I first fell in love with horror movies when I was six years old. I walked in on my parents watching Scream and simply insisted that I watch the remainder of the film with them. The rest, as they say, was history. After my parents reluctantly allowed me to watch Scream, I fell in love with the genre and would often terrify myself staying up late watching anything from I Know What You Did Last Summer to Halloween. To this day, I am still an avid horror buff; with the release of Scream 4 last year, my excitement level could not have been higher. However, as much as I loved the new installment to the franchise, Scream 4 failed to draw the same blockbuster audience that it did in the ‘90s, with its domestic gross ($38m) falling just short of the film’s production budget ($40m), according to Box Office Mojo. While the foreign gross ($59m) might have saved Scream 4, it is clear that audiences are just not as excited as they used to be by a good slasher flick.
Over time, horror has become the ugly stepchild of the Hollywood genres. Quality standards for horror production are often quite low, as studios are generally unwilling to put as much time, money or effort into a horror film as they would for the next Angelina Jolie action blockbuster, for example. Why it is that horror films have gotten such a bad rep to date?
[pullquote_right] “Horror takes the rules of our world and violates them. It violates our expectations.” [/pullquote_right]
I recently sat down to discuss the genre with Psychology professor Jason Reiss, whose favorite horror films include Halloween and Quarantine and who taught the freshman seminar “Psychology & Horror,” in which students questioned what horror and fear truly are in order to analyze how these films function in society. Reiss said, “Horror takes the rules of our world and violates them. It violates our expectations. The monsters [in the films] reflect the world and allow us to approach our own fears in a safe way.” Thus, if done correctly, horror films have the potential to be fantastic storytelling devices. What is keeping the genre from reaching its full potential at times?
Reiss notes that it is “really easy to screw up a horror movie,” explaining that horror does not always translate from page to video very well. Therefore, what may seem like a good idea can quickly take a Wrong Turn, pun intended. Reiss also mentioned the lack of originality that has overwhelmed the genre, which is one clearly visible flaw in the horror field. With reboots, remakes, countless sequels, foreign film adaptations and innumerable horror movie clichés, it is clear that production studios are attempting to constantly maximize the cash-in on good ideas, letting the quality and originality of the films fall to the wayside.
Occasionally, a new and unique film will come along and rejuvenate the genre. By the time the ‘90s rolled around, there had already been eight Friday the 13th films and four sequels to both Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street. The genre was stale and in desperate need of a catalyst for fresh ideas. That catalyst was Scream.
When Scream was released in 1996, it introduced what Reiss calls “the savvy victim.” By this time, audiences had grown accustomed to the clichés and parallel structures of horror films like Halloween. Thus, Scream exploited this fact, using tongue-in-cheek humor to mock the very genre of which it was a part. In the film’s final act, Randy explains, “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie.” The film then continues on, breaking nearly every rule. Scream, which opened to a rather poor reception, quickly became the highest grossing horror film with its total domestic gross reaching $103m and its worldwide gross surpassing $173m, according to Box Office Mojo (link = http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=scream.htm).
What I personally love about Scream is one of the things that Reiss states makes a good horror movie – it “goes into the realm of possible.” I admit that it is not everyday that someone goes around in a Ghostface mask, chopping people up. However, I am from a rural town in Maine and let me just tell you that to this day, Scream’s opening scene with Drew Barrymore is one of the scariest things I have ever seen. Had a knife-wielding maniac ever attacked me, it would have gone down the same way because the cops were definitely not getting to my house in time to save me. So Scream scared me because it entered the realm of possibility in my mind.
Having reinvigorated the genre, the late ‘90s saw an uprise of self-referential and postmodern horror films. Scream also opened the door for Scary Movie and slasher reboots such as Halloween: H20. By the time Scream 3 was released in 2000, the horror field had once again become stagnant, inundated with films about faceless murderers attacking young girls.
Since then, just two other horror franchises in my opinion have had similarly successful impacts on the genre, the first being the Saw franchise. The original Saw came out in 2004 and gave birth to a tidal wave of a new popular horror that is now deemed “torture porn.” Movies like Hostel began to hit theaters and before long, there were six more Saw movies. Saw certainly raised the gore level for horror films but had it raised the quality?
And what about Paranormal Activity? Released in 2009, this film reinvigorated the horror genre for the opposite reasons of the Saw films. Paranormal Activity managed to capture audiences’ attentions with another thing that Reiss says makes a good horror movie – subtlety. I personally hated this film because almost nothing happened in it. However, for some, that was what worked. My friend and I argued about whether Scream or Paranormal Activity was scarier (guess which side I was on) and he told me that he found the film to be scary because of the suspense. He said, “You’re scared because of what might happen as opposed to what’s happening. It keeps you on the edge of your seat.”
While I’m not sure that I feel the same, clearly many people agree with him. Paranormal Activity inspired a vast increase in the number of supernatural horror movies being made, such as Insidious. However, the horror genre is currently in need of a rejuvenation. Few horror movies are even being made and the ones that are, are either low-priority productions or re-productions of the same clichés we’ve already seen.
Whether the Saw or Paranormal Activity franchises contain quality films is certainly a matter of individual taste but take a look at the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes. When was the last time a horror film was even nominated for such an award? Are horror films really that poorly made or is Hollywood just neglectful of a genre that could have great potential? What do you think?