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Trends in the Horror Industry: More Story, Less Gory (Part 2)

Sara Paxton in The Innkeepers

Check out the first part in this two-part series.

As horror films transition away from high gore to scare up viewers, they seem to enter more character-driven and story-driven fare. This is a much welcome throwback to the pre-slasher and pre-vengeance films. It harkens back to the ’60s and ’70s where horror had more of a slow burn.  Even horror-themed episodic TV evidenced this – Rod Serling’s Night Gallery is perhaps the paradigm. Remember the episode with the changing painting? If you haven’t seen it, watch it as soon as possible. The slow crescendo of action, gradually building over time into an explosive finale.

Many of the horror films that have been released in the last year or two have embodied these ‘slow burn’ traits. For a very retro spectacle that wholly evidences the last statement, check out House of the Devil, which co-stars Mumblecore royalty Greta Gerwig. Sometimes these films take time to get going, but I don’t usually mind. Strong scriptwriting and even pacing ensures that the first act is spent building characters and back story before heading into the meat and terror of the film.

The Innkeepers is aesthetically a vintage-style haunted inn story that is satisfying and enticing, but not a flawless film. Yet the stratospheric eerie quotient and well-developed characters keep you hooked until the end. Neo-scream queen Sara Paxton (star of the Last House remake) really shines in this film, which is about the real-life Yankee Pedlar Inn. She has stated in interviews that this character (an employee of the inn) is more like her real-life self than the popular girl roles that have become her mainstay. This character is realistic and believable; she’s not those vapid, generic teenagers that are all too prevalent in these films. This girl is someone you’ve actually known, maybe in a college class or hiking club.

Shelved for many years yet wildly critically acclaimed is the Joss Whedon-scribed haunted cabin film The Cabin in the Woods. This vehicle very effectively turns those overused horror tropes and premises right on their head. I dragged three very reluctant guys to see this on opening night for my birthday, but we all came out of the cinema buoyed by how solidly structured we found the film as well as just simply freakin’ entertaining. I’m deathly afraid that it will be a long time before I am that wowed and unexpectedly impressed again. Cabin is released on DVD on Sept 18. 

Comparisons have run amok between new film The Awakening and the Guillermo del Toro-produced El Orfarnato/The Orphanage (Jay Antonio Bayona directed), but I think it sounds a bit more like a film del Toro actually directed, The Devil’s Backbone. The Awakening takes place in 1920s Cumbrian England, which gives the ambiance a particularly spooky feel. Really, what is eerier than a ramshackle boarding school in the damp, dank Moors? The protag (up-and-comer Rebecca Hall) is a paranormal debunker called into the solve the mystery of the school, plagued by denizens of the dark. If you are on the fence about this one, try watching the first 10 minutes. It starts right off with a seance, and you will immediately get a feel for the film.

The Apparition looks extremely derivative. Reminiscent of lackluster films such as They and Pulse, the ridiculous premise is that ghosts won’t harm a group of sexy newlyweds (and friends!) until they start believing in their existence. Sounds cloying and far-fetched to me, but I will reserve judgment until video. Its theatrical run starts Friday, in case you are intrigued. This film is a good reminder that while the films mentioned in this write-up are less gory than many other horror films from the last decade, the decrease in splatter alone doesn’t automatically make them good. Or even scary.

While this trend is fairly recent, we cannot deny that there have been so many more story-driven horror films vaguely recently. The Caller, Drag Me to Hell, and 1408 were all more or less character- and/or story-driven horror films in the last 5 years or so. None of these films were amazing, but all hinted at greatness to come. It could even be argued that these films (et al.) paved the way for Cabin in the Woods and its contemporaries.

Drag Me to Hell is part of the Raimi Brothers’ Ghost House Productions. Their latest offering, The Possession, will enjoy a theatrical run later on this month. The film was known as Dybbuk Box during its production, but the title was changed to the much more generic and banal current selection. Despite this small setback, I think the premise sounds wonderful: a young girl picks up a Dybbuk box at a yard sale, thinking it’s just a cool ole box. She opens it after much struggling, but her personality changes extremely afterward. Expertly blending Jewish folklore and the Pandora allegory, this movie is based on a real story that you can read about here. The present owner of the box even tried to sell it to the Raimis.

Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro is a perfect director for horror as he masterfully blends the horrors of wartime (namely the Spanish Civil War) against the unseen horrors of the supernatural realm. This juxtaposition of the super-normal and paranormal really bring a new layer to the genre. Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are whimsically horrifying and more akin to contemporary Grimm’s Fairy Tales than any other horror offerings on the market.  Cronos is a dryer, straighter film that the aforementioned offerings, but is still worth a viewing (or two). While not strictly horror, his upcoming film Pacific Rim will likely be a double hit – both in the box office and on the critic sheet.

I was really excited when I learned about the premise and cast of Red Lights. Debunking psychic fraud is not a topic that’s been especially been en vogue since the age of Spiritualism ended, but I think it’s ready come out of the spirit cabinet. The cast includes heavyweights Robert Deniro and Sigourney Weaver. Frequent castmates Cillian Murphy and Ellen Page are once again reunited (see Inception and Peacock) to round out the cast. Currently, the film is still is limited release; it may never get a wide release based on its reviews (it has been critically panned).  It’s too bad the execution was so terrible because the premise is so terribly intriguing. There’s always DVD.

I can’t decide how I feel about the new Ethan Hawke vehicle, Sinister. The premise involves found footage as a plot device, but it is not a shakycam film (from my best estimation anyway). The plot centers around a new homeowner who finds footage with clues to who was murdered in the house beforehand. Hawke plays the homeowner, who happens to be a true crime novelist. His thirst for new material leads him to delve into the murder mystery so much that he may be putting his family on the target for future attacks (either paranormal or regular ole human psychopath).

The one-word title of Sinister reminds me a little of Insidious. Referencing back to the slow burner paradigm, Insidious is the paragon of slow burners because it really implodes in the final 20 minutes. It seems like everyone I personally know that has seen this has loved the first act, but reaction to the final act was much more polarizing. I loved this film and felt it was a really unique take on an infrequently-used supernatural phenomenon (I can’t say much more without spoilers). While the movie did contain some really bizarre moments, these mostly bolstered the quality of the film rather than having a deleterious effect. Rose Byrne plays really well against Patrick Wilson and midway through the film you relate to them as a couple you might know that live down the lane. Excellent pacing, a perpetually eerie atmosphere and real scares (in lieu of ‘jump’ scares, although there are a few of those) really make this a solid effort.

Final thoughts: You’ve seen The Others haven’t you? Please see The Others. I saw it in college and a frat boy ran out during the particularly intense climax. Even after the ‘Big Reveal’, The Others has plenty of re-watch value. Also, I’m really excited about Keyhole, which has a great vibe. This new Guy Maddin offering stars legacy actress Isabella Rossellini.

Check out the trailers below and let me know what other story-driven horror films arrive on your radar.

Trailers: The Innkeepers / The Apparition / The Possession / Red Lights / The Awakening / Sinister

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About filmbouillabaisse

I love balance and equilibrium. I shrink from all views/methods extremist, obsessive, and militant. Except when it comes to cinema.

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