Tom Jolliffe looks at modern horror films on the up, and whether Hereditary will leave a lasting legacy…
Minor Hereditary related spoilers may follow:
Horror films have always been divisive. They’re certainly popular and in comparison to other genres, they’re normally cost-effective. You only need look at the cost against return on The Blair Witch Project as an extreme example.
The problem the genre has often had though, is the quality. It’s often difficult to inject too much depth into a genre which has a primary function to scare or disturb. There have been some exceptional films though and often their quality lies in injecting a sense of artistry, depth and intensity lacking in a by the numbers slasher (for example). The most effective horror films for me have always foregone cheaply firing off jump scares, or relentless gore, in favour of an overriding feeling of unease. Creating an atmosphere of persistent, building dread. The Shining is an example. It’s not a film you’d say has big ‘jump’ moments or necessarily overtly ‘scary’ but the tension is constant. It just slowly builds throughout, starting right from the off. You become engrossed, you get pulled into the setting and you are gripped.
In the late 60’s, into the 70’s we had the likes of The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. These were great examples of atmosphere building, based on the idea of possession. The Exorcist isn’t so much a jump a minute scare fest, but the reason it’s had such a lasting legacy and reputation for terrifying audiences (reports back in the day of people fainting with regularity during screenings, even urban myths about people being taken straight to the local morgue) is down to impeccably crafted and unrelenting tension. You get things ratcheted up at 8-9 on the tension scale, occasionally giving the dial a violent shift to 10 just to get the audiences palms particularly sweaty. The Exorcist was relentless.
Alongside a Hollywood trend for the spiritual horror, we had the Giallo at its peak. The tail end of the 70’s saw Hollywood redevelop the Giallo into their own mould, the slasher film. Halloween built the template we know of today. The 80’s brought about an array of clones and the notion of the Horror franchise. From Myers, to Voorhees, to Kruger, to Pinhead suddenly the villains became the stars. Alongside these (And within) we also had the video nasty. A gleeful excess in animatronics, prosthetics and gore. The 90’s brought a dip as franchises died a death at the box office (or in the case of Pinhead, detoured into the straight to video market). One or two standout films aside, Hollywood had run out of horror ideas, or interesting ways to re-invent the genre. The turn of the century and first decade then saw a shift to four distinct avenues…
First, the reboot/remake. Name a classic 80’s horror and chances are about 10-15 years ago it was rebooted. Friday The 13th, Halloween, Nightmare On Elm Street, My Bloody Valentine. All horrendous of course. Secondly, the found footage film. After firstly Blair Witch, and then again after Paranormal Activity, the regularity of the found footage horror film (largely because they could have absolutely nothing happen into the final 20 seconds and be shot for 10 pence) was constant. Third, the Korean/Japanese horror well which Hollywood dipped into regularly for remakes. Fourth, the Gorno fascination. That is to say, films pushing the levels of on screen torture, gore and sadism to extremes. Saw, Cabin Fever and the rest. You could perhaps extend to a fifth with the high concept horror, but they weren’t in quite such prolific creation.
Certainly all these films were successful but they are (or will be) relics of their time. They’ll be forgotten about. They tapped into a market successfully, often creating franchises which outstayed their welcome. The reality is though, most were terrible films. There was nothing to rival horror classics like The Exorcist, or even more palatable horror fare like Halloween, The Thing and Nightmare On Elm Street (or to say, less of a spiritual, philosophical backdrop).
I like horror films but there had been a long period of time devoid of decent films. That wasn’t simply horror either, it’s been a struggle in most genres, as Hollywood had near dried its well of inspiration. Things are improving all around thankfully. I look at the last 5 years and I see a decided upturn in Horror film. The likes of The Conjuring, Don’t Breathe, It Follows, Witch. These aforementioned were a tad over-heralded but they’re very good horror films. The concepts were good. It at least showed a desire to think outside the box or to allow for atmosphere building (The Conjuring, Witch). It Follows worked as pure horror, and whilst a little on the nose, the analogy of the film itself added another level. What they demonstrated though was a desire to be more than just shat out with nonchalant indifference, which is something that seemed increasingly common in modern horror (particularly remakes) at that time.
In the last year there have been three particularly strong horror films. They represent the possibility of building upon a steady upturn and seeing the genre fully re-invigorated (though they give way to the dangerous prospect of lazy franchising or copycatting). Get Out took a witty, insightful look into racial stereotyping and casual racism. An important underbelly of social commentary that had a ruthlessly effective horror (with enjoyably irreverent moments of comedy) on top. It’s a film that should last the test of time. A Quiet Place was simpler. Offering a considered and heartfelt look at family dynamic and disability, and offering powerful, impactful horror. As a horror, when it grips it’s vice tight and when it hits, it hits hard. Sequels have already been murmured for both films, which potentially conventionalises them, making them part of ‘just another franchise.’
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