The Nature of Fear – Horror Cinema Then, Now and Beyond (the grave)

We’re all familiar with the stereotype.  A sleepover, a bunch of kids rent a horror film that’s rated too highly for their age bracket, scare the pants off themselves, and begin screaming when a possum hits the tin roof of the garage.

The horror genre is a staple of youth insofar as most are intended to be viewed by those slightly younger than the age bracket set by the board of classification. The fun as an adolescent (especially one with parents who were extremely overbearing when it came to watching films where I was under the classification age) was the kind of rebellious rush you got from seeing some madman slash a scantily clad hot naked girl to death after, or in some more salacious cases, during her promiscuous encounters.

I study in Singapore, and The Cabin in the Woods was released there over two months earlier than in Australia. My indignation for the lack of a synchronized international release date aside (more of which can be read in my anti-anti-piracy post) it highlighted some interesting observations about the current state of the horror genre, whilst being highly entertaining.

This film was not being theatrically released in Australia, due to the fact it’s viewed as having “no market”, and was instead slated for a direct to DVD and Blu Ray release. It now is… to a very select few cinemas. Two are playing it in Melbourne – The Nova and The Astor (The Astor having booked it before the theatrical release was announced.)

There is some truth to the statement that horror in Australia is not always successful. The horror market in Australia is small, and it seems to be shrinking slowly. Reasons for this vary from people’s tastes to diminishing box office returns, but the fact of the matter is intelligent horror films like The Innkeepers or The Cabin in the Woods are overshadowed by their overhyped overrated cousins. This is an especially puzzling issue because of two major factors.

  1. The Cabin in the Woods was written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. Whedon, who created cult television phenomena Buffy and Firefly, is currently smashing box office records with his superpowered superhero film The Avengers (which was awesome). Goddard also worked on Buffy, and also has worked in collaboration with J.J. Abrams on Alias, Cloverfield and Lost.  Cabin also stars Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor in The Avengers and a group of other Whedon regulars.
  2. It’s a well-made, cine-literate film with an intelligent script and likeable characters.

Why Village Roadshow would nerf a horror geek’s nirvana is anybody’s guess. The film is funny, it has dark moments, the special effects for the most part are very effective, and the three act structure of the film takes you on a journey through “oh yeah” to a “no way” finishing with a Keanu Reeves-esque “… Woah.” The fact of the matter is, everyone was iffy about releasing the film. The film was completed in 2009, scheduled for release in 2010, and then fumbled around by the studio to try to convert it to 3D, before MGM filed for Chapter 11 and Cabin was eventually sold to Lionsgate. Cogitate on how ridiculous that is. If we think with a studio mind (and they think almost purely in financial gains and losses) how can you get a return on your investment if you don’t even sell the product? ESPECIALLY if you’re in dire financial straits? Stupidity to the extreme.

Now, let’s talk about porn films. Not the stash you have in an unmarked innocuous folder in a system directory or the kind you stream online for free that’s killing an industry, but the oddly more socially acceptable kind – torture porn. These popped up after  what I’d like to call the “golden age” of slasher films, beginning with Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho, and resurging through the 70s with cult titles like Halloween, Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In essence, the genre of torture porn can be explained with one movie title – Eli Roth’s Hostel.

What the hell happened?

A lot of people tout the slasher subgenre as the beginning of the end. In 1985’s Fright Night, the character Peter Vincent, played by Roddy MacDowell is the host of a serialized horror presentation similar to Elvira entitled “Fright Night”, which screened horror films on a Saturday evening (mostly his). Anyway, in a scene from the film, he laments of his firing to the main character, stating that “… nobody wants to see vampire killers anymore, or vampires either. Apparently all they want to see are demented madmen running around in ski-masks, hacking up young virgins.”

The popular notion is that horror reflects the fears of the era. Though I’ll admit, sometimes this form of reading into horror releases can be a stretch, generally I’ve found over moderately tipsy conversations with Uni friends around the pool table that it’s generally accurate. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead invented the modern zombie, which is now an item in an oversaturated market. I would argue this is not due to fears of the current era, but rather the “Red Fever” of its era of release. Romero is a good case study, because instead on piggybacking on the horror of flesh eating undead monsters, he uses them as a vessel for more poignant approaches for criticism of wider society – Consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, Military dictatorships in Day of the Dead, the culture of “gated communities” in the US and how they relate to economic class division and an elitist philosophy in Land of the Dead, the personal humanity of different people in a crisis in Diary of the Dead.

The Cabin in the Woods explores wider society in an especially chilling way once it dawns upon you how apt its parallels are. Without giving anything away, the very first scene juxtaposed with the rest of the film should give a good idea of part of what makes this so truly unsettling. It truly does convey the fears of the current period, whilst being comedic and at times, rather unnerving.

So if horror requires a reflected fear, and we accept that this is the case, why are films like Hostel, Saw and Paranormal Activity so effective? These depart from the philosophies of good horror. They rely on horror’s inherent shock value without providing any substance behind it. The first Saw film was a triumph in terms of box office returns – it was made for a paltry $1.2 million and made well over $55 million at the box office. It helped the fact that this first film had a gripping story, and meaning behind it’s methods of madness. Due to the high rate of return, the film was bound to have a sequel. Indeed it had a string of sequels, each more preposterous than the last. What puzzles me, having recently seen the series in (what I hope is) its entirety, I failed to see past the first film why someone would feel the need to flock back to the theatre again and again to see the other instalments.

Hostel was a wakeup call for me to indicate that the current horror genre is in a word, broken. This film, purporting itself as horror features a good hour of people being tortured. Judging by box office returns (probably in no small part to Quentin Tarantino’s promotion) the film was popular, and created a lot of buzz when it was released. It is, I would argue, the posterchild for the torture-porn category. The fact of the matter is, it displayed gore and dismemberment for the sake of it, with nothing behind it. Having seen it, I left the theatre wondering exactly what the point of the film was. I didn’t find the film particularly scary, nor did I find the subject matter all that interesting. The story was banal to the point of stupidity, and whilst attempting to place a philosophical meaning behind all the onscreen torture at the conclusion of the film, it succeeded in making itself look all the more ridiculous. The main viewing bracket for both this and the Saw sequels? Under 25. After DVD release? Teenagers at slumber parties. That sacred experience sullied by a substandard horror film with no genuine scares pains me more than I would care to admit. Though excessive gore can be seen in other horror/thriller films, such as the Korean I Saw The Devil, it is not the sole reason for the film’s existence. John Carpenter’s The Thing uses off-screen chills in order to work up to the prosthetics and animatronic horrors he has become so famous for utilizing. Whilst the gore is confronting and absolutely horrifying, the story does not require simply it’s presence to give the film meaning. The recent remake on the other hand, follows the current horror trend of throwing in it’s entire hand without keeping an ace in the hole. Shock the audience in the first act, the second and third acts lose their meaning. Whedon describes Cabin as ironically, a “loving hate letter” to the current state of the horror genre. It is clear from viewing the film exactly how far the genre has fallen into frankly, a horrific disarray – and not an enjoyable one.

The main reason I’m writing this article is this – if you like horror, please go see it in cinemas. Mainstream horror is currently going to die if it continues on this trajectory. Find a showing of The Cabin in the Woods in your city. The Astor and Cinema Nova in Melbourne are having a showing. Go, bring a girl or boyfriend, buy popcorn, enjoy the experience of clutching to your significant other in absolute terror. Make sure to buy the Blu-Ray or DVD just to show you enjoy this kind of thing. Before you know it, I’m afraid that experience may all be but extinct, overpopulated with poor, direct to DVD gore filled idiocy, and substandard fare from the likes of Roger Corman and The Asylum, the venerated creators of classics like Sharktopus and Mega Piranha. If good horror is to exist, it requires support. If it has none, it will be killed faster than teenagers fornicating in a Friday the 13th film.

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Categories: Business, Entertainment

Author:Adam Wagner

Pop Culture expert, Singer, Filmmaker, Dancer, Fire-Twirler and Billionaire Playboy who in no way has a secret cave beneath his mansion. None at all.

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  1. Film Review: Mega Piranha - September 2, 2012

    […] The Nature of Fear – Horror Cinema Then, Now and Beyond (the grave) […]

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