The Horror Film: Dead & Buried?
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.