As usual, before I start I have admit that I am not an expert in Horror films (despite the many, many films I have watched). This blog, as with all of them, is just my opinion and I am happy to be challenged and on anything I propose. In fact, I welcome your comments and feedback. So, let’s get stuck in.
From the earliest days of cinema Horror has been a popular genre. With films like The Golem (1915), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and Nosferatu (1922) people loved being scared. Over the course of the next century the genre evolved and changed to reflect the fears of society. Also, upping the ante again and again on what the films could show to elicit fear and scares. Each generation has films that they claim are the best in genre and are the peak of fear. The question is, who is right if any of them?
I am a big fan of horror movies and enjoy the varied sub-genres for different reasons, expecting different things from them. However, there is a core conceit, I should feel a sense of fear when watching the film. It’s how that fear is evoked that might change. For example, the tension built up in the first half of ‘Halloween’ (1978) creates a sense of fear that elevates the events of the second half of the film. While the notion of Freddy Krueger in the first Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), a killer you cannot escape, is scarier than many of the actual ‘scares’ in the film. The film plays for blood rather than tension.
Since these films were released the genre has altered several times. The 80’s were filled with slasher films and low budget high gore video nasties. There were entries into the genre in the mid to late 70s that can be considered ‘classic’ films. However, the genre has always been fuelled by B-movie fare. It was these movies that became much of the output in the 80’s. unfortunately this meant that the genre was at a low point going into the 90’s. It was pulled from the doldrums by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson with Scream (1996).
The film was a huge success and made Horror a viable commercial prospect again. As is always the case, Scream was followed by a litany of poor imitators. It also opened the channels for the ante to be upped once again. As we had had the video nasties of the 80s in the early 2000’s we were introduced to torture porn with SAW (2004) and Hostel (2005). The popular films source of scares had shifted again, now to victims literally being tortured or under threat of torture. The mechanics of the torture device might be clever but the scare had become simple and base.
I’m not a fan of these films. In fact, I find them tedious and a slog to watch. In my opinion, the acceptance of these as milestones in modern horror is the moment that the craft of creating tension and paying off with a scare was dropped. However, they were not the only films that changed the course of the genre during this period. The Blair Witch Project (1999) introduced the low budget high tension scares of the found footage format to the mainstream. It also introduced the notion of moving the focus of a threat or scare from the films characters to the viewers. This combination of excessive gore and direct viewer threat has been the main thrust of horror films for the last decade.
Things have started to change in recent years. Directors like Adam Winguard and Ti West have started to reintroduce the slow burn horror movie (House of the Devil 2009, You’re Next 2011). Are we at the start of another shift in horror? Could films like ‘Get Out’, ‘IT’, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ or even ‘Split’ drive the shift into the next iteration of popular Horror?
All these shifts and varying films are filled with different types of scares but do some work better than others? I understand that different people are effected by different scares but I also think that the art of a well-structured scare has been lost. The majority of horror films of recent years have all made the same mistake, in my opinion. There is a belief that the scare needs to be directed at the audience. This has been done over and over with loud musical stings and jump scares. Don’t get me wrong, these can be effective when used in the right place and sparingly. However, they have become the standard go to shorthand for a movie scare. By the third time something jumps out at me with a thump of noise, I check out. The other issue is that by directing these scares at the audience more than the characters they take the audience out of the experience rather than bringing them in. why should we care about a character surviving if we as the audience are continually put in their place?
It should be remembered that Horror films, like all forms of entertainment must contain a variety of elements to work. Some jump scares are fine, as long as they are accompanied by the building of tension and some well-placed reveals. The other elements that are more important are characters that matter and the audience cares about. It should be these characters, that we grow to love, that are under threat and to which the scares are directed. Fearing for these characters, I believe, is more effective than an audience directed scare. The final element is the context of the scare within the story. A scene can be well constructed, look great and have excellent effects but if the story is poor or makes no sense then everything else is for nothing.
All those different types of horror films that have been popular and fallen out of favour. All those masters of horror that have brought something new. They’re all valid and all deliver something worth watching as both movies and examples of Horror history. However, for all the differences the things that remain constant are at the heart of all good films. A good story, filled with characters we care about that is filmed well. Within that a good writer and director can introduce any types of well-constructed scares and the audience will be terrified.
What are the examples you think of that manage to blend all of these elements to make a great Horror Film?