By: Daniel Reynolds
With the release of Paranormal Activity 4 last week and Halloween just around the corner, I got to thinking about the amazing longevity of horror movies and the subsequent sprawling franchises they spawn. Trilogies abound these days but it seems only in the world of horror are there regularly fives, sixes, sevens and more. Here we are in 2012 and yet people still talk about Jason, Freddy and Michael, while many will gladly recount various tales of being too scared to enter a dark room for weeks afterwards. I suppose I can’t deny the primal pull these and other movies have over us. Well, some of us. After reading Zach Baron’s recent horror film discussion, I realized I wasn’t the only person who delights in watching a wide array of films but still blanches at the thought of another horror film.
So why don’t I like horror movies? Oh sure, there are some these days that I enjoy, your Shauns of the Dead and such, mixed in with some impossible to deny masterpieces like Alien, or maybe an art house classic or two like The Shining or Don’t Look Now. But, overall, I think the movie snob within me tends to question their quality, the modernist in me feels like they’ve been replaced by a more potent hybrid of genres, and yes, the cowardly chicken within me finds their effect grossly unnecessary.
On a purely technical basis, a lot of horror movies (especially in the last 10-15 years) are just downright poorly made, filled with uninspiring special effects, ham-fisted direction and wooden acting (even for horror standards!). Horror used to be a gleefully over-the-top means for a young filmmaker to get his foot in the door of the industry, usually by showing how creatively gory he could cut off said foot. Guys like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, both of whom have since made a fairly wide array of films, got their starts making half-insane, low budget horror films that were impossible to ignore. There was a vibrant originality to be found in the realm of horror, even if it just equated to a guy strapping a lawnmower to his chest and wading into a room full of zombies. That originality, however, has been replaced with a sense of corporate recycling, as many “new” horror films are just remakes of older, perhaps forgotten, classics (admittedly, I wouldn’t know, the DVD cases for the old versions scare the hell out of me). I know it is old-hat to talk about Hollywood’s dearth of new ideas but in the horror genre it seems particularly galling given the form’s original raison d’etre as a developer of the new and invigorating.
For all of the transparent reasons that horror movies exist (fun for the young filmmaker to produce, cheaply marketed, easily franchised), I contend that most of the best “horror” films of have been of a different style all together; operating instead as hybrid comedies, invoking tremendous thriller sensibilities, or veering off with the help of some meta self-awareness. The appeal of blood and gore is no longer the main selling point (though, I admit, there is still a market for it). Think of a film like the Silence of the Lambs, which is still thought of as the first “horror” movie to win Best Picture; it moves on a different plain. It’s a terrifying psychological thriller made effective due to its subversion of all the clash-boom-bang of the typical horror film. Lately, films like Cabin in the Woods (or the aforementioned Shaun of the Dead) have sought to deconstruct the nature of the horror film. These movies play with the emotions of the audience just as well as their predecessors did, but rather than promote one-note allegories, they confound audiences with a twisting of their expectations (while still packing in the scares).
This brings us to the point I’m sure you were all waiting for me to make. Straight up: horror movies freak me out. Believe me, I could continue on here in a theoretical vein, ruminating on the lack of interesting technique found in current horror movies, but this simple elemental reason remains. I’m probably always going to be just too goddamn scared. Where did this start? Maybe it was a sheltered childhood. Surely I can’t be the only one who, as a youngster, would take a wrong turn at the video store and find themselves suddenly in the horror section, awash in a gruesome tide of images that portended unimaginable terror. I feel like that icky, uncomfortable promise of incomprehensible fright has always hung near me, reminding me to stay away. I ask, why do we subject ourselves to this? There are enough films in other genres that should satisfy our need for suspense and mystery. Is it the blood? The violence? The terror of the unknown? I say good riddance, there are plenty other avenues to watch unsettling films that don’t involve gratuitous gore or cheap scare-tactics.
I realize that despite my complaints (which I’m starting to suspect make me sound like a sissy Andy Rooney), the horror genre is not going away. People watch movies to laugh and cry, to have their heart beat faster or grow warmer, and yes, sometimes to feel sheer, unadulterated terror. I’ve spent my life trying to dodge horror films as much as possible and, I think, sometimes with good reason. This Halloween, I plan to avoid the proliferating franchises, turn away from the unnecessary discomfort and take a stand by saying no to horror movies. Maybe you should, too.
Horror is probably the most important genre to study how a culture feels and what it is going through.