21st century horror films are a wasteland of gore and jump scares. If you can’t revolt with bloody schlock (best typified by Saw), you startle with the cinematic equivalent of being tickled by a comedian – a lazy jump scare. Sure you might have leapt out of your seat, but it’s a cheap approach. Combine these elements with endless edgy platitudes and tropes cannibalised from older, better produced films and you have the Netflix formula for repetitive and dull horror-thrillers: Sinister, The Conjuring, The Haunting of Bly Manor (left), Annabelle (Possum does a better job of the ‘creepy puppet’ tale) and American Horror Story. They’re too high budget and overproduced to be decent B-movies, but not well written nor well directed enough to stand out as decent films. They fall into a mediocre abyss.
* SPOILERS BELOW *
Horror as a genre is defined by its cinematography and direction as a vehicle to provoke the adrenaline rush of terror or simmer of dread which we love. Stark lighting and austere camerawork sync with waterphone drone soundtracks to assemble a form which not only scares us but keeps us coming back for more. But where horror works best is when it employs novelty to the setup. The problem with repetitive tropes in horror films is that as we become accustomed to them, their familiarity immunises us to the fear which they ought to provoke.
HP Lovecraft (left) is quoted as stating that the oldest and strongest fear in mankind is fear of the unknown. Horror is emotive, the stuff of nightmares and a degree of dream logic certainly applies. Exposition in these films is unimportant beyond a few rules we may need to understand the payoff of the plot. We naturally feel fear and anxiety within the contexts that the genre encourages, it does not have to be rational.
The Blair Witch Project, the last word in found footage, is a classic example of this. We enter into a certain amount of lore with the interviews at the beginning of the film, though once the trio enter the woods we are given little else to explain what is happening. Instead, we project the understanding we’ve gleaned onto their experiences such that when Mike is left in the corner of the basement, we are able to comprehend the significance of this. The take home message is as old as creative writing courses; show don’t tell. We don’t see the witch, or whatever is tormenting Mike, Heather and Josh. We do see their reactions to what they are experiencing though without entirely knowing what has provoked them and this is scarier. Our imaginations rush in to fill the void.
The original Alien film uses this to its advantage. The Nostromo crew are enclosed in a space from which they cannot escape nor receive help and with them is an unidentified creature which is trying to kill them. That’s pretty much all we’re given and the fear we feel is primal. When we do see the alien, we rarely see it all at once but we do see enough to know that we should be afraid (The Void is a more recent example). This low budget strategy pays off more than in the sequels where dated CGI replaces the animatronics and often the protagonists are facing hordes of aliens. There isn’t an economy of scale here. If anything, the presence of plural numbers, some of which are defeated by the crew, robs the alien concept of its terror. The less we see, the better. This is why these films have stood the test of time and still scare audiences today. It is only a shame that so much of modern horror hasn’t taken this on board. Instead we have stale dialogue spoken by wooden characters as the flavour of the month CGI Slenderman rip-off ramps up the gore in a boring crescendo.
As an antidote to this tedium, we’ve seen an emergence of smarter horror films actually worth watching arise over the last decade. These films can be grouped together by the subversion of old tropes and expectations, their craftsmanship in direction and their exploration of a new territory in cinema. They are self-aware, sometimes to the point of meta-horror (Beyond the Gates, Antrum, Resolution). Typically, they are either informed by an 80s vaporwave aesthetic with chillwave soundtracks (The Neon Demon, The Color Out Of Space, Summer of 84) or employ folksy elements which construct new fables (The Lighthouse, The VVitch). They may be high concept, like A Quiet Place, but are not enslaved by it as with the Purge series. Most are inspired by formalist film theory in equal measure to the old masters of horror like Carpenter, Raimi and Romero. Many of these features are distributed by A24 (Midsommar, Under The Skin, The Killing of A Sacred Deer) and have been directed by Jordan Peele, Karyn Kusama, Ben Wheatley, Robert Eggers and, of course, the herald of this format Ari Aster.
Ari Aster’s( left) two feature length films Hereditary and Midsommar, exemplify the New Horror. They are beautifully shot with detailed attention paid to cinematography; the use of transitions in Hereditary is a balm to every flat shot and clichéd dolly zoom I’ve forked my subscription money to Netflix for. Earlier this year, Aster announced that Joaquin Phoenix has been cast in his new project, Disappointment Blvd, and I couldn’t be more excited.
Aster’s Hereditary is the best example of what horror films should be. The trailers were loaded with the typical creepy child who is implied to be mentally unwell/neuroatypical (played by Milly Shapiro), another stereotype. Then, with a twinge of Hitchcock’s Psycho, she is killed off early on and the film takes a completely different route, subverting our expectations. There are no soft lullabies or whispered giggles – the film is not about the weird possessed little girl, which is what we were led to believe. Scream does this too; we see a Drew Barrymore and we anticipate that she will be the lead for the rest of the movie. When she is not, the bait and switch cameo makes us uncertain. If the director can kill off a big name star, then any character is at risk and anything can happen.
Aster has done his homework and it shows. As well as being very well researched with regard to Paimon and the sigil leitmotifs (spoilers for those of us who have read our Johan Weyer and other demonologies) we are treated to a beautiful tribute to formalist cinema, harkening back to Aster’s inspiration; The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.
With Hereditary and Midsommar, quick shocks are dispensed with (in the latter there is a single jump scare in the first five seconds and that’s all you’re getting) in favour of a growing tension. Dread mounts as we are faced with what is horrible and we cannot look away; a decapitated head covered with ants, an elderly couple butchered as they fall to their deaths or a possessed Toni Colette. What is terrifying is front of us, perhaps out of focus, but it is there. We cannot ignore it and there is no release from a quick flash of a demon or monster which a jump scare offers us. Instead we must suffer.
Hereditary became A24’s highest grossing film, showcasing that blazing a new trail works. The audience demands subversion and new ideas. Sorry Jim Jarmusch, but zombies have been done too many times to be scary, like Doctor Who’s daleks or skinwalker creepypastas, which is why we’re seeing comedy zombie movies emerge like Shaun of the Dead. It’s a great film, but it isn’t horror. With familiar enemies we need a new way of seeing them to strike an interest. Zombie comedies is one method, though the blend of genres in One Cut of the Dead and the soft horror of Cargo are other no less viable options.
So what of remakes or reboots? No, absolutely not. Though I do have a soft spot for Suspiria, it pales in comparison with the original. These stray the boundary and either are too reverent of the original material or crumble into self-parody. The old social commentaries from horror tropes are no longer relevant (i.e. The Thing is about communism, The Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers is about communism, zombies are about communism). Horror needs to bring these undertones and references into the internet age. Leigh Whannell’s (right) Invisible Man, Cam and The Invitation contain subtext ranging over survivors of abuse, online fears and indoctrination – all 21st century concerns.
There is no better example of this than Get Out. As Mark Kermode points out, it is at heart an examination of how thin the veneer of “post-racial” Western society is. With the jabs at woke-ness and back-to-brunch liberals’ idolisation of Obama, Get Out is not only a tale of being trapped and hunted, but it perfectly taps into contemporary anxieties around race and the situation of racial minorities in the West. The villains are not inbred hillbillies, but upper-middle class New Englanders.
It Follows is another recent film to strike this balance and is a low budget independent film to boot. It Follows could easily have devolved into a moralising B-movie browbeating at teenage promiscuity. Instead, we have a plot ostensibly about fears of sexual experimentation where we are in rapt attention at each shot. Inspired by the austere photography of Gregory Crewdson, the audience is constantly on edge, peering into the background to see which of the extras ‘It’ will turn out to be. The spirit in It Follows is inevitable, approaching the camera (and the viewer by extension) at a slow yet unstoppable pace. The plot may unwind a little towards the end of the movie, though this more than makes up for the trepidation of the first half equalling that of The VVitch.
Compare this to The Babadook’s regressive fable. Although the cinematography is enough to be jarring, the story is far too clichéd; the ubiquitous creepy child and the parable ending of the demon defeated by love. So too with the villain crawling out of a picture book, the sped up jump shots of a disproportionate pale faced monster. It has been done before. We’re not looking for the original to be rehashed, we’re looking for an all new direction.
Compare Saint Maud to The Nun. The former uses religious iconography and mental illness to its strength. We are completely enveloped by the main character’s experience of both; until the end we see everything as she does. Her delusions and hallucinations are as real and terrifying to us as they are to her. Whereas The Nun offers a vague and difficult to follow plot shuffling through darkened corridors dissipates the tension. The film relies heavily on our viewing of earlier work within the series and within the exorcism genre of films for us to understand what is happening. The tension dissipates as we anticipate the old twists and when we are confronted by the pale ghost with yellow eyes and long teeth, we are bored. We’ve seen it before after all. The Uncanny is induced by contact with the unknown or a distorted version of the known. If we are too exposed to these tropes, they become known to us and they lose their power to incite fear. This is why Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was a flop.
That’s not to suggest that old ideas can’t be re-examined, if it does offer a new perspective. H P Lovecraft was the master of The Uncanny and Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space is one of the few authentic adaptations of his work. That it manages to do this, skip over the racism and update the setting is very exciting. Fans of the weird can look forward to the director adapting further works in the future. A meteorite from another world see a family fall apart, led by a perfectly cast Nicolas Cage.
As with many of Lovecraft’s works, there is no hope. We are helpless apes crawling over a world which is not ours, one which is not comprehended let alone explained. The universe of the Mythos is indifferent to our pain and this is portrayed perfectly in the Color Out of Space. The stunning visuals and fey soundtrack only add to the experience.
What can we learn from this and out what can we expect from the future? Will this be enough to shift the tide from the poorly written cheaply produced Prime and Netflix horror? Probably not, already there are more commercialised imitations on the way but we don’t need them. Common tropes and clichés – referenced in Scream and Cabin in the Woods – can be put away. We need something new. These films which at last invent a new paradigm and come up with a new way of scaring us that no doubt, other films in the future will repackage and resell in a more commercially viable manner, like pop music. Even while Scream is remade and another Paranormal Activity sequel is churned out, we can look forward to this in titles such as Antlers, In The Earth, Disappointment Blvd and Jordan Peele’s unnamed forthcoming project. For those of us who look, we can expect and celebrate a fantastic revival of the horror film.