In part one of "What's Wrong With Today's Horror Movies", the League of Tana Tea Drinkers hoisted a few crisp, wet ones while dwelling on the exigencies, intricacies, and commodities of postmodern (as well as classic and neo-classic) horror film fair, and it's looming quietus into something amounting to little more than the taste of grisly pablum. With salty pretzels well in hand, and a cold drink in the other, let us get back to the discussion.
Dinner With Max Jenke wants more on his plate…
This is a topic that lots of fans have an immediate answer to, with plenty of vitriol to share about how horror is a diluted product now – just watered-down thrills made for an indiscriminating audience. Tips for improvement run the whole gamut — horror movies should be R and not PG-13, there should be less of a focus on teenagers, and more original films instead of remakes and sequels.
But horror fans of every generation have typically made it a point to complain that the horror films of the present are inferior to whatever scare fare they grew up on. I imagine that even some ancient moviegoers who were raised in the silent days must have believed that the advent of sound was the death knell of true horror. Because, you know, movies are only scary when you have to imagine what a creaking door sounds like. And once black and white was replaced by color, I bet some fans never recovered from that because everybody knows that horror movies just don’t work as well unless they’re in black and white. The point being that every era has given horror fans something new to gripe about.
When I was a kid in the early ‘80s, all I ever heard was a lot of hyperventilating about how horror had fallen into a morass of blood and guts and how the slasher genre was destroying horror movies. Now, of course, that time is now thought of as some kind of golden age and films that were dismissed as outright junk like My Bloody Valentine and Happy Birthday to Me (both 1981) are considered (in some quarters, at least) to be classics and now it’s the turn of remakes like Prom Night (2008) to be blamed for ruining horror.
So if anyone ever asks me what’s wrong with horror today, my usual answer is “nothing”.
Sure, I don’t love every horror movie I see. With some films, I just don’t understand how they appeal to anyone. The Saw series baffles me, for instance – not because of the violence, but because of the inanity of the storylines. But what other people like doesn't bother me and every year I always manage to find some movies that I do enjoy. As long as that stays true, I can't say things are all bad.
If I could change anything, it’s that I'd like unrated and NC-17 movies to get wider theatrical releases rather than either going straight to DVD or receiving very limited runs. I was part of the last generation who got to see the unfettered likes of Pieces, The Beyond (aka Seven Doors of Death), and Demons in theaters and I think it's unfortunate that unless someone lives in or near a major market, the most extreme horror movies they'll ever experience on the big screen are R-rated fare. And it's also a shame that quirky independent pictures like Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter and Stuart Gordon's Stuck (among many others) don't have a chance of playing at most fans' local theaters. I'm glad these movies have an outlet to be seen uncompromised on DVD and cable but yet I wish they had greater opportunities for theatrical distribution.
But as far as the movies themselves go, even if much of the new crop is terrible I don’t see that as being any different from any other point in time. Most horror movies have always been poor at best. Even with good films, when they make a lasting impact, it’s usually down to the age that you first watched them. Burnt Offerings (1976) blew my mind because I saw it when I was around seven or eight years old. Had I seen it when I was thirty-five instead, well… that'd be a different story. That’s not to say I wouldn't like to see more horror films strive for greatness, or that it’s always about seeing a film at the right age, just to acknowledge that the movies I grew up with weren’t flawless by any means and yet my movie collection is full of films that critics – and most fans – once thought would be forgotten in a month. A lot of irrational attachments are made when it comes to horror films so it’s not my place to say that today's fans shouldn’t feel as connected to the movies that they’re growing up with as much as anyone else did to the movies of their eras.
Personally, I enjoy seeing how the genre changes each year. I like watching trends come and go. And I like the fact that the horror genre's prosperity is seldom up to the hardcore fans but instead in the hands of a larger mainstream audience who determines what movies become hits (even if it sometimes flies in the face of what horror fans approve of). The horror movies that we see may seldom be the kind that would be made if fans were left to call the shots but I don't see anything wrong with that. Instead I think it keeps things interesting. My feeling is that every age gets the horror films that it needs – although sometimes this is only evident in hindsight.
Ultimately, other people are probably better equipped than I am to tell you what's wrong with today's horror movies. More often than not, I'm happy to roll with whatever's out there. I even liked Mirrors, for crying out loud. As far as I'm concerned, the biggest problem with today's horror films is the same as always – they just don't make enough of 'em.
I think the main fault with today's horror movies is the lack of imagination. We have had the art form of the film for over a hundred years now and before that the art form of the novel for thousands. And to quote The Barenaked Ladies: "And if I put my fingers here, and if I say 'I love you dear' And if I play the same three chords, will you just yawn and say It's all been done before?" That's the problem: it's all been done before, sometimes literally as in the vast amount of remakes hitting the screen and, sometimes, just as the same theme or idea. It seems now that if we talk about a movie or even a book it is easy to say "Well, it is Dawn of the Dead but in a factory" or "It's like the Exorcist meets The Thing."
I'd have to say in the last decade I haven't seen anything that has blown me away, that has made me run out and tell people, "You have to see this," a movie I could not compare to hundreds of other movies that have already been made. I'd have to say the last film that grabbed me and really enchanted me had to be Ringu from 1998. It was something truly disturbing; a curse playing out in a video tape that kills. The one thing I loved in the movie was no one died on screen and no gore — yet it was scary and got under your skin. After you get done watching the silliness of Saw 16 — the return of the puzzle maker — you may not want to eat a dish of spaghetti, but after you get done watching Ringu you will want to sleep with the light on. Of course, let a few years go by and America's moneymaking machine just takes it and remakes it and leaves out all the points in the story and all the skillful camera work and atmosphere that made the original so good.
So now are we doomed to rehash the same plots and monsters and scares forever? I don't know. Is it possible in our highly connected world with information at your fingertips to create something new and different? I think that is the challenge of every artist whether they be a filmmaker, a writer or a painter. I do have hope. Our imaginations are limitless and somewhere out there is a great mind creating a new world for the rest of us to explore. Let's just hope that Hollywood will actually listen this time instead of green lighting The Towering Inferno remake.
Unkle Lancifer from Kindertrauma finds Happy Meal Horror tasteless…
What is wrong with horror today? Part of the problem is that we use financial success as a barometer of what is popular or lasting. Would we even know if a good horror film existed if it did not make X amount of money on its first weekend? I've seen fine horror films like The Dark Hours (2005) and Dead End (2003) come and go with not much comment from anyone. It's like calling a firecracker that does not level a building a dud. The sad thing is, if a film does happen to make a sizable profit, we the audience are routinely punished with diluted versions of it for the better part of a decade. Aren't we still suffering from the effects of The Ring (2002), just as Scream (1996) before it brought originality to a screeching halt?
I feel almost hypocritical suggesting that, as most of my favorite films were part of the Halloween gold rush, but in their defense those films were independent in nature and their scripts were not shoved through a Hollywood meat-grinder in order to appeal to the largest possible audience and therefore produce the largest possible cash flow (they were lucky enough to have that old innovator, poverty, on their side). I realize that people are very much allowed to at least attempt to receive the largest compensation possible for their efforts, but really, should anyone be surprised if quality or more importantly distinctive voices are lost in the shuffle?
If I could be so bold, I would suggest the bigger problem is with the audience. The fact is movies, horror or otherwise, have become completely disposable and have lost their "specialness" for lack of a better word. At the risk of sounding like an oldster, those of us who grew up during the advent of VCRs and cable might be able to recall the excitement of watching a real honest to goodness movie, any movie in our homes without commercials and giving it our full on attention and feeling privileged to do so (I know Dana Carvey did a better version of this character on SNL).
That "specialness" has died, and we the audience are holding the smoking gun and it's really not a generational thing either when you come down to it. Movies are purchased at the Wal-Mart, downloaded or Netflixed by people of all ages who (to quote Ministry) "Use it a while, then it's over the shoulder." This stuff is literally landfill fodder within a month of being released on DVD. They can't give it away; how much quality do you expect to find in a medium that's now given about the same amount of respect as fast food?
I've had heated conversations with people about film only to have them admit near the end that they "missed that part" because they were "vacuuming" or were "on the phone."
The simple fact of that matter is, like all things in life, you pretty much get out of it what you put into it. Even those crappy Ring rip-offs may have a pearl or two if you're willing to meet it halfway. As much as sincerity is missing on the part of the filmmakers, the audience too seems to be going through the motions. Most are prematurely voicing their critiques in their heads, when they should be going with the flow or at least paying attention. I think if you're a true movie lover this approach to film is like thinking about work while you're having sex; everybody loses. I can't say that we have not had a couple duds come down the pike recently, but when the good stuff goes by, it appears to me that it's equally shredded and with as much glee. There will always be a pendulum swing as far as horror movies go, but it's our responsibility as viewers to, at least try to, listen to what a film has to say. I just hope when the next "big thing" does come around, we're not all not too jaded to recognize it.
Zombos Closet of Horror has the last word…
"Well, you've certainly got your work cut out for you," said Zombos with glee. I hate it when he says things with glee.
"Alright, I'll bite. What can I say after all this? That I find too many of today's horror movies embarrassing? I'm embarrassed to say I'm a fan, and embarrassed to be seen watching them in a theater. When I tell people I write a horror blog they look at me queerly."
"Oh, go on," chided Zombos, "you are only embarrassed because you're the only over-fifty person in a theater full of frisky teenagers at those midnight showings. It's a wonder you haven't been picked up by the police yet. Better be careful or you'll have a Children of the Corn encounter to deal with." He chuckled. I hate it when he chuckles, too.
"I'm embarrassed because most of the movies that vainly try to elicit a speck of horror in today's glutted market are either so amateurishly done, they show a lack of fundamental understanding of the psychology of fear and terror, lack of the cinematic craft of handling a damn camera coherently, and lack of noble acting."
"Noble acting?" asked Zombos.
"Like a Boris Karloff or a Vincent Price. You know, acting with skill and taking it seriously, no matter how ludicrous the material might be. Not many actors past Robert Englund, Bruce Campbell, or Jeffrey Combs take what they do seriously enough, or have the craft to make it all look good. Hell enough you have amateurs calling themselves Idiots With Cameras doing bottom feeder indie stuff like Die and Let Live with actors that don't, and scripts that miss a heartbeat."
"Which one is that?" asked Zombos.
"Idiot zombies crash the idiot pizza party."
"Oh, right. One of Paul Holstenwall's gems, as I recall," said Zombos. "Didn't he bring that along with The Sick House? Another catastrophe. Okay, okay, but all of this has been said before."
"Okay then," I challenged him, "what have we not said? What else is there?
"Fun," said Zombos.
"Fun?" I repeated.
"Yes, fun. Horror movies just are not much fun anymore. When we grew up we had fun with our monsters. They were terrifying, but in a fun way, if that makes sense."
"You know, it does make sense. The Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula, they were so different from us, so set off in a remote country or remote time, we could be safely scared and not think much of it. We could make fun of them without reprisal, and play at being scared — haha, look at you, you're all hairy in the moonlight, but it's not my moonlight, and it's not my Carpathian mountains you're prowling in."
"That is right," added Zombos, "but times have changed. We prowl our own moonlit paths and rattle chains in our own dungeons now. We blew up the bomb in our own laboratories, and mutated our psyches into serial killing amoral zealots that walk the daylight hours just as easily as the night. The simple truth is we can no longer have fun with our monsters: we take them home with us everyday."
"So what you are really saying is that today's horror movies — at least some of them — are too realistically scary for us to fully enjoy?" I asked.
"That pretty much sums it up in a nutshell, yes."
I looked at Zombos. He looked at me.
"Well that's kind of ironic, don't you think?" I said. He nodded in agreement.
After a long silence we decided to watch The Monster Squad to rekindle our spirits; after I made sure all the doors to the mansion were secured for the night, of course.
Read part one.
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