According to one prominent online critic, the modern horror movie is “down for the count.” I think that’s overstating the case, but the fact is undeniable: the industry is in a slump. This is confirmed by the disappointing box office returns of recent horror releases like THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2 and THE LAZARUS EFFECT. Ditto the hotly anticipated indies IT FOLLOWS and UNFRIENDED, both of which, while diverting enough on their own terms, fell short of the genre apotheoses they were said to be.
What exactly is the problem with today’s horror flicks? Here’s my six point diagnosis:
The Blumhouse Effect
You’ve probably noticed those “From the makers of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, THE CONJURING and THE PURGE” claims that accompany so many current trailers. That refers to the Jason Blum run outfit Blumhouse Productions, which produced those movies. Hollywood loves Blumhouse, and no wonder: they specialize in cheaply made scare flicks that often spawn lucrative franchises.
Unfortunately, it seems the law of diminishing returns has set in big time. Given that seemingly every other horror movie these days is a Blumhouse product, they’ve clearly overextended themselves, which is reflected in the quality of their movies.
To be fair, there are a few decent films in Blumhouse’s recent roster, which includes PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES, OCULUS, 13 SINS, THE PURGE: ANARCHY, MOCKINGBIRD, OUIJA, JESSABELLE, THE BOY NEXT DOOR, THE LAZARUS EFFECT and UNFRIENDED, but for the most part that line-up is pretty sorry (have you even tried sitting through PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES or THE BOY NEXT DOOR?). Ironically, the finest of Blumhouse’s recent releases, and indeed possibly their best film ever, is the non-horror themed WHIPLASH, suggesting that maybe they should cut back on the scary stuff.
I know the anti-remake stance has become something of a broken record with me, but come on: do we really need new versions of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and POLTERGEIST? Hollywood apparently thinks we do, even though the primary appeal of those films, as with most every other great movie, is that they were fresh and original (yes, even POLTERGEIST).
Audiences, at least, appear to know better. While a few successful remakes have appeared in recent years, including the 2013 EVIL DEAD and the ‘14 GODZILLA, there were also the recent CARRIE, LEFT BEHIND, SILENT NIGHT, THE THING and OLDBOY redoes, which failed to connect either financially or artistically. This means the we’re-just-giving-the-people-what-they-want excuse won’t wash.
Derivative Subject Matter
The torture porn and found footage cycles have thankfully run their course, and even zombie gorefests and TWILIGHT wannabes have been lessened (though not entirely staunched). In their place we have a slew of equally undistinguished horror films that differ conceptually yet all feel the same.
This was evident in the string of horror movie trailers that showed before a recent L.A. area screening of UNFRIENDED, during which the audience grew inpatient with the cookie-cutter sameness of what we saw (including INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 and the aforementioned POLTERGEIST remake). All those trailers were marked by overdone CGI (see below) and seemed to feature haunted houses and curses, certainly two of the most hackneyed tropes in the horror lexicon.
Another feature of those trailers that has become endemic to modern horror movies were the tired “shock” effects, involving sudden leaps out of the darkness accompanied by blaring music cues. During one trailer, depicting a terrified girl crouched in a movie theater exit amid a noticeably quiet soundtrack, audience members began shouting “Boo!” and “Gotcha!” in full anticipation of the indistinct-figure-jumping-out-of-the-darkness “shock” we all saw coming.
The Decline of Horror Fandom
Say what you will about the horror fanzines of the eighties and nineties, but their proprietors weren’t afraid to bite the hand that fed them by calling out horror movie makers on their missteps. Contrast that with today’s online horror scene, whose participants by and large seem more interested in getting free swag from the studios or DVD cover blurbs than in offering up honest reviews.
Here I’m referring specifically to a writer for a popular horror site who made a royal ass of himself by blathering to a Yahoo reporter about the greatness of the CARRIE remake, and also the countless webmasters who have turned their sites into free publicity arms for the major studios. Such sites tend to favor phrases like “Kick Ass” and “Cool as Fuck,” which are invariably bestowed upon any movie that a). is martial arts themed, b). purports to pay homage to the splatter or grindhouse flicks of old, or c). has Quentin Tarantino’s name attached, which is absolutely no help to the website in question, the movie being promoted or the industry as a whole.
Too Much CGI
CGI overload isn’t limited to horror movies, of course, but it has lessened, if not completely ruined, many a recent scare-fest (VAN HELSING, anyone? How about DARK SHADOWS, MAMA and BATTLESHIP?). Moviemakers don’t like to hear this, but CGI is for the most part obvious and unexciting, and has yet to replace the charge of practical special effects–and indeed probably never will.
Mind you, I’m not completely against CGI, as when done right it can work wonders. See last year’s French version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and the currently-in-release EX MACHINA for examples of quality CGI. In both cases the effects were utilized with enormous care and inspiration, and not as a substitute for those things, which is the case in far too many modern horror fests.
I hate to sound like an old fart, but I miss the days when horror fans were proactive about the films they wanted to see. I’m referring to the greymarket scene of the nineties, when movie buffs actively sought out the films of idiosyncratic auteurs like Alejandro Jorodowsky, Jean Rollin and Lucio Fulci, most of which were commercially unavailable back then. Now it seems that unless a movie is dropped into one’s lap, and is accompanied by untold millions of dollars’ worth of advertising, horror fans just aren’t interested.
Fact: there are unique and interesting films being made, films I believe are fully capable of elevating the genre like those of Jodorowsky, Rollin and Fulci did in their day–and best of all, you don’t have to resort to bootlegging to see these films. Examples include UPSTREAM COLOR, STOKER, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS, KILL LIST, THE LAST CIRCUS, BLUE RUIN and THANATAMORPHOSE.
How may of those have you seen? Not too many, I’m guessing. On the other hand, there’s a good chance you have shelled out for the likes of OUIJA, ANNABELLE, I FRANKENSTEIN, DELIVER US FROM EVIL, INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2 and DRACULA UNTOLD. Hence our current horror movie slump.