This story comes from Den of Geek UK.
As more and more comic book movies arrive in cinemas, it’s become easier to observe emerging trends. A particularly interesting one of late is the growing number of horror directors being headhunted for them. As well as Neil Marshall following Guillermo del Toro by making this week’s Hellboy reboot, last week’s big release Shazam! comes from director David F. Sandberg.
Sandberg’s previous films include Lights Out, a ghost story that evolved out of his short film about depression, and the surprisingly good Conjuring prequel/sequel Annabelle: Creation. On the surface, his latest is nothing like either of his previous films and yet in other ways, it is.
As delightful as Shazam! turned out to be, there’s still a ring of Sandberg’s genre background to the first act and arguably throughout the film too. From the opening prologue, which takes in a horrific car accident and some proper old-school monsters who dwell in shadowy catacombs, to the nod to Annabelle sitting on a pawn shop shelf, this isn’t Sandberg shaking off his previous style. Nor should it be.
After all, there’s nothing new about directors pivoting to superhero movies. We’ve also seen Sam Raimi making his Spider-Man trilogy, Scott Derrickson taking the reins of Marvel’s Doctor Strange, and back on the DC side of things, James Wan making last year’s Aquaman.
We can even trace it back to the origins of the major comic book movie with 1978’s Superman, which was Richard Donner’s follow-up to his 1976 breakthrough, The Omen. Those two films don’t have a whole lot in common, except that Donner manages to find a sympathetic grounding in their respectively fantastical concepts.
Going into the 1980s, slasher franchises became hugely popular, even if they largely signalled diminishing returns throughout the decade, which in turn diminished the critical view of the genre. The Omen was a prestige horror film of the kind that’s only really started to come back in force in recent years.
But even the breakthrough critical hits of recent years – Get Out, Hereditary, and A Quiet Place – are patronised by the ever-more inventive discourse around what to call them other than “horror films”. These, unlike say, your Conjuring spinoffs, are sometimes zhuzhed up as “thrillers” or “psychological dramas” by critics and film buffs, as if to explain away their worthiness.
With the continuing presumption that meat-and-potatoes horror flicks are somehow lesser, it’s hard for us to call the genre what it is without sounding reductive. To say it’s a training ground for filmmakers might make it sound like a pre-school for proper auteurs who then go onto “Better Things.”
As horror geeks, we know that’s not the case. Whether you make a good horror movie or a bad one, there’s a lot that the genre, by its very nature, can show about who filmmakers are and what they know about storytelling and craft.
Building a film
One of the reasons why horror is looked down upon in some quarters is that the genre is a volume industry. From the modern, $20 million-or-less model favored by Blumhouse going all the way back to the early works of producer Roger Corman, horror films have more often than not been made cheaply in order to maximize profits from a popular genre.
In critical terms, for every Hereditary, there may be ten more horror films that are given a wide release and a wide berth by critics. It’s a simplistic view of the state of the genre, but between that and the often-spoofed tropes and hallmarks associated with it, you can understand how horror has gained an unfair reputation.
But a huge number of highly regarded filmmakers attribute their development to the so-called “Corman Film School,” including James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, John Sayles, and Martin Scorsese. These are all directors who either got early gigs on one of Corman’s independently produced genre films or admired his approach from afar.
As Howard once recalled, Corman would tell him: “If you do a good job on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.”
With horror budgets being what they are, in an age where the effects of Paranormal Activity‘s micro-budgeted success still inform the dominant production model, it remains a great proving ground for directors who can get a film finished without spending too much. Granted, Shazam! cost $100 million to make, but that’s still less expensive than, say, Justice League.
When it comes to discussing movies, “cheap” isn’t a word that should idly be thrown around. It’s hard to make a feature-length movie at any budget, and even harder to make it good. Quite aside from any other skill we’re considering here, the ability to bring in a film within financial constraints must seem like an ideal solution to ballooning budgets.
In terms of actual filmmaking, good horror is often about pacing. As with comedy movies, you have to have a sense of timing in order to build suspense or land a good jump scare. While the latter device is often dismissed as overused or somehow lazy, it still takes a lot of work to get it right.
As with the production rate of horror, it might be dismissed, it’s another question of volume. It’s not only that there are so many films that rely on jumpy bits but also that the volume of the soundtrack is the only thing that moves the needle in many cases. It doesn’t diminish the power of a genuinely well-executed jump scare, that’s organic to the action and reveals something new and scary about the plot, rather than just giving an expectedly unexpected jolt.
Oscar-nominated for its sound editing, A Quiet Place uses this technique to ruthless effect in its exploration of a world where the smallest sound can get you killed. It’s a film that uses loud noises and silent terror in equal measure, getting the balance of suspense just right.
As suspense is primarily a function of editing, we should mention at this point how it’s not only directors who are cherry-picked as a result of their horror work. Recently, we learned that Hereditary editor Jennifer Lane has boarded Christopher Nolan’s highly secretive new project, which is said to be a time-bending cross between North By Northwest and Inception.
But where blockbusters sometimes descend into more formulaic storytelling, an affinity for suspense is another useful tool in any filmmaker’s arsenal. It doesn’t always have to be the build-up to a scare, but such suspense is often built into a film’s structure. Particularly in a franchise age, it’s valuable to make the audience care about how the characters are going to get out of trouble, especially if they already know they’ll be back for at least two or three more sequels.
Even if the pacing of a 130-minute movie like Shazam! isn’t its most praised quality, it’s structured partly to accommodate a few surprising twists, but primarily to get you invested in the characters’ journey.
Despite Sandberg’s filmography and the overriding dark tone of previous DC Comics adaptations, Shazam! is being hailed in some quarters as the feel-good comic book movie of the year. Better than almost any DC or Marvel movie in recent years, there’s a real sense of childlike wonder to it, coupling a juvenile sense of humor with genuine empathy for all of its characters.
All in all, it shouldn’t be surprising that Sandberg made such a huggable, family-friendly film, because horror directors generally don’t live up to the enfant terrible stereotype. In the main, they’re not detached shock jocks who are predisposed towards violence and other gruesome things just for the sake of it.
Horror author Joe Hill puts it best, in an interview for the documentary series Eli Roth’s History Of Horror: “Every great work of horror fiction is an exercise in extreme empathy. It’s about falling in love with characters and then staying with them as they endure the worst.”
As Pixar’s Monsters, Inc notably observed, horror and comedy elicit similar physical responses from audiences, another close link between the two genres. It’s been fascinating to watch Jordan Peele’s impressive transition from sketch comedy to horror features, (like if Dan Aykroyd had turned around and made The Shining after leaving Saturday Night Live) but these skills are transferable from traditionally smaller-budgeted horrors to massive tentpole movies too.
Sandberg’s work on Shazam! feels most similar to Raimi’s Spider-Man films, in that both are comic book movies which revel in human behavior in a ridiculous situation. We’ve previously written at length about Raimi’s extreme empathy in Spider-Man 2’s franchise-defining train sequence, but there’s a sense of humor about the various trials and tribulations of Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker too.
Audiences love this. If you don’t count superhero movies, many of the biggest properties of the last 20 years have come from directors who started in horror, not least Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings movies. Indeed, the grasp of character on display in the first trilogy as compared to the unwieldy Hobbit movies may be enough to make you wish Jackson had returned to his horror roots, a la Sam Raimi with the brilliant Drag Me To Hell.
But for the ultimate proof of how far extreme empathy can take you, look no further than Corman’s most successful “graduate,” James Cameron. Having made his directorial debut with Piranha II: The Spawning, Cameron went on to make his name with The Terminator and Aliens, both films that kept an undercurrent of horror going in the background of stories that are essentially about motherhood and love.
Heck, if we use Piranha II as the starting point, Cameron’s whole career could be seen as a progression from making ultra-low-budget Corman fare to making the highest-grossing movie of all time by getting audiences to feel as if they’re actually on board the Titanic for three hours. And then pulling off the same feat again, but with eight-foot-tall blue cat people.
Some of us may be sceptical about the four planned Avatar sequels, it’s hard to argue that any other modern filmmaker has so successfully weaponised empathy on a blockbuster scale.
Building film language
None of this is to say that horror film sets are the only place where filmmakers can pick up useful storytelling skills or that talent doesn’t play a big part. But what’s apparent is that making this particular type of film, due to a combination of creative and institutional factors, is a great way to nail the fundamentals.
In fact, Willem Dafoe summed it up very nicely in a 2017 interview with Collider, when asked about his experience of working with Raimi on Spider-Man and Wan on Aquaman.
He said: “Horror is cool because it can be a popular form and it can be a very artful form and that’s rare that a genre allows that. Really fun, inventive directors come out of horror often.
“[It’s] a really good platform to mould these guys with good film language; it’s a good genre to strut their stuff. And superhero films are a good place to strut those horror influences, I think.”
Arguably, it’s the pull of the popular horror movies that fuels the critical stigma about calling the artful ones “horror movies.” Still, the way in which the genre has had a resurgence in popularity has had some undeniably interesting effects on other popular genres, when filmmakers have applied their understanding of film language to a broader, more expensive canvas.
This hasn’t always been DC’s approach. For instance, Monster wasn’t a horror movie and Patty Jenkins made a roaring success out of Wonder Woman. Meanwhile, Zack Snyder was much better known for reverent comic book movie adaptations of 300 and Watchmen than for his remake of Dawn Of The Dead, and (for those of us “living in a fucking dreamworld”) he made the most subversive Batman and Superman movies imaginable.
But looking at the direction they’re going in, it just so happens that their forthcoming slate is led by directors who started out in horror. Suicide Squad’s sequel has been handed from David “Macho Man” Ayer to Guardians Of The Galaxy’s James Gunn. The new Batman movie will be directed by Cloverfield and Let Me In director Matt Reeves, who has already applied his style to the majestic, contemplative Planet Of The Apes sequels.
As it turns out, when you give David F. Sandberg a movie like Shazam!, you can trust him not to turn in a horror show. As the producers behind the new Hellboy movie are already discovering, those first movies were better liked than the reboot because they let the experienced horror director bring their style to bear on it, instead of taking control away from them.
Every genre has its safe hands, if not its hacks. But more than any other genre, the best horror films are quite personal to the creative forces behind them. It’s an arena in which we get to know what frightens filmmakers and what they think will frighten us.
By its personal nature, there’s no better calling card for a filmmaker. Given the cinematic craft and storytelling effort that goes into a great horror film, it’s unsurprising that their directors are in such high demand again.