The Horror Film: Dead & Buried?

The Arts

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Last night I went to the pub with Kim Newman, Paul McAuley, Barry Forshaw and others, and we ended up arguing about movies of course. The one thing we all seemed to feel was that Horror Has A Problem.

First, let’s be clear about genres – ghost stories and supernatural movies are alive and thriving. But the humble horror film, incorporating slashers, so-called ‘torture porn’, grossouts and terror-fests really seem to have hit their sell-by date. Why? To discover that, we must go back.

The history of the Universal cycle of horror films is well known. After that boom had cannibalised itself, the major studios had no taste for blood after the horrors of WWII, and it was down to the independent producers to revive the cycle, not out of a desire to be transgressive, but to make a buck on the US huckster circuit. Herschell Gordon Lewis’s absurd splatter films like ‘Blood Feast’ and ‘Two Thousand Maniacs’ toured the USA in drive-ins and on double-bills, operating outside of the mainstream theatrical release system. They in turn led to two decades of cheerfully gory grade-Z movies, the kind that once infested 42nd Street (oh, how I loved NYC then!)

In the 1980s these films went mainstream, gradually increasing in sophistication, from ‘Friday 13th’ and ‘A Nightmare on Elm St’ to ‘Halloween’. The genre was revitalised several times, by the films of George A Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ series, by Tobe Hooper’s ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, by Dario Argento’s giallos and Sam Raimi’s shoestring ‘The Evil Dead’. ‘The Exorcist’ fits the description of a horror film, although there’s much more going on in it.

More recently the ‘Saw’ films, which started as ‘torture porn’ and weirdly metamorphosed into crime thrillers, revitalised the genre. But after that there was nowhere to go. Once you’ve reduced the idea of a horror film down to a series of killings, there’s nothing else left. The ‘Human Centipede’ films are surprisingly squeamish about the generation of fear, working simply on a level of disgust. Without tension all that remains is anatomical sensation.

Directors like the overrated Ti West went back to 70s’ style horrors, but to see what went wrong you only have to look at two films. In 2006 director Gregory Dark made ‘See No Evil’, a joyfully nasty throwback to the 70s, with a deranged killer menacing some hateful youths in an abandoned hotel. The gross-out factor was epitomised in a coda that had a stray dog relieving itself in the killer’s empty eye socket. It was disgusting and funnier than it sounds.

Cut to 2014, and the Soska sisters co-direct a sequel which is more mindful of everyone’s feelings. The result is a risible, inept misfire that only had to do one thing – horrify – and fails spectacularly, because its characters must now have a touchy-feely vibe, so the killer has a human side and misses his mum, the heroes don’t die and not much blood is spilled. Worst of all, audience jaws remain firmly undropped.

Horror films by their very nature need to be transgressive – but how do you cross a line now, when any line can be crossed on the internet? Horror suddenly looks like a quaintly nostalgic view of more innocent times. One hope for the future, director Eli Roth, whose films are pretty decent even though he comes over as eerily unlikeable in interviews, has had his latest ‘The Green Inferno’, pulled from release for seemingly contradictory reasons.

Where can horror go now? We won’t find out until someone comes along with fresh ideas to trigger the next boom, or it’s time to think the unthinkable:

Perhaps, like the western, the genre has died for good.

16 comments on “The Horror Film: Dead & Buried?”

  1. Ralph Williams says:

    Some have argued that the Western is every bit as popular in that the majority of Sci Fi films made in the last thirty years have been Westerns moved to space (most obviously “Battle Beyond The Stars”). Therefore is the future of Horror simply to reinvent itself in someone else’s genre?

  2. Nikos Carcosa says:

    Are you unaware of movies like American Mary, Severence, Woman, The Shrine, Pighunt, Pig… Not to mention the entire New French Extreme movement? Their existence would seem to disprove your point quite soundly. Horror, even by the exceedingly narrow definition given, is doing quite well for itself.

  3. admin says:

    American Mary was the Soska sisters again, wasn’t it? More of a character study, I seem to remember. I found The Woman deeply sexist but enjoyed The Shrine, although that’s supernatural horror surely. Pignut – was that the inept French jungle film – not sure about ‘Pig’, I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the list though.

  4. admin says:

    Okay, I’ve now checked out those films (needed IMDb) Spellcheck changed Pig Hunt to Pignut and I changed it to the wrong film. Pig is only just over an hour long and had no release so well done for finding it! Severance was funny but hardly horrific. Eden Lake was probably the last transgressive film I enjoyed, and a rarity called The Glass Man, with Andy Nyman and Neve Campbell.

  5. Nikos Carcosa says:

    Woman is sexist in the same intentional way as I Spit on Your Grave. It’s all for the payoff, and doesn’t dismiss it as a solid entry.

    The presence of the Sooska sisters and its being a character study doesn’t eleminate American Mary from being a decent genre piece.

    If you want “truly transgressive”, you’ll need to mark out the majority of the 80s genre pieces. Friday 13th wasva blatant, soulless cash grab that had nothing but Tom Savini to save it from obscurity.

    That said, as far as truly transgressive, you have to check out New French Extremity – High Tension (might be Switchblade Romance on your side of the pond), Inside, Martyrs, Baise-Moi, and others.

    And let’s not forget Mum & Dad, and A Serbian Film.

    Not familiar with Glass Man. You’ve no idea how impressive that is ;-).

  6. slabman says:

    “Last night I went to the pub with Kim Newman, Paul McAuley, Barry Forshaw and others”
    Crikey! That’s a veritable Brain’s Trust. I would love a TV or radio show that featured that group, chatting about stuff

  7. Ken Mann says:

    Christopher Farnsworth’s pulp thriller novel “Red White & Blood” makes a good stab at making the faceless killer of slasher films into an archetype to sit alongside vampire, werewolf, zombie. I particularly like the touch that you can tell the supernatural killer is near because one of the signs is that locked doors are mysteriously not locked.
    Perhaps when people are decapitating the innocent in real life on youtube reality is already transgressive enough. Horror has always been more about wonder than transgression for me – things that make my eyes open wider rather than screw them shut.

  8. Brian Evans says:

    “Shindler’s List” is the most horrific film I have ever seen. The abominations depicted therein REALLY happened.

  9. nikos carcosa says:

    There’s a difference between “horrific” and “horror”. There’s a level of exploitation necessary for a movie to be a horror genre film. Schindler’s List is way to tastefully executed to be horror. Film it in color, that’s a step in the right direction ;-).

    Something I’ve noticed with horror and comedy. It’s pretty much exactly the same timing. There’s a reason gore effects are frequently referred to as “gags”.

  10. nikos carcosa says:

    Kenn Mann: there’s a great example in Jim Sterling’s early video game review vlog where he regularly showed the most graphic, brutal, gratuitous game footage from current video games. Not complaints had. Then, he showed the few seconds of the R. Budd Dwyer suicide, and he was flooded with angry mail. Mostly along the lines of “why didn’t you warn us!” There is a very big difference between real violence and cinematic violence. That single, surprisingly quiet *POP* from Dwyer’s gun, and then he just sort of sits down. Nothing like the explosive, Newton-screwing reactions to gunshots in games and movies.

  11. admin says:

    Okay Nikos – here are a couple of my favourites for you…
    ‘Calvaire’, with its jaw-dropping village dancehall scene.
    ‘Bienvenu a Cadavre-Les-Bains’ – with its cannibalism and Fargo-esque black comedy vibe.
    I wasn’t so struck on the fairly similar ‘The Green Butchers’ but it was fun.

  12. snowy says:

    Horror films are made every year in one form or another, but we seem to remember only the periods when they ‘flower’. And the seed of destruction for each ‘flowering’ is the same; over-exploitation and derivative copies.

    In the Universal era, having ransacked all the sources available there came various sequels: Son of …, Bride of …, The Return of …, The Ghost of …, The Curse of … etc. And then [determinely ignoring the sound of fingernails screeching across the base of the barrel], comes the X vs. Y films, Frankenstien vs. Wolfman etc.

    But if you really want to drive a stake through the heart of the genre, a series of parodies will do the trick, Abbott and Costello meet … . Corpse still twitching? Turning them into cuddly cartoon characters should finish them off. At least for a while, a new generation will rediscover them or someone will return to them in the next decade.

    The cycles continue, as do the parodies that signal the temporary decline of each flowering, ‘Fearless Vampire Killers’, ‘Young Frankenstein*’, ‘Beetlejuice’, ‘Scream’ are a few, [from memory.]

    There are even cycles within the cycles, the source of ‘fear’ usually begins as something remote, supernatural creatures, aliens and gradually shifts closer and closer, the environment in general, [‘China Syndrome**’], thence to wild animals, [Grizzly’, ‘Jaws’], domestic animals, [‘Cujo’], faceless killers, lone snipers, authority figures in general, then neighbours, friends, parents. Children is as close as it can get, [‘Omen’], leaving only possession of the self or madness as the last resort .

    [I’ve probably missed out a few steps, but it’s been ages since I drew it out, in my defence it was a pub discussion that ended with a table full of napkins, It’s hard to unravell, the delay from commissioning to release corrupts the timeline.]

    [* It’s pronounced “Fronk-en-steen”.]

    [**Probably not strictly Horror, but shows the direction of travel. And I wasn’t going to mention ‘The Swarm’. And if I’m rude about ‘Night of the Lepus’ I’ll get shouted at again.]

  13. Thomas says:

    I prefer the psychological horror to the blood and guts that passes as campy horror. Psychological is more effective, edgy and smart. Example: “Silence of the Lambs.”

  14. Mark says:

    Slashers / humble horror films always do better in optimistic and prosperous times.

    It’s also important to distinguish between transgressive horror and traditional horror and even back then Nightmare on Elm St., Friday 13th, Evil Dead or Halloween were never transgressive but always meant to be “safe” fun.

  15. Ken Mann says:

    Nikos just gave me a flashback to seeing “Scanners” in a London fleapit. Short subjects were still programmed in those days. The one with Scanners was a close-up documentary about bull-fighting, because clearly anyone happy to see rubber heads explode must want to see real animals actually suffering…the audience disagreed.

  16. charles says:

    How about the genre moving to TV, True Blood and The Walking Dead both have their moments…

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