Horror is a genre of stark dichotomy. On one hand, it’s a brain-dead affair; endless romps of half-naked teens turned into red pulp at the hands of a killer, cheap thrills, and cheaper effects. Alternatively, the genre can be used as a flashlight to explore the darkest depths of human psychology and society such as Dawn of the Dead’s portrayal of mindless consumerism, The Thing’s commentary on the ‘us vs. them’ paranoia of the Cold War, the cold brutality of Patrick Bateman’s capitalism in American Psycho, and HR Giger’s darkly sexual xenomorph in Alien.
Unfortunately, in recent years the quality of major horror productions has leaned closer to the former definition rather than the latter. The last decade has been dominated by lame and unimaginative jump-scare fodder. One series has particularly ground any sort of artistry and imagination in the horror genre to a halt for the past decade, that being the Paranormal Activity collection. The series spawned a litany of found footage films that have taken over theatres. Since its release in 2007, the Paranormal Activity series has featured five sequels along with a dozen or so similarly dull films, including a found footage Bigfoot movie. How did it get so bad? The answer is found in successful formula.
Formulation is an inescapable aspect of the film industry. With millions of dollars, careers, and egos at stake, there is little room for error. Thus, when a movie explodes at the box office, Hollywood does its best to squeeze every last dollar it can out of the concept through sequels and copycat movies. It happened with Westerns, buddy-cop movies, attractive vampire and werewolf teen-flicks, and now with superhero and the Star Wars universe. When a formula works, producers run with it.
However, no genre has experienced formulation to the extent found in horror. Disney has six planned Star Wars movies? Well, the Friday the 13th series is about to release its thirteenth film this year. There have been fourteen movies with the name ‘Amityville” attached to it. A Nightmare on Elm Street has seven movies—eight if you include Freddy vs. Jason—and there are eight titles related to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
However, these numbers are slightly misleading. These series have existed for almost four decades alongside a number of quality releases; for every Amityville of the 1970s there was a Possession. Also, in spite of their repetitiveness, there were still a number of classic films amongst these series. The first Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a very well shot and designed affair, and the Nightmare on Elm Street series successfully explores the dark humour that can accompany terror. Neither point can be made in favour of the Paranormal decade.
In part, the blame rests on a movie that subverted the major production playbook on horror, The Blair Witch Project. The film used minimal production value, a bare bones screenplay, and amateurish acting. Thanks to a successful marketing campaign, it became a cultural phenomenon and, most importantly, a major commercial success. On a $60,000 budget, the movie pulled almost $250 million at the box office. Eight years after its release, Paranormal Activity uses the same low budget production and heavy marketing to recreate the success of Blair Witch. Thus, Hollywood began to use horror as a low risk, high return opportunity, and churned out more.
Thankfully, a few recent releases have proven that filmmakers and audiences are ready to return to intelligent horror films. Amongst these, It Follows leads the way with stylishly shot story of a stalking creature that passes between victims as a result of sex, possibly acting as a metaphor for HIV. Then, The Babadook presented the psychological power of grief through the tale of a widow terrorized by a monster in her son’s picture book. The Witch portrayed a brooding and dark take on early American settler life being overtaken by oppressive religious fervour, focusing on the oppression of women and girls who lived through it. Don’t Breath dipped its toes into the exploitation genre, weaving a violent and disgusting story about a group of thieves cornered in a blind man’s home. These films are hopeful beacons of the horror resurrection, and could give the current big name horror series a run for their money by proving that fear is multifaceted and goes far beyond making us jump in our seats.