Are modern horror films less creative than their marketing?

Marketers have started coming up with really interesting ways to sell us horror movies, but why don't the films live up to the hype?

In the last ten years, film marketing has become increasingly inventive through the use of new media, taking in viral campaigns and content that supplements a film’s story, as opposed to just letting us know that it’s coming out.

At the same time, though probably not in correlation with the improvements to advertising, the found footage sub-genre of horror has become more and more prevalent and, partly through its ubiquity, much less creative than the films that popularised the form.

Where it was once a way for filmmakers to mount creative scares on a low budget, found footage has become a method of churning out cheap movies for studios, to take the high profit of the opening weekend alone, and run before the word of mouth kills them.

As the Hollywood model moves ever closer towards the two extremes of mega-budget tentpoles and micro-budget genre films, that opening weekend has become more crucial than ever. It could even be said that several recent horror movies have employed marketing techniques that have been more scary, memorable and interesting to talk about than the films they’re advertising.

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Seeing as how we’re long past the heyday of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, where the footage was considered halfway credible by some unwitting audiences, there’s been something of a shift towards hoodwinking people with memorable hidden camera stunts to market a film instead.

The Last Exorcism

When The Last Exorcism came out in 2010, there was a ChatRoulette stunt in which the film’s producers went on the randomised video service with footage of a young girl teasing the viewer and taking her clothes off. Preying on horny teenage boys, the girl suddenly came over all demonically possessed, much to the terror of kids who thought they were about to see some skin, before the URL for the film’s official website was flashed up.

A compilation video of the best reactions went viral, and other films have had similar marketing success with these stunts. The most recent of these, and perhaps the funniest of all, was Fox’s promotional video for Devil’s Due.

Devil’s Due

They sent a remote control pram around the streets of New York, playing audio of a crying baby, and parked it on street corners to pique the curiosity of passers-by. As soon as they got close enough to look, up popped a animatronic baby with a demonic face, and most of the marks jumped out of their skin.

The problem with Devil’s Due, a hugely disappointing film from two of the creative forces behind filmmaking collective Radio Silence, is that it’s nowhere near as inventive or enjoyable as that video. It’s a particularly egregious abuse of the found footage form, which might as well have a cameraman instead of a lead character, and deliberately leaves its antagonists as either undeveloped cult members or vague demonic entities, apparently hoping to get away with the same rubbish as certain Paranormal Activity sequels before it’s even graduated into a franchise.

But everyone was talking about that video in the week it went online, and quite right too. Perhaps the poor box office performance of Devil’s Due shows that audiences are becoming more savvy to the way in which the sub-genre is being used as an escape clause, which permits shoddy storytelling and amateur-ish filmmaking. You can take a horror fan to water, but you can’t make them drink.

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Traditionally designed horror films have also found some success in making viral videos in the found-footage form, although the Carrie remake skews more closely to the same box office disconnect as Devil’s Due. For our money, the coffee shop stunt, in which some terrified customers witnessed what looked like a teenage girl exploding with telekinetic rage, was more original and amusing than anything that anything in the film it was marketing.

On the other hand, World War Z overturned a seemingly insurmountable tide of negative hype to become a worldwide hit. The book that it was based on is made up of diary entries and first person perspectives, collected post-apocalypse, and some fans of that book might even have preferred a film that was closer to what the viral marketing campaign delivered; a site called Crisis Zero, which documented the early signs of the zombie apocalypse in vlogs and YouTube clips from around the world.

Stake Land

Warning: video may be distressing to some viewers.

A horrifically memorable example of a found footage clip supplementing a film was for Jim Michie’s Stake Land, a deeply bleak, traditionally shot vampire film, in which the vampire plague is just as endemic as a zombie virus. The film played more like The Road, but a memorable viral video clip for the film, called “My Dad’s Mussel Car”, finds a young boy messing about with a camera in his dad’s garage, before having his head knocked clean off by a vampire.

Personally, I hardly remember anything about Stake Land, but that clip (which does not feature in the film) has stuck with me, purely because it’s so disturbing to see that kind of violence against a child. Just as I’ll remember the devil baby for much longer than Devil’s Due, and I might still remember the coffee shop after I’ve forgotten that they ever remade Carrie, it could be that found footage has been played out in feature format.

The box office would certainly seem to reflect that. Although neither Devil’s Due or the latest Paranormal Activity film lost any money in cinemas after their respective first weekends, neither have they measured up to the expectations set by earlier hits, and we’re in the midst of a trend of diminishing box office returns for this type of film.

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This isn’t to rule out the possibility of any interesting and frightening found-footage features being made in the future, (Barry Levinson’s The Bay was a great, underrated example from last year) but given how the initial appeal of the format was in the verisimilitude of what we were watching, perhaps more effective found-footage chills will come in short form.

Some of these stunts are funnier than they are scary, but horror and comedy are closely related, and seeing as how they’re designed to trick people into getting excited about a film to which they are only tangentially related, here’s hoping that some of the minds behind these marketing ideas graduate from ads and stunts to make features of their own.

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