MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

The Third Annual Horrific State of the Horror Film

Each year around this time, I write a column that usually bemoans the sad state of the horror film (you can read last year’s horror column here, and 2007’sover here.  It seemed for a while that the only horror films that being made, marketed and sold were “torture porn” movies like the Saw or Hostel franchise.  I was never offended by those films in terms of what they put on the screen – some found the films to be misogynistic or mean-spirited, I just found them to be offensively stupid.

Because of the short-term “success” of the torture porn films, the genre came to define what horror was and what it meant for about five years; when we look back upon the aughts and what kind of horror films were produced, we’ll think about torture porn.

But I’ve noticed a shifting lately, which is no surprise because the nature of horror films has always been cyclical. Torture porn seems passé now to the majority of audiences, which makes me giddy because I’ve spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to find out what audiences found particularly thrilling about watching people get tied up and mutilated.  There’s nothing scary about the acts in the films because there’s no struggle and the end-result is easy to predict: Someone will get tortured and murdered. Repeat ad infinitum.  What’s fascinating about this particular time in horror film history is that we’re in-between cycles; torture porn is mostly dead (for now), but what is the next fad in horror films?

One of the things that depressed me about the Saw or Hostel films was that there was no fun to be had in watching them. The intent of a horror film should be to scare you and entertain you; with those films, there is a lack of characterization beyond stereotypes and plots that are easy to predict, making it hard to be entertained.  So the enjoyment of the film rests solely on its ability to titillate you – since the films aren’t trying to scare you exactly – with ridiculous ways for people to be tortured and killed.  “What if you had a bear trap attached to your head and you have to find a key in time to take it off?”  Even ridiculous set-ups like that have no fairness to them because the key won’t work.  An impossible-to-win game is set-up, as we’ve seen time and time again throughout the series of films, so from where does the excitement come when the outcome is foreseeable?

But I have good news: fun is returning once again to the land of genre filmmaking, as more enterprising filmmakers who have grown up appreciating horror films are now subverting the genre they love. Take a film like Zombieland, which takes a horror staple and pokes fun at it lovingly while also staying true to the conventions of a horror film. If the whole point of a horror film is to be subversive, Zombieland definitely does that; if one of the major hopes when watching a horror movie is to be unable to predict what’s coming next, then Zombieland truly has one of the most insane WTF moments in all of film (the celebrity cameo that has been spoiled by every critic).

The comic subversion of the horror genre seems to be a common theme lately, not just in the film world – which has lovingly poked fun since Evil Dead and done it more obviously with films like Shaun of the Dead – but in the world of literature with books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.  There is an audience of horror lovers out there that has grown up thinking about the realities of a zombie invasion and imagined the comedic possibilities of such an absurd event.  Yet, there is still room in the cinema for genuinely scary zombie films like 28 Weeks Later.  Purists will say that the modern zombie movies have the undead running too fast or that it’s a shame that they are all “infected” by a virus rather than literally rising from their graves, but I appreciate that filmmakers have put a modern twist on this horror genre.

But twisting and tweaking a genre does not mean simply remaking a classic horror film, updating it to the present, and hoping it has the same impact (I’m talking to you, The Stepfather).  Friday the 13th was exciting when it came out because it was a different idea with an intriguing campfire spook tale at the heart of it.  After ten sequels, it seemed like a dated idea that no longer packed the same punch.  And then it was remade and released earlier this year, completely devoid of anything that made it an intense viewing experience. Rob Zombie’s Halloween had the same sort of problems; the point is that while these were terrifyingly original ideas at the time, it makes little sense to remake and repackage the idea and hope to scare me twice with an idea I’ve seen been done to death (no pun intended).  I just wish that filmmakers would stop turning towards the past and instead look towards the future: don’t give me what scared me ten or twenty years ago, give me what I don’t know will scare me tomorrow.

But please, please don’t give me things that didn’t scare me yesterday and definitely won’t scare me tomorrow like a remake of Last House on the Left.  The original had no plot and wasn’t interesting beyond someone’s sadistic desire to watch women being tortured and forced to urinate on themselves.  The remake takes away the sadistic elements and makes a conventional horror film out of the “plot” and guess what?  It’s still not scary or interesting.

Vampires were never particularly scary to me as a concept, but I find them to be a fascinating subject, especially for a well-done and gratuitously entertaining show like True Blood.  But what I don’t like is that every vampire film, book or TV show winds up creating its own rules about what vampires do and what can kill them.  I wish there was a universal rule book for vampires because I’m sick of seeing the inevitable scene where the hero holds up a crucifix and the vampire just bats it away (or Brad Pitt saying, in Interview with the Vampire, “I’m actually quite fond of crosses.”)  Or vampires seeing someone with a wreath of garlic around their neck and just pushing them. If crosses and garlic never work, let’s just remove them from the equation entirely. In True Blood, silver incapacitates vampires, something I’d never seen or heard of before and I just don’t think you can go around and start inventing new rules for vampires now.

The worst offense in vampire rulebook rewriting is in Twilight.  The one thing that always, always, always kills a vampire is sunlight.  It’s the essence of what a vampire is: creatures that can only come out at night and are forced to never see daylight again, giving them a haunted sadness to them as creatures.  In Twilight, not only does sunlight not kill the vampires, but it actually shimmers off their skin and makes their bodies look like diamonds.  Excuse me?  Are you kidding?  I know this is supposed to be a vampire film for kids, but that is just ridiculous because it takes all the sadness and brooding out of being a vampire.  Now, they can go out and enjoy sunlight and live forever, what the hell is there to be so damn sour about Robert Pattinson?  Cheer up, dude, you get to be immortal and go to baseball day games, life could be worse.

Vampires do seem to be the latest fad in horror these days with the True Blood, Twilight and the new Vampire Diaries show on the CW.  There’s also a film coming out in the coming weeks called The Vampire’s Assistant with John C. Reilly, another PG-13 vampire film for tweens.  Why are vampires so hot right now?  I’m assuming it’s part of the cyclical nature of horror films and vampire and zombies just seem to be what people are interested in these days.  It also helps that vampires and zombies are creatures that are inherently dense with subtext and horror films are often used to express a political or social viewpoint; “mindless” zombies are a good way to allude to the ignorance of people and consumerism while vampires that don’t partake in blood is a great way of attempting to trick unwitting kids into being abstinent until marriage.

I’m genuinely excited for the future of the horror film because I think there are exciting young filmmakers looking to deepen the genre.  I have yet to see Paranormal Activity, but I dig the low-fi concept of it, the idea that being vulnerable in your home is the scariest thing of all.  I enjoyed Sam Raimi’s return to the genre with Drag Me to Hell, a goofy film full of jump-scares, a throwback horror film really.  But, as always, I’m most excited about the filmmakers that are hatching their ideas now, formulating new ways to scare the pants off me.  As with many things these days, now is a great time for hope – even in the horror film genre.

– Noah Forrest
October 12, 2009
Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Frenzy On Column

Quote Unquotesee all »

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