NOTE: Featured image is from the Hostel (2006) trailer and property of Eli Roth, Lionsgate and Screen Gems.
Falling and falling. The cliff has disappeared behind us and fall, further and further away. There is only jungle below and a narrow body of water running through it. A river. After another moment, we plunge through the surface. The river is impossibly deep and impossibly dark. Sinking, we lock hands when- *
“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out”. – Stephen King
I have spent a wealth of time thus far waxing poetic about several of the great psychological horror stories available to us (The Wicker Man, Arkham Asylum, The Houses October Built, and Digging Up the Marrow). I have provided both review and analysis of these stories, as well as criteria to forego them, in the sole hope placing these great works on a pedestal to define what makes good psychological horror.
Now it is time to visit the other end of the spectrum.
For too long the horror genre has been on a downward spiral, drowning in a pool of its own blood and gore. My primary goal for this blog post is to discuss what makes for bad horror, as well as including my opinion about why the horror genre has fallen into such depravity and the prevalence of bad horror. The horror community has noticed, as I have and will not idly go back to the way things were, but the question remains; how did we come to this?
Bad Horror, Poor Writers, and Blood Baths: The Slow Death of a Genre
Every genre across every medium, collectively, has had moments of greatness followed by lulls. It is in one of these momentary lulls that the horror genre has been stuck since (roughly) the early 1990’s.
Nearly thirty years.
Over the course of these decades, only a handful of films, video games and so on are actually worth remembering. After 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder, the epitome of all experimental or psychological horror films, it must have seemed that the only way to go was down.
Slasher films such as Scream (1996), gory films that can only be accurately described as torture porn like Saw and Hostel, plus a variety of remakes (including 2006’s The Wicker Man, which should be avoided like the Plague) have since flooded the market, with only a few glimmering diamonds in the rough, some recent found footage entries among them.
I wish it would suffice to say that the inverse of my criteria for psychological horror would define what makes a bad horror film, but that simply is not enough. It is in my opinion that the primary way to define a bad horror film lies only with the absence of intelligence and purpose.
Look at some of the films that have been listed above and you need not look further to see the issues today. The Wicker Man is perhaps the best example, as the original 1973 film would rank among the ten best psychological horror films of all time and the 2006 travesty ranks among the ten worst, perhaps taking that crown.
An exchange from the original between Edward Woodward as Sgt. Howie and Sir Christopher Lee, as you may recall from my review.
In brief, where the original is deliberate, intelligent and philosophical, rich in pagan history and mythology, the newer version features poorly written dialogue as well as Nicolas Cage punching out Ellyn Burstyn while dressed up in a bear costume.
I’m just going to let that sink in for a moment.
While we are letting that thought simmer, we must also consider the concept of pseudo-intelligence and the role it plays in modern catastrophes. The 2006 version of the Wicker Man features a variety of scenes that were obviously meant to be symbolic… of something, though we are never given any sort of base for the images.
For example, consider the final scene in the original Wicker Man. Before the epic finale, Sgt. Howie spends a sequence inside the library on Summerisle (a nod to director Robin Hardy and writer Anthony Shaffer performing their own research for the film), researching pagan rituals in his attempt to save the girl, Rowan. Here we find Howie discovering the symbolic meaning of a variety mythological characters who make “appearances” in the parade during finale of the film.
Symbolically, we are given meaning and what we see becomes clear and meaningful. In the remake, as I will explain in a moment, this is not quite the case.
In many modern horror flicks, something is happening, but we never know exactly what is happening. Films such as the Wicker Man remake will have characters say things that sound intelligent or that show us images that appear to be symbolic and yet the images often result to be shaggy-dogs, just as the intelligent phrases are often nothing more than a random smattering of words with no context.
A little girl burning a man alive, a pregnant woman smothered in honey and bees. Something is happening, or at least is supposed to look like something is happening. This is where we return to the thesis of this post. A lack of clear-thought or intelligent writing leads to celluloid travesties.
Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer, as mentioned above, did their research. Neil LaBute (writer and director of 2006’s best film), did not.
And to think that Cinefantastique referred to the original as “the Citizen Kane of horror movies”.
NOTE: (Above) Cover of Cinefantastique featuring Sir Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle
I know that The Wicker Man is a limited example, but the same principles can be applied to a wide variety of horror movies, especially those that have fallen within the time frame set just before.
But just as soaking something in gore doesn’t make it horror, the lack of intelligence in horror films is not the only issue with the genre. Now it is time to discuss the real issue with the horror genre.
A Theory of Grand Proportions and Bloody Implications
Horror films are being dumbed down for profit.
I know what you’re thinking and those two words, I can prove, do not apply here. A conspiracy theory, this is not, but rather a simple look at the effects capitalism has on art.
Screen Rant was one of the first blogs to break details on the development of the film adaption of Silent Hill 2 and while I will not say much about Silent Hill 2, I will say this: Silent Hill 2 is one of the most intelligent and greatest examples of psychological horror available to us. Silent Hill 2, the video game, will be covered in a blog post on Psychological Horror Drought at a later date, but it suffices to say that filmmakers with the rights to the game fully intend to do to it what the makers of The Wicker Man remake did to the original.
Don Carmody, an executive producer on the film adaptations of Silent Hill has stated that;
“I think we need to make it a little more accessible to the movie-going public…Silent Hill is not a blockbuster game like Resident Evil or the other games out there…You have to appeal not only to the gamers, you have to appeal to a wider audience. So we have to get some story in there that helps explain a bit more…Of course, [the story] is going to happen years later and the main character – without giving too much away – is much older and representative to the movie-going public which is in that age group.”
So… The epic story of psychological horror and terror, of personal hell and redemption, of macabre and beauty needs… more story? The comments, which were first brought to my attention by Razorfist ** of The Rageaholic, are more disturbing than anything you can expect to see on film.
Carmody’s statement is terrifying for the reason that it clearly implies his intentions to continue dumbing down his source materials for no other reason than making intelligent stories more profitable. To make intelligent stories more profitable is to make them more accessible, thereby removing the subtler nuances and replacing such nuances with all the subtlety of a brick going through a glass window.
As aforementioned, in the 1990’s, films like Scream found themselves marketable once more and others, such as I Know What You Did Last Summer, continued to rake in the cash. When I Know What You Did Last Summer earned just over 125 million dollars in the box office, the trend began. When Saw did nearly the same six years later, the trend became cemented.
Arguably, this is due to the fact that a resurgence in trashy horror films that should have been relegated to b-movie hell, or on the shelves with other X-rated garbage, had never before had the wide release that films like Saw were getting, therefore, providing it with grounds like the Caligula-effect, but again, this is speculation.
It was at this point that horror films began to remarket themselves, not as legitimate works of cinematic art, but as gore-fests, selling nothing but torture to the audience right from the trailers.
^By the way, this gem earned over 80 million in box office during its initial run. **
The effects that this initial love affair with brutal torture films has cost horror fans dearly. While films such as Jacob’s Ladder are still far and few between, the eighth Saw film is planned for release in October of this year… 2017. However, it is safe to say that there is still a light somewhere at the end of this long and dismal tunnel as well as a special place in Hell for the minds behind the Saw franchise.
As my previous post on Found Footage films suggests, there has been a rising within the horror community as of late. Idiotic horror is wholeheartedly being rejected.
As stated, this post was not intended to be about Silent Hill 2 and so we will not discuss that here so much as use it as the vehicle to begin the discussion. A film like Get Out, which was discussed in my last blog post alongside its distant found footage kinsman, has one thing that has long been missing from the horror genre… Intelligence.
^ An excellent psychological horror film, in the cannon of Jacob’s Ladder that has earned nearly 160 million dollars…in early 2017.
This says a great deal, as the box office draw for films like Saw, even with the eighth film in the series looming just ahead, have been in decline for some time, and more intelligent films, such as Get Out, have been on the rise.
Despite this, many critics and voices within the horror community still show some love for the gore and bloodbaths of the past few decades. Brad Miska, a writer for Bloody-Disgusting whom I’ve written about before, seems to be eagerly anticipating the new Saw film… The same man who approached a more intelligent film like The Houses October Built with disdain and prejudice. And unfortunately, the consensus seems to grow the further you look. A Fangoria review (from a writer you should recognize from my Found Footage Review) literally referred to Saw as being part of the “torture porn era”, only to immediately and excitedly discuss the prospects of its glorious return as well as the ingenious films that arose from this era. This is where the follies of the “voices” in the horror community come to prominence.
To provide credence to the torture-porn horror is to add to the degradation of the horror genre as a whole. From my perspective, it seems that horror has been relegated in a way that other films have not, and is the reason horror films do not commonly win Oscars. A stigma certainly seems to exist around the horror genre and the stigma is, very quickly, becoming self-propagating.
I know I am not a lone voice in my opinion, which has been staunchly against horror films that offer nothing but blood and gore, but it seems that the movie goers are the ones who are speaking up now and that is what matters most.
Great horror is making a comeback and as for the crappy horror of yesterday, quite frankly-
We’ve had enough.
A Gateway to the Community
Screen Rant, an independent site dedicated to film and TV news, which sometimes dabbles in Horror.
The Rageaholic, an excellent Youtuber on films, television, video games, comics and political commentary was the one who initially brought Mr. Carmody’s “enlightening” comments to my attention. Be warned, The Rageaholic, better known as Razorfist, has a no holds barred style of commentary and cares not for political correctness, nor offending anyone.
Fangoria, the original horror magazine and news source for the horror community. I disagreed with their opinion this time around, but they always provide lengthy articles of substance and content for their readers.
The river spat us out. We swim ashore and catch our breath collectively. The Jungle is looming above and there is no way back. Looking behind us, the cliff has disappeared completely, replaced only by more Jungle. The dawn may be coming, but the Jungle, is dark, as ever. Dark as the night. We accept that we have to do this. Our journey is almost at end. We enter when, just above, you notice a- *
*A note on the italicized material: This blog follows a tight narrative on a variety of aspects of the Psychological Horror genre and the Horror Community. As a method of keeping with a narrative, I include brief bites of creative writing, a sort of short story that bleeds in to the next post, beginning with the ending of the first post on this site. Consider it our metaphorical journey through these dark works, to accompany the literal one.
**Some links in this post contain graphic content which may not be suitable for all.