Trends in the film industry are always very interesting to me. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much the horror genre has been evolving (at times arguably devolving) for the last decade.
Perhaps more than any other genre, horror ebbs and flows, transitions and stagnates, re-invents and recycles. Often, the trends we see in horror are simply reflections of current horrors of the day. The current landscape of fear of vampires, zombies and other un-dead denizens of the dark suggest escapism from more realistic concerns: a frightful global stage, domestic political turmoil and a sluggish economy. Further, vampires very obviously represent eternal life. Why are we so afraid of our mortality?
Other recent horror trends, such as torture porn/gore-nography (e.g. Turistas, Hostel franchise, Saw sequels, Captivity, Final Destination sequels, Last House on the Left remake, etc.) may insinuate the scars of a post-Abu Ghraib society that still linger in the collective psyche.
Horror has become big business in the last few years. With even more cons and film festivals added to the slate each and every year, the horror genre becomes more entrenched in and reflective of the cultural zeitgeist. It will be interesting to see how these cons and festivals change as the trends in the industry become more evident.
About a decade ago, modern torture porn or gore-nography were birthed out of more clever material. One such example is Saw. Yes, it is a divisive movie, but infinitely more clever than its even more polarizing successors. Plus, it cannot be overstated how much less gory it is than its familial films. The plotline arcs with Jigsaw’s traps driving the action along. Subsquent films relied too heavily on beefing up and goring out these traps so that the focal feature of the film were these torture devices. The storytelling suffered, but the ticket sales did not; to date the original Saw film has spawned 6 sequels. The same could be said about the Final Destination franchise. The original was such an original take on a universal source of dread — death itself. However, the following gore-nographic films relied too heavily on goring out its instruments of death in lieu of beefing up the plot.
For a few seasons, it seemed that every new horror film coming down the pike was a torture porn. Remakes of old familiars were manufactured but with an upped mayhem quotient (see Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and House of Wax. The first four films referenced above were fairly graphic films to begin with, especially for their time. The fear a viewer feels in the originals is palpable and timeless; did you feel any of those films were dated or stale?
Even France has gotten in on the torture. In fact, it seemed to start there a little earlier than it did here. I’ll admit that I thought High Tension/Haute Tension was more solidly written, acted, directed and shot than many of its contemporaries. Endless comparisons are made to Frontier(s), another French film that pits its protags against some whacked out Neo-Nazis. This new wave of French horror is called The New French Extremity, and also includes splatter-fests Martyrs and Inside.
Via the Last House on the Left remake, we began a transition bridge where torture porn became less a subgenre and more an element in revenge films. Examples include Death Sentence, The Brave One and the I Spit on Your Grave remake. While not strictly horror, Taken has been insanely popular, and its sequel gets its theatrical release soon. Vendetta films seem to, as an instrinsic component, contain high gore or torture in the action of enacting the vengeance.
Unfortunately, other than the event that instigates the need for vegeance (almost always of the vigilante variety), the revenge is all too often the only motivating, flesh-out plot line driving the story. Ancillary characters serve where secondary characters would be more appropriate; in fact, most characters in these films are two-dimensional. Further, even the protag will seem flat because his or her main characteristic is the need or drive for vengeance. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for personality quirks or idiosyncracies (luckily, there are many exceptions, especially in the Western genre. Bronson in Deathwish is another example).
One massive trend in the last three years has been a return to the shaky cam/found footage genre that resurfaced briefly in the 90s after the release of The Blair Witch Project. This subgenre shows no sign of slowing; the Paranormal Activity franchise has taken over Saw’s October theatrical release timeslot. While the fourth film‘s tagline is: “All the activity has led to this,” even a marginal box office showing will secure a sequel.
This guerrilla cinéma vérité is so popular because they are so easy and cheap to produce; further, the handheld camera format more effectively pulls the viewer into the action. There’s much more to explore in the shakycam/found footage subgenre, but I am going to leave that to an entry in the near future.