I loved Halloween when I was a child. As the cold autumn nights drew in, and the memories of summer receded, my mind turned with glee to thoughts of apple bobbing, and gingerbread in the shape of pumpkins or bats. Growing up in the mid-80s, I looked forward to wrapping myself in tissue paper or a bin bag, and becoming the world’s scariest mummy or wizard.
It was thrilling for me that the whole country was revelling in all the things that on any other night would have kept me awake, with the bed sheets pulled over my head. It was all about fantasy and costume and make-believe, and I loved it more than any other night of the year.
Some things don’t change. I still love Halloween, and it is still the pleasure of fantasy and make-believe that draw me to it. Nowadays, however, it is the fantasies on the silver screen that keep me interested. It has become a celluloid night. Halloween is still a time to indulge the imagination, but as an adult I rely on Hollywood to take me out of the real world of laptops and bus stops, and into a world of nightmares.
This year, however, the cinema’s Halloween offerings have had trouble summoning up this essential sense of imagination, and things are looking bleak for my romance with horror. In Halloween 2010, it is the genre itself that is in peril.
A lot has been made of Hollywood’s appetite for the bankability of remakes and sequels in the current harsh economic climate. I’m not normally as bothered by this as others have been. I can really enjoy a good sequel as long as it has something new to offer.
The problem comes when a franchise begins to cannibalise itself, searching the bodies of previous instalments for a morsel of a plot idea, instead of breaking new ground. Sadly, horror franchises have a particular poor record of this (Halloween, Friday The 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street, I’m looking at you).
Recently, my anxiety levels have been particular high as a result of the decision to put Scream 4 in front of the cameras. I’m holding my breath, but after Scream 2 failed to differentiate itself from the original on anything more than a superficial level, and Scream 3 only just managed to teeter on the edge of respectability (and maybe fell into the chasm here and there), I’m gripped by a creeping sense of inevitability about the next episode in the franchise.
This model of diminishing returns, so common in the horror genre, has unfortunately been writ large by in recent years by the lamentable fate of the Saw franchise. I was not always a Saw detractor. The first film was a revelation for me, as my first experience of the new breed of visceral and discomforting body horror that has flourished in recent years.
Saw II worked within the format of the original, but expanded it, moving the focus from individual to collective terror by trapping its victims together in a booby-trapped house. This was something new for the burgeoning franchise, a reshaping of the basic plot structure that allowed the sequel to step out of the shadow of its forbear, and show us something that the previous film had not.
Then it started to go wrong. Each successive Saw has, essentially, returned to and repeated the franchise’s first entry, year after year after year. People are abducted and faced with an horrific punishment, where torturous decisions must be made, literally torturous in most cases. And that is largely it.
The entire Saw franchise in twenty words. There have been a few plot twists here and there, even the odd surprise. But nothing radical has been done to this basic format in any of the five sequels since Saw II to stave off the creeping sensation that we have seen it all before.
Headlining 2010’s Halloween season, then, is Saw 3D, the seventh (!) film in the series. After the disappointing (or relieving, depending on how you look at it) box office receipts of Saw VI, this instalment seems to be the final nail in the coffin for this most stunningly repetitive of franchises. The addition of 3D does little to distract from the fact that this film is essentially a cinematic zombie constructed out of the body parts of its predecessors.
The Saw franchise’s inability to break new ground, to stretch its premise and provide new shocks and thrills, has seen it fall from being one of the most exciting developments in horror cinema of the last decade, to being little more than an annual disappointment.
The lack of imagination shown by Saw 3D is something of a sad trend at this year’s Halloween box office. I don’t simply mean that horror sequels are currently failing to move their franchises forward, though that is arguably the case with the unsettling but deeply derivative Paranormal Activity 2. But rather that horror films, sequels or not, seem to be stuck in a rut.
Watching John Erick Dowdle’s Devil, for example, felt to me like sifting through the remains of any number of superior horror films. It picked its characters off one by one like the best slasher films of the seventies and eighties. It promised a new and bloody method of dispatching each victim like a toned down version of the recent spate of splatter, or so-called ‘gorno’, films. It drew heavily on religious mythology in an infinitely less successful way than The Exorcist, or even Stigmata. It confined a small group of people to an enclosed and dangerous space, much like 2001‘s The Hole.
It even mirrored the cycle of long periods of brightly lit safety, followed by the coming of danger in the dark that formed the basic structure of Paranormal Activity. It must have sounded like such a good idea during the planning stages of this film, but crafting Devil out of the most successful bits of earlier films only ensured that it did not match up to any of them. Just like Saw 3D and Paranormal Activity 2, Devil failed to do anything new or interesting. and lacked the essential creativity needed to scare an audience well-versed in horror movie clichés.
Aside from its derivative streak, or perhaps as a consequence of it, the other key trend in the horror cinema of Halloween 2010 has been high concept films. For some, such as Paranormal Activity 2 and Saw 3D, this is a result of their franchises already being entrenched in a particular concept. Paranormal Activity 2 repeats its forerunner’s ‘demon invades suburbia as seen by video camera’ premise, while Saw 3D is still a ‘victim in gruesome traps’ movie. For all that it borrows from other films, Devil also has a high concept at its heart. As crazy the ‘Satan in a lift’ concept may be, at least there is a spark of originality somewhere in the film.
Sadly, however, each of these films deploys its concept as a mere marketing tool. ‘Demons caught on camcorder’ and ‘Beelzebub in an elevator’ serve as useful sound bites to generate vital word of mouth, but when the movie itself cannot develop its concept into gripping substance (and I am not persuaded that any of these films did), the end product will always feel less than the sum of its parts.
In this respect, however, horror has been pipped to the post by one particular thriller this Halloween. The highest concept of them all this year came from Rodrigo Cortés’ staggering Buried. Hitchcockian in its execution, this film never wavered from its ingenious ‘Ryan Reynolds buried alive in a box and nothing else for an hour and a half’ premise.
It shouldn’t work. It should have been a static and deeply tedious exercise in self-indulgence. Thankfully, that was not the case, and the film was brave enough to follow through on its basic premise. There were no fancy distractions, no Kill Bill style impossible escapes. Buried was a simple, brutal and deeply affecting piece of high concept cinema, that used its inherent claustrophobia to deeply unsettle its audience. This was a film more horrifying than any of this Halloween’s horror movies.
While Devil, Paranormal Activity 2 and Saw 3D felt old and tired, Buried was, ironically given its setting, a breath of fresh air. For me, the difference was that, in contrast to these other films, Buried saw its underlying concept not only as a means of getting cinemagoers into auditoriums but as the genesis for crafting a taut and well executed film. It was the most stringent of all of these films in fulfilling on the promise of its premise without giving in to the demands of Hollywood clichés.
The lack of creativity within the horror genre, coupled with the privileging of concept over substance, means that this has be a disappointing Halloween season for me. Unfortunately, that is not unusual, given the dominant trends in horror in recent years.
The last big idea to emerge from the horror stable, the ‘gorno’ film, has been run into the ground by endless repetition. Where it was once thrilling and visceral, now it is predictable and just a little bit nasty. Like the slasher revival of the nineties that prefigured it, this cycle of films has lost its ability to scare through the endless reproduction of the same basic format. It is time something new came along.
Last year it looked like Paranormal Activity might escape its obvious similarities to The Blair Witch Project and be just what I had been hoping for. But now its sequel has fallen into the same trap as the Saw franchise by failing to provide anything original or exciting to expand the format. The next big thing in horror is, I am sure, just around the corner, but at the moment this genre has stalled between cycles and is producing very little worthy of note.
Until it recaptures its essential imagination and transports me back to the cold October nights of my childhood through the thrill of the scare, I will be the man asleep on the back row this Halloween night.