A horror renaissance

What scares you the most? When I think of horror movies today, it is not the same as what I have seen in the past. The horror movie genre has undergone quite a few makeovers in the past decades. From slasher flicks, to meta, to torture porn, and to now dark, gritty, and comedic, the horror genre is going through a new renaissance that is quite exciting, but also predictable.

Each generation, I think, has a horror movie that defined it. “Psycho,” “Alien,” “Friday the 13th,” “Scream” and “Saw” are movies from different decades that I’m confident you could tell me what time period they’re from (hopefully). But amidst reboots, rip-offs, and remakes, the horror genre grew stale and tired.

Back in 2012, “The Cabin in the Woods” was released and flipped the genre on its head. While “Scream” was a more subtle approach to meta-horror, “The Cabin in the Woods” was a straight-up parody with explicit nods to tropes, stereotypes, and clichés, while still keeping scares and terror alive and well. Others took this approach as well (“Tusk” and “The Final Girls”), but it was definitely a unique and one-of-a-kind movie experience. So, what happened?

While a small number of companies and directors have sought out to stay original and fresh, a lot of times it just didn’t happen. We got unnecessary remakes, sequels, and just plain unoriginal horror movies. But when “The Conjuring” was released in 2013, something that had been missing was finally brought to light: the atmosphere of a horror film was replenished. With some crafty camera work and the cunning use of sound, horror films suddenly were able to send chills down your spine and leave you on the edge of your seat with just a single frame.

I think the use of atmosphere and imagery is very important to a good horror film, especially nowadays. “Psycho’s” infamous shower scene still replays in my head as one of the best murder scenes shot to date, because the camerawork was stellar and the music undercutting the scene was mesmerizing. It’s something that sticks with you and sends chills throughout your body even days after it’s passed. And a good few movies these days are beginning to utilize atmosphere to give the film a little extra flare.

The Conjuring franchise is the biggest advocate of atmosphere. Tracking shots with minimal sound or music cues, tense action shots with intimidating music creeping in and stunning locations make for a sense of dread and beauty. If anyone has seen “The Conjuring 2”, you’ll know that the nun painting scene and how much it scared the shit out of audiences, enough to warrant yet another spin-off movie called “The Nun.”

So, while I think this reinvigoration of atmosphere and tension is important for the horror genre, it’s already begun to have a staleness, but it’s not entirely the fault of these directors. A lot of times with sequels/prequels and reboots, directors look to pay homage to the iconic originals and that homage can either be a wonderful nod or a complete rip-off. Take “Alien: Covenant” for example: a sequel to “Prometheus,” which was meant to be a prequel to “Alien” but not directly needed to stick to its guns with the original story portrayed in “Prometheus,” but also pay respect/homage to Alien the way fans wanted. In doing so, you have a confused movie trying to be way more than it should be. Granted, it has beautiful imagery and cool shout-outs to the original, but it’s predictable and unoriginal.

Another example of ripping off atmosphere is the new “Halloween” sequel. What they’ve done here is discredited any sequels and reboots from the original John Carpenter flick, and made this a direct sequel. With a 40 year jump in story (and real time), it was easy to assume they would be just ripping off the original. But, the director was able to continue an old story with fresh ideas, the same beautifully haunting Haddonfield, and the same suspense and terror of the original. And therein lies the problem: it’s exactly the same vibe and atmosphere of the original, with no elevation. While I think the new “Halloween” is a fantastic film, it’s hard to ignore that it cannot stand on its own without its predecessor.

The horror genre will always go through a reboot. There isn’t quite one formula that 100% works. No one can seem to get right what the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been getting right for years. But, I think we are going in the right direction. We need directors with a strong creative vision (i.e. Fede Alvarez a la “Evil Dead” and “Don’t Breath”) who aren’t afraid to take risks and be original with their content. Directors need to be confident that their original idea will work or else they are simply just another rip off. The use of tense atmosphere, appropriate music placement, and original storytelling is what the horror genre needs to stick to. And, for the love of Alfred Hitchcock, enough with the jump scares.

Douglas Hardman