The Horror genre is an established and beloved facet of film with a wide variety of sub-genres, each of which have garnered healthy fandoms. The Body Horror, Psychological Horror, Slasher and Torture Porn genres all boast classic films as part of their libraries – from mainstream hits like Halloween to less conventional movies like Audition and Funny Games – and each year a plethora of new additions hit our screens.
Shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story keep the genre relevant in the mainstream and provide a valuable (if somewhat diluted) gateway to more artistic and intellectually stimulating experiences in the world of cinema, but on the big screen the Horror genre is often misrepresented and abused by filmmakers, production companies and studios alike.
Narratively cohesive and visually exciting films like The Babadook and Mother! are widely disregarded by audiences because they challenge viewers and don’t rely on cheap tricks to generate entertainment, and in an effort to cater towards the masses studios produce fast-paced, surprise-heavy films with little substance by the bucket load. In doing so they inform their audience’s choices and create a lower level of expectation, facilitating a system which favours profitability over quality and doesn’t require one to ensure the other.
Audiences are consistently short-changed by companies which would rather make an empty but financially-safe movie like The Gallows for $100,000 than something ambitious, and the idea that effective jump scares are essential to the genre is constantly reinforced to mainstream audiences by these kinds of films. Movies like Lights Out are heralded as ground-breaking by casual cinemagoers because they have appealing premises and are marginally more stimulating than the standard throwaway horror that you might find at your local Cineworld, regardless of the fact that the filmmaking is middling at best.
As previously mentioned, the genre has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to variety; many of the classics come from one or two sub-genres – with movies like Scream, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street all most readily branded as Slashers – but others are great films regardless of how they are categorised such as Alien, The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby.
Horror is a study of themes – an exploration of human psychology and our penchant for fearing that which we do not understand – so by virtue of the fact that we know as little as we do it’s a diverse and rich field to study. Yet, within this field filmmakers and audiences alike play it safe, preparing and digesting the same mishmash of clichés on a daily basis whilst ignoring the fact that the taste has faded.
This Halloween the only cinematic release to capitalise on one of the calendar’s most celebrated holidays was a tepid reboot/sequel of a franchise which should’ve died many movies ago. Jigsaw was a tired and inept attempt at breathing life into a series which at this point has about as much energy as the rotting corpse of its fictional anti-hero John Kramer, and the fact that audiences went to see it is both disappointing and encouraging in equal measure.
The good news is that Jigsaw’s commercial success demonstrates the fact that fans will still pay to see a horror film if a trailer piques their interest. When there isn’t a recognisable name behind the film the situation is admittedly more complicated – the stars have to align and the need for careful marketing is more pronounced – but if you can find the balance between a pandering set of jump scares and a pretentious art film then there’s a lot of money to be made.
The bad news is that the majority of people can’t tell the former from the latter, and ultimately they’ll pay to see anything as long as a marketing team makes the choice for them.
The truth is that fans aren’t given an immense amount of choice. Brilliant horror films are being made around the world on a regular basis but they aren’t easily accessible to everyone and they certainly aren’t shown in every cinema across the United Kingdom. You can find them, of course, but in an age when people aren’t willing to interact socially unless their conversations are filtered through a barrage of apps, and can’t articulate their emotions without a meticulously chosen emoji, how can we expect them to make informed decisions on which films to watch? People do as they’re told – like it or not – and they’re told to watch whatever Blumhouse Productions wants them to watch.
Goodnight Mommy is a prime example of the type of movie from within the horror genre which should be made available to fans without the need for excessive research, but unless you happened to stumble across it at your local arthouse cinema it’s unlikely that it made a blip on your radar. Luckily Austria’s nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards is now available on Amazon Prime and is accessible to anyone with a subscription, but the fact remains that for every well-produced horror drama there’s a franchise-killer like Rings to tell audiences that they needn’t get their hopes up.
Streaming services like the above-mentioned Amazon Prime make lesser-known movies available to the masses, and Netflix has recently added quality to the genre with two stellar Stephen King adaptations (Gerald’s Game and 1922 respectively), but these services can only suggest which films their viewers should watch. They have extensive libraries and an abundance of quantity over quality, so for every film like The Descent there’s an eyesore like Before I Wake to balance the scales, and the latter will likely gain just as much traction as the former.
This isn’t a criticism of people’s viewing habits or a recommendation for what they should choose to enjoy – I can appreciate a bad film just as much as the next person – it’s merely a reflection on the fact that as a society we’ve been conditioned to accept movies of a certain standard simply because they’re convenient to find and consume. We shouldn’t give our money to Twisted Pictures so that they can churn out another lacklustre film in the Saw franchise – that horse is dead and it’s about time that we stopped beating it – we should collectively put more of an emphasis on quality and demand that filmmakers earn the money that we give them.
All of these points boil down to one thing, which is that Horror is an underappreciated and misunderstood genre which is unfairly categorised as niche and tasteless because people don’t have easy access to the types of movies which validate being a fan. As fans we’re as much responsible for that as the filmmakers because we fund their projects and thank them by buying a ticket when they make something which is fundamentally deficient.
Refer back to my earlier comment about The Walking Dead; it’s one of the most watched and talked about shows on television today, yet in my view it’s also one of the least compelling. The first six episodes were character driven, well-shot, and they had direction, so although the characters weren’t fully-realised there was a sense that it could become something special.
Frank Darabont started as showrunner and he cared about Robert Kirkman’s material; he got some of his talented friends on board from projects like The Mist and they helped to steer the ship in the right direction. However, by the time the second season rolled around creative differences between AMC and Darabont (director of films like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) meant that he was let go. Ever since then the show has been less of a drama and more of a soap opera, yet the popularity of the series remains intact because now people are invested and want to be part of the conversation.
Horror is an exceptional genre of film and popular culture. It plays with human emotions more than any other genre, forcing people to participate and to use their imagination in order to answer the question – ‘what would I do in this situation?’. It’s an engaging form of entertainment and a valuable tool for growth which encourages people to face their fears and conceptualise scenarios which they’d rather avoid. It provides an avenue to explore abstract concepts and themes which are relevant to our everyday lives, and it does so through a format which allows casual viewers to enjoy what’s happening on screen even if they don’t want to consider the implications. Of the films that I’ve already mentioned The Babadook considers mental illness, Rosemary’s Baby examines ambition and The Descent explores the impact of grief, and each one does so in a considered and symbolic manner.
It’s a genre which iconic filmmakers like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and George Romero have each dedicated large portions of their lives to, and it’s one which needs to be disassociated from those films which sully its reputation in cinemas today. Horror is not a group of teens throwing popcorn from the back of the cinema or speakers turned up so high that you can’t help but jump out of your seat at the end of every sequence; it’s a study in aspects of human psychology which are too complex to consider through everyday experiences – an exploration of our vulnerabilities – and when it’s done right it can be the most emotionally effective variety of film.