By Si Lewis (April 2009).
The horror genre has been a staple of cinema since the early inception of moving images. Murnau’s Nosferatu is quite a chilling tale (albeit completely ripped off the pages from Bram Stoker) and actually still stands up as a good example of how to scare the bejeebers out of an audience. Max Schrek as the awkwardly hunched and pointed tooth Orlok is still seen as an icon of horror despite the fact the film is 87 years old and has a soundtrack of an early twentieth century comedy ivory tickler. It’s quite a testament that the genre itself has lasted so long and that fact is solely down to the audience. Where better to spend a Friday night than on a date at the local Cineworld and having your other half dive into your midriff as a hockey masked mammoth of a man emerges from the bushes at Camp Crystal Lake? It’s a perfect scenario for young couples everywhere and has been the go to for first date frolicking since the 50s. Consistency in Horror has been present for as long as I can remember but recent memory suggests the genre is losing its grip, particularly in the west where originality has been discarded for the need to make a quick buck with remakes littering the movie calendar. It’s such a crying shame that with the dawn of the 21st Century, true Horror began its decline and started to stay firmly in the shadows failing to scare a single soul. Once the genre to explore for all things twisted and down right scary, the modern representation of the genre has a mighty whiff of deja vu as old characters and settings are regurgitated for a modern day, more mainstream audience. Where did it start to go wrong? Why is the current crop absolute rubbish? Looking at the past, and its influence on the present representation of horror films, it’s fairly easy to cite the current problems with the genre itself. To expose the talent less movie school graduates *cough* Eli Roth *cough*, pin point when the genre died and reflect on the good old days of the old school and why we (used to) love all things Horror.
A fundamental part of such movies has been the ability to create memorable villainous icons. An army of creatures who scare the crap out of everyone yet have the creativity, look and originality to consistently do it for years. From the black and white era of Dracula, The Wolfman, The Creature From The Black Lagoon andFrankenstein through to the golden age of horror, characters like Pinhead, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers and my particular favourite Freddy Krueger, all still stand strong as true icons of horror and maintain the ability to give one a severe case of the heeby jeebys despite their tangle with age. With regards to the integrity of the films themselves, there’s no doubt the quality was a little on the poor side but this is where most of the charm came from. The cheap looking nature of each made the fear real, it somehow made Krueger believable, it made the zombies in Evil Dead that little more startling and above all, it made the films appeal to a teenage audience craving to see the ingenious ways film makers picked off each victim. Take the Nightmare series for example, the films themselves dropped drastically in quality as they were really poor from Nightmare On Elm Street Part 3 onwards but the way Krueger murdered his victims went from the surreal to the downright nasty as each movie passed and as a result, he was both adored and feared in equal measure. In many ways a character can out grow the movie they came from. In Freddy’s case, they sold a plastic razor glove in Toys R Us, there were Halloween costumes to fit children and Freddy Krueger is credited to have laid the foundations for New Line Cinema, a now titan in film distribution.
This I see is the main difference from the genre nowadays. In what film do we see a true icon of cinema get so popular, they produce their own paraphernalia at a shocking rate? The only villain who comes close is the Jigsaw from the Saw series, but he overstayed his welcome after the distinctly average Saw 2. Even the heroes fail to stay in the mind; the genre fails to even create heroic icons. No one comes close to being Ash from the Evil Dead series, nor Ellen Ripley from Alien (I’m only countingAlien as this was the only Horror film in the franchise). The need to produce such iconic roles seems completely lost. Since the turn of the Millennium, the focus has heavily shifted on producing chilling tales directly imported from the east. Since far eastern films have become more accessible as time has worn on, western studios have felt the need to replicate what the east does so well; Psychological scares where the only enemy is the mind. The only problem I see with this is America cannot do this to great effect. There is something naturally chilling with far eastern Asian cinema which translates perfectly into these types of film. The tradition of Slow-Burn drama in the East, makes psychological horror work much better because of the way the eastern industry itself is. Ringu for example is a superbly dark, simple yet original film which scared the absolute crap out of me. The American remake however, felt the need to coat it in a Hollywood gloss that the industry has held for years.
Maybe this is why the genre has seemingly died a death (in the West at least) in recent memory. The reason Horror of the 30s and 40s worked is because it was new, the reason it worked in the 70s and 80s is because the film makers like Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and John Carpenter had raw talent and went against the grain, their work was their work and no one else’s. As the genre became more popular, the industry took notice. Over time, more and more money has been pushed in the direction of Horror taking away the raw feeling of realism in the process. As the gloss got heavier, the scares faded thus began the down turn of truly original horror films. As the ideas dried up, they turned to remakes prominently from the East and more recently, the past. The 70s and 80s were the undoubted pinnacle of American Horror films; The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes(1977), Halloween (1979), Alien (1979), The Shining (1980), Friday The 13th(1980), Evil Dead (1981), The Thing (1982), Fright Night (1985), Near Dark (1987) and Hellraiser (1987) (to name but a few) all reached the upper echelons of unadulterated pant wetting whilst each maintaining a different approach in how to achieve adequate fodder for nightmares. 5 of the aforementioned have been recently remade, or have a remake in the pipeline. While not exactly poor films, the recentFriday The 13th remake for example was fantastic, it does beg the question where have all the new ideas gone? Where is the next incarnation of a grotesque villain ready to slice and dice and strike fear into the current generation? Instead, studios revert back to the characters that scared the last generation in the hope newer technology and a different director will make it different.
There is the odd original film being released here and there but the fact they fail to be scary or even good narratively says a lot about the need for remakes. The current craze of “Gorno” flicks such as the aforementioned Saw franchise and Eli Roth’s truly abysmal Hostel series, are about as good as they get with what America has to offer in terms of new ideas. Eli Roth is a simple skid mark amongst a sea of over the top film makers who see breasts and blood the answer to fill the gaping hole in terror film making. I hope I’m not the only one who sees Roth’s efforts as a piss poor attempt to reinvent a failing genre. Rather than evolving and maintaining the flat out fear of the 40s, original charm of the 70s and 80s and expressing such with modern themes, Roth simply takes ways of murdering/torturing someone in increasingly sickening ways and films an hour and a half of it with brief shallow minded titillation in between. Rather than spending money to develop narrative, he spent his entire budget on blood packs and prosthetic limbs. This is not creative film making, it’s making the snuff film a money maker and quite frankly it has to stop for fear of destroying the genre forever. Of course old slasher films had their fair share of gore, Evil Dead had an absolute bucket load, but the bloodshed was surrounded with superb tales of demonic mythology, religious symbolism held together with a fine array of creative characters.
While not a perfect film by any stretch, The Strangers went on to make $52 million in the States suggesting audiences still want movies that throwback to the old school while keeping an air of originality. This year’s Horror contribution has been incredibly halfhearted, The Haunting In Connecticut, My Bloody Valentine 3D, The Unbornand the recently released The Uninvited have all had a crack but acrimoniously failed to impress. It is true that the genre has never really been revered as much as the drama genre say, but Evil Dead, The Exorcist, The Shining, Alien, Friday The 13th, Fright Night and Hellraiser have all had a lasting impact on the genre itself. Whilst never applauded by critics (with the possible exceptions of Alien, The Shiningand The Exorcist) the cult following for horror in the 70s and 80s was massive and still continues to spill into the 21st century. The charm of horror is purely in its raw looking nature and seems to only be in existence in the films from yesteryear. Is there anyone out there who fancies themselves as the next Wes Craven? Turning nightmares into screenplays and producing a film capable of maintaining the charm, raw vulnerability and frequent scares from the 70s and 80s? While you wait, instead of putting your money into the pockets of a talent less director whose surname rhymes with Sloth, blow the dust off your old VHS player, get down to Blockbuster and rent a collection of old school horror films that manage to do it right.