror works best when it IS balanced, when modern ideas are melded with classic techniques. It is taking a unique approach to a familiar subject. Horror, when it works, taps into our fears in such an intimate way that it haunts us and becomes part of that old fear, forged to it forever. And you can argue over how nothing is scary in the modern world or ‘horror’ is dead (like they claimed irony was dead) in the face of a world full of real life terror but the fact is that Man has always feared the Unknown and sometimes we need to cling to the fear of a specter, of a monster, of an invader from beyond because it allows us to quantify and classify and indeed defeat or overcome these things, something we can rarely do in our day to day lives. Horror serves a purpose, even if some of us don’t want to admit it, because it’s like they say, better to deal with the devil you know (the actual Devil), than the one you don’t (some masked person entering your home in the night set on disrupting your life or worse).
The thing is that horror is out of balance right now. Horror’s creators chase whatever trend is popular and drive it into the ground, neutering the fear and the thing behind it. Why do we mock the undead and vampires now? Because they became overused and trite. It isn’t that they became romantic, in the case of the vampires, or too slow in the case of the undead but that they became too familiar. In the hunt for money horror has become a genre focused on the easy scare, the easy dollar, and the easy out. Times change, and so do storytelling techniques, that’s natural, but when things start to become a problem is when the horror films become interchangeable to the public. ‘Oh, it’s a zombie, it’s just like ‘blah-blah’ or ‘I hate vampires, they’re just like ‘blah’. And it’s true that horror runs in cycles, that these trends are not new, but it’s that now you have not just books, you have television shows, you have movies, and you have made for video and television movies that clutter the landscape. And the thing is, if all of that stuff was good we wouldn’t have a problem. Alas, that’s not the case. It’s that the crap, and there is a lot of it, overpowers the good stuff out there. This isn’t a matter of taste so much as quantity and quality. Personally I get a kick out of the found footage films. It’s a novel concept and when done well really brings horror films back to what makes them so potent – that instinctual feeling of terror when something isn’t right and we’re powerless in the face of the unknown. Once those found footage films became popular though the trickle down effect kicked in and all you need to do is go to a video store, look through what’s streaming on Netflix, or just look at the new releases to video and you see the glut of found footage movies we’re getting. What makes it worse is these get-rich-quick schemes are all about that first idea – the found footage – and little else. Logic, acting, direction, story, all of that goes out the window. You can dress it all up with gore, with nudity, and with sensationalism. Other films hide their faults with similar tools or with the quick editing that has become so popular in videos and modern action oriented films. Don’t like the way the movie’s going? Just wait, there’s probably a boob or spurt of blood in the next reel. And I dunno that we hate zombies and vampires so much as we hate poorly done representations of them.
Horror, like anything else, when it hits the mass market is all about money. When it leaves the campfire it is about the numbers. And that’s fine. It’d be great to think that horror could be treated like Art, and done for the love, and to varying degrees it is, but that love must always be tempered by cost and return. Movies and books are not inexpensive to produce and create. The more expensive a thing is the more important it is to make some money back to 1. pay back the investors that believed in the projects and 2. to filter out what works and what doesn’t. Now, the second part there is always up for debate as what ‘works’ and doesn’t is usually up for debate and a matter of popular opinion, but the first is just a truth. If the stuff doesn’t make money, it won’t be made. You have to accept that there will be hackneyed ideas and retread terrors, and that’s part of the deal. But the thing is that that is pervading and infecting the genre. It has become so that every new idea has to be sold as a retread of a different era. ‘Oh, it’s an homage to the ‘70s’ or ‘It’s just like an ‘80s movie’ have become selling points. And sure, there were great movies from both eras but why are we so focused on selling the past and not the present? Every horror out there was inspired and influenced by what came before it. OK, got it, let’s move on. Let’s look ahead.
Let’s take back horror!
And how do you do it?
How do you take back a genre?
By taking the genre seriously. Sure, we’ll have the trends, we’ll have those that chase the dragon of what is hot at the moment but what if we started using those works as springboards to new ideas and new perspectives? Take CHRONICLE for example, a film that took what was being down with horror and the found footage films and used it to tell a story about people with superhuman powers. Horror should be leading the charge, not following the pack. Horror is where you can take chances, where you can take risks, and where you can push boundaries. Sure, horror is damned for those very reasons but it also opens things up for creators to tell more personal, more daring, more dangerous stories. Instead of focusing on the film’s beats – open with scare, go to friends, go to sex, go to false scare, go to death, go to friends, go to scare after scare, go to revelation, go to final battle, go to false ending, go to climax, go to jump scare, end – we need to be looking at how we can play with what has been done before. Doing this is not always successful but it’s the risks that have the greater payoffs. THE THING was considered a flop, a disaster, yet now, so many years later, it’s a horror classic. That’s what we need to chase, the monsters, the ghosts, the FEAR, not the money. The money will come if we do our jobs well. If we make good product. And it is product, whatever it is, and it must be treated with respect because it is, in many instances, someone’s money on the line, but it also must be its own animal if it is going to be something that people remember and return to. And that’s where the balance is – balancing the art and the money. The past and the present. The evolution with the instinct.
Horror is about the intimacy of the moment because deep down you are truly alone when you are terrified. You can fear for others, sure, but terror, horror is about YOUR fear, and how you deal with it. That’s what so many of these mass produced films miss, that you can tell a big story, a little story, a mass marketed story, it doesn’t matter, and still be effective, but only if you make that fear an intimate thing. And nothing I write here will change the greater picture but it’s only by looking at how things are sometimes that we can change, and if we want to have more classic horror films, more films that we will remember and return to, more horror we’ll read time and again, then we need to start getting back to what makes horror so impactful, and that’s the terror, the intimacy, the instinct, all while we keep an eye on evolving the genre to keep it fresh and potent and living.
Not easy things to do, but the fun is in the challenge, and in the horrors yet to come.
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