Right now horror filmmaking is at a turning point, with the tropes that have sustained the genre over the past decade either totally worn out or just about. Vampires? Worn out. Zombies? Likewise. Demonic possession? Done to death long before the ‘00s (as THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE proved). Haunted houses? Likewise. Mock-documentary POV horror fests? Damn near exhausted (maybe already there, based on THE LAST EXORCISM). Torture porn? Likewise.
Clearly it’s time for something fresh. Something that will take the genre in a new, and hopefully more interesting, direction. This, however, leaves us with an obvious quandary: what the Hell might this fresh something be? I certainly don’t know the answer to that, and nobody else seems to, either.
History shows that over the decades several pivotal evolutions have occurred in horror cinema, resulting in the jazzy Universal horror classics of the thirties, the quiet and suggestive fears of the forties, the drive-in schlock of the fifties, the gritty shock fests of the seventies and the special effects-oriented horror of the eighties.
Genre commentators, I’ve found, tend to disagree on the precise catalysts of these trends. The time in which a film is made certainly has some import, but movies don’t appear on their own based on the unconscious whims of their audiences. It usually takes a particularly influential film–a PSYCHO, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, HALLOWEEN or BLAIR WITCH PROJECT–to trigger any sort of filmic evolution. History, unfortunately, offers no clear-cut answers on how to go about finding and/or making that film(s).
There have certainly been plenty of sincere attempts at coming up with “that” film. Wes Craven is one who, after creating a massively influential horror fest with 1984’s original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, spent over a decade attempting to replicate the feat. Much of Craven’s subsequent output was unique, if not downright weird (see THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS and SHOCKER), yet had little of the impact of NIGHTMARE. It took until 1996 for Craven to realize his goal: SCREAM’S brand of self-referential scares was nearly as influential on late-1990s horror as NIGHTMARE was in the previous decade, proving that years of trying to come up with the next big horror movie can actually yield results.
That wasn’t the case, unfortunately, with John Carpenter, who after hitting pay dirt with HALLOWEEN spent much of the eighties trying, and failing, to create an equivalent success. See BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, which proved there was a reason Asian fantasy never caught on in the U.S., and PRINCE OF DARKNESS, whose nutty mix of theology and quantum physics wasn’t quite the bombshell Carpenter was apparently hoping for. The same goes for more recent Carpenter efforts like IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and GHOSTS OF MARS, which despite their creator’s best efforts had little impact on the genre.
We can add George Romero and Tobe Hooper to the list of filmmakers who created iconic horror movies–NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, respectively–only to spend much of the remainder of the careers attempting to live up those early successes. Many of those filmmakers’ subsequent efforts arguably matched the artistic success of their predecessors (see Romero’s MARTIN and Carpenter’s THE THING) but were rejected by audiences.
That last point brings up another pratfall facing ambitious horrormeisters: the thorny fact that a movie may have potential, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people will see it. Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM (1960) is one of the greatest and most unique horror movies of all time, yet its initial reception was so vitriolic it nearly ended Powell’s career. Michael Mann’s 1986 MANHUNTER was a powerful adaptation of Thomas Harris’ bestseller that bombed at the box office, and had to wait until the 1991 release of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, an unaccredited sequel, before people became interested. Fans of HELLRAISER like to proclaim it a groundbreaking masterwork that knocked moviegoers for a loop back in 1987, but the truth is it had little impact theatrically, with audiences ultimately discovering the film on home video. Ditto the same year’s NEAR DARK, which is commonly classified as one of the most influential horror films of the decade yet took several years to attain any kind of substantial following.
For a film to have any sort of impact, several factors must be in place that have nothing to do with quality, marketing being first and foremost among them. PSYCHO (1960) is unquestionably one of the most influential horror movies of all time, but its success was due in large part to a highly calculated marketing campaign that among other things barred critical screenings and wouldn’t allow people into theaters after the first ten minutes (an unheard-of practice back in 1960). An iconic film of nearly 40 years later, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, likewise benefited from an elaborate marketing campaign, which utilized the internet in then-unprecedented fashion; I think it’s safe to say that without that campaign the film, a no-budget Sundance pickup, simply wouldn’t have had the impact it did.
Obviously it’s not easy coming up with the next PSYCHO or HALLOWEEN. It seems that in all the iconic successes outlined above, nobody (least of all the moviemakers) was able to predict the impact of any of those films. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t strive to create unique and unprecedented horror cinema. The results may not be as iconic as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET or NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but you may just wind up with something that’s nearly as difficult to achieve: a good movie.