Dominick Mayer (DM): This week sees the release of Kevin Smith’s Tusk, his first true foray into horror filmmaking after getting his toes wet with Red State. Smith’s walrus-based horror show comes at a time when found footage is starting to wane in prominence and popularity alike, and horror at the mainstream level is still looking for its next boon. So, to kick off our discussion of horror at the moment, let me pose the first question: What’s been the most important horror trend in recent years?
Adriane Neuenschwander (AN): As far as I’m concerned, horror hit its lowest point ever in the 2000s, with Red State being one of its biggest disappointments. Most of the decade was just a grotesque orgy of Saw knockoffs, remakes of mediocre Asian films, and direct-to-video sequels. However, there’s one new trend in the genre that makes me hopeful: the rise of the mumblegore movement. Young directors like Ti West (The House of the Devil), Adam Wingard (You’re Next), and E.L. Katz (Cheap Thrills) are coming onto the scene and making really smart, darkly comic horror films on shoestring budgets.
But unlike a lot of other cheap-as-hell horror movies, mumblegore is still stylish. I’m pretty sure Ti West shot The House of the Devil with whatever change he found in his couch cushions, but it still looks fantastic. And you can tell that these guys have all done their homework—they know the genre conventions, so they can subvert them to great effect. My only hope is that some of these films start making traction at the box office, because I’d love to see what any of these directors could do with a modest budget and some studio support.
Michael Roffman (MR): Mumblegore! I love it. I’m with you, Adriane. The House of the Devil was exactly the breath of fresh air the genre needed at the time, and you’re right, the limited budget recalls the rogue ’70s work of John Carpenter or Don Coscarelli or Tobe Hooper. If it wasn’t for the stratospheric rise of Greta Gerwig, it’s very likely the film could fool a number of critics and viewers into thinking it was a lost splatter film from the ’80s. Looking back throughout the genre, the film seems to have set fire to the independent horror scene; though, admittedly, I’ve yet to see any of West’s peers match Devil‘s magic. His own follow-up, The Innkeepers, came close, while Katz’s Cheap Thrills was a Polanski-esque dream, but the two borrowed a little too much from today’s modern conventions, slightly diminishing the low-budget indie aesthetic.
But believe me, there’s hope. This past March, I attended South by Southwest and caught a number of horror films from young directors. The mumblecore auteur himself Mark Duplass put together an intense thriller titled Creep that should stir up a number of Netflix queues, and Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch’s Starry Eyes was as if David Cronenberg and Dario Argento teamed up together circa 1986. While the two drew inspiration from the more commercially successful found footage and possession subgenres as of late, respectively, there were certainly whispers of Devil in both films. But what is it about the style of mumblegore that works? It can’t just be their subversions of old tricks. Is it that they’re tapping into our own nostalgia?
Most of these films recall the hazy midnight sleepovers of my youth in which my horror-obsessed friends would munch on popcorn or candy between piles of VHS tapes. I’d hate to think it’s purely nostalgic, though, and would rather argue that they instead hearken back to a time when the horror itself was left to our imagination and that the haunted house down the street didn’t have to provide an exhaustive narrative with all the answers … because the unknown was far scarier. But if I’m going by that logic, I’d go to bat for some more modern mainstream releases like last year’s The Conjuring or 2008’s The Strangers. Okay, I’ve said a lot here. I need to collect my thoughts some. Is any of this making sense?
Randall Colburn (RC): Look, I dug The Conjuring, but let’s not give it too much credit. Well-acted, sure. Spooky? At times. But Christ, can we quit it with the precious children and old-timey ghosts in harsh makeup? And that ending? Please. Ultimately, a film like The Conjuring, though well-made, is part of the problem. The Strangers, on the other hand? It understands that love will not save you. Same goes for House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. Horror movies are not like other movies. They are not about heroes; they are about monsters. And when the badass mumblegore movement isn’t outright slaughtering its “heroes” — see both (mostly) excellent installments in the V/H/S series — it’s turning them into irredeemable monsters; Cheap Thrills and You’re Next come to mind.
These are the same ideas that made Hostel Part II such an enjoyable watch when I saw it in an (otherwise empty) theater back in 2007. Where the first forced us to follow a trio of insufferable douche-bros, the sequel widened its scope to focus as much on the killers (in this case, rich businessmen who bid on victims via an auction website) as the knife-bait. It marked such a step forward for Eli Roth as a storyteller and gorechitect, and I was genuinely disappointed when he handed the series off to some other jabroni.
While I’m on the subject of Roth, who else in American horror is pushing gore as far as he is? What other mainstream (or indie) American filmmakers are citing Cannibal Holocaust as an influence, and then backing it up in their work? Remember Pax using scissors to clip off that girl’s eye in Hostel, or the subsequent river of pus? I can’t remember the last onscreen image that made me laugh and retch in such equal measure. Sure, it looked kind of silly, but so does the plumber demon dude in The Beyond.
Frankly, the mainstream horror community is far too sanitized these days. Eli Roth’s recently delayed The Green Inferno is clearly going to be his take on the Italian cannibal genre, and I can’t imagine it not being sloppy as well. What do you think, Justin?
Justin Gerber (JG): I have a complicated, one-sided relationship with Eli Roth, but that boils down to his awful performance in Inglorious Basterds, not his filmmaking technique. I appreciated the style and care he put into the making of Cabin Fever and enjoyed a great deal of the film before it teetered out in the end. Along with Ti West, we’re discovering that the fan boys have become the filmmakers. Roth is clearly influenced by the cabin in the woods cheapies of the ‘80s, with a touch of Last House on the Left (the convenience-store karate kid in Cabin is to who the bumbling cops are in Last House), while West’s affection for old-fashioned ghost stories and haunted-house thrillers are apparent in his last two films.
Dominick, can you believe it’s been 12 years since Cabin Fever? Horror aficionados were counting on Roth to become the next Carpenter or Raimi, but he hasn’t lived up to those lofty expectations. West is our next best bet. The House of the Devil is one of the best horror films of the past decade, and The Innkeepers made for a nice, small ghost story. But where do Roth and West go from here? Both directors seem interested in removing their stories from the suburbs and taking them to other locations. Roth is headed down to the Amazon for The Green Inferno, while West is trekking to a commune for The Sacrament. Fellow writers: How well does horror work for you when the action takes place outside the neighborhoods we’re so familiar with? Is it more frightening to discover terror in your backyard, or terror in an unfamiliar setting?
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MR: I couldn’t agree more, Randall. No more spooky kids. That whole trend died off a year or two after The Ring, if not earlier than that. Yet year after year, we get more films peddling children as the culpable ghoul. Maybe producers are just terrified of their own offspring?
As for our next Raimi or Carpenter or Romero, I don’t think there is one. Instead, I think the scene itself has taken precedence over any singular name. An anthology series such as V/H/S or production companies like Blumhouse (which has an awful track record critically, but nonetheless offers a few gems here and there) prove this much — and I’m pretty happy about that. Horror, and this will slightly address your last question, Justin, is very situational and conditional, so I don’t think any one director has all the answers … or ever have, come to think of it.
Looking back, Raimi parodied gore, Carpenter localized terror, Wes Craven told teenage morality lessons, and Cronenberg tapped into our sexual subconscious. But really, none of them led any movement or reigned supreme — not even the alleged Master of Horror, John Carpenter. His output surpassed his peers, no doubt, but would his influence be any different if he had just released Halloween? I don’t think so. Yes, he took us to the arctic (The Thing), to a post-apocalyptic Big Apple (Escape from New York), and within the pages of an urban folk legend (The Fog), but were they that different from the inescapable terror of Michael Myers? Not really. At their core, they worked off the claustrophobic fear of having nowhere to run.
But the reason we’re still talking about Carpenter or Raimi or Craven or Cronenberg is that they paired their horror with unique stories and believable characters. We can all name their protagonists off the top of our head, which I’ve always considered a strong indication of a story’s success. I’m not going to sit here and bash the past 25 years of horror, but I think the majority of the filmmakers that followed this class confused character for star power and horror for quick scares. They became forgettable roller coasters, working off a blockbuster mentality that insisted upon thrills over atmosphere.
For a while, it seemed like nobody was willing to give any of their films time to breathe. I always bring up Halloween, but try and look back at how that film unfolds. A good five minutes is spent watching Jamie Lee Curtis stroll over to the Myers house, and in that time, we’re appropriately introduced to the character, the setting, and the forthcoming evil. Those scenes hardly exist today, and if they do, they’re spoon-fed in quick spurts of exposition that just keep the ride moving. That’s why I love someone like West. Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers offer the sort of restraint that might drive producers up the wall but work in the long run. I also love how he assigns his lead roles to a bunch of no-names, to paraphrase Tim Heidecker.
With regard to Roth, I wouldn’t really group him in with today’s horror, even if I do think he’s a cut above the rest, no pun intended. Cabin Fever still intrigues me for its bizarre casting (Rider Strong, really?) and unforgiving premise (very early Stephen King), and both Hostel and Hostel II are the only “torture porn” films worth watching, in my opinion. I just don’t think Roth is very influential, and I wouldn’t want anyone to work off his style, namely because I don’t think anyone can. Up to this point, he’s been a traditionalist, capitalizing on all the formulas of ’70s and ’80s horror, only upping the stakes with gore and violence with a rather perverted take. On the whole, however, they’re carefully arranged parodies that offer a unique cultural commentary on the horror genre itself. That’s his own thing, and I don’t think that changes with Inferno, at least based on the trailer, but hey, maybe it does.
To really address your question, Justin, I think horror will always depend on the viewer. Personally, I’m more frightened by the unknown, but the tangible unknown, or the uninhibited mind, for instance. Films like The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, Session 9, The Skeleton Key, or The Strangers are all examples of films that burn my mind upon each viewing. But I’m sure you’re different, and so are Randall and Dominick and Adriane. That’s the beauty of the genre.
RC: The horror film I’ve been creaming my jeans over is The Bringing, a spooker reportedly inspired by this genuinely unsettling viral video. Though the “haunted hotel” premise is intriguing, my anticipation centered itself on the involvement of devil-may-care director Nicolas Winding Refn. Drive and Only God Forgives weren’t horror movies, but the Danish auteur’s cruel vision, artful frames, and use of stillness could elevate the hokiest of horror premises to Kubrickian levels. Unfortunately, because we can’t have nice things, Refn seems to have exited the project.
There are plenty of exciting names in horror right now. We’ve spent much of this discussing them. What I want to see is one of our current visionaries tackle the genre. A guy like Refn, or why not Steve McQueen or Richard Linklater. Can you even imagine what a horror movie from Paul Thomas Anderson would look like? I’m genuinely surprised more of our prestige directors don’t dabble in the genre, it being one of the most effective means for dissecting society. It’s worked in the past: Spielberg, Kubrick, Polanski. These guys didn’t live and breathe gore, yet they made some of the most enduring horror films of all time, the kind we discuss in classrooms as much as we do over beers.
What do you guys think? Are there any horror films from the last decade that will someday grace a college syllabus? Am I expecting too much? Why is Jack Torrance reading an issue of Playgirl in that one scene of The Shining? Jesus, that bothers me.
AN: First off, Randall, Jack Torrance is reading that issue of Playgirl for the articles. Second, horror has been the bastard stepchild of the film industry for decades. At Thanksgiving, horror is forced to sit at the kids’ table with comedy, women’s melodrama, and porn. In fact, in the history of the Academy Awards, a straight-up horror film has never won Best Picture (The Silence of the Lambs comes closest, but that’s more of a suspense thriller). That boggles my mind, but it shows just how deeply rooted Hollywood’s ambivalence toward the genre really is.
Sure, the studios love to greenlight cheap slasher flicks with first-time directors and no-name actors, because those films always make their money back. Horror geeks and teens will see the films no matter their pedigree, and producers know it. But they’re rarely willing to sink $50 million or more into a horror film—and that’s part of the reason why guys like P.T. Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and others of their ilk will probably never dabble in the genre. The low budget just goes against their aesthetic sensibilities and casting desires. Hell, James Wan, the man we can all blame for the Saw and Insidious franchises, swore off horror films as soon as he had one critical success with The Conjuring.
But I think that our horror-geek salvation might just lie across the pond; that’s where some of today’s most inventive, artistically challenging horror films are being produced. In Spain, we have Jaume Balagueró, who, in addition to [Rec], directed Sleep Tight, a beautifully restrained home-invasion movie that prizes tone and ambiguity over gore. And then there’s Under the Skin, a movie about a morally conflicted succubus from British director Jonathan Glazer. It’s intellectually challenging, stunningly gorgeous, and unlike anything I’ve seen before. I can definitely see those two movies showing up on Film 101 syllabi a few decades from now.
But what do you make of all this, Dominick? Am I being too cynical about Hollywood?
DM: The only real counterpoint I have to the notions of Hollywood horror being in trouble is the thing that a lot of people think is killing Hollywood right now: the sole greenlighting of projects with franchise potential. Yeah, it sucks in a lot of respects, particularly those related to quality not being the most essential component of the larger brand strategy, but it also means that directors like Wan are getting chances to make horror films with better budgets (by horror standards). And even if some of those movies aren’t very good, there’s probably somebody out there who saw The Conjuring and developed a taste for ’70s horror or got into some older Polanski films or even stumbled onto giallo and other fun stuff of that ilk. Horror is making a lot of money right now, even if there isn’t much of it.
That’s where my counterpoint ends, though. The fact that one of this October’s most publicized horror offerings to date is the Ouija movie is very telling in what Hollywood thinks audiences want. But my problem isn’t with studios for making the movies so much as it’s with people for seeing them. For instance, Paranormal Activity has become a series of filmed haunted houses, where each scare is carefully telegraphed with a low bass rumble before jumping out to make people scream and laugh and clutch the arms of their company at the theater. Then it resets for the next one, people jump for 90-odd more minutes, and everybody goes home and promptly forgets about it within a week.
Horror has become this ephemeral thing that ideally will spawn sequels but ultimately is just there to turn a profit through one means or another. And particularly at the point we’re at in culture right now, where fear and paranoia are the methods of conversation du jour, some really great horror could come out of this if it were getting put out at the studio level. Right now, we get the ham-handed messages of The Purge, but again, it did exceedingly well. Maybe I just know nothing.
To your point, Adriane, I agree that a lot of filmmakers won’t touch the genre, but I’d argue it’s more because most auteurs aren’t interested in making movies that were already perfected decades ago. The films you mentioned suggest that this could be part of horror’s future, particularly the unbearably chilling Under the Skin, but it involves changing the climate to a place where a horror film without jump scares could break out, and I can’t see that happening overnight. I haven’t been as big a fan of Ti West’s stuff as a lot of you guys, but I can at least appreciate that he’s trying to bring the genre back to a more atmospheric place.
I’d argue that what horror movies aren’t doing right now, if anything, is giving people a channel for their fears. It’s one thing to show people a bunch of scary CGI demon-ish creatures and volley them at the screen. It’s quite another to make a film that taps into the phobias of its society and gives people monsters that they recognize, that exist in the realm of the feasible. To circle back to where we started, I think horror needs to start forcing people to look at the real again, because I think that might end up being scarier than a hundred contorted bodies talking with voices that aren’t theirs.
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JG: I agree. The reason Michael Myers is the most horrifying “monster” of the slasher era is that he isn’t a monster. He’s human. Freddy killed you in your dreams. Jason was a zombie (most of the series). Pinhead came from another realm. As unkillable as Myers became, it was the fact that he was a living, breathing killer that terrifies audiences today just as much as he must have 36 years ago. The demon dolls and weird little kids need to be exorcised (pun definitely intended) from the genre if we want to see some steady progress. Make it more real, make it tangible. Something that would cause you to look over your shoulder after leaving the theater late at night, with legitimate fear that someone and not something may be waiting for you.
For a while I classified Under the Skin as science fiction, which tends to happen when the main character is an extraterrestrial. However, I’m leaning more towards classifying it as sci-fi horror, that same subgenre that a great film like Alien (and a lesser film like Event Horizon) falls into. It’s unbearably tense throughout without once pandering to the fake-out “jump scare.” Is there one false note in the whole film? Any jump scare is earned because what we’re seeing is actually frightening. There are no cats leaping out of the shadows, friends tapping someone on the shoulder, or any other sequence you can find in countless horror films of recent memory. It’s a unique experience, and to go back to your question, Randall, I agree with Adriane that I can see the making of the film taught in schools, even if it’s just film schools. I think that’s where you were going with that question, anyway.
The use of “no-names” is more often than not key for me. The more films you see, the less effect a big-budget horror movie packed with famous or familiar actors has. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still effective because everyone in that film is best associated with that film. I still see those characters as real, not only because of the genius, documentary-like style Hooper adapted for the shoot, but because I have no one else to compare them to. I’ve only seen those actors in that 1974 house of horrors on a small ‘bout of land in Texas. Any other examples where anonymity was key in a horror film’s success for any of you?
MR: Yikes. I wish I jumped in earlier. Look, I can’t write enough about Under the Skin — I walked out of the film in a daze and strolled back in for seconds. It’s my favorite film of the year, and I don’t think that’ll change. Not since There Will Be Blood have I seen a film that captured the essence and mystique of a Kubrick film, even down to Mica Levi’s score that pays great homage to the late György Ligeti. Sorry, folks. I’m going to sit on this film for a second here because it addresses so much of what we’ve been discussing.
For one, I agree with Adriane that Skin has every opportunity to hop into film classes in the future and for reasons Dominick insisted on: it preys upon our actual societal fears. There are so many thematic layers to this film — from sexuality to identity to social interactions to our innermost carnal desires — that an entire 120-student class could arguably turn in a radically different paper on it. And remarkably, there are maybe, at most, 50 lines of dialogue, and it clocks in at 108 minutes.
But take a look at its attributes. It stars Scarlett Johansson, and yet she’s hardly noticeable, even when she’s in her own skin, pun intended there. Instead, she pulls off the rare masking feat of being an unknown amid a cast of actual unknowns. Not once did I ever think, Hey, isn’t the Black Widow going to save that baby? Not once. Instead, I was on the edge of my mind, peeling into her character and trying to understand her motives, until eventually I found myself … rooting for her?
And that’s what hit me hard. Sure, Glazer carved out quite an anti-hero in his remarkable debut, Sexy Beast, but he truly went into the great beyond with Johansson’s lead role here. I’d like to say that aspect of the film was quite a relief. Over the years, we’ve followed the villain in so many movies — Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, American Psycho, and, of course, Hannibal — but there’s always an understanding to their mayhem. Johansson’s reasons weren’t exactly defined here — that was the unknown — but knowing the consequences (you’ll never look at your dead skin the same way again) made it all the more terrifying and alluring.
Like Justin, I too consider this sci-fi horror. But I’d argue the sci-fi angle is what made so much of the commentary and characterization possible. I wonder, then, if we should see more pairings of genres in horror? I’m not talking about comedy or action, but what about strictly drama? Earlier, there was a discussion on the Academy not acknowledging horror, and not one of you mentioned The Sixth Sense, which was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. That was a horror drama, and look how well that did.
AN: Absolutely, Michael. I’m all in favor of genre hybridization. I mean, genre is such a fluid concept anyway—ask any poor schmuck who worked in a video store (me) and had the difficult task of organizing every film into one clear-cut genre category. I think it’s fair to say that the majority of films today borrow from more than one genre, but it definitely seems like horror films gain some legitimacy among critics when they mix in another genre’s conventions and themes. In the case of The Sixth Sense, I think it was that film’s dramatic elements that helped it garner those Oscar nominations, not its ghosts. And The Exorcist, another film that was nominated for Best Picture but lost, is a fairly standard family drama for half its runtime. It just gives moviegoers who typically shun horror something else to latch onto.
This goes back to a topic we’ve all brought up at some point in the discussion: the fact that successful horror movies embrace the familiar. The more a movie is anchored in reality, the more effective it is. Justin, you hit the nail on the head when you argued that Michael Myers became so iconic because he’s just a dude, not a mythical monster. Growing up, the movie that always paralyzed me with fear was When a Stranger Calls. Why? Because I could relate to it on multiple levels. I was a babysitter. My home, like the one in the film, was also sprawling and filled with dark corners and stairwells. The killer was a normal-looking man, one that could have lived in my hometown and gone unnoticed.
Ambiguity ties into this. In life, we rarely know the motivations of others, so why do horror films insist on laying out the motives of its villains? One of the great travesties of recent years was when Rob Zombie remade Halloween and decided to give Michael Myers a backstory. What Mr. Zombie failed to understand is that Michael Myers was an effective villain in part because the viewers didn’t know his backstory. It’s the opacity of his motivation that makes him both more realistic and more terrifying. What do you guys think? I know we’ve touched on the fact that horror works well when the director leaves things up to the viewers’ imaginations, but do you agree that ambiguity makes for a better horror antagonist?
JG: I think ambiguity works best most of the time, but to play the role of contrarian, I’d like to reveal at least one exception. In Halloween, Michael Myers (aka The Shape) stalks a young babysitter throughout the day, methodically kills her friends, and finally tries to off her. We never learn in the first film why he chooses her. It isn’t until the second film that it is revealed (or more likely invented during the writing of Halloween II) that Laurie Strode is Myers’ sister.
So a bit of mystery is stripped away, but I don’t believe this to be detrimental. We still don’t know why he is doing this, and to do this to an innocent blood relative, and not a stranger, is still disturbing to me, even if it attacks me from a different angle. It’s in the sequels that backstories are vomited up. Extended family. Psychic links. Curses. Cults. Do producers of sequels feel compelled to give it all away? Do they think audiences can’t be content without answers?
Adriane, there is another ‘70s classic that was stripped of its ambiguity decades later thanks to a shoddy remake: Black Christmas. We never learn who the killer is in Bob Clark’s original 1974 film, but we’re given his entire backstory in the opening of Glen Morgan’s 2006 remake. Keep it simple, stupid!
DM: I’m 110% on board with Justin here. One of the biggest epidemics in filmmaking at large right now, especially in horror, is to give backstory. While I like the Rob Zombie Halloween films, particularly the psychotic second installment, I agree that there’s some serious overestimation going on right now of how valuable origin tales really are. Particularly in an era where there’s been a proliferation of superhero movies, it makes sense, but it’s not a good idea. Hell, the most lauded film villain in recent years was Heath Ledger’s Joker, a character that’s terrifying precisely because he has no backstory. He comes from nowhere, is driven by nothing that anybody else is aware of, and is the very personification of chaos and evil as a result.
I think part of it is a general cultural reluctance to engage with evil. We’ve sort of touched on this, but I’ll argue that a big part of why horror is in a very supernatural period right now is that the internet has allowed us to educate ourselves on just how much actual horror exists in the world. And while I believe in the movies as a place where we can stare down and engage with those phobias — and like I mentioned before, the best horror often comes from this place — many viewers see movies as an escape. They no longer want the nihilism of torture porn, because there are enough atrocities already happening everywhere. It’s harder to just turn off and laugh at a bad slasher movie than it used to be. But while I understand the inclination to recoil from brutality, it’s going to exist whether or not movies chronicle it. Always has, always will. To offer up piles of nondescript ghouls ‘n’ ghosts in response is to do the audience a disservice, arguably.
For me, one of the best and most underappreciated horror films of the past decade is Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell. A big part of why I think it works, in addition to its cruel sucker punch of a final scene, is that it’s all about the ways in which our selfish, desperate choices can sometimes come home to roost. It’s a film completely born out of Bush-era economic panic, and it was weirdly prescient in that it came out right in the aftermath of the housing collapse of 2007-2008. That might’ve been part of why it never really caught on with mainstream audiences, but it’s proof that the best horror comes from the most tangible, realistic phobias.
JG: Ultimately, the popular horror films of today are in a state of stagnation. We have sequels (Paranormal Activity 5, Annabelle) and remakes (Poltergeist) on the horizon, of course, but I think we’re waiting to be truly scared again by something original, something out of left field. I haven’t been afraid to turn off the lights in a good, long while, and I hope it isn’t because I’ve grown out of it. What will be the next Pazuzu? Is there a fresh, scary take on the slasher genre around the corner? Most importantly, will “found footage” films finally remain lost?