Horror movies - some questions answered

A former student (hi Kirsty!) emailed me a couple of days ago with a few questions to do with horror movies to help out with some coursework that she's doing for her course. Here's the questions and my replies, together with a few additions (trailers and the like).

Q: Do you think horror films are losing their scare factor? Explain.

A: Not if they’re done well. I think that we change as viewers over time and different things will scare us as opposed to when we’re younger. There’s still some great scary stuff out there, particularly the kinds of movies that tap into fears and phobias that are universal. Even if we don’t have a fear of something in particular, we can still understand and be impacted on by fears of loss of a loved one, of the dark, or spiders and of drowning, of being trapped in an enclosed space.

Sometimes we can be afraid of ourselves and our potential for harm to ourselves and to others as well. And yes sometimes the monster is just a monster, but at times when we’re alone and in the dark we become children again and we remember the things that kept us awake and under the covers, not daring to peek out, when we were little.

 That said, I’m no longer the core audience for mainstream American horror films. The Blumhouse kind of productions are tailored pretty expertly to a teen audience and to a PG-13 rating, but as I’ve not been a teenager for a long, long time, those kinds of preoccupations don’t really affect me.

If you want to blame people for this, blame George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for making Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That movie engendered the PG-13 rating in the States as a halfway house between PG and R. Though here in the UK we only saw a cut PG version in cinemas, the PG-13 rating opened up a space for films that had a bit more meat than PG offerings, but that didn’t carry the potential stigma (and the need to have a grown-up with you) that an R rating would mean. With PG-13 you get a compromise between violence and child-friendliness, and over time film companies have realised that that’s where you can maximise your audience for everything except explicitly family-oriented films.

That’s why all the major franchises (and may other productions as well) tend to target PG-13: the Bourne, Hunger Games, James Bond, X-Men, Star Trek and other franchises do this pretty consistently. The trend also has been for sequels to R-rated (15 or even 18-rated in the UK) hits to aim lower, ratings-wise in order to expand the franchise’s potential audience. See the later Die Hard and Taken movies for examples of this. You might make more money, but you risk making compromised movies that don’t appeal so much to the original fans (see the later Die Hard and Taken movies for this as well).

Also, we have a generation of moviemakers who, to a greater or lesser extent, have focused much of their careers making watered-down versions of the horror properties and tropes they loved as children themselves. Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro (his US movies especially), I’m looking at you. Sometimes great movies are produced; sometimes we end up with Dark Shadows.          

Q: Do you think the music score to horror films influences the effect the film has on the audience?

A: Absolutely. Jaws wouldn’t be Jaws without John Williams. The Omen wouldn’t be The Omen without Jerry Goldsmith. The Wicker Man gets much of its effect from its pastoral soundtrack.

John Carpenter works best with his minimalist repetitive synth scores. Heck, when the suits demanded he had a name composer in Ennio Morricone alongside for The Thing, to Morricone’s credit, he emulated what Carpenter and Alan Howarth would have done anyway.

Q: What are your favourite horror films? Do certain ones stand out more than others to you? Why?

A: As a child of the 1970s and one who grew up with the horror franchises of the 1980s through the video rental boom and onwards, I’ve got an affection for the first genre movies that I saw. Often, these are linked to when I first saw them. I was ushered out of a holiday camp showing of The Wicker Man when I was little (all was going fine until the first nude scene!). I cycled 15 miles to a friend’s house to watch The Omen taped off the telly after its first TV showing. I first saw Jaws as part of a cinema re-release double-bill with Jaws 2 (a film I still have a lot of patience with). I stayed up religiously every Friday night, as BBC1 showed a Hammer film pretty much every week.

I paid good money to see early Charlie Sheen horror The Wraith in a Cardiff fleapit. I’ve sat through cinema all-nighters (The Thing, The Fog, Carrie, The Exorcist, then Alien, Aliens, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the original My Bloody Valentine). A running joke among friends of that era involves me campaigning for - and eventually renting - Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage.  

The ones I like best are the films that don’t mock the genre. There’s a seriousness about John Carpenter movies that I like – even relatively minor ones like Prince of Darkness. Damien: Omen II may be a load of old tosh, but no-one’s sneering. Any fool can (and many do) opt for comedy, pastiche or in-jokery, but not everyone can do it as well as Joe Dante, who always has a high regard for the source material and the genre.

Q: Do you think horror films are trying to out-do each other? Is this affecting the quality of the film being made?

A: There’s a certain gross-out tendency, though nowadays that tends to happen where the horror genre intersects with the art movie. The days of make-up effects competition are long gone, though in those days the rubber reality made you appreciate the artistry and imagination as well as get squeamish at the ickiness on display. I’ve not got any real interest in the likes of the Human Centipede films or A Serbian Movie or even in Gasper Noe’s latest censor-baiting extravaganza. The torture-porn subgenre that the weaker Saw sequels fell into and which the likes of Eli Roth too often descend to isn’t that interesting, especially when it’s a front for barely-concealed misogyny.  

Q: What is it about horror films that you like?

A: Escapism. Imagination. Fantasy. Playfulness. Challenge. Finding new ways to interpret the old tropes. I don’t mind a good jump-scare at all. I like the movie that nibbles at the back of your brain a couple of days after you’ve seen it. Also, I like the idea of the "safe scare". Horror gives us a playground. At the end of the day it's only a movie. There's enough real-world horribleness in the world; we don't have to indulge in it for leisure as well. So let's make some monsters up. And sometimes, ideas are more powerful if they're allegorical. We can put our own details on the devil. 

Zombies are fun. Plus, in a horror scenario, you can put your characters through situations they wouldn’t get in any other genre. There will be blood. But it washes off. 

Q: How do horror films from the 70's and 80's vary from today’s films?

A: Horror is pretty debased as a genre these days. Hotel Transylvania is as much a horror movie as anything Ben Wheatley might make. However, though there’s useful social commentary out there today, you don’t see it in horror movies as you did back in the day. Rosemary’s Baby is a movie about something. So too, in its own way, is The Omen. So’s Jaws. There are relationships between the texts and the contexts of their making. As British horror movies got stuck for too long in adaptations of classic novels and in Victorian pastiche through the Hammer days and well into the 1970s, that tradition didn’t really come through until after the UK film industry died.

Teen horror’s been around since the 1950s monster movies and it’s refreshing in some ways to see the same creatures and situations come around each decade, but with more ways to see more films than ever before, the originals are still there, and it’s those that I tend to go back to.

Q: Have people become so used to blood and gore in horror films that they don't get shocked?

A: No. But these days, the gory stuff is as often on television as it is in the movies. The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones offer splatter the equal of anything the movies have to offer, and often, with the ways that budgets now work, with technical expertise and competence the equal at least of what films can offer. Where TV benefits is that over a season or two you can establish relationships with characters in meaningful ways that you can’t quite so easily do over the 90 minutes of a slasher movie. Then that’s when you kill them. And then the audience cares, and is shocked, not because of the quality of the effects or the bloodletting on display, but because they’re emotionally invested in the characters. If you can do that – whether in a film or on the telly – then you truly control the audience.

There's still great horror filmmaking out there though. It Follows and The Babadook are fantastic movies from the last year or so. Good horror's out there; it's just a shame that it doesn't always get to play at every multiplex any more.