Authors have gone to great length over the years to discuss horror and how it is used as a means of catharsis – a way to confront the horrors of the world real or imagined and to see them faced and conquered. Horror is our way to lean out over the edge of the chasm to feel its cold breath knowing we can always lean back when we’ve had our fill. This is why so many of us love horror and more hate it – it revels in the dark side of things and some fear what that dark side may bring out of us. And I am sure, like everything else, horror and every other thing can have an adverse effect on the psyche of someone with preexisting issues, but any blame that horror – or other things like video games – takes for the horrors that Man commits against Man is just a form of scapegoating. If we won’t blame the guns for killing people then we can’t blame the movies for killing people either. No, horror is not meant to be a cultural guidepost towards bettering ourselves, no, it is meant to be a barometer as to where we are in society, where we have been, and where we may yet be heading. If comedy is a release from the pressures of the world – comedy never being blamed for teens getting up to sexual high jinx, naturally – then horror is our confrontation of the world’s horrors.
The problem with modern horror is that it has started to wallow in its own gruesomeness. Horror has become decadent in its gloom and what were once bold choices to have a downbeat ending has become the flavor of the month. Young filmmakers are aping the terror of the seventies, the realism of it, without the context or meaning. We are no longer surprised when the ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’ gets it in the end, we expect it. Yes, the world is dark, yes, ‘monsters’ win, and not every evil is banished but if no one survives and there is never any hope then there is no release, there is only wallowing. Believe me, I like downbeat endings, and I appreciate that horror is willing to tell us that sometimes the darkness wins…but I also think that there has to be a reason it wins and it has to mean something.
I can think of two modern horror film franchises that went multiple sequels deep only to end with downbeat conclusions leaving you series for masochists or gloom-mongers. As I said, I like downbeat endings but I don’t want to watch hours and hours of film and get invested into the overarching story only to be told there is no hope and everyone dies. Well, if that’s the case then I can just turn on the TV news. There has to be a reason for the things to happen. There has to be meaning to it. In one film you can say ‘well, bad things happen to bad people’ and get away with it but in a series you have to have something more to say. Sadly, most franchises are built film by film, rarely having a fully developed arc and so when they realize that the ever decreasing box office returns dictate that the series has to end or be shown the door they paste together something that approximates a summary of the other films. THAT is where Marvel has it all over everyone else – they plot things out. Imagine a Jason film or Freddy film with a plotted course of several films. Imagine if they made one movie that could stand alone but that if they wanted to make more they could all tie together into an arc. Not a series where every film is inter-related but an arc that told one story over several films. Horror doesn’t do that. Part of that is economics – horror films are made to make money and little else – but there is also a lack of vision. Sure, studios and filmmakers envision sequels and a SERIES for their movies but they never plot out an arc. And without an arc you get a hastily crafted wrap-up from people who were never involved with the first film and are just making it up as they go along.
This is a problem.
Horror has to mean something.
It’s mean-spirited to create a film or series of films solely for spreading darkness. Sure, people do it, and that’s fine, but if you are going to create a series of films that are inter-connected you owe it to your fans to give them more than that. Yes, there will be loss, there will be sacrifice, there will be pain and there can even be doom but you have to make these earned things, and have to make them mean something. Nihilism is swell but very few people want to invest hours and hours into something to be told that life sucks, the bad guys win, have a nice day. There’s an unwritten compact between cultural artist and consumer and it’s that you should give the people not necessarily what they want but what they have earned. Yeah, it’s different than what a fine artist or even a run of the mill artist has to do – they can make points and take risks – but the cultural artist works for and with the consumer and as such you have to take them into consideration. Don’t soften the blow to appease them but don’t be cruel as a sort of artists’ statement well after you have cashed all your checks. No one wants to go to the Fast & Furious series and watch all the characters die at the end of the series. Sure, there can be loss, and pain, and sorrow, but you have to earn that and it has to mean something. That was why people hated what happened to Hicks in Alien3 – he had done so many heroic and amazing things in Aliens and then in the next film he was just dead. Sure, it was a way to get a character out of the film who didn’t fit it, and it was maybe a reflection of real life but that wasn’t what people wanted. They wanted fairness and it wasn’t fair. I actually loved that a horror film I saw this year, a sequel to a film with a downbeat ending, did the opposite and had a dark ending but one which gave you a happier ending. It surprised me. That is what I want, I want to be surprised, or at least to feel that the ending we got was earned. There’s a very dark film out there about the ‘dark web’ and a young woman stumbling upon it and it’s a mean movie, a nasty movie, and it has a grim ending but when the camera fully pulls back you see a bigger picture and the ending takes on more meaning. It worked because the context and message worked. That is what I want to see, not just everyone dying and the killer traipsing off with no repercussions in any way. Even a film like The Poughkeepsie Tapes, which was dark as heck, gave you an ending that it earned, as grim as it was. That is what I want.
But these are movies people cry out – or books too, to be honest, since you can have a book series do the same thing. And yeah, this is popular culture stuff, not life or death, but we still invest our time, our money, and our emotions. Humans are emotional beings and when we invest in a thing, get attached to it, we are all in and that means that when the creators of a project don’t play fair it bothers us. I wrote a fantasy book series and when it came time to wrap things up what I had intended to do and what I did do were not the same. The story organically went one way and my intentions the other but part of it too was that you have to be fair, to the characters, to the reader, and to yourself. This doesn’t mean you pull punches and had I gone with my original intent I would have made that ending mean something, because you have to or you betray the trust people who invested in your work had in you and the work itself. If you choose to work in cultural art, especially popular cultural art then you have to be fair. You don’t have to be nice but you have to be fair. And honestly, the genre has gotten predictable of late with the consistent downbeat endings. Sure, they fit horror better than any other genre save sci-fi maybe but if that ending doesn’t mean anything, and offers no hope, then what are you saying? And if you are trying to make some bold artistic statement then maybe you are in the wrong trade. The audiences don’t have to leave happy but they have to leave feeling something more than outrage and disappointment.
Like all other arts movies need to be crafted. They need to be created. Movies, unlike other arts are generally made by committee. There are a lot of voices heard and many times this takes the impact a director has away and mutes the films power but sometimes that committee is needed to remind everyone why the film is being made and that it is still a product to be consumed. Again, this isn’t about happy endings and placating the audience. Horror needs to take risks, be edgy, and push boundaries, if it doesn’t then it loses its power and impact. I like Serbian Film – as much as you can like it – because it dares to say things that other films don’t and say them in a way other films won’t. But all that being said an ending must be earned and must make sense to what you have created. Since the days of slasher films and before we have gotten stuck on the jump scare false ending and the genre has suffered for that. We also suffered for the ‘women as perpetual victims’ shtick that was popular for so long. And we are suffering now for the persistent gloom of downbeat endings and it has to stop. If you are compelled to kill everyone at the end then make it mean something. Make it say something. Otherwise you’re just playing games with the audience and thinking yourself far cleverer than you really are. It takes no art to kill people off in art, no, the art is in making it mean something.