Sunday, October 6, 2013

Why do modern horror movies suck?

Modern horror movies suck. Or a lot of them do. People who like the genre or even just watch it casually often espouse similar views and pose the question: why do modern horror movies suck so much? Well, fortunately I am here to help explain the problem. How am I going to do this? By going to my local video store and pointing out examples, of course. If you think I’m being incredibly cynical by judging these movies based on their covers and descriptions without ever watching them, well, maybe I am. Maybe I am just jumping the gun here and being too judgmental.

But honestly, just look at some of this shit. This is the kind of sewage you’re likely to find in any video store just sitting on the shelves un-rented. And why not? We’ve seen the same things over and over and over again in horror. Let’s take a look at our first candidate for a whipping, Paranormal Asylum.

Let’s just start a check list here…

[x] Pale ghost girl with only the whites of her eyes visible, with a vacant look on her face that mirrors that of brain dead drug addicts or people who actually watch these films – two groups who would overlap quite well in a Venn diagram, honestly.

[x] Cheap dark blue lighting that seems to forget there was anything in the horror genre before Paranormal Activity.

[x] Shaky cam frame to illustrate that the movie will have some kind of “found footage” element to it.

[x] The word “Paranormal” in the title. Almost an immediate candidate for the garbage bin these days.

Without even knowing what this movie is about, I’m already tired of it. I mean Jesus, did they miss a single cliché? This is like when you go to some shitty local grocery store chain and they have regular Oreos for an inflated price, but their own cheap knock-off brand for three bucks less. It’s just pure whitewashed blandness! But hey, let’s not stop there! Let’s pick it up and look at the back of the box.

“Mary Malone (aka Typhoid Mary) was committed to a NY insane asylum to live in solitary after being blamed for spreading Typhoid Fever in the early 20th century.”

Okay, not too bad so far – a pretty decent historical backdrop. Nothing indicating that it will be great, but maybe it won’t be that bad…until we get to this sentence:

“Now, nearly 100 years later, two best friends and aspiring filmmakers are setting out to find out what really happened.”

Gee. What a unique plot idea. Surely they’ll find nothing, go home and live the rest of their boring lives without any interruption, right? I mean, surely nothing BAD will happen…

“What starts as a simple investigation turns into a battle for survival, as they discover Mary may be dead, but she’s certainly not gone! In her quest for vengeance, torture and death appear to be the only outcome.”

Torture and death? Aw man. I was hoping she was going to bake them cookies. I am just so shocked that something bad would happen to these characters in the horror movie with the dead zombie ghost girl on the cover posing for this month’s issue of Miss Undead USA.

Why would you make this kind of shit? If you’re making a movie, and you think you have this inspiration, this drive or passion – is “supernatural ghost revenge torture movie” the best you can come up with? HAVE AN IDEA. THINK. USE YOUR BRAIN. Jesus. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to skip the whole “friends in the 2000s take a road trip with video recorders and encounter ghosts and demons and stuff” bullshit and just make a historical horror film about Typhoid Mary? Wouldn’t that be cool? I think it would. But that would require a brain. And actually doing real work and not just aping everything that came before.

It just points out one of the chief problems with horror movies now and back in the old days. These days, it’s easy to make a movie. Technology and a greater knowledge of how it’s done have made it something that anyone can do. Provided you have the money to buy a good set of cameras and a video editing program, of course - but even the latter is negligible with certain, ahem, "Internet services." And with the increasing amount of resources, you can not only make a movie much more easily than you could in the old days, but you can distribute it too, and have it stocked in video rental stores and Redbox machines everywhere. Even if no one rents it, ever, you still win because it’s out there.

You can put it on Netflix streaming, and they’ll keep it up on there forever because it’s cheaper than haggling with big studios to put legitimate movies on the site. As Netflix is so omnipresent in the movie market nowadays and is so cheap, more people come across these films. The increasing number of these cheap-ass bargain bin movies means that more people see these (as in, they see the covers and notice them) instead of legit, good and creative horror films – which DO still come out, just not as much in comparison to the sheer landslide of shaky-cam shit with blue lights, set in insane asylums and featuring titles that contain the word “Paranormal.” It’s just a no-win situation.

Back in the old days, yes, amateurs could still make movies. I would never claim there weren’t rip-offs. Sure there were. People could make movies in their garages with their buddies and if they were lucky, maybe they’d hit it big and have their movie gain somewhat more of an audience. But there wasn’t anything like what we have now. The big studios still put effort into scaring audiences. They still had to try – audiences wouldn’t accept bargain bin shit on the level that they do now:

Yeah. Real great cinema there…surely these will be remembered in the same breath as Kubrick’s The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. Sigh. But that’s just the way it works in any medium. Something catches on because it has some kind of context in which it matters and makes an impact. The studio, whether it sees that or not, cares about the profit made, which inevitably does happen when something catches on like The Exorcist did.

Caring about profit is the nature of the beast – it is how these corporations work and keep making money. So when movies like The Last Exorcism 2 or The Conjuring or The Possession oh-so-wonderfully grace our mainstream theaters, they are not the work of some insidious (or Insidious) corporate evil plot to destroy the genre, as much as I like to pretend they are. They’re simply tools of the money-making wheel that keeps on turning, nothing more.

So, with that said, what’s the next movie on our tour through bargain bin horror on video store shelves?

Uh, no. No, no, no. NO. I refuse to believe that something called “Heebie Jeebies” can be anything resembling quality. That’s unbelievable. Right off the bat you just throw all caution to the wind and come up with something so stupid even Bill and Ted would turn up their noses at it. That is an accomplishment.

So what’s this one about?

Haunted gold mine…reopened after 150 years…horrific supernatural creature emitting a maddening mist that paralyzes its victim with fear or “Heebie Jeebies”…yeah, I dunno movie, you’re not instilling in me any great confidence here. You couldn’t just title it “Fear” or something? Because you really can’t make the words “Heebie Jeebies” sound scary. There is simply no way you can pull that off and have any kind of serious effect. If it’s supposed to be a comedy, well, good job if you were trying to lower the bar as far as you could, I guess. Maybe they were trying to outdo Jeepers Creepers for the worst name for a horror movie ever.

But hey, that’s another big trend with modern horror…trying to be all ironic and silly. Why bother actually writing jokes and being clever when we can just give a movie a stupid name, or make it bad on purpose?

Horror is about ideas. It’s about taking what people are afraid of in society or just in their own minds, and putting it on screen. It is an imaginative doctrine, a trade of sorts that needs something to jump off of. In the 50s and 60s, it was the fear of the Atomic Bomb that kept horror movies going. Then with the post-war culture, it was the fear of disillusioned psychopaths and killers among us as regular human beings. The 80s brought a wave of cultural satire films that talked about consumerism and the rise of Reagonomics. In the 90s, we got urban legends with Candyman, the soulless repercussions of corporate America with American Psycho and the reality-bending terrors of The Sixth Sense and Jacob’s Ladder, which ask us to participate more actively in the viewing and think about what we saw before, and how much of it was “real” in the film’s world.

And honestly, there’s been some really good parallels to our current situation in modern post-2000 horror films too. The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity have brought a wave of new “found footage” films which aren’t a bad idea in principal. We live in the generation of do-it-yourself. We are obsessed with experiencing things firsthand, recording them, and showing them to the world. Why do you think Facebook and Twitter are so popular? We love recording ourselves – we have the camera away from the horrors outside and pointed them inwards, holding them ourselves, wanting to see personally what lies out there waiting to scare us. We want to be part of the experience.

Films like [REC] and V/H/S, for example, have taken traditional horror stories and done them up the modern way by placing the camera in the viewer’s hands and letting us see the action as if it were actually happening to us, rather than to a detached third party like in a traditional narrative. There are pluses and minuses with this style as with any new trend, and I don’t even really think their full potential has been realized.

But, as with anything, there’s a lot of shit you have to sift through. As I said earlier, the fact is, horror movies are easy to make. They always have been, really; they’ve always been a DIY endeavor and have prided themselves on being a genre that didn’t need big-budget props and effects to be effective. Horror was the redheaded stepchild of cinema for so long, existing in the underground as a “B” movie artform for decades. Recently it has caught fire in the mainstream, but even so, the “B” ethos will always be there. And like I also said before, the current generation of “look at what I can do” has people making their movies and getting them out there for very little cost – even though the profit they gain back may not be earth-shattering, at least their names are out there. And that matters more than it may initially appear. Notoriety is its own form of currency.

Via Facebook and other mediums like local film shows and festivals you can submit to, these directors can get their movies out and become well known in niche communities. With an artist and the right low budget regional production company behind them, wallah, their low-grade, cheap movie becomes a reality, spreading through Netflix and video stores like wildfire. They clog the arteries of the horror genre like dairy products for a diabetic. And so the cycle continues and we get…

And no, I'm never finishing that series.

The negative effect of this is not just that there are bad movies around. It’s that really GOOD new horror flicks, such as Absentia, Pontypool or The Children, get buried in the morass and don’t get any of the attention they deserve. Take a look at Absentia:

That pretty much looks like any old random ‘ghost’ movie you’d find these days. But it’s really a complex story about a woman who lost her husband and has no idea what happened to him. He just went missing. The story unfolds as a complex drama about these peoples’ troubled lives, and also as a bone-chilling atmospheric horror film about what happens when people go missing. It’s an interesting movie because it takes a very real concept – people going missing with no explanation – and turns it into something larger than this life, giving us an explanation for it, but a terrifying one that maybe we would have rather not known at all. In these times, with our paranoia after 9/11 and the general distrust we have for strangers, a film like Absentia plays to those fears. It’s quite brilliant.

But because it appears alongside films like this in the Redbox computer or the video store…

…it doesn’t get noticed as much. Yeah, Abandoned Mine is awesome, I’m sure. A movie about teenagers going into an old mine to celebrate Halloween really sounds so vital to the genre, doesn’t it? More like Abandoned Hope for Humanity. Or Abandoned Rectal Thermometer.

So those are the big problems with horror now. Too much low-budget crap cheaply stocking the shelves of stores and Netflix/Redbox instead of good stuff, too little effort on the part of studios to actually put out good stuff. Too much copying of what came before, without really paying attention if it’s quality or not. But these things are just how the industry has come to be, for better or worse. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

What can we do about it? Pay attention to good movies. Don’t be satisfied just watching every single home-invasion or ghost possession film out there when they hit theaters. Dig around a little bit. Be open minded to stuff you may not have noticed – foreign films, underground films, et cetera. Care about what you watch. Every little bit makes a difference.

Fortunately, none of the crappy movies I took pictures of for this piece are going to be remembered at all. They are just like any number of other obscure films from the 80s and 90s that just got forgotten as time went on. But there are some movies out there that have a widespread influence on every modern horror film, which I think I’ll take a look at to commemorate the scariest month of the year. What’s first up, you ask? Well…

“Let’s play a game…”

All images copyright of their original owners. Thanks to Reel Video for having those DVDs in your store so I could take pictures of them!