How Hollywood Redefined Horror

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By Dan Barnes.

Horror as a genre has evolved a great deal over the years, perhaps more than any other. Sure, on the face of it, the clichés are all very much the same, and for the most part we know what to expect when we sit down to watch a major release, but somehow in spite of this, the very definition of ‘horror’ has changed in the eyes of the public, and it’s all down to Hollywood themselves.

This is a topic that I’ve been pondering for quite some time, but it was the public reaction to the recent Ari Aster film ‘Hereditary’ that encouraged me to put it into words. When I saw the film at the cinema, I was very impressed by it, but all I could hear from the audience were shouts of ‘well, that was a waste of time’, ‘that was boring’ and ‘I wouldn’t even give it 1/10’. 

The film was exceptionally well-received by critics. It currently has an 89% score on Rotten Tomatoes based on a whopping 257 reviews, and the hype-train was in full swing upon release. However, when you look at the audience score on the same website, you’ll see a score of 59%, based on over 7,000 user ratings. 

Sure, this still shows that more people liked the film than didn’t, but it is far more divisive than the reaction from critics, and you only have to look at the comments themselves to see that. For every person calling it the ‘best horror film in years’, you’ll find at least one other referring to it as ‘one of the worst movies’ they’ve ever seen. It’s always interesting when this level of division occurs, and what really gets fascinating is when you begin to discuss why that is the case.

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The Last Jedi

There are a number of variables when discussing this topic, but it often comes down to the particular film in question and the expectations of its target audience. The recent Star Wars film ‘The Last Jedi’ was widely polarizing. Despite its 90% score on Rotten Tomatoes from 376 reviews, the audience score sits at a less impressive 46%, based on comments made by 200,000 passionate fans.

No matter how many times you look at it, the main reason for this divide comes down to what each individual fan personally expected out of a Star Wars movie, and the side of the fence they sat on ultimately depended on whether or not the film delivered what they had wanted, irrespective of the technical merits of the filmmaking itself. You see, with something like Star Wars, the merits don’t actually matter. Whether you love the movie or hate the movie will always come down to your personal expectations, whether you realise it or not.

Although the fan base for Star Wars may be far louder than any others, this is still the case for most other films that get released, and the entire horror genre is now suffering as a result of the change in audience expectation caused by Hollywood itself.

The general public simply doesn’t respond well to real horror anymore. In fact, they don’t respond well to any horror that offers anything more complex or intelligent than they’re used to seeing in the genre. If a film makes them think, they just write it off as ‘artsy’ and move on with their lives, being sure to tell everyone they know that the film ‘sucked’.

This actually applies to all movies. Thanks to major Hollywood releases being so simple and watered down, the public have unknowingly got used to the ‘simple’, and they write off anything that makes them think even a little bit as being ‘pretentious’. I don’t think people actually know what ‘artsy’ and ‘pretentious’ mean, anymore. Sure, films like these do exist, but you’ll rarely find them in your multiplex cinema. You’ll more likely find ‘artsy’ films at festivals and independent cinemas being shown to the small percentage of people they were made for. Sadly, these days those terms just get thrown around incredibly easily to describe any film even remotely challenging or different.

Films that are described as ‘artsy’ now would’ve never been described as such decades ago. I’ve heard people refer to ‘La La Land’ in such a way, forgetting the fact that in the Golden Age of Hollywood those movies were about as mainstream as it could get. People have criticised the film for being ‘up itself’ and ‘pretentious’ because of the surprising ending it gave its audience. Once again, there is nothing remotely ‘artsy’ about such a creative decision. The general public received it in such a way because it wasn’t the ending that Hollywood has trained them to expect.

This goes a long way to explaining why ‘La La Land’ was popular with critics but more divisive with audiences, while ‘The Greatest Showman’ was hugely popular around the globe but had left critics unimpressed. The latter gave audiences what they expected from the genre, whereas ‘La La Land’ was a little more daring, and that polarized a lot of people. It’s all quite obvious when you really think about it. Hollywood has taught us to expect certain things, and when a film comes along with a different vision, the general public simply criticise it as being ‘pretentious’.

It might sound like I’m knocking the general public, but the truth is that my complaints lie with Hollywood. It’s what they put out that affects the way we feel and what we expect. The public can’t really be at fault for what they demand in their movies when it all comes down to the films themselves, and there is no genre that has been so badly affected by this than horror.

Let’s get back to ‘Hereditary’, as this is the most recent example I have. Let’s take a look at some of the comments made by users on Rotten Tomatoes who had not enjoyed the film, and see if we can figure out why:

‘This movie was a pretentious piece of hot garbage.’

There’s that word ‘pretentious’ again…

‘I saw it. It was long and it was awful.’

‘Storyline is boring and build-up is too slow.’

‘Like watching an ok school play. The movie was flat out boring for the most part and the ending left myself and the rest of the audience looking to each other saying what the hell was that crap.’

So, the general consensus from these comments is that the film was ‘slow, boring, and had far too long a build-up’. Let’s talk about that, for a moment.

Ultimately, we can all refer to said ‘build-up’ by another term: suspense. You see, true shock and awe only works if there has been a significant build-up before it, especially in horror. The problem now is one that people have discussed in great detail but somehow seem to keep coming back to… jump scares.

I know, I know. You’re sick of hearing this, right? Well, the truth is, it is a much bigger issue than you might think. It’s not just a question of these scares being fundamentally lazy and cheap, but they genuinely have a long-lasting impact on their audience. Let me explain.

There is nothing remotely impressive about a jump scare. I mean, they can work. If they’re earned, coming after a long period of well-crafted suspense and offering the audience something actually terrifying at the jump, then yes, they can work when done correctly. Jump scares have been around for as long as the genre itself, and there are countless examples of it being used successfully, but sadly that isn’t the case anymore with the large majority of mainstream Hollywood releases.

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Jump scares now don’t come after a particularly long build-up. They happen frequently. They happen constantly, to the point where that is exactly what you expect as a viewer. You see, the key to the ‘shock factor’ in movies is to not shock the viewer particularly often. That’s the whole point. The shock factor is lost the more frequently you do something. It’s basic common sense. The makers of ‘Sausage Party’ might think it’s shocking having animated food swear and make rude jokes, but when the entire film is like that, it loses any impact they thought it would have, and similarly with horror movies, if you make someone jump every few minutes, sooner or later there is nothing remotely surprising about that anymore.

Audiences now not only expect jump scares, but thanks to the over-used clichés of the genre, they can see them coming. They know the signs when they see them, and the only reason they still jump is because of the loud noise that comes with it. 

Yes, the famous ‘loud noise’. The laziest thing about mainstream Horror filmmaking is the dreaded jolt that comes with every supposed scare. This is nothing but a cheap trick that takes zero creative skill. It’s not a difficult task to copy and paste a loud noise over the film in the editing stage. The most frustrating thing about it is that it works. You hear a loud jolt and you jump out of your seat, but despite the fact that it works, you can’t help but feel lied to, because what you were shown wasn’t actually scary at all.

The problem with this is that people come out of these movies and say it was ‘really scary’, when really what they mean is that they jumped a lot. This isn’t the same thing. I could slowly walk up to my friend from behind, grab them by the shoulder and shout ‘boo!’ and it would probably make them jump out of their skin, but they would never claim to be ‘scared’ of me. 

Being genuinely scared is a very different thing to being ‘startled’, and that is exactly what jump scares are: a startle. It’s a loud noise that makes you jump for a brief moment, it’s over in a matter of seconds, and in amongst the sea of other scares in the movie, you forget all about it by the next day. You claim it was scary, but none of the imagery in the film really stuck with you. You jumped, you giggled about it with friends in your seats, and then you turned to the screen again and waited for the next one.

This is how people view horror movies now. 

‘I don’t know where all the scary parts are supposed to be there wasn’t a single moment that made anybody in the cinema scream, or jump, or even gasp’

That was another quote from a Rotten Tomatoes user who gave the film one star. 

Horror isn’t simply about how many times you jump. It’s exactly what it says on the tin: horrific. You are shown something horrific and unpleasant that you likely won’t get out of your head for some time. Horror movies should be uncomfortable experiences.

Think about ‘Psycho’. It’s considered to be one of the finest horror films ever made, but the film only really has one jump scare right at the very end, that works as a result of the terrific build-up that came before it. But, if ‘Psycho’ was released in 2018, you have to wonder if people would just call it ‘slow’, ‘boring’ and ‘pretentious’.

That’s exactly the point. The greatest horror films of recent years would’ve been huge mainstream hits 40 or more years ago. There is nothing ‘artsy’ about them. Think about films like ‘Hereditary’, ‘The Babadook’, ‘It Follows’, ‘The Witch’, ‘It Comes At Night’, ‘Black Swan’, ‘Under The Skin’, and ‘Oculus’. These films were all critically acclaimed, but they divided the public. However, much like the classics from back in the day, they are all about the slow build-up of tension and suspense, mixed with horrific imagery along the way that sticks with you, as well as interesting themes featured within, all of which builds to a big finale. They’re doing exactly what the genre greats always did, and the only reason they’ve proven polarizing is because they were unfortunate enough to be released now, when the meaning of horror has simply redefined itself.

The most memorable and iconic shot from ‘The Exorcist’ is the one in which Regan’s head turns. Is this a jump scare? No, it’s a shocking piece of cinema that lingers in your memory, and has continued to linger for decades. There is a shot in ‘Hereditary’ that is similarly shocking. I couldn’t get it out of my head.

The problem now isn’t that these moments aren’t scary. It’s that the general public now define how scary a movie is by how many times it made them jump, and once again this isn’t their fault. It’s Hollywood’s movies that have changed these perceptions.

Horror movies are notoriously cheap to make. They cost next to nothing but are capable of turning extremely large profits (there is a reason that ‘Paranormal Activity’ is the most profitable movie ever made, and it has nothing to do with quality). The problem is that this has inspired major studios to be incredibly lazy with these films, when in reality horror should be one of the most imaginative genres there is due to the limitless possibilities of it. 

So, they churn out sloppily put together movies that tick all the right boxes. Whether it’s with a group of friends hanging out in a cabin, or a family who have just moved into a new house, you can expect 90 minutes of jump scares and loud noises followed by a CGI monster in the final act. 

Every. Single. Time. 

As a result of these movies dominating the mainstream market, audiences have associated this as the ‘genre norm’ and reject anything that presents an interesting story, well-though-out character development, and well-crafted suspense filmmaking as simply being ‘boring’ and ‘pretentious’, when in reality they are doing what the genre has always done. 

Hollywood has shot itself in the foot, so now when genuinely brilliant pieces of horror cinema come along, they aren’t as appreciated with the public as perhaps they would have been years ago. As a result of this change in perception, audiences won’t pay for these movies anymore, and instead flock to see the safe bets, and since Hollywood doesn’t care about quality, but simply about the profits, they just keep making more of the same… over and over again.

It never ends.

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Some of the most profitable horror movies in recent years have been ‘Ouija’, ‘The Purge’, ‘The Quiet Ones’, ‘The Devil Inside’, ‘Paranormal Activity’ and ‘Annabelle’, none of which have been particularly praised, but many of which have spawned sequels. It’s getting worse year-in, year-out. It’s why these movies exist in the first place. It’s why they have sequels, and it’s why the genre’s most interesting films are rejected.

The crazy thing is that this is just one way in which Hollywood’s biggest studios are creating this problem. The other is the marketing. Thanks to the public’s perception of what a horror film should be, they feel they must market every single one they make in exactly the same way. 

‘The trailer had me excited to see a creepy movie about ghosts and witch families. Instead I got…this.’

‘Hereditary’ and ‘It Comes At Night’ were both criticised for having misleading marketing. Now, this has nothing to do with the films themselves, but because the studio felt the need to promote the film in a mainstream fashion, they appealed to the wrong audience. 

If you promote your film to the people who enjoyed films like ‘Ouija’ and ‘Annabelle’, then they will go into it expecting to see something similar to ‘Ouija’ and ‘Annabelle’, and when they don’t get that, they’re going to feel frustrated. This isn’t helping anybody. Films should be marketed to the people who will appreciate them. If that runs the risk of a smaller return, so be it. It’s better to have a small group of people who feel satisfied with what you’ve given them, than a large group of people who feel lied to, and feel the need to shout about it on the internet. Surely this is all that matters? Do we not remember the silly lawsuit against ‘Drive’? Surely this is all just common sense?

Wait, I’m talking about Hollywood, who am I kidding?

Movies are a business. We all know that, and there is no doubt that modern Hollywood knows how to make a lot of money. It’s pretty much a science at this point. But, and you can call me old fashioned, I think the effect it’s having on the horror genre as a whole is of much greater value than the dollar bills they may or may not bring.

Hollywood has redefined horror as we know it. We no longer associate that feeling of discomfort and uneasiness with horror, but instead measure a film’s fear-factor by how many times it threw a loud noise at us. This is thanks to major studios getting overly lazy with the movies they produce, releasing factory-made films that tick all the right boxes. The majority of the general public don’t venture out to independent cinemas and festivals, but instead see whatever their local multiplex is showing, and seeing as these aforementioned films dominate that market, this has become horror as we know it. 

When this becomes all people consider as ‘horror’, it also becomes all they’re willing to pay to actually see. So, since studios only focus on the profits, they blow their budget on sequels and sometimes even rip-offs of movies that have been successful, dominating the market to an even greater extent. On the rare occasion that they actually have a horror film that is a little more different, they market it for the masses, ultimately setting them up for disappointment, whatever the end result may be.

The long-term impact of this is that when people are shown movies that actually try, that are inventive, well-crafted, interesting and well-written, they just aren’t impressed anymore. It’s all just considered ‘pretentious’, when in reality it’s simply a horror film that’s had some effort put into it. It’s a shame that Hollywood has had such a drastic impact on the public’s perceptions of an entire genre, but it has happened. All we can hope is that this new horror fad is simply a phase, and much like any other phase, it will pass in time. 



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