Nick Picks | The State of Horror Movies

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Welcome to Nick Picks, a regular column by Nick Spake. There are countless important questions regarding the current state of cinema and I’m here to answer them.

In recent years, we’ve seen critics and film scholars embrace genres that were generally viewed as “lesser” or “unimportant” in the past, from sci-fi, to fantasy, to comedy, to animation. One movie genre that still doesn’t get much respect, however, is horror. That’s largely because horror simply hasn’t demonstrated much growth over the past few years. Where other genres are constantly evolving and becoming more sophisticated, modern horror often seems content with simply providing nothing but cheap thrills.

Great horror comes from the unexpected. Somebody jumping out and shouting, “Boo,” might not sound scary. If you thought you were alone and didn’t expect somebody else to jump out, though, you’d likely be legitimately frightened. If they jumped out at you again the next day, however, you’d be less likely to scream. Why? Because they already pulled this prank on you once. It’s like when a comedian tells a joke. You may laugh when you hear it the first time, but the joke will inevitably become staler the more times the punch line is repeated.

The problem with horror movies today is that we can see every jump scare coming from a mile away. Since we already know when and how the scare will play out, we’re less likely to jump out of our seat and more likely to fall asleep in it. As if modern horror movies weren’t predictable enough, it doesn’t help that so many of them are reboots or remakes of classics. If you want a list of them all, just check out this clip from Scream 4.

The original Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street may never be considered as significant as Citizen Kane, but they’re still scary, inventive, and at the top of their class. The same can’t be said about their remakes, which were just cashing in on a brand name while providing easy scares in the process. Even before their remakes came out, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street had already been driven into the ground by a dozen unnecessary sequels. Rather than upping the ante or trying new things, horror sequels typically just repeat the first movie over again, and again, and again.

Directors like John Carpenter and the late Wes Craven didn’t want to just settle for easy scares with their horror magnum opuses. Even if they didn’t have a big budget or established actors to work with, they genuinely tried to make their audience scream. The directors that took over the sequels to Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, on the other hand, just didn’t have the same level of passion. They didn’t really set out to make great horror movies, but instead make some quick money by rehashing the formula.

Once a horror movie becomes a breakout success, its fan base will typically stick with it for several more sequels. It also helps that these movies don’t cost much money to make and can be filmed quickly. Even if the end product is tired, rushed, and lazy, enough audiences are likely to buy tickets in order to show a profit. The film could be a shameful, straight-to-dvd sequel and still end up being financially successful.

That’s the root of the horror genre’s problem. For every game changer, we get several sequels that suck out whatever little dignity the original film had to start with. Take Saw for example. When it came out in 2004, a lot of people really hated this movie. They had good reason to since Saw was manipulative, pretentious, and made absolutely no sense. To the film’s credit, however, Saw did have a few terrifying setups and a good deal of the gore actually took place off-screen. With every passing sequel, though, any subtly was taken out of the equation and replaced with blatant gross-out carnage.

As if getting several more Saw movies wasn’t bad enough, we also had to sit through countless Saw rip-offs too. Many people consider Saw the movie that launched torcher porn into the mainstream. From this, we got flicks like Hostel and The Human Centipede, all of which were more concerned with disgusting the audience rather than scaring them. While torture porn still has an audience, it’s fortunately been dying out in popularity as of late. Perhaps that’s because of a certain horror movie that came out in 2009.

While The Blair Witch Project hit the scene almost a decade earlier, it was Paranormal Activity that took the found footage genre to another level of popularity. Where movies like Saw were all about what the audience saw (pun intended), Paranormal Activity was more about what the audience didn’t see. This made for a much more unpredictable and disturbing experience, thus evoking a real sensation of dread. Even if Paranormal Activity was overhyped by the ads, it still made for a fun popcorn flick with more than enough frights.

Like so many hit horror movies, though, Paranormal Activity eventually fell into the same traps. The film inspired five sequels, one of which is coming out this Friday. While the Paranormal Activity sequels have been better than most, they still recycle a lot of scares and the storylines have become increasingly nonsensical. What’s worse, they inspired several horrendous found footage retreads, such as The Devil Inside. Once again, a good horror movie became overexposed to the point that the franchise became insufferable.

Aren’t there any great standalone modern horror movies that haven’t been beaten to death by moneygrubbing studios? As a matter of fact, there are!

Director Adam Wingard has come out with a number of strong movies that work as both thrillers and dark comedies, such as You’re Next and The Guest. Movies like Cabin in the Woods and It Follows managed to have fun with familiar horror tropes while still remaining horror movies. Unfriended put a unique spin on the found footage genre with commentary on social media and cyber bullying. Even M. Night Shyamalan saw a return to form this year with The Visit, which was simultaneously eerie and humorous. Any of these films would make for a fitting viewing experience come Halloween night.

By far the best horror movie of the decade, though, is The Babadook. This bloody brilliant masterpiece of terror tells the story of a distressed single mother who reads a bedtime story to her son. The main character of this picture book is Mister Babadook, who’s drawing alone is enough to send a chill up anyone’s spine. Soon the mother and her son start seeing the Babadook everywhere. The mother in particular descends into madness, contemplating killing her child as she becomes increasingly overwhelmed.

What makes The Babadook such an ingenious psychological horror movie is how it keeps you guessing. Is Mister Babadook real or is the mother simply losing her mind? We can further put ourselves in the shoes of her young child, who is naturally scared of the monster that may be in his room. What’s even more frightening, however, is the idea that this boy’s own parent may be the true monster. Once the truth is revealed, the film doesn’t disappoint with one of the creepiest climaxes you’ll ever see.

Movies The Babadook show that horror can be so much more cheap thrills and stale sequels. They can be fresh, thought provoking, creative, and actually scary. Yet, so many settle for gross-out terror, easy jump scares, or other popular gimmicks. In most cases, people don’t seek out horror movies to be scared anymore, but to just see how cheesy, cliché, and bad they are. Sometimes its fun to see a movie that’s so bad it’s scary. Is it too much to ask for more movies that are scary for all the right reasons, though?

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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