Well, it’s October, so it’s time for the obligatory article about horror films. Now, I’ll admit I’m not the biggest horror fan, and I’m sure hardcore horror fans will disagree with my assertion that current horror films are terrible, but, in my mind, they are. Granted, I’m not overly familiar with all the foreign horror coming out now, but in terms of North America, the genre has become, in my mind, nothing more than torture porn or found footage films (or a combination of both). And that’s just sad.
Horror films were always trashy, and, to be frank, they are usually seen as a lower form of filmmaking (not always the case, but usually). However, there’s something particularly awful about today’s obsession with torture porn. My problem isn’t with gore – gore can be great – my problem is with how it’s used. Filmmakers lean on it as a crutch, thinking that the gore itself is frightening. They forget that what makes a horror film great are the scenes leading up to the killings/mutilations/etc. The key word here is “tension” (here’s a masterful description). To make a film truly scary, tension needs to built through atmosphere and (surprise!) caring about the characters. Mindlessly killing off self-centered teenagers can be entertaining for a little while, but it ultimately doesn’t lead to much. (This may seem blasphemous to some, but one of the films that started the mindless killing of teenagers, Friday the 13th, is a terrible film. The whole Friday the 13th series is grossly overrated, and just plain bad). Taking time with your characters and allowing tension to build creates much more satisfying scares, and a satisfying film overall. Thankfully, the Saw franchise seems to have stopped and Hostel is long over. So, maybe the whole torture porn thing is dying out. I can only hope so.
What seems to be gaining momentum, however, are the found footage horror films, the most obvious example being the Paranormal Activity franchise. The first film was kind of clever and had some decent scares – and it made a ton of money. And this is where it went wrong. Studios saw how much it made and how little it cost, and immediately jumped on the bandwagon. Now, Paranormal Activity 4 is being released. The studios are trying to squeeze every last penny about this very limited franchise. And limited is what it is. Like I said, the first one was all right, but you can only go so far with this type of film. After a while it just becomes boring. The shooting style gets annoying and the scares get repetitive. More importantly, studios now know they can invest very little into a horror film and get great returns. This doesn’t bode well for any filmmakers looking to make a horror film with much of a budget. I can only hope that audiences begin to lose interest in Paranormal Activity soon.
But surely there must be some good modern horror films? Indeed there are, but they’re a little harder to find. Like I said, I’m not the biggest horror fan, so I’ve only really come across a few (suggestions welcome). Given my little knowledge of the horror genre, the only (North American) filmmaker that I really enjoy working in the horror genre today is Ti West. With House of the Devil and, more recently, The Innkeepers, West is making some good old-school horror. I’ve heard people deride his films as boring, but I think those people (like too many unfortunately) suffer from a sort of A.D.D. West certainly takes his time, but it’s time well spent. He gives you plenty of scenes to get to know the characters, and he subtly ratchets up the tension throughout his films. The explosion of violence at the end of House of the Devil is almost cathartic from how tense he makes the audience up until that point. Sometimes having nothing happen is a lot more frightening than a huge body count.
Unfortunately, West is about the only modern horror filmmaker that I know of and like. I appreciate the fact that he’s trying to keep his films classy. Sadly, his films don’t get a ton of attention from mainstream audiences. And, sadly, that’s the case with a lot of great filmmakers in any genre. So, again, the root of this problem really lays at the feet of the audience. Studios cater to the wishes of the masses, and the masses don’t want great films. So what’s a cinephile to do? Support good films in any way you can and hope for the best.
Here are a few suggestions for some Halloween viewing (this is not a best of, just personal favs):
Halloween (1978) – John Carpenter
The original and the original only (sorry, but nice try Rob Zombie). This set the template for the slasher film, and, in my opinion, no slasher film has lived up to it. This film is iconic. A regular watch for my every Halloween.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Roman Polanski
Another classic. Slow moving, atmospheric, and brilliant.
The Shining (1980) – Stanley Kubrick
In my opinion probably the best horror film ever made. Stanley Kubrick was at the top of his game here. From his revolutionary use of the steadicam to his bizarre, frightening imagery, and overwhelming atmosphere, Kubrick created one of the most re-watchable horror films ever.
Videodrome (1983) – David Cronenberg
Maybe not technically “pure” horror, but probably my favourite Cronenberg film, and definitely freaky. Long Live the New Flesh.
The Thing (1982) – John Carpenter
Another classic from Carpenter. Amazing film. The makeup effects alone are worth the watch. Plus, Kurt Russell’s just badass.
Alien (1979) – Ridley Scott
A great sci-fi horror film. Ridley Scott does an amazing job with atmosphere, and the cast is stellar.
The Fly (1986) – Another Cronenberg masterpiece.
The Exorcist (1973) – Classic, obviously.
Psycho (1960) – The original slasher film.
Let the Right One In (2008) – The American remake is not bad, but the original is still best.
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) – Werner Herzog’s take on the classic Nosferatu.
Eraserhead (1977) – Maybe not technically a horror film, but freaky as all hell. Almost any David Lynch film could really be watched as a horror film.
28 Days Later (2002) – Danny Boyle’s great modern zombie film.
And, of course, the a fore mentioned Ti West films: House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011)