Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Trouble with Horror Movies Today

Modern horror movies have lost their innocence. Sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s true. Gone are the days of wide-eyed awe at creatures that defied explanation and dazzled with their improbability, monsters that sprung forth from our internalized fears onto the screen. The modern horror film is less thematic and more about…well, everyday horror.

Trouble is that genre films today are more focused on the depiction of horror where horror films past concentrated on the personification of horror. Horror once spoke subtly, using allegory and metaphor and symbolism to convey the horror at its core. Horror spoke to you through the back door; it whispered in your ear. Headlines of the day were cloaked in comforting doses of filmmakers’ imagination—monsters and make-believe terrors. You escaped with horror to indirectly deal with broader societal issues that terrified or confused you—communism, war, racism, sexual liberation.

With its propensity for horror that’s ripped from the headlines, the genre now clobbers viewers over the head with the same reality they’re trying to escape. Home invasions, torture abroad, organ harvesters. There's little symbolism, little metaphor, little allegory. It’s all on full, graphic display, and there is no escape. Horror films today force us to confront visceral depictions of the stories we hear on the evening news. Our reality is met with reality masquerading as escapism on the screen. As a result, the horror movie experience is less cathartic, less therapeutic. It reinforces instead of relieves our fears. It's less roller coaster, more carousel.

Perhaps we’ve become too sophisticated for the simple cinematic metaphor, too jaded to buy into the personification of evil, too numb to bloodshed and violence. We know what evil is—we’re inundated with its images and affects 24/7 on streaming newscasts. There seems to be so little that shocks us that the boundaries in modern horror cinema have been stretched to their outer limits. And now that the concept of community is a fading aspect of our culture, there are few collective fears. Tapping into individual fears is a taller order for filmmakers, so they opt for depiction over personification. Moviemakers cop out and recycle ideas instead of creating the next creature from a black lagoon or the next thing from another world. Studios opt for remakes that spit in the eyes of the source material and reimaginings that have less to do with actual imagination and more to do with wringing as many dollars from old ideas with as little effort or artistry as possible. The fun has been zapped from modern horror movies, and we’re often left to suffer through joyless celluloid creations that lack passion for the horror at their core—slick eye candy possessing all the substance of a vacuous blond sipping cosmos at a bar. There are exceptions, of course, but those are few and far between the dreck.

Even the horror movie experience itself has changed drastically. With the fading of community, the collective viewing experience of Saturday afternoon matinees is on the decline. People opt for the comfort and sanctuary of their own home theaters and the resulting experience is heavily dulled down. No longer is there that marvelous shared fear, tension, and anxiety of a hundred people all simultaneously tensing and cowering and jumping and screaming in a crowded movie theater. The enchantment of greasy popcorn and musty theater seats is quickly approaching antiquation as studios contemplate ways to make quicker, bigger bucks by releasing films simultaneously to multiplexes and home viewing markets. We’re developing cultural immunity to our once beloved horror movie experience.

Worse, we’ve created a generation numb to horror films. Their reactions alone—laughter, mockery, derision—bespeak the failure of the modern genre film. Imagination in our young has been replaced by the instantly gratifying images of interactive video games and other high-tech fare that spell it all out on high-definition monitors. There are no spooky walks through the woods, no backyard sleep-outs, no summer camp rites of passage to tantalize and tickle those dark spots in our subconscious. Folklore that once fueled imagination is on the decline, with yarns about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and the Bermuda Triangle reduced to tabloid fodder and ridicule from even the youngest of minds. Campfire tales and urban legends have been replaced by sensationalized newscasts. In our scientific world, everything has a rational explanation and there’s little room left for the possibility of things unknown to us. We’re arrogant in our knowledge as a society, and the simplicity of horror cinema has suffered. Sometimes ignorance is bliss—at least when it comes to our horror movies.

Note: This essay originally appeared as part of a group article by the League of Tana Tea Drinkers at Blogcritics Magazine.


Jon said...

While I don’t necessarily agree with all of the conclusions in this post, this is one of the most carefully considered assessments of modern horror I’ve read in a very long time. I suppose I’m somewhat on the fence about this. On the one hand, I agree that the movie-going experience has drastically changed, and that we quite literally don’t see films in the same way as previous decades. I’ve been suspicious for a long time now that perhaps dvds, with all their extra-features, multiple versions, and the like, actually diminish some of a film’s most basic artistry—including the idea of a publically shared, and a carefully controlled linear experience. I agree that there’s a lot of flash and very little substance in a film like Cloverfield, which belongs to a genre that had always been given to using monsters as metaphors.
But perhaps today’s horror films—with their increasing interest in variability, fragmented viewing experiences, and a hyper-realism that’s at once both absurd and cynical-- are as much a personification of our jittery modern culture as films of the past. I’m not sure yet, but this post has given me a lot to think about.

Vince Liaguno said...

Thanks, Jon. Good point suggesting that perhaps today's horror film's are indeed the personification of our attention-deficit culture. Perhaps the blandness that we're experiencing in the modern horror film simply reflects that of our our slick, high-tech - but ultimately emotionally dumbed down - culture. No wonder we feel nothing(!).

Thanks for sharing your insights on this.