It’s near enough Halloween for people to bust out their old copies of Halloween Town or any of the Saw movies and settle in for the strange American tradition of scaring yourself for kicks. The fall usually brings a host of films up for Oscar contention, but not before the last remains of cinematic waste make their Halloween rounds. I’m talking of course, about the annual round of expected, low-budget, Halloween movies that aim to do little more than vacuum your wallets dry while feeding you the same regurgitated plot that you’ve experienced in every generic slasher picture throughout your life. Every year, there seems to be a harvest crop of cheaply made horror films. Every year, they inevitably have audiences. It’s like Christmas films in a way, people just want to have another way to sensory experience the holiday. And in lieu of an unfortunate shortage of pumpkin spice latte-themed films, we need something to hold us over. The natural counter-weight? Horror! Every year, adults revisit their worst fears (often in the form of terrible plot twists) as a way of “celebrating” the season. To be fair, they also tend to strip down and get drunk, which can also be scary. But this year is different. The drinking and pumpkin-spiced lattes are still here. There’s still a few terribly generic horror movies. But this year, horror hasn’t been a limited, seasonal sideshow. This pumpkin spice latte has been available all year round – and it’s a hit! But why?
Horror movies tend to get a bad wrap – and for good reason. They’re primarily enjoyed as a tool teenagers use to “get close” to one another. They aren’t often referred to as really refined cinema. See, most horror films hinge on their ability to scare you. Whilst that might seem an enticing premise for the adrenaline junkies out there, it really isn’t that difficult. There’s a couple times every year that your coworker/roommate/spouse walks up behind you accidentally and startles you. Boom. There you go. Real life jump scare. That’s all horror films really do. They allow you to experience that shock, if ever so briefly. Some experts believe it’s this “controlled intensity” that people love about horror films. Some people get a kick from base jumping and others from eating Carolina Reaper peppers. A lot of people apparently get a kick from horror films. They’re reactionary. A lot of them, in fact, fall into a category of film known as “body genre“, where the film causes the viewer to have a physical reaction to the content that their viewing. It’s for these reasons and others, horror films aren’t really considered cerebral like we might think a Whit Stillman film might be. It’s difficult enough for any old Noah Baumbach film to engage in a relevant conversation with the public, how are horror films, which are so strongly dependent on elements of the surreal and supernatural, supposed to stay afloat? In short: their relevancy has hit it’s peak.
Art imitates life, right? Well cinema has a special relationship with the viewing public. While it too imitates a lot of the operational world, it also engages in a greater dialogue about the mood of the current milieu. Weather it’s Transformers: 5 sending a message of fear (of more Transformers) or Wonder Woman sending a message of change to come, films generally know how to tap into the feelings of the viewing public. Topical films come as obvious as American Sniper and as oblivious as It. Both are trying to speak to current audiences, making their own relevant connections to appeal to the masses. Both films did surprisingly well. And one of them was a notable horror movie. Sure, It was a remake of the nineties TV movie and in that sense, playing off the nostalgia of it’s viewers, but just because something has a “nostalgia factor” doesn’t mean anything. Especially when it comes to horror. In fact, the overwhelming success of It has a bit of precedent. This calendar year has been extremely kind to horror films overall. It just so happens to be a film that came along and found itself in the right place at the right time.
Earlier this year, a film called Get Out was getting a lot of press for all the right reasons. It was the big-screen directorial debut of respected writer Jordan Peele, it had an overwhelmingly positive response from critics, it made people think, and it was relevant. Get Out was released at a time where a lot of it’s themes were omnipotent in everyday discourse. It was a horror movie that was simultaneously a product of it’s time. It didn’t have to go to great lengths to establish a cause, it merely played with the discourse of society happening right in front of it. Around the same time, M. Night Shyamalan’s Split was also released to a surprisingly affirming critical reaction. It too was praised for an inventive take on the genre, by utilizing everything that already worked while still injecting a dose of contemporary commentary. That’s the challenge contemporary directors face. How can they do something new, something interesting, without compromising the integrity of the genre. After all, it can be pretty easy to stray into the “drama” category if you end up The point is that the magic spark that movies of the past were praised for seems to be lost amongst tropes of screaming teenagers and unnecessary gore.
Horror movies get props for originality. The earliest monster movies like Nosferatu and Frankenstein are considered near-epic because they were novel for the time. Neither were original pieces written for the screen, but both were inspiring enough creatively to garner something truly and uniquely cinematic. In some ways, especially in the case of Frankenstein, the creature might now be known more as a cinematic creature as opposed to a literary one. At the time, the world was in a divisive phase. The first half of the twentieth century, where the quality of horror films oscillated, but arguably reached it’s zenith in the thirties, was a time filled with horror. Internally, poverty and financial disarray ravaged the US in the form of the Great Depression. Externally, two World Wars fractured stability and was terror enough for a lifetime for many. The point is, the genre benefitted from the time. People felt pain and cinema has a unique ability to relate. The more films relate, the more power they really have. When audiences were scraping the bottoms of their pockets for pennies in 1933, hopeless and weary, a film called King Kong brought them some solace. Not because they were particularly fond of being scared by a terrifying giant gorilla, but because they felt the unbelievable horror of the situation. How could it be worse than crippling depression? Crippling depression and a giant gorilla. Boom! But it’s not relating to the horrible nature of a situation, it’s also about the ending. Even though this scary gorilla is captured, brought to a foreign land where it wreaks havoc on the civilians, and destroys fighter pilots in planes, it does die in the end. The horror is actually vanquished and that’s something a lot of audiences forget. In fact, most horror movies have some breath of relief at the end. Yes, you’re supposed to be scared. Yes, you’re supposed to relate to the victims when they are suffering. But you also are going to feel peace when you leave the theater knowing that the evil that has tormented you has been vanquished for now. That’s what makes horror movies really good: knowing the horror has been defeated. That’s what has made the horror films of this year such an overwhelming success. Get Out certainly made you feel the horror of the situation the protagonist found himself in, but in the end, the day was saved and justice was served. Even It, which tortured it’s audiences with some of the most horrific imagery yet, ended with its heroes vanquishing their supernatural opponent. These films provide more than an adrenaline rush, they provide relief from the chaos of the world, by bringing you the chaos of another. But it’s the parallel, the connection between the nature of the real world and the cinematic one, that really bolsters the film. I mean, think about all the terrible horror films out there!
Cheap, cheesy, overwrought – these are adjectives that commonly get thrown around for films like The Disappointments Room, a film from the studio “Blumhouse Productions“. Blumhouse is kind of a horror film puppy mill that only produces mutts. Sometimes those mutts are great, but again, it’s a puppy mill. I haven’t personally seen The Disappointments Room, but with universal disapproval and just about every negative adjective in the book being thrown around, I don’t feel like I have to. From everything I’ve read, the film is a contrived mishmash of horror movie tropes people are sick of. Uninventiveness is a plague on the genre. It’s the reversion to having a group of people, plagued by a mysterious entity, punished by their ties to the past, and ultimately standing victorious through a sole, scarred survivor. That was exactly what Cabin In the Woods was playing with when it meta-dissected the horror genre. It knew the cost of these tropes and what would become of them. The problem is, these formulas are easy to follow. A lot of the critique directed at romantic comedies and horror films comes from their formulaic predictability. It’s what causes people like me to approach these films with a level of skepticism that I might otherwise let slide by. And for the last thirty or so years, the genre hasn’t really had a lot of big hits. But that’s because the time and mood just weren’t right. The world has seen a lot of changes in the past couple decades and what’s scary now is nothing like what was scary then. Our standard of fear began to change and our films did alongside it. Audiences wanted smarter horror. They were sick of gimmicks. They knew that, like fear itself, context made infinitely more complex.
Which brings us to today. I’m no world doctor, but the news as of late has not been great and the general vibe of the moviegoing populous is also dark. People need inspiration. They need stories that will lift them up and, thankfully, there’s no shortage of those nowadays. But they also need to relate. They need to see cinematic monsters to distract them from the real world ones that ravage their daily existence. It’s because of this that horror films have found a resurgence this year. They’re like a well-crafted cultural weapon. Their using better resources, to send dangerous messages, as apart of a very timely call-to-arms. We’re now in October, the month to trump all months in terms of the horror genre and we’ve been buzzing about these films all year. The genre is still suffering from it’s fair share of duds. I mean Jeepers Creepers 3? Really? That’s the kind of movie I would have expected a release from fifteen years ago (which is ironically around the release date of the original). But in this day and age, fear has taken on new shapes. The scariest things in the world are at the forefront of our daily conversation. Filmmakers are capitalizing on this human pattern of propensity towards darkness and a drive for hope. They’re out there to provide them with fabricated monsters whose shadows only resemble the ones in the real world and then allow audiences to vanquish them vicariously through our heroes. This wave of success may only last as long as it captures a particular zeitgeist, but what it offers in the interim is scary, confronting, challenging, difficult, distressing, relieving, relatable – but not horrible.