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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

The 2nd Annual Horrific State of the Horror Film

Last year, I wrote a column about the state of the present-day horror film and how it had been ages since I was truly scared by one. Not a whole lot has changed; here we are a year later and we’ve watched the fifth installment of theSaw series notch thirty million bucks in its opening weekend. But since Halloween is approaching us, it seemed like a good time to revisit that column and talk about what’s going on in the world of horror today.

One of my biggest complaints in this space last year was how the filmmakers behind the latest horror films seem to not understand what makes something scary. In what has been referred to by some as “torture porn” films, we wind up watching things that are kind of icky, sure, but are they scary? The answer to that is no. Just because something makes you look away or cringe a little bit does not mean what you’re watching is something that can be classified as “terrifying.” So if merely making the audience cringe or feel icky isn’t enough to induce the sense of terror-by-proxy that makes a horror film truly scary, what exactly differentiates good horror from bad?

Horror and comedy are the only two genres of filmmaking where you react to the film by reflex. If something is funny, you will smile or laugh whether you like it or not; and if something is scary, you cannot help but jump in your seat. Those visceral thrills are relatively easy to come by, so even the worst entries in the genre work on that level. Those jumps might not necessarily be the height of cinema, but they provide an actual interaction between the film and the audience. Good horror films provide more than that; they create an atmosphere of dread that permeates the entire theater.

The thing I love about a good horror film is that collectively, the reaction of the entire audience heightens the fright for everyone around them. You might hear a high-pitched scream during a tense moment, and it’s not what happened in the movie that makes your skin crawl, but the reaction you heard to that moment. And after those scares, you let out a little laugh of relief, and you look around and realize that everything’s okay, you’re just in a movie theater. But the sheer fact that you need that reminder is evidence that, for at least a split second, you didn’t realize you were watching a film; unbeknownst to you, the movie had become an experience that you became wholly absorbed in, at least for a moment. And if the film is really good, the scare doesn’t just stay in the theater; it follows you home and keeps you lying awake at night.

When I watch a Saw film, I’m not lying awake in bed later that night wondering about what I would do if I found myself with some ridiculous steam-punk contraption on my neck because that would never happen. It’s not like when I saw Jaws as a kid and became scared every time I went in the ocean; hell, even when I went into a swimming pool, I thought a shark would come out of the grates on the bottom. Too often, though, what passes for horror today are films based more on the concept of grossing the audience out than playing on our innate fears.

If the films aren’t built around strange contraptions and bloodletting, then they’re remakes of Asian horror films, which I almost never find particularly frightening outside of Takashi Miike’s oeuvre. What makes Miike’s Audition frightening is the fact that the premise is something that’s not completely far-fetched; how well do we really know anybody we might date? And what if that person turned out to be a sick human being? It would definitely catch you by surprise; after you develop an intimate relationship with someone, you let your guard down and don’t expect them to, say, fillet you while you’re alive. The storyline of Audition is built up to a heightened climax after building a world that the audience believes in; the Hostel and Sawfilms, on the other hand, plug the audience into a world that just does not exist and give them little reason to suspend their disbelief enough to feel the tingle of genuine fear.

When we watch a film in another language, our natural inclination is sometimes to believe it better than it actually is; we give it the benefit of the doubt. Remakes of Japanese horror, though, lose that perceptual advantage, and in the translation are often left only with a ridiculous premise that no longer works as well as the original. The folks who watch a lot of these Japanese horror films might not be used to reading subtitles or going to foreign films; thus, when something scary happens and is accompanied by a musical note, they might find it scarier than if they had been simply watching the action unfold.

When you’re watching One Missed Call or Pulse in their original Japanese versions, you can get past the insanity of the plots, but when you watch the remake it’s impossible to get around the absurd idea that these films are about killer cellular telephones. But if you go back and re-watch the original J-horror versions of those films after watching the remakes, you’ll notice the former aren’t particularly better plot-wise … they’re just subtitled.

As if the J-horror remakes weren’t bad enough, Hollywood somehow got the horrifying notion that it would be a good idea to remake successful horror films from the ’70s and ’80s likeTexas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Hills Have Eyes, Dawn of the Dead, andFriday the 13th. Now, I’ll admit that The Hills Have Eyes and Dawn of the Dead remakes were actually pretty good, and I’ll even go so far as to say that the former film is even better than Wes Craven’s original. But I don’t understand how any filmmaker could think it’s an awesome idea to remake a film like Friday the 13th.

Michael Bay, who produced the awful Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, apparently felt that he could put a different spin on the story of Jason Voorhees and his vengeful mother slaughtering sexed-up camp counselors. It’s one thing to think to yourself, “hmm, maybe I could make a horror film where a camp is the setting,” but to remake a film that has already spawned ten sequels seems a little strange; what could possibly be said about that particular character that hasn’t already been said? For crying out loud, there’s already been a sequel that sent the dude to friggin’ space! There’s just one reason for a director to remake a mediocre horror film rather than creating a new mythology: moolah.

And that is what it ultimately comes down to with the horror genre. Sure, these days we sometimes find the odd sequel or remake or – gasp! – original idea that creeps through the cracks. But more often than not, we horror fans are being spoken down to as an audience. These filmmakers and the studios that back them are saying, “hey, you know what, this dumb audience will go see anything that has Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers in it” — and then they wind up bastardizing those characters. No matter how well-intentioned the filmmaker seems or how much they say they “respect the character and the fans,” they don’t. If they did, they wouldn’t take the job. What they really respect is the amount of money they’ll be paid for making that film.

And that’s fine, more power to them for getting paid, but as an audience we have the power to say that we’re not going to plunk down our ten bucks to see Michael Myers’ origins. Unfortunately, Saw VI is already in production because people can’t get enough of the cinematic equivalent of Deal or No Deal; “I pick trap number 12, Howie!” “I’m sorry, but that’s certain death by way of barbed wire!”

Luckily, every once in a while, we get films like Let the Right One In from Sweden, or Insidefrom France, or The Orphanage from Spain — films that are gory and bloody and disgusting, but that also give us a story worth caring about and real stakes for the characters. Of course Hollywood will come along and soften the stories when they remake them, but those original versions are still out there and I take a certain comfort in that. Also, every once in a while we get a film like 28 Weeks Later which – while being a sequel – builds upon the original film and puts characters in situations that seem familiar, far away and frightening.

Eventually the remakes and the “torture porn” will die out and will be replaced by the next flavor of the moment. Horror films are the cinematic equivalent of pop music, ever-changing as adolescents change and grow. Right now adolescents seem to really enjoy “torture porn” and emo bands, but like all things pop, that too will invariably change. The best pop music, though, is the stuff that doesn’t play into what the fad of the moment is; likewise, the best horror films are the ones that stand the test of time.

For now, all we can do is ignore Katy Perry and Marcus Nispel and try to seek out the songs that we’ll still be humming in fifteen years and the horror flicks that will still keep us up in twenty years. Sometimes in order to get to the good stuff, we have to wade through a lot of bullshit; when we find those little gems, though, it makes it all worthwhile. All it takes is one different kind of film to bring about a radical change in the way people view horror. I’ll be here waiting with my bucket of popcorn for the next truly visionary horror director to come along and scare the pants off me.

– Noah Forrest
October 28, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon