By Max Eshraghi
It has taken some time but the horror genre has achieved legitimacy. It is finally, in a word, prestigious.
What was once one of the most commonly derided and dismissed of genres has evolved. The ugly, putrid, caterpillar of horrors past has emerged from a chrysalis after 90-or-so years of metamorphosis and transformed into a multi-faceted butterfly: namely, a genre that can do it all.
You want a commentary on social issues? Horror dabbled with this in the ’60s (Night of the Living Dead) and ’70s (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Now there are multiple horror films a year that confidently and competently make bold statements about society. The last couple of years have brought us Green Room, The Purge: Election Year, and multiple Oscar-nominee Get Out, to name but a few; each with their own unique, generally bleak view on at least one aspect of the world we inhabit.
You want deft reflections of personal anxieties? STDs, sexuality, and maternity have all been explored in allegorical pieces like It Follows, Raw, and Prevenge. Horror movies now can be award-winning character-studies (Black Swan and The Babadook) or box office juggernauts, going toe-to-toe with the superheroes (The Conjuring, Annabelle, and IT; the last of which was the 5th highest grossing film worldwide in 2017).
“When I first started out and would go on pitch meetings, there was always this kind of eye-roll that would come with pitching a horror movie when you were dealing with the studios,” says horror director Mike Flanagan, whose recent movies include Hush and Gerald’s Game. “Unless it was viewed as a cheap product that could turn a lot of profit, there wasn’t a lot of interest in making it good. It was like fast food. ‘We can make this cheap, on a grand scale, and people will consume it. It doesn’t matter if it’s empty calories.’” 1
This is a golden age for horror and the studios are taking notice. First-time directors like Jordan Peele have not only achieved critical acclaim but have given a return on investment that dwarfs that of studio tent-poles: Get Out grossed in excess of $250 million on a budget of less than 1/50th of that.
Recent history has also shown that the genre is a fantastic training ground for future marquee-directors (James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg… hell even Oliver Stone’s first two films Seizure and The Hand were horror flicks). And with greater creative freedom from studios like Blumhouse, frequently on a shoe-string budget, these film-makers can afford to get creative.
But now that we have entered this new era of horror success, where do we go from here? Below are my predictions for how the horror genre will develop and adapt in the coming decade.
Changing Social Anxieties
Stephen King once said “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” If you want to see where top-tier horror is trending, look to the headlines.
A world of 24-hour news is a world of inescapable, unrelenting anxiety. It is a breeding ground for horror. Filmmakers will respond accordingly. Trump’s America, with widening inequality, seemingly unchecked xenophobia, and rich-white men taking power on a platform of authoritarianism is already providing a potent backdrop.
Movies like Green Room, which saw Neo-Nazis in the pacific Northwest terrorise a multi-racial group of teens, and The Purge: Election Year, played with these themes of the alt-right and class divide. For largely liberal Hollywood, these xenophobes and borderline fascists are the new zombie – a mindless, ravenous, overwhelming force that unrelentingly surrounds a small band of thinking survivors.
Green Room and the The Purge: Election Year, despite being released a few months before Trump’s election, are undoubtedly the first wave of films to deal with these themes. America’s toxic political environment, in which the broad battle-lines, between Hollywood’s liberal roots and the right-wing of Trump’s base, are going to be mirrored in horror cinema for the foreseeable future.
The super-rich have often been immoral puppet-masters or gleeful sadists in horror cinema (think the inhabitants of Fiddler’s Green in George A. Romero’s last good zombie flick, Land of the Dead; the affluent Satanists of Rosemary’s Baby; or the torturers in Hostel). These are the caricatures of shadowy elites, given new life by the morally depraved figures who now run the White House.
On the other end of the spectrum are the under-educated, backwards hicks. This caricature has been revived by the (perhaps unfair) perception of those attending Trump rallies across the bible Belt; religious zealots, who hate foreigners and carry deadly weapons. Recently The Witch played with themes of religious extremism, as do a number of Stephen King adaptions including the recent TV series of The Mist.
Of course some of these social anxieties never left such as the fear of a nuclear apocalypse (from The Hills Have Eyes to The Chernobyl Diaries to 10 Cloverfield Lane) and will continue to be a reliable source of horror in the years to come.
Fuelled by a rise in media consumption, the last decade has seen an increase in demand for nostalgia-driven stories. This is not exclusive to the horror genre. ‘Millennials’ (those born between 1980s and early 2000s) have driven this trend by watching shows and movies in record numbers that rely heavily on nostalgia, for their childhoods in particular (Star Wars, Stranger Things).
Nostalgia is often used as a tool to make the viewer feel a sense of comforting familiarity. There is a definite appeal in seeing things you recognised worked into a compelling new story. Stranger Things, for example, feels like an appealing cover of a classic anthem. Horror, however, does not, as a rule, seek to recreate those warm feelings: IT took nostalgia for the ’80s and used the decade to make children of the ’80s feel as though this was a long-dormant recollection of their childhood nightmares.
But not enough productions are smart enough to incorporate this nostalgia into the fabric of the story, to have it serve a purpose. Too many will be looking to use this as a gimmick. Look no further than Netflix’s The Babysitter, a sub-par love letter to ’80s slashers, that looked to include as many tropes of its blood-soaked forefathers as possible but with relatively little wit. The slasher movies of the ’80s and their accompanying tropes were already recognised, referenced and subverted as long ago as the ’90s in the Scream movies and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Now those tropes are not only there to be subverted… they are to be celebrated. They are positively kitsch.
Consider It Follows; that had a throw-back synth soundtrack, a lack of modern tech, and sense of unease that set it firmly in John Carpenter territory. The Void owed a great deal to Carpenter’s The Thing as well as ’80s Cronenberg and Clive Barker. We’ve already mentioned Stranger Things (often described as a love letter to Stephen King) and IT which quite literally was vintage 1980s Stephen King.
Expect ’90s and ’00s horror trends to be homaged more and more in the coming decade; specifically, the post-modern subversion of the slasher popularised in the ’90s by Scream and the torture porn craze of the ’00s.
The latter was already subject to a premature revival last year with Jigsaw, the under-performing reboot-quel to the the Saw franchise. Perhaps a whole new generation needs to discover Jigsaw and his games in order to see a full resurgence. The Human Centipede in 2010 felt like a ‘last days of Rome’ death-throw for the genre. Give it five to ten years, though, and I’m sure we’ll see a whole new wave of Saw and Hostel-inspired grisly tales to shock and appal.
As for the modern, frequently self-aware twist on the slasher film, just look to Happy Death Day, Unfriended, and You’re Next for entries that are (ahem) a cut above the rest.
Never Let a Good Franchise Die
We don’t need to tell you reboots, remakes, and sequels are bread and butter for Hollywood. The last decade has only seen them become more prevalent. That’s not going to change anytime soon for the horror genre.
This year we will see a third (perhaps fourth or fifth depending on how you consider previous entries) attempt to revive the 40-year-old Halloween franchise. Hopes are admittedly high for the upcoming David Gordon-Green/Danny McBride/Jamie Lee Curtis collaboration so hopefully it will stand out from the slew of less-than-stellar Freddy, Leatherface, and Jason revivals we’ve been subjected to over the last decade. Oh and expect to see more of those guys soon as well. Recent reports were that a Jason origin story was in the works.
Jason Blum, arguably the man of the moment when tit comes to the ascendancy of modern horror, has a rule, which is to never let the budget of his horror productions go past the $5m million mark. This allows movies like the Paranormal Activity series (total budget for five films: $28 million; box office return: close to $1 billion) and, of course, Get Out, to make a huge return on investment. He was asked recently about the future of horror cinema:
“Horror goes from being more supernatural and it swings back to being more bloody. There’s a bit of a pendulum, and now we’re seeing things get a little less supernatural. (But) great stories and acting always win the day. If the story behind the scares is dramatic and the film-making is great, it works. If those things aren’t great and the scares are secondary, it doesn’t.”2
While Blum may have missed out on an Oscar lost night,3I think this sort of thinking bodes well for the future of the genre. If this wildly successful business model can show that an emphasis on quality of story and character leads to box office success, then the genre can thrive in an industry that is increasingly seeking it out.
For the horror genre, the future is not so scary.
- Footnote: https://www.gq.com/story/golden-age-of-horror-movies.
- Footnote: http://variety.com/2016/film/markets-festivals/sxsw-jason-blum-1201728230/.
- Editor’s note: Curse you, sexy fish man!