There’s a wonderfully maddening moment early on in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining where Danny Torrance is perusing the corridors of the Overlook hotel on his tricycle. He swings round corners, the camera obsessively following him in a locked in third person perspective angle. The skin crawling score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind swells up with each turn, suggesting he is about to crash into a stable of horror. But he never does. Instead even as the music climaxes he simply finds more empty hallways to roll down. For an audience who likely identify his encounter later on in identical circumstances as the film’s most iconic scene, this sequence is nerve shattering because it refuses to release tension by actually delivering on what it seems to build up to. This is one of many such tricks of subtle teasing that Kubrick delivers, a myriad of near misses and expectation subversions which create an atmosphere so taut and fraught that it gets inside the head of a viewer. People forget that despite being one of the most celebrated horror films of all time, The Shining is driven almost entirely by subconscious hinting, suggestion and terror through suspense, not scares.
A tour de force of attentive filmmaking that quite frankly is lost on today’s backlog of would-be horror maestros. An undoubted golden era of the genre existed between the sixties and the start of the nineties, in which countless unforgettable titles terrified rapt audiences. There was the dawn of the zombie apocalypse signaled by Night of the Living Dead; the bucking trend of slasher horror posed by Halloween and Friday the 13th; the perfection of the non-human monster hunter seen in the seas with Jaws, or in outer space with Alien; the perfect ghost story told with nerve shredding ambiguity by Robert Wise’s The Haunting; the entirely eighties trend of body horror told either through the tension founded The Thing or the tragedy of grotesque character study in The Fly; the benchmark for genre jumping human dread that is The Exorcist. Even then, so many great titles are missed out, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Rosemary’s Baby. With the dawn of the nineties and the inspirational advancements in the field of digital effects and movie making technology that came with it, there surely was an avenue for an even more prolific age in the field of horror.
And yet, there hasn’t been. Reading through countdowns of the greatest horror films of all time, there is a worrying trend that is not the product of reverence or fear of change. It seems that all of the best movies in this category have already been made, created in a time of health challenging technical difficulties and necessary modesty. If one is to be entirely honest, there are barely a handful of Western media films (Sweden, Japan, Spain and South Korea seem to be unaffected by the decline) since the early nineties that deserve anywhere near the same level of recognition as those aforementioned classics, and even then only arguably. There is more genuine terror to be found from the semi-horror genre, whether it the psychology orientated Psycho, mystery criminal drama Kill List, detective story Se7en or supernatural conspiracy thriller The Omen. Much like science-fiction, the genre has fallen stagnant during a time where, for a filmmaker, virtually anything is possible. With producers continuously turning to classic horror flicks and remaking them with better effects and less quality rather than coming up with fresh concepts, or churning out yet more found-footage rehashes stretching credulity as well as patience, have the creative minds in the business simply run out of ideas?
The long and short of this is that no, they have not. While it is becoming increasingly difficult to create a story which doesn’t in some way infringe on previous efforts, there is still plenty of room for originality as evidenced by more recent releases which at the very least have a decent base for creativity. For example, Apollo 18 may be yet another ‘filmed in-universe’ format plodder, but has the benefit of depicting a horror scenario on the moon in relatively feasible manner (the film’s lack of planning resulting in its failure is appropriately telling) There is also no credibility to the argument that the genre’s rules have changed because audiences have suddenly intellectually regressed en masse and now need quick jump scares and shock tactics at the expense of a decent story. This a chicken and the egg type logical fallacy tantamount to the ‘mystery’ over the dwindling interest in politics among younger generations. People will take what they get, this does not mean that the paltry product they are receiving is what they exclusively wanted in the first place.
In truth, the root of this malaise can be found branching out between two different rooms; the writer’s workshop and the executive board room. Let’s look at the scripting first. If you look back through that list of undisputed classics, there is one thing they all have in common despite their wildly fluctuating styles and tact; the script was always solid if not superb in its own right. A fact lost on modern horror scribes is that at the end of the day they are still writing a film, a story told visually. Therefore, it has to not only follow a narrative, it has to stay consistent with its own setting and pre-established rules. Even while the likes of The Exorcist and The Shining take liberties (unsolved mysteries and discrepancies) they stay true to the yarn they spin, whether that results in realistic denouement or suitably weird and ambiguous endgame. In short, if it doesn’t make sense you have to make sure that there is some kind of precedence for it not making sense. Ideally, this should only even become an option when dealing with a supernatural element which has already been set up to defy attempts at quantification or full understanding.
A good example of this would come by comparing two films with very similar established realities, manner of presentation and conceptual background. Through some beta-phase viral marketing, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project was able to rouse a fever pitch level of hype with its ‘fiction or fact’ conceit and inescapable placement of viewer in the action by utilizing the found-footage approach. Eight years later, Paranormal Activity stirred identical public attention with a more net-based advertisement campaign, this time using the tactic of having audiences demand the film was brought to their cinemas. In-film, both pieces exploit an episodic narrative structure combining character driven humanity and built up moments of supernatural dread. While Blair Witch has the benefit of more believable protagonists (predominantly down to the guerilla style of filming, attention to motives and, dare it be said, better actors), both were able to hold there suspense levels heading into the final third.
This is where Activity begins to unravel. While Blair Witch never attempts to uncover details and explanations, instead using threadbare back story and historical events as a background made of suggestion and hints, Activity flat out tells its audience that the cause of the horror is a demon who has followed Katie since she was young. This was a huge gamble that Blair Witch chose not to rely on, and it ultimately proved defining. While Blair Witch ends breathlessly and unbearably with Heather and Mike frantically searching a desolated old house for their missing friend, Activity takes a different route. The demon takes over Katie and kills Micah. Blair Witch has a screaming, hysterical Heather enter the basement to find Josh standing in the corner. Then she and her camera are knocked to the ground violently, ending the story on a note that explains nothing yet suggests so much. In Activity, the possessed Katie defies the laws of physics to inexplicably launch herself at the camera for no other reason than produce one last jump scare.
These respective endings both generate many, many questions among viewers, but on vastly different levels of sentiment and thought. Blair Witch is deliberately enigmatic, shrouding the same levels of mystery and unknowing on the audience that have befallen the characters. We don’t know because they don’t know. It means that there are so many potential explanations to mull over as the film has added scarcely to a blank canvas in the confident assertion that not knowing is more terrifying. In contrast, Activity has its viewers questioning the established plot and explanation in order to try to introduce some logic to a finale which doesn’t care much for sticking to the film’s own formula. The apparently obvious explanation, that this poorly conceived demon Diablous Ex Machina finally found enough ‘strength’ to fully take over the girl, relies too heavily on tropes from other films and doesn’t ring true to Activity’s own tension-fuelled aesthetic. The final money shot not only has the viewer mourning the complete loss of any potential ambiguity, but also has them wondering why the demon would want to eat the camera.
This criticism is applicable to many, many similar fare in the genre. Saw, in retrospect a sloppy and visibly cheap effort which spawned a regrettable legion of sequels, relies on a final twist which similarly makes no sense and instead tries for shocks over thought. Why would the mastermind behind the plot lie in a pool of blood, completely still and lifeless, for hours on end other than to give the film an alleged ‘killer twist’? Hostel attempts to use body horror as its core sell but falls into the trap of using the film as a vehicle for violence rather than the violence simply being a driving force for the film. Sinister initially makes good use of a tense ambiguous streak and well executed scenes of horrific murder but then decides to shed its mystery and explain away all the goings on with…yeah, another demon. Those guys are getting plenty of work in horror films despite not actually enjoying any depth. While in The Exorcist characters questioned the existence of such elemental creatures, and wondered at the potential revelation that their existence represented, modern fare definitively state that they do, but that it doesn’t matter why, how or what it means in the long term. This opting for obvious and on-the-nose exposition results in a piece that lacks the thrills, terror or even narrative strength possessed by your average episode of Ghost Adventures.
Lazy scriptwriting that ignores the crucial foundations of good storytelling result in horror films that are built towards making audiences scream rather than giving them a mood and an underlying dread and sense of peril that can last for days. When the plot doesn’t add up, or said plot doesn’t explain how certain set pieces can occur, you have a piece that is cheap and exploitative. The worst thing however is that these scripts are never buffed up or sent back to the workshop for a rehash. As far as the executives are concerned, the gore and the jumps scares sell and therefore they will suffice. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has no blood, yet is more horrific than the most nasty and gratuitously violent on the market, especially in regards its dire remakes. The Exorcist spends its first hour establishing characters, setting and back story amidst a slowly growing titular plot line which isn’t necessarily explainable through paranormal conjecture, yet is more existentially terrifying than the exposition laden outings of today. Not only do these modern plots not make sense, they feature characters we do not care about because the writers do not care about them either. They are simply playthings to be dissected in CGI later on. Once again, the underestimation of the audience has resulted in a cull on quality as time to grow is replaced with more time to die.
As Sound on Sight celebrates 31 Days of Horror it is perhaps worth noting that such an exercise in the immediate future represents more of a history lesson than it does an ongoing adulation. This notion is more terrifying in of itself than the last 23 years of horror cinema combined.
This has been a strange interpretation…