Everything wrong with the modern horror movie explained.
I watch a great number of low-budget films, and the reason I do this – up against plenty of evidence that it is a silly idea – is that you still, on occasion, encounter staggeringly original stories which make everything else worthwhile. Liberated – which is a fancy word for ‘ignored’ – by bigger studios with their bigger budgets, indie filmmakers are in a unique, though in many ways a jeopardised position. They do not need to toe the line when it comes to any of the things which constrain bigger films; they can have their characters develop in unexpected ways, for example, or make their stories more daring, more defiant than those you routinely see in the mainstream.
These things are still often true. It’s a shame, then, that indie horror cinema in particular still seems hellbent on establishing its own formulaic traits and propagating them, until the films themselves start to blend together; this does no favours to anyone. Some of these traits are tics – annoyances – and some speak more loudly to expectations which filmmakers and their teams have about us, their audience. For anyone working on a screenplay who feels sure that the following need to be in their films, please think again: they don’t. We’ve seen them too many times already.
ALL HAIL ANALOGUE
It’s perhaps no surprise that the people who have started slavishly worshipping vinyl records in their thirties feel, faith-like, that everyone else must have the same obsession with ‘traditional’ formats, and must therefore want to see it in films. This has led to an absolute slew of cinema where you get the distinct impression that someone bought a toploading VHS player at a garage sale and wrote their screenplay around it, not always with very good results. Once, torture porn was notorious for lingering on close-ups of agony and torture; now it’s fixated on cool old TVs with the big wooden back you could put a vase or an ornament on, or neat Eighties stereo systems: make sure we get to see a character gingerly putting a tape in and pressing ‘play’, successfully looking a bit uncomfortable with it because they were in fact born in 2007. Method acting, that is.
That’s the odd disconnect we have, though, as many filmmakers working today are often in their twenties and thirties, and will only have a notional memory of any of this at best. So we have filmmakers inventing their own nostalgia for audiences which are often the same age as them, neither of whom were ever really part of this, whilst those of us old enough and curmudgeonly enough to actually remember things like having to prop up the bloody video player with books because that is the only way it would bloody work, or spooling tape with a pencil because the tape player had chewed it, look on rather bemused for the most part. Novelty is no longer an excuse. There are lots of plot-relevant reasons for setting a film in the Seventies, Eighties or Nineties, such as dodging the now ubiquitous ways we are constantly communicating with one another (if you can’t make mobile phone technology a central plank of your plot, then its ease of connecting us to everyone else is difficult or clunky to ignore in many kinds of threatening situations). But where the presence of analogue technology is almost a fetish, a central consideration or an obligatory nod to what everyone apparently likes, then it’s already stale. I’d sooner see one of the thousands of lost Seventies and Eighties films for whom analogue tech was just what you had than another indie film that is going to shove a Betamax in simply to stand as a fan-approved prop.
Of course, nostalgia is as big an invention as tradition; the New Romantics had bugger all similarities to Byron and Shelley. But the sudden, wave-like adherence to putting ancient tech front-and-centre, often at the cost of better scenes or lines, is odd: surely someone is about to set the indie cinema world alight with a scene set around a Tamagotchi, moving the trend on by a decade or so. Or, maybe that’s already happened and I’ve forgotten, the scene being lost in a haze of scenes that come together and muddle, a weird, generic junkshop that seems to fascinate some viewers, but will eventually need to be chucked out because none of it does anything anymore.
A NEW CHAPTER
I’m not sure who to blame for this exactly, because by the time I’d found myself exasperated by it, it had already become the done thing. Was it The VVitch, maybe? It’s so difficult to be sure. In any case, there is a definite trend now for utilising on-screen chapters, which invariably means the screen will be blacked out and some kind of marker displayed – a chapter, a day, a part. There doesn’t seem to be any agreement on how much of this is allowed, or how many times proceedings have to be paused to accommodate these. One filmmaker obviously saw the technique, thought it was great, and so it spread, hither and yon. Now a film may be split into seven or eight sections for no discernible reason, or at least, discernible to the majority of viewers.
This idea is perhaps particularly for filmmakers who see their end product as more lofty, more cerebral than your average horror film. Horror has long been dogged by derision, and those who care about this (bless them) are always keen to adopt new names for horror, or new styles of horror, to assuage accusations that horror is low-minded or mindlessly violent. All of the post-horror and elevated horror people, I’m sure, would relish a nice on-screen chapter; it’s a sure-fire way to appear more considered, literally more literary. There is definitely a corroboration between the use of on-screen chapters and loftiness, I would argue; one of the agreed ways to signify that your film will Provoke Debate is by chopping it needlessly up into sections which each gets its own subject header. Which is weird, because it seems to intimate that the audience can’t be trusted to understand that a change in location, focus, timeframe or event means there’s been a change in location, focus, timeframe or event, unless they’re forewarned with a new chapter.
So we are now routinely treated to a film that is carved into sections. We’re told which ‘part’ of the film we’re watching, and if we’re really lucky, the chapter might have some evocative phrases or words on it – presumably to pique interest or to foreshadow events to come. I don’t really want foreshadowing of events to come, though; just trust me to watch them. If you filmed and edited this story; isn’t that good enough anymore? Are you in doubt of my ability to follow your story, or are you doubtful of your story?
The unintended effect of all this, to my mind, is that a boring film feels twice as long. Every time you see a new chapter pop up on screen, your heart sinks. ‘Day Three’. Oh god, how many days are there? ‘Day Six’. Surely not. ‘Day Seven’… and so it goes on. It’s just another needless trend at the moment, though a worse one, as it comes imbued with a sense of self-importance.
Which brings me to…
I’m part of this problem, even if to an almost insignificant extent, but I refuse to take responsibility for the outcome.
The rise and rise of the internet has meant a rise and rise in the number of film writers, some doing it for a handful of viewers on a personal blog or journal, some hitting a few hundred or so for a small-scale magazine and others being read by tens of thousands on a regular basis. All in all, though, those with an interest in writing for cinema can now potentially reach readers they never would have encountered, ever, had they been doing this very thing twenty-five years ago. The result is a steadily growing wall of critical content, easily accessible by its very nature, and, via the likes of social media, able to steer popular discourse in certain directions, because there is enough content there for it to be called a ‘discourse’ at this stage. Even if you’re determined to ignore critical consensus, well, let me tell you: it will sneak under your radar to some extent, whether you like it or not. Even people who self-aggrandisingly declare that they pay no attention to the media are not immune to it and usually make this sweeping statement just after they’ve read something via the media which they don’t like.
The upshot of this is that from the likes of Film Twitter to the upper echelons of film academia – though it’s not as though those are two mutually exclusive groups, either – critical reception can shape the success of a film, or even the reputation of a director, as there’s deemed to be no separation between author and content anymore; this is one of the modern rules, pushed forward by the fatberg of solidarity. Canny filmmakers know this, and may well have had their world views shaped in the same ways as many of their most vocal peers, so whether by accident or design, they begin to make cinema which they believe will please the critics first and foremost.
Film has always had the ability to call to complex ideas, and horror is particularly well-tuned to do so because it invites us to explore our darkest human instincts – the ones brushed off in polite society by silence and euphemism. However, horror works best when you get to glean its deeper meanings through its story, and you come to care about those meanings precisely because of the story. In other words, it must work as a piece of entertainment first and foremost. Any takeaway morals or points to consider should form an organic part of the film as a whole. Think of your favourite, most subtle, thought-provoking films: do they spell it all out for you? And are they wary about what they are permitted to spell out? If the answer to either of those questions is a ‘yes’, then good luck with your blog.
Once scripts are being put together with a quite deliberate rationale to raise awareness about something which has exercised popular opinion, it invariably limits itself and not just by immediately dating itself, but by becoming a mixed medium that wants to highlight and reform before it entertains. The two desires sit oddly together, and they nearly always fail. Sure, it gives jobbing writers some easy symbolism and dialogue to write about, but filmmaking should never have become, to any degree, a form of expression designed from the bottom up to give a critic an easy life – a critic who, in gratitude, will absolutely love the film and say as much, but at what other cost?
For diehard fans, thinly-written sermons often make for poor viewing experiences and risk alienating the very audience who also matters hugely, because they’re the ones who actually pay to view. Yep, paying punters still matter. The disconnect between critics’ ratings and audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes tends to speak for itself. But there’s no need for this false economy: all filmmakers have ever needed to do is to make a bloody good film that has the nous to balance its cultural mores against its storytelling. A lot of this always comes down to trust: trends, tropes and signposting are always going to push against the very people these films are – at least nominally – meant to be for. And even mere mortals can get The Message, if The Message is worthwhile, intelligent and organic. Imagine that.
WORST RECENT OFFENDERS:
ALL HAIL ANALOGUE
It Follows: sex-averse mumblecore (albeit with a few good scenes and ideas) renders the story ‘timeless’ by putting in a big telly. Scores of films, ironically enough, follow.
PG Psycho: Goreman: the film dedicates an entire playhouse to analogue technology. But why? Sadly, despite the odds, that dreadful little girl never gets her hand stuck in a video player.
A NEW CHAPTER
The Reckoning: combines a ‘historical’ prologue asserting links between the film and the history of witchcraft with irksome on-screen chapters telling us which torture is to follow and on what days. Two types of on-screen chapters! Spoiler: the whole thing is torture, but it’s the audience who suffers.
Candyman: it’s funny, the original Candyman adaptation wasn’t exactly backwards in coming forwards with its racism-related content – how could it be, when its fantasy stemmed from a brutal, racist murder? – but, compared to the sequel, it whispers so softly you can barely make it out. A worthy example of pantomime characterisation which sadly dilutes the film’s better qualities.
The Welder: almost certainly a film that started from benign intentions as much as it wanted to cash in off the back of Get Out, but its attempts to highlight racism are so awkward that it’s genuinely mortifying.
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It’s ‘The Takeaway’ that’s the ultimate shiny prize and that also forms the biggest stumbling block for filmmakers, especially in an era when EVERYONE is encouraged/browbeaten into being an activist for something, anything, just as long as everyone can see that you’re on point. It’s that “fatberg of solidarity”, a filmmaker proving their credentials to an audience with readymade expectations. I may sympathize with ‘The Message’ but when it’s foregrounded to the extent that all other elements become subservient to it, well… that’s when a film becomes hilarious/unbelievable/tedious (usually in that order). See ‘Shadow in the Cloud’ for another recent example.
This, for me, is where Romero’s zombie films finally fell apart. The first two had a subtext and were open to interpretation – but after that, the films might as well have stopped midway through for a lecture about The Message, so laboured was it. Diary of the Dead was the lowest point, with its voice-over literally explaining things as though he thought the viewers would be too stupid to work it out for themselves.
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