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Subject: Horror films - mini renaissance?

Written By: Wynter on 10/01/15 at 6:17 pm

I was reading a review of The Babadook by Egyptian film critic Wael Khairy recently that contained the following passage, which got me thinking: "The Babadook is the horror film of the year and probably the best horror film to come out since Let the Right One In. Now, that may not be saying much since the horror genre hasn’t been all that impressive lately, but it really is a rather brilliant film."

Although I agreed with his assessment of the movie overall, the rather dismissive claim that the horror genre hasn't been "impressive" lately struck me as the sort of thing that was true for so long and has been repeated so often that we don't even question it anymore. But what is Khairy basing it on? What counts as "lately?" Is it still true?

To be fair, there are a lot of bad horror movies. Horror has always been a genre with "badness" built into it. It lacks the respectability of drama or the universal appeal of comedy; it's often cheaply made, gimmicky, and offensive with a niche fanbase and a tendency to cannibalize itself. If something is successful in one horror movie, you can bet that it'll be copied a hundred times by others: witness the slasher craze of the '80s, the "found footage" films of today, or the genre's ability to produce an almost endless parade of sequels and (more recently) remakes.

So our standards for judging the quality of the genre overall must take this into account. Even in horror's "Golden Age," the 1970s into the mid-'80s or so, there were lots and lots of awful, schlocky horror movies. But you need quantity in order to get quality, and I can't help but notice that we are seeing far more horror movies produced today - including several with big budgets that are being marketed as horror films (i.e., not as thrillers) - than we've seen in a long, long time.

Basically, I think we're living in a mini-renaissance of horror right now - despite slightly lazy and repetitive claims to the contrary by some critics. Now, I don't think it matches the '70s and early '80s, which really was an incredibly fertile period in horror, but it's easily the best since then - and since that's about 30 years ago, I think it's worth giving credit where credit's due.

Think about it. The late '80s witnessed a precipitous decline in the quality of horror films which resulted in the genre's near-death in the '90s. I can think of a handful of good, original horror films from that period (1987's Hellraiser comes notably to mind), but for the most part the focus was on gory special effects, cheap shocks, and stupid gags rather than original ideas. Sequels dominated the market. And horror became increasingly associated with stupidity rather than a genuine sense of "horror." Horror was... stupid.

By the early '90s, despite a few lesser-known but still somewhat decent films (Candyman, It, The People Under the Stairs, etc.), the genre was pretty much on life support. I wanted to see if I could find some hard facts to back up my sense that this was the case. According to Timothy Shary in his book Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in American Cinema after 1980, the number of youth horror films released between 1993 and 1996 was fewer than the twenty-four released in 1988 alone. According to him, far fewer slashers were released after 1990 and very few of these produced sequels.

Instead, the '90s offered much tamer "thrillers" such as The Sixth Sense, which were much more marketable to a wider public while "horror" was reserved for direct-to-video Leprechaun sequels. Nothing compares to the cultural wasteland of that period (in genre terms only, of course).

Things started to change, slowly, in the late '90s. Scream (1996) was huge, obviously, and led to a brief, temporary resurgence of the slasher film with a few lame knockoffs in its wake. Even if it was done in a very knowing, winking, postmodern sort of way, I think Scream helped prove to movie execs that a horror movie could be big again. The Blair Witch Project (1999) was an even more straight-up horror film that proved this to be true - and it broke out of the slasher mold completely and has proved to be a far more influential movie on the genre ultimately with the sheer number of "found footage" films being made.

Anyway, I won't keep yammering on. Maybe at some point I'll try to review some of the trends in horror after 2000 ("torture porn," J-horror, found footage... zombies!), but suffice it to say that the fact that  there even are trends automatically places the last 15 years above the 15 years before it. And just consider all the solid, good, and even great horror movies made over the last decade or so. Just off the top of my head: 28 Days Later, The Descent, The Conjuring, The Babadook, Let the Right One In, It Follows, The Crazies, Dawn of the Dead, Paranormal Activity, Saw, Trick r' Treat. (And let's not forget one of the best horror-comedies ever made, Shaun of the Dead.)

Anyway, I don't claim to be an expert on horror - just a fan who likes to think about the evolution of the genre. And though I do watch a lot of horror movies, I'm sure there are hidden gems I've not seen even from the period I'm dissing. ;) But I wish that film critics would think about the horror films they review in context, particularly since this genre seems to go through very clear cycles, rather than just diss it outright. Hopefully this has been marginally interesting to read.

Subject: Re: Horror films - mini renaissance?

Written By: 80sfan on 10/01/15 at 7:45 pm

M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit's budget is only $5 million and has made $53.4 million in the US, so far. For a small budget, the film is a huge hit, but overall in context that it's a famous director's movie, it's a flop.

The last few horror films have been disappointments.

Sinister 2 and Insidious 3 (not a flop but it could have made more).

I'm unsure, it seems the horror film genre is in a state of flux, it's not booming like it has but it's not in a 'blah' period like it went through during the 1990 to 1996 years either.

Subject: Re: Horror films - mini renaissance?

Written By: 80sfan on 10/01/15 at 7:49 pm

This horror renaissance you're talking about has been going on Since December 1996's Scream. In fact, horror has thrived and been huge since '96/'97. It is only now, in 2015, where I see we MAY BE going through a waning phase with the horror genre.

1996 to 2015 is a long time, around 19 years.

Subject: Re: Horror films - mini renaissance?

Written By: bchris02 on 10/02/15 at 10:56 am

In my opinion, horror changed a lot in the late '00s after the release of Paranormal Activity when we moved into the "found footage" era.  I personally liked '00s horror films a lot better.  Films like Vacancy, The Hills Have Eyes, High Tension, Saw, The Ring, The Grudge, and 1408 are classics.

Subject: Re: Horror films - mini renaissance?

Written By: AcoBrasil on 10/09/15 at 11:48 am

Nice post Wynter and I agree.  I didn't find Babadook particularly scary, but it definitely had some strong subthemes and was well filmed.  Like you mention, we have seen a few genre trend shifting pieces in the last couple of decades that have defined the mass market landscape - namely: Blair Witch and The Ring. I don't follow zombie flicks, so I can't comment there.  As a whole, I don't like the found footage movies.

In the past few years, I have noticed a gradual shift towards minimalist CGI and heavier use of traditional suspense, which is a big positive. Here is my list of some good contemporary horror in that vein.  A lot are not scary, but the production was excellent.

- Session 9  (After Halloween I, this is the best horror movie I have ever seen)
- The Conjuring and to a lesser degree Annabelle
- Oculus
- Let the Right One In  (US and foreign versions)
- Jug Face
- The Others

Trick R Treat, the Orphan, Sinister I, the Visit, and The Crazies remake are on my list of movies I want to see.

Also like to point out that following the late 70s, early 80s "Golden Age" there was a nice surge of horror TV episodes in the 1980s and early 1990s that build on Alfred Hitchcock/Twilight Zone/etc. legacy built in previous decades.

Subject: Re: Horror films - mini renaissance?

Written By: Wynter on 10/12/15 at 12:21 pm

Thanks! That's a good point about TV, which I didn't go into at all in my post... and of course we're seeing something of a boomlet there as well right now, most notably with The Walking Dead (awesome, awesome, *awesome* show by the way - can you tell I'm a fan? ;)).

I agree completely about The Babadook. It wasn't very scary.... but it was a damn good movie. Not at all what I was expecting but I appreciated what it delivered nonetheless. I also recommend It Follows. It's something of an homage to '80s horror (complete with retro soundtrack) - but it's also surprisingly fresh and memorable, and I was impressed with how effective it was at creating an atmosphere of menace while working with so little. Very minimalist.

I've noticed Oculus is on Netflix - I think I'll give that a watch soon based partly on your recommendation (and partly on Brenton Thwaites being adorable). Either way, I'll enjoy it on some level.

Subject: Re: Horror films - mini renaissance?

Written By: AcoBrasil on 10/13/15 at 11:56 am

Cool. I'd like to hear your feedback.  Its not really scary, but like Annabelle has some very good camerawork and suspenseful craft.

I watched "The Crazies" this weekend, which didn't do it for me - though I am not a zombie guy.  Nice to see they didn't lean too heavily on the CGI though. Definitely not B-film shooting either.

You may want to check out Cropsie on Netflicks or Amazon if you haven't seen it already.  Its a documentary but really gets under you skin in the same way that Session 9 did for me.

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