Why horror needs to regain its wit

Recent horror movies have taken a sombre tone, trying to scare us with true stories and bleak endings. But where's the fun gone?

The recent teaser trailer for Oculus supports the murmurings that it could be one of the stronger horror films of the year. It was a no-nonsense checklist of what today’s audience expects from their horror: a malignant mirror in a loft, a possessed-looking person, and a child whimpering out some ominous poetry. Check, check, check. The film will likely provide some stalwart shocks, and the plot promises to be a bit of a headspin but to this writer this is another in a line of ‘good’ horror films typifying a genre that’s come to take itself so very seriously.

Having lost a prolonged battle to convince my girlfriend that there’s something inexplicably romantic about watching horror films as a couple, I only recently started catching up on the genre’s latest mainstream offerings; among them Devil’s Due, The Conjuring, REC, and the Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead remakes.

Interspersed with these, I’ve been revisiting some horror classics from generations gone by, including Rosemary’s Baby, Argento’s ‘witch’ films Suspiria and Inferno, as well as 80s classics, foremost among them A Nightmare on Elm Street. Disparate though these films are, they all display – some consciously, some not – qualities that today’s horror scene is glaringly lacking: they all bask in a bit of absurdity.

There is something unique and unforgettable about Argento’s incoherent plot twists and baroque stylisation, Freddy Krueger’s schlocky one-liners, and Rosemary’s Baby which evokes a darkly comical tone driven by the Satan worshippers – Minnie and Roman – who are essentially a gross caricature of nightmare nosey neighbours, bickering, prying, and forcing horrible food down Rosemary’s throat which she’s too polite to refuse. Even the ending is amusing, the fuddy duddies swooning over the demonic baby’s (presumably clawed) hands and feet, while Minnie matter-of-factly tells Rosemary that Satan “arranged things because he wanted [Rosemary] to be the mother of his only living son.”

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It seems fitting to compare this to the recent Devil’s Due, whose effective marketing campaign is concealing its justifiably negative reviews. The plot is a shameless rip-off of Rosemary’s Baby, but presented in a charmless found-footage style that eschews kooky characters and subtle explorations in favour of (few) cheap shocks and a meagre illusion of reality (because, apparently, some people still believe that found footage films are real). There are no idiosyncratic nuances or moments of character-driven brilliance in Devil’s Due. It has the classic goal of making us fear the encroachment of abject otherworldliness into the domestic space, but it’s utterly lazy in doing so.

The giallo classics Suspiria and Inferno were awkwardly dubbed, with hurried endings and worlds that are just giant horrorscape designed specifically for maidens to perish in – populated by rooms that happen to be filled with barbed wire for victims to fall into, inexplicably homicidal hot dog vendors, and bursts of rock-operatic music during calm moments. You’ll laugh more than scream at Argento’s semi-comprehensible worlds, which nonetheless immerse you in their unique fairy-tale aesthetics. The belated final film in the trilogy, Mother of Tears (2007) loses much of its charm with a murkier, more realistic colour palette and blood that doesn’t shamelessly look like it was bought in B&Q. In trying to integrate aspects of the modern horror paradigm into his unique style, Argento sacrificed one of the strongest points of his work.

Why has popular horror become so shy about embracing the absurdity of its own premises?

Compare the old Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead with their recent reimaginings. The latter of these two deserves credit for successfully carving its own identity that distinguishes it from the original, its dirty, jittery style complementing the film’s sense of franticness and panic. However, symptomatic of modern horror’s void of wit and absurdity. Evil Dead offers plenty of no-nonsense shocks and thrills, but I’m starting to miss a bit of nonsense, and the genre’s bygone ability to make me smile amidst the screams.

And then there’s Freddy Krueger, whose makeover of recent years is intended to make him look more like a real-life burns victim than the eccentric Freddy we’ve come to love. With a perverse panoply of websites for viewing real-life pain and suffering, supernatural horror should put some distance between itself and real-world bleakness. Furthermore, the reboot more or less outs Freddy as a paedophile rather than a jolly old child killer, making it feel like a contrived and distasteful exploitation of a well-documented social problem. Freddy’s executions, too, lacked the bizarre and comical ‘evil genius’ quality of the original films, sticking mostly to clawed-hand stabbings that a serial killer would have been equally capable of.

Is it somehow outdated to look at horror as a genre that should allow itself to get carried away in flights of fantasy, spawning environments and characters that have been spewed – semi-digested – from the recesses of the filmmaker’s subconscious?

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REC and The Conjuring are both strong showcases modern horror, both in terms of their ability to make us jump and – particularly in the case of the latter – their technical prowess. However, they’re both equally subjugated by a need to rationalise their events.

In REC, the zombies are of the ‘infected’ variety, occupying a building that’s been cordoned off by police, wrapped in a plastic quarantine sheet, and declared a health hazard. In The Conjuring, the ghost hunters give lectures about demonic possessions to packed-out university halls as if they were giving a humdrum Geology lecture. These aspects were by no means out of place in their respective films, but are just two examples of the mysterious, supernatural aspects of horror becoming frustratingly sensible and normalised. There is certainly quality in these films, but it feels more mechanical than magical.

Present-day horror filmmakers are enjoying the tools and technology at their disposal to make horror jumpier and shockier than ever, but in doing so have forgotten about other unique qualities the genre used to exhibit; character, charm, absurdity and inexplicable weirdness. It seems unlikely that old masters such as Polanski will return to the genre that brought him to fame, or that Argento will recapture the form and aesthetics that made his most absurd plots enjoyable. Likewise, iconic horror villains of the eighties are only going to get worse with age.

But trends come in waves, and once today’s crop of horror makers acclimatise to the technical power in their hands and are given some free rein to experiment with it, then maybe we’ll see a new wave in the genre; one that isn’t afraid to venture that bit further from reality or embrace horror’s inherent madness, creating characters and transporting us to the places that, at the moment, we can only fitfully dream of… or go back and fondly rewatch.

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