Modern Horror: a call for core values

Matt isolates the four things that urgently need fixing with modern day horror movies...

The sequel to Hostel. We like it

I have long been a fan of the horror genre across most mediums, from the brick-sized Stephen King paperbacks I absorbed as a teenager, to the films that fascinated and terrified me in equal measure as a child. Even though the mere sight of their covers in the video shop sent chills up my spine, I still badgered my mother to rent them, and so grew up on a diet of Critters, Gremlins, Salem’s Lot, The Howling, Halloween, Misery, Nightmare On Elm Street, and a rather disturbing adult version of Little Red Riding Hood.There are all sorts of reasons people enjoy horror films that I won’t go into here, but it’s safe to say horror is a genre close to my heart.   That is, when it’s done right. Because, when horror is done badly, it can be really, really bad. I’m not talking about those films which are so terrible they have a trashy quality that endears them to us, but more in the way of modern horror. Yes, having gritted my teeth and forced myself to watch a number of recent titles for Den of Geek, it’s dawned on me that I really don’t enjoy most modern horror films, for the following reasons. Empty CharactersIt’s fair to say that in the majority of cases, character development has not played a big part in your average horror film. This has been the case for quite some years, with many of the cast serving no other purpose other than to show up and get killed. But what many film makers don’t seem to grasp is the potential character building has in making their film truly great. After all, why should we care if somebody gets killed when they’re presented to us as being an empty vessel?

To take a recent example, Hostel spent a good deal of time letting us get familiar with its central characters. Sure, they may not have been the most likeable bunch, but they were rounded people with good and bad qualities – the same as all humans. Thus, our emotional response to their torture and ultimate demise proved greater for the time we had invested in getting to know them.

My main gripe with a lot of modern horror is the way every man is presented as the typical muscle-bound jock, and every girl either has to be sexualised, or the freaky outcast. It’s true cookie-cutter characterisation that just doesn’t work.  MTV-Style DirectingThis has to be one of my biggest problems with modern horror – the often schizophrenic approach to directing. My earliest memory of a film proving so damn difficult to watch without getting a headache was Thirteen Ghosts, and for some inconceivable reason it seems to have formed a template that nearly every subsequent wannabe Craven or Carpenter subscribes to.

I’m talking, of course, about the dreaded fast-cut, that manic switching of camera angles that, presumably, is supposed to build tension and come across as ‘edgy’, but is simply irritating. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s almost as if film makers think we’re incapable of watching the same frame for more than half a second without falling asleep. So, a word to any budding horror directors out there – it’s okay to take things slowly. In fact, I’d argue that long, drawn-out frames and single shots probably crank up the tension in a way that a million fast-cuts could never dream of. Misogyny For anyone who’s studied film, you’ll be aware of the concept of ‘the male gaze’, – the idea that most film makers, especially horror film makers, are male, and as such whatever we view is going to be through the eyes of a male perspective. This is no bad thing in itself, except that it usually means a lack of variety, and the same old ideas being used time and again.

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For instance, why is it always a girl that needs saving? Why is it nearly always one male and one female character left surviving at the end of the film? Why is everybody heterosexual, and if there are characters of differing sexualities, must they always be cheerleading lesbians? Some film makers are willing to take risks, however.

Neil Marshall bucked the trend with the brilliant The Descent in 2005, which featured an all female cast. As well as being an excellent, innovative film, his choice of casting led to an extremely fresh feeling, that for once we were seeing events unfold through the eyes of somebody other than the traditional white, straight male. In fact, when you consider that, according to the IMDb, Silent Hill was refused at first on the basis that all the characters were female, it’s quite an achievement that Marshall’s vision made it to the big screen at all. TortureIt kicked off, to my mind, with the Saw franchise and then Hostel, and was quickly adopted as horror’s flavour of the decade. It may have been popular for a while, but surely at this point every moviegoer has witnessed just about every method there is for disembowelling, decapitating, garrotting, torching, slicing and sawing a human body there is? It took me quite a while of watching ‘torture porn’ before I realized just how sick and tired of it I was, and – more importantly – that it just wasn’t enjoyable to watch.

When I think about the horror films I’ve truly enjoyed watching over the years – An American Werewolf In London, Silent Hill, The Silence Of The Lambs, Cloverfield, Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Black Christmas, Stephen King’s IT, Fright Night and The Fog to name a few – yes, they’ve been dark, scary and quite vicious in parts, but they’ve also had strong stories, good characters and, above all, heart. They’ve all retained a core of humanity.

What I feel about the torture porn phenomenon is the utter coldness of mankind, the total lack of feeling. I’m not talking purely about the films themselves, because, of course, a film about people being tortured isn’t going to be pleasant, but I get a sense that they originate from a very cynical, cold, compassionless place, that the people making these films are just out to make a quick buck and don’t really care about bringing anything worthwhile to cinema.

In conclusion, this isn’t a ‘ban everything I don’t like’ article, but rather a call for some of the stock values of horror film making to make a return. I’m actually really excited about the remake of The Wolf Man, because, aside from Cloverfield, I can’t remember the last time there was a good old-fashioned monster movie showing in cinemas. Recently I’ve been engrossed in a lot of Hammer Horror films, and the difference in quality between those and today’s offerings is striking. Okay, so the special effects weren’t great back then, but somehow a stronger atmosphere is created in those films than anything that’s graced cinema screens in the past few years.

In films such as The Reptile, Plague Of The Zombies, Scream Of Fear, The Nanny and House Of Blood, we can smell those foggy streets, taste that salty coastline air, hear the creak of those floorboards and feel menace chase us down darkened alleyways.

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Very little in modern horror’s canon has made an impact on me, but I’ve been genuinely scared or at least a little disturbed watching some of the better films in the Hammer Horror family. And, most of all, I’ve truly relished every minute of watching them.   So, what horror films do you believe excel in characterisation, atmosphere and storytelling? Are there any modern horror film gems out there that I might’ve missed or haven’t talked about here? Add them to the comments below…